Virginia Heinlein, 1976. (Photo by David Dyer-Bennet.)

Virginia Heinlein, 1976.
(Photo by David Dyer-Bennet.)

Robert Heinlein’s next, and final, wife was Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld. She worked with (and outranked) Heinlein at the little wartime research group in Philadelphia that was charged with trying to figure out what a high-altitude (read: space) suit should be like.

Politically, she and I were nowhere near close, but we agreed to disagree and generally talked about something else. That didn’t really matter. Bob had picked her and she was his loyalest fan and ferociousest protector, and as long as he lived that was plenty good enough for me.

But then he died, and Ginny didn’t stop protecting all that was left of him. Specifically his image — or rather her image of him, which I believe was of a chivalrous, well-mannered and quite refined Annapolis man.

This became a problem for me when I was editing the SFWA Grand Masters series of anthologies for Tor. My plan was to include for each of these giants a selection of their most important work. I knew exactly what I wanted, too. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the opening part of the story is told in a sort of modestly Russian-Latino English-language dialect, by its central character. I desperately wanted to reprint those opening scenes, in which the narrator tricks a giant computer into revealing that it has become a person. Ginny would have none of that.

When I first told her my plan, she said she’d have to think about it, and when she had thought she said, well, no, she didn’t want to include anything from that book because she had discussed it with some friends and they agreed that it was, well, a bit … “vulgar,” I think was the word she used. And she was unswayable.

Then there was Grumbles from the Grave. Robert had talked about allowing posthumous publication of his real feelings about a lot of things that he didn’t feel comfortable to talk about while he was alive, and indicated that some of his private letters would be a source for the book. Then some posthumous book with that title did come out, and it was a great disappointment. Someone — it could have been only Ginny — had washed his face and combed his hair and turned whatever it was that Robert might have wanted to say into the equivalent of thank-you notes for a respectable English tea.

I know that Robert wrote some much more raunchy letters than any of those, because I myself got one or two. But all the raunch has been edited out. What’s left is actually rather boring and does a great disservice to the real Heinlein, whose physical person may have been embodied as a conventional hard-right conservative but whose writing was — sometimes vulgarly — that of a free-thinking iconoclast.

Pity. It is good that Heinlein’s novels are now going to be reissued as he wrote them, without the alterations of editors like me. It would also be good if a similar job could be done on his letters.

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  1. David Goldfarb says:

    While they’re not published, a lot of Heinlein’s papers are available for purchase in PDF format at “the Heinlein Archives.” I bought copies of his letters to John W. Campbell, Jr., for instance, and they made very interesting reading.

  2. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Thank you for saying that about Grumbles from the Grave. I was highly disappointed in it, having also been expecting something less manicured and mannered.

    I didn’t know the story (or at least don’t remember hearing it before) about the Grandmaster anthology issue. That’s a shame, and nearly incomprehensible. That’s a very cool bit in the book.

    I have mixed feelings on the “not edited” versions of the novels. My impression is that he applied his own final polish in the same pass he made editorial changes, so we’re getting a much less polished result. Given the number of the edited versions that were printed, it’s still easy to find them, though, so now people can make their own choice, or deliberately get both for comparison purposes.

  3. Michael A. Burstein says:

    Interesting that you felt Grumbles From the Grave was too redacted. If I recall correctly, in <i>I. Asimov</i>, Isaac Asimov remarked at how the letters presented a bad picture of Heinlein.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    With all due props to Virginia . . . I hope a complete and unbowlderized picture of Heinlein the man, as opposed to the heroically posed marble statue, emerges in due course.

  5. Robert Nowall says:

    I thought it a shame that the bulk of “Grumbles from the Grave” consisted of letters first to his first SF editor John Campbell and then to his agent Lurton Blassingame. Seemed that, from one letter included, Heinlein intended quite a different book for that title…he grumbled a lot in those letter, but surely at least he grumbled to others…

  6. Kim Axelrod says:

    I disagree about the relative merits of Heinlein’s edited & unedited versions. I was introduced to Heinlein’s work at a very late stage, unfortunately several years after his death, when given a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, the unedited version. I was immediately blown away & proceeded to find and read as many of his works as I could. I realized after a year or two that the full version of Stranger that I read & loved was not the original published version, & proceeded to find & read the original, for comparison. I am extremely glad that the friend who gave me Stranger gave me the full version – the differences between the versions may seem slight & primarily for length purposes, but I believe them significant to a full appreciation of the book. I always attempt to find these republished “full” versions wherever possible, and continue to compare them. I read that Ginny was instrumental in the decision-making process to allow these full versions to be published. If for no other reason, I believe she was a faithful and honorable custodian of his works, although the story about the letters is dismaying.

  7. David H says:

    Interesting stuff. I read Grumbles with the expectation that the promised “tell all”-type material would be included (not sure where I acquired said expectation), and was somewhat disappointed as well.

    On an unrelated note, I’d love to read any thoughts/reminiscences you might have about Paul M. A. Linebarger.

  8. Stefan Jones says:

    David H:

    Linebarger’s daughter maintains a site about the main behind “Cordwainer Smith.”

    What I found really wonderful about it is . . . well, Linebarger looks like a total geek! Reading about his background, I expected a square-jawed blue blood looking fellow. Someone who’d fit in at a diplomatic reception.

  9. David H says:

    I know about the Cordwainer Smith website, but thanks. I was more interested in any personal/professional reminiscences our gracious host might have that have not been reported there or elsewhere. After, Mr. Pohl did basically single-handedly rescue CS from obscurity by anthologizing “Scanners Live in Vain”, as I understand it, and was the first person in the SF community to meet the man in person.

    I suppose Linebarger does look a bit like the typical pencilneck geek, but what strikes me more about him is the childlike wonder that shines out of his eyes in almost every photo. And THAT is exactly what I would expect to see after reading his stories, regardless of the other aspects of his appearance.

  10. A.L. Bell says:

    I think that it’s good to keep the edited versions in print and also to have the unabridged versions available for people who want those. My guess is, for example, that Scribner’s editors probably helped make the Heinlein juveniles as readable as they are, but it would be fun to see the details about how they were edited.

  11. Lars says:

    Possibly of interest – a letter from Heinlein to Forrest Ackerman, at

  12. J E Cook says:

    With respect to A.L. Bell’s comment: The online Heinlein Archives includes an early, longer manuscript version of Citizen of the Galaxy showing many crossouts and trims that apparently yielded the published version. That is, the original MS was the same story but wordier, and was edited down by Heinlein in a manner very much like his self-editing of Stranger in a Strange Land. The latter case was done at the publisher’s direction (and the result was a still rather long novel), but in the case of Citizen, I don’t believe the trimming was at Scribner’s request; that is, the procedure he used to boil down Stranger for its initial publication by Putnam was likely the same one that he usually followed on his own initiative.

    Stranger is still available in both versions; the longer version of The Puppet Masters, however, superseded the version that had been in print from the early 1950s until 1991 or so. If you’re only familiar with the longer version, check out the opening few paragraphs of the shorter one – another case of self-editing by Heinlein (whether at his then-publisher’s direction, I don’t know) yielding a superior result.