Aug 11 2010 11:16am

Robert A. Heinlein: A real-life Forrest Gump

William Patterson’s big Heinlein biography isn’t just the life story of one man. It’s a history of United States in the first half of the 20th century. Not a complete history, but in some ways it’s better than complete, because it’s more intimate. Heinlein was like a real-life Forrest Gump, in the middle of many of the trends that shaped America.

Heinlein was born in Kansas, in 1907, the heart of Middle America.

He was a cadet at Annapolis during the years between the great wars. His classmates believed ruefully that they’d be the first academy class that would never see combat. Of course, World War II belied those beliefs. Heinlein’s military experience put him in the middle of the American rise to world power.

Tuberculosis put an end to his naval career, which plunged Heinlein into the middle of the Great Depression. Until Heinlein’s Navy discharge, he was a civil servant who didn’t have to worry about where his next paycheck was coming from. But after the war, he and then-wife Leslyn were on their own with only his small medical pension. Heinlein had to learn to support himself. This wasn’t the first time he was on his own financially—his family growing up was huge, his parents were distant, and they were always broke. Heinlein took a variety of jobs during his adolescence, including work as a math tutor, artist’s model, insurance salesman, and professional soft-shoe or tap dancer in a roadhouse.

Heinlein worked on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of socialist Upton Sinclair, whose End Poverty In California (EPIC) party sought drastic remedies to the Great Depression. Later, Heinlein ran for state office himself. This put him in the middle of big-state and even national politics.

Heinlein didn’t serve during World War II because of his health, but he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, recruiting Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and others to build military technology. His co-workers included a young Naval officer named Virginia Gerstenfield, whom he would later marry, spending the last 40 years of his life as her husband. In Philadelphia, Heinlein was in the middle of the war at home.

And of course as the top science fiction writer of his lifetime, Heinlein was in the middle of the growth of that genre, from crazy Buck Rogers stuff for kids and nerds to mainstream pop culture, dominating the Hollywood box office and book bestseller lists.

Patterson’s biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve covers that period of his life. It looks pretty intimidating at first—it’s a massive brick of a book and it doesn’t even cover Heinlein’s whole life, just the first half of it—but it’s a fascinating read, not just for Heinlein fans, or science fiction fans, but for anyone curious about life in this great country during a turbulent half-century.

Heinlein didn’t just get himself in the middle of history. He also had a knack for getting into the middle of unlikely situations. If you think you’ve got him pegged as a political conservative and ex-military man, think again.

On the one hand, Heinlein was a hard-headed scientific rationalist. One of my favorite Heinlein quotes:

What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what the stars foretell, avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable verdict of historywhat are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!

But he was also sympathetic to occult beliefs. His second wife, Leslyn, his partner during his political and early science fiction careers, was a practicing witch, and he believed in life after death. He made a pact with several friends that whichever of them died first would get in touch with the others from beyond.

Heinlein not only espoused free love, but he also practiced it from very early on. Both of his first marriages were open marriages, decades before the free love generation of the 60s.

One of my favorite—and weirdest—passages in Patterson’s biography comes after Heinlein has graduated Annapolis, but before he accepts his military commission on the U.S.S. Lexington. The Lexington was only the second aircraft carrier commissioned and was the biggest ship afloat, with a crew of 3,000 and the most advanced technology available in 1929, including primitive ballistic computers.

There are many things you might imagine a young Navy officer doing in the time between graduation and his first commission. One thing you wouldn’t imagine is what Heinlein actually did: He took an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village for 11 weeks, immersing himself in the bohemian culture there, sculpting and painting nude women models, playing at sex, becoming an enthusiastic Socialist, and experimenting with mental telepathy.

Then he returned to the Navy. Heinlein apparently saw no contradiction between those lives.

Heinlein was a fascinating individual, and he’s been one of my heroes all my life. I’m glad I had a chance to get to know him better through Patterson’s biography.

Robert A. Heinlein portrait by Donato Giancola

Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.

Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
His co-workers included a young Naval officer named Virginia Gerstenfield
Are you sure Ginny was commissioned? I could have and do swear she served her hitch and a rump as enlisted?

You're right, I'm wrong.

I was confused by the difference between line, staff and WAVE -
And provided further, That military authority of officers commissioned under the provisions of this Act may be exercised over women of the Reserve only and is limited to the administration of the Women's Reserve.

