Robert A. Heinlein:
In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1,
Learning Curve, 1907–1948
By William H. Patterson
(Tor, Hardcover, $29.99).
When I read a biography of someone I’ve known well, there are two things I look for on first inspection. The first is errors of fact, and I’m glad to say that Patterson’s detailed and well researched study seems innocent of any serious quantity of these. The other is more personal. It’s learning new things about the subject’s behavior that you had never guessed, particularly when they impact on yourself. I did find a couple of those in Learning Curve.
I was pretty sure Robert Heinlein regarded me as a good editor — if not, he would never have rewritten some of his stories to my specifications, especially at the pitiful rates I was able to pay. But I hadn’t known until I read it in the book that Robert had been so upset when I left the company that he asked New York friends to find out if I had been unjustly canned, writing, “If he” — that’s me — “got a dirty deal from them and wishes his friends to boycott them, I don’t care to do business with them.” I hadn’t had any idea of such a thing, and I have to say I was touched when I read it in Patterson’s book.
There was one other thing I learned there that I hadn’t suspected, and that was that in letters to his friends Heinlein referred to me as “Freddie.” That was an even bigger surprise. It’s about a year since I first discovered that. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I like it.
* * *
Patterson’s book starts at the very beginning, or maybe a little before the actual beginning, of Robert’s life, by introducing his parent and grandparents. This is of interest, of course, only insofar as it helped to shape Heinlein himself. Actually, by Patterson’s account he was not seriously unlike any other Midwestern kid, growing up in a family with limited amounts of money, and one of the things I most appreciate about Patterson is the briskness with which he moves us through the pages of genealogy. It is when Robert himself successfully seeks to be appointed to the United States Naval Academy that his life begins to diverge from the rest.
Even someone who has never read a word of Heinlein would value Paterson’s book for the way he describes the life of a midshipman. It was a demanding period in Robert’s life, since any upperclassman could demand their attention at any time — and if they were unsatisfactory in any way — or if the upperclassman just happened to feel like it — the punishment was a good beating on the rump with a wooden bar.
Robert did well at the Academy but he didn’t complete the expected trajectory of becoming an actual Navy officer. His eyes were the first to betray him, then other parts of his body (most famously, the ones he joked about as his “asteroids”) . He never got to fight in World War II, but spent the war years in working on an oddball research team based at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and a female naval officer named Virginia Gerstenfeld, who, as everyone well knows, before long became Mrs. Robert A. Heinlein.
One of the questions Patterson’s admirable book did not answer for me was precisely how it happened that Robert so thoroughly switched his affections from Leslyn, who was Wife No. 2, to Ginny, who wound up the series as Wife No. 3 and Last. (I am not deliberately mocking Heinlein’s plurality of marriages; as everyone knows who knows me at all, I am not in a position to do that.)
I confess that I was never particularly fond of Ginny, nor she of me, but as we both were fond of Robert, we maintained courteous relations. But I would like to know more than I do about how Leslyn got replaced with Ginny. True, there’s no doubt that Leslyn was an alcoholic and given to fits of bad behavior. Maybe that’s really all there is to know. But just about all we know of those events is what Ginny tells us. I’d love to hear Leslyn’s side of the story, and I am feeling guilty about that because Leslyn did appeal to me for sympathy, and I, unwilling to get mixed up in a private affair, discouraged her letters until she gave up.
Ah, well. Read the book anyway. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I did.