Reading: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson (Part 2)

© William H. Patterson, Jr.

Continuing from Part 1, I’m taking a look at this book in sections, here covering chapters 11-19, up to page 251. More fascinating reading, more surprises, taking Heinlein into a second marriage, through his Navy service into a brief political career and the beginnings of writing fiction.

Without ever having considered the numbers, I always thought the man’s Naval service ran at least through World War Two, but in fact it was much briefer. He served in various jobs and officer levels on several ships, and seems to have learned a lot from some of his commanders and instructors there, but it was a harder life than one would think, and health problems began making that life more difficult. Eventually Heinlein contracted tuberculosis, a highly infectious disease that had no real cure in those days before antibiotics, and could only be put into remission. The Navy first let Heinlein recover at a modern clinic, but then put him into an antiquated Navy hospital where the primitive treatments and uncaring staff nearly killed him. Always resourceful, Heinlein managed to escape and get better treatment elsewhere, but he knew he was on the way out of the service. Putting a TB patient on a ship, even in remission, was too risky, and after about five years of service, Heinlein was forced to retire on 2/3 pay for life, not a terrible deal, but it meant he’d need to find a new career to support himself and his wife.

Heinlein met and married Leslyn MacDonald while stationed near Los Angeles. She was three years older than him, highly educated, and a published writer of poetry. They hit it off well, seemed to have common interests, and despite the fact that she had been dating his best friend, Heinlein proposed almost immediately and was accepted. They wed in 1932 and she set up house in Los Angeles while Heinlein served on ships in the area. There’s little in print about Leslyn, and I was prepared for another bad marriage, but in fact they seemed to have quite a good one, at least in the years covered in these chapters. She supported his efforts as a Navy man, then in politics and as a beginning writer, and seems to have been a good partner for him. They had an open marriage, meaning each apparently had permission to sleep with others, and while the author doesn’t go into that much (probably because there’s little information available), I found that a bit surprising. I always thought Heinlein’s somewhat radical opinions about sex and love expressed in his later books beginning with “Stranger in a Strange Land” were written to be provocative, and probably didn’t reflect the author’s own preferences, but perhaps I was wrong; it seems he walked the walk.

Heinlein’s political career, though brief, would have been even more surprising if I hadn’t read about it recently elsewhere. Until then I’d known nothing of it. As outlined in this book, it all makes perfect sense. Heinlein was in California during a turbulent time: the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl brought hordes of hungry refugees into the state looking for work, and Heinlein became friends with Upton Sinclair, the author famous for his book “The Jungle,” among others, who decided to try to run for governor on a socialist platform to bring relief to the common citizen and refugee alike. Naturally, business interests wanted none of that. Having read of Heinlein’s own poor upbringing, and knowing his feelings about doing the right thing and helping others less fortunate, it’s easy to see how he got involved, and even ran for state office, unsuccessfully. Some of his experiences showed up later in his fiction, particularly “Double Star.”

Out of politics, Heinlein needed a career, and several ideas went bust, including a silver mine operation that wiped out most of his savings. He was still reading the science fiction pulps, and soon got the idea to give writing for them a try. But first, to put together some of his ideas, he wrote a novel that was only published recently, “For Us, The Living.” In it were the seeds of much of his later work, but it never found a publisher. He turned to shorter stories and began sending them to the magazines, and found a friend and fan in ASTOUNDING and UNKNOWN editor John Campbell, who nurtured the novice writer. The most surprising thing about the beginnings of his writing career to me were how much he was willing to rewrite and capitulate to editors in the beginning (though not always happily), and that he began as a very poor two-finger typist and taught himself touch typing by taping over the letters on the keyboard and putting a keyboard diagram on the wall behind the typewriter where he’d have to look up at it. What a smart idea!

Again, this book is terrific reading, and highly recommended. More later.

One thought on “Reading: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN Vol. 1 by William H. Patterson (Part 2)

  1. Jon M

    I bought the e-version of this yesterday, Todd. I’m bouncing amongst this, “The Sirens of Titan” for the third time, and Rick Wakeman’s first memoir “Grumpy Old Rock Star”. Plus comics. Plus “technical journals”.

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