Establishment of Women's Reserve, Public Law 689, H.R. 6807, 30 July 1942

To my sorrow I misinterpreted some of the incidental remarks that in fact ruled out line officer but not WAVE officer - which Ginny indeed was. Perhaps and unfortunately a second class perhaps after the manner of the (male) Wavy (stripe) Navy in the U.K..
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Clark: The Patterson biography refers to her as Lieutenant from her first appearance (p.330) including a quote from a letter from her to the author which uses the word. So for once I think you're mistaken.
3. CarlosSkullsplitter

It's a shame that Patterson didn't check his microbiology, because it leads to some interesting places. Short version: there is no Myxococcus catarrhalis, which Patterson claims Heinlein was diagnosed with in 1931. Okay, that's probably a transcription error for Micrococcus/Moraxella catarrhalis. That's an opportunistic lung infection... but it's one that only shows up very rarely in the prostate. If Heinlein was really infected with it, it would be much earlier than any cases I've been able to find in the medical literature.

The Army hospital where Heinlein was being treated for tuberculosis diagnosed a recurrence of it as gonorrhea, which Heinlein protested, vehemently. I'm not at all sure that doctors were able to distinguish between the two in the 1930s, since they look very similar microscopically and behave similarly in early microbiological tests.

Problem is, either way, it was most likely sexually transmitted. How does one get a respiratory organism into one's prostate? I'm not being salacious here; it's the same conclusion that sexually transmitted disease specialists have made with regards to later cases.

And Heinlein had the damn thing for *years*. This was before even treatment with sulfa drugs. So this perhaps should be taken into account with his free love lifestyle.

(I think this explains a few passages in the later work, e.g., the WASP = Wassermann-positive -- for syphilis -- joke in The Number of the Beast and the passages about venereal disease and sexual safety in To Sail Beyond the Sunset. And I can't help but wonder what a persistent prostate infection did to Heinlein's reproductive health.)
Charlie Stross
4. cstross
Minor nit: the Lexington was by no means the second aircraft carrier -- it was merely the second in the US Navy.

(I'll have more to say when I've finished making notes ...)
Mitch Wagner
5. MitchWagner
Charlie: Interesting. Thanks. This is what Patterson says about the Lexington, on p. 114 of the bio:

"The USS Lexington—nicknamed the Lady Lex—had started out in 1921 as a battle cruiser, but the arms limitation provisions in the Washington Naval Treaty halted construction, and she was redesigned as an aircraft carrier, designated CV-2. When launched in 1925, she was the largest ship then afloat.

"In her early years, the Lady Lex filled a very important role for the Navy: only the second large aircraft carrier ever built, Lexington would pioneer aircraft-carrier methods and techniques (and more important, strategy and tactics) during a period when the Navy was not yet completely convinced of the usefulness of airpower and might prefer to put its money into battleships."

Note the phrasing: Not the second aircraft carrier (which is what I said) but the second LARGE aircraft carrier.
Charlie Stross
6. cstross
Mitch: see Aircraft Carriers of the Royal Navy on Wikipedia. Like Lexington the early RN carriers were conversions from other classes, and Lexington was indeed rather big. (Interestingly, the first custom-designed carrier to be completed by any great power was Japanese ...)
7. Bill Patterson
Charlie -- ack the correctionm and thanks. I would like for all these comments and corrections to go to where I'm storing them on the Nexus Archive till I get a chance to incorporate them into a revision.
8. James Davis Nicoll
This was before even treatment with sulfa drugs.

One message of biographies covering this era is "be grateful to live in a time with decent antibiotics".
Pat Knuth
9. Laina
Mitch, Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Still in the heart of Middle America, but a few miles farther east.
10. Freelancer

You might want to append to that, "if you've chosen a decadent lifestyle".
11. pixlaw

Actually, I wouldn't want to append that at all. My Mom, who recently died, was an M.D. born in 1926, and she told my brother and I several times of her school friend who'd gone swimming in a river in West Virginia in the late 1930's and died of typhoid fever 3 weeks later.

And she also told of her uncle, my great-uncle, who'd practiced medicine in Ohio from the early 1920's through the late 1950's, and his memories of pre-antibiotic treatments for what many would consider relatively minor illnesses today. Before antibiotics, he said, the only thing a doctor could really do for a patient with pneumonia was sit next to their bed, and hold their hand, and wait to see if they'd live or die.
Robert James
12. DocJames
That, and going into a hospital was more likely to kill you than cure you. As we head into a world where more and more antibiotics don't work against the supergerms, we may see this trend return. Flesh-eating bacteria, anyone?
13. Rick Perez
I believe he was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy not a Cadet.

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