August 4, 2011 | by Erica Heller
When Dad started Catch-22 in 1953, it was called Catch-18. Later, he and his young editor, Robert Gottlieb, changed the title because Leon Uris’s novel had usurped the number with Mila 18. I can remember nights at the dinner table with my parents tossing out different numbers. “Catch-27?” Nah, my father shook his head. “Catch-539?” Too long, too lumbering. I had no idea what they were talking about. Thank goodness for Bob, Dad’s übereditor at Simon & Schuster; he was the one to come up with the unremarkably remarkable number 22. Along with Dad’s redoubtable agent, Candida Donadio, and Nina Bourne, who plotted the clever, quirky promotional campaign for Catch-22, these were the book’s earliest disciples. Without them, not only wouldn’t there have been a number, there wouldn’t have been a book.
To hear Bob talk about it, this modest, soft-spoken fellow who eventually ran Simon & Schuster and then Alfred A. Knopf, and succeeded William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker, one might think that Catch-22 had just tumbled from the skies one day fully formed, and that he had merely been there to catch it. In print he has said more than once that for an editor to call attention to himself and his contributions in an edited book is not only unseemly but irrelevant, but he’s not doing it here, I am. My father and Bob had real camaraderie and shared an almost mystical respect. No ego was involved, regardless of where Bob’s pencil flew or what he suggested deleting, moving, rewriting. To Dad, every word or stroke of this editor’s pencil was sacrosanct.
“Nobody ever enjoyed his success more than Joe,” said Gottlieb recently, affectionately, and he ought to know, having edited John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, Bob Dylan, Barbara Tuchman, Nora Ephron, Bruno Bettelheim, Toni Morrison, Jessica Mitford, John Lennon, and many others. Gottlieb was one of the few people Dad stood in intellectual thrall to. “Did Gottlieb call?” was often Dad’s first question on arriving home once the Catch-22 machine had been set into motion. Mom’s answer, and whatever message Gottlieb might have left, could well determine the tenor of our evening. “We had a great relationship and didn’t have to see each other often,” Bob told me. “Between us there was total trust. Like Yossarian, Joe was a complete realist.”
Candida Donadio, deep-voiced, intense, and often madly inscrutable, made up the last third of this essential troika working with Dad. When I was a teenager, Candida invited me to dinner a few times down at her brownstone in the East Thirties. At the time she was married, and she and her husband kept birds, huge colorful ones. Were they toucans? Macaws? Forgive me, I do not know my birds. I can only tell you that locked in the bathroom when company came were several enormous, brightly plumed, loudly squawking things. However, Candida and her husband neglected to mention this the first time I visited. When I went in to wash my hands before dinner, it was at my own peril, and I was unexpectedly ensnared in a damp, noisy, faraway jungle in a Manhattan bathroom.
At one point when Dad was writing Catch-22 (he wrote it for nine years, which turned out to be something of an average gestation period for his books), only once and quite late in the game do I remember him becoming discouraged, fed up with the writing process and how long it was taking to finish. This brief, uncharacteristic bit of self-doubt caused him to actually set the book aside and try to find distractions. I recall seeing him watching television in the evenings, but his boredom and exasperation was immediate. Within a week, he’d become so sullen that soon he was scurrying exultantly back into the waiting arms of Catch, telling my mother that he honestly couldn’t imagine how anyone survived who didn’t have a novel to write.
The Apthorp was where Dad dreamed and scratched and scrawled his slow and carefully chosen, spidery words onto index cards and yellow legal pads. He then typed them onto his rickety machine, hunting-and-pecking his way to more opulent times.
When Catch was finally taking off, about a year after publication, my parents, who had now moved us to a much larger, far grander apartment, would often jump into a cab late at night and ride around to the city’s leading bookstores in order to see the jaunty riot of red, white, and blue and the crooked little man—the covers of “the book,” piled up in towers and pyramids, stacked in so many store windows. Was anything ever again as much fun, I wonder, for either of them? They would come home giddy and very late and go to sleep with their heads still full of the potent magic of a dream poised right on the cusp of becoming true.
Copyright © 2011 by Erica Heller. From the forthcoming book Yossarian Slept Here by Erica Heller to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Read Tracy Daugherty’s appreciation of Heller here.