Born in Coney Island, New York, on May 1, 1923, Joseph Heller was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941 and volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps the following year, at the age of 19. Assigned to the Italian front in 1944, he flew 60 combat missions with the 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 12th Air Force, as a B-25 bombardier -- like the protagonist of his future novel.
Unlike Yossarian, however, Heller looked back on his service as mostly fun and glorious, and the bombing missions as largely “milk runs.” As Heller told Canadian broadcaster Allan Gregg in 1998, the book was conceived nine years after his war experiences, and took another eight years to write; it was during that period he witnessed “the chaos, the implicit terror, the imminent danger of more military catastrophe, the hypocrisy, the bullying, that was going on in America….”
Heller took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study English at the University of Southern California and NYU after the war. He received a Master’s degree in English from Columbia in 1949 and attended St. Catherine’s College, Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship the following year. Back in the U.S., he taught composition at Pennsylvania State University for two years, and fiction and dramatic writing at Yale. He eventually accepted a job as a copywriter for a small advertising agency.
The first sentences of his first novel occurred to him in 1953, and the first chapter appeared in New World Writing three years later under the title “Catch-18.” Shortly before Simon & Schuster published the novel in 1961, Heller changed the title to Catch-22, to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’s recent novel about the Jewish resistance in Poland during World War II, Mila 18. Reviews were mixed and the book did not sell well initially, but a wildly enthusiastic reception in England and then strong sales of the 1962 U.S. paperback edition made it a bestseller and a classic that to date has sold more than 10 million copies.
Heller worked on screenplays and television scripts in the 1960s, and wrote an anti-war play called “We Bombed in New Haven” in 1969. His second novel, Something Happened, about the bleak and meaningless life of a businessman, came out in 1974 to popular and critical acclaim. That was followed by Good as Gold (1979), about an English professor who becomes the first Jewish Secretary of State; God Knows (1984), a tragicomic retelling of the Biblical story of King David; and Picture This (1988), which uses Rembrandt’s painting of “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” to jump between the Athens of Aristotle, the Holland of Rembrandt, and the U.S.A. of Heller today.
Diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in late 1981, Heller became partially paralyzed and underwent a long illness and physical therapy to recover, which he recounted in No Laughing Matter (1986), co-authored with his friend Speed Vogel. Various famous friends gave Heller support and assistance during this period, including Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman, and Mario Puzo. He divorced his wife of 35 years, Shirley Held, in 1984 and married a nurse he had met during his recovery, Valerie Humphries.
In 1994 Heller published Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22 that revisited some of the earlier book’s familiar characters, such as Yossarian, Milo Minderbender, and Chaplain Tappmann, in the 1990s. He also published a memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, in 1998, Heller died on December 12, 1999 in East Hampton, New York, at the age of 76. A final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, appeared in 2000.
None of his subsequent books achieved either the acclaim or the sales of his debut novel. The phrase “Catch-22” has entered modern parlance to apply to any absurd, no-win situation in which what one wants is impossible, and the same awful outcome is inevitable no matter which choice one makes.
Joseph Heller talks about Catch-22 to Allan Gregg in 1998:
Joseph Heller interviewed by Bill Moyers in 1988: