Encountering the Heinleins by Michael Cassutt

On a windy Friday evening in late March 1977, I was a 22-year-old disc jockey and aspiring writer living in an apartment in Tucson, Arizona, when my telephone rang.  My girlfriend, Cindy, had driven to Phoenix that day to see her brother: I assumed Cindy was calling to tell me she had arrived.

Instead I heard a male voice on the line.  “Is this Michael Cassutt?”

“Yes.”

“This is Robert Heinlein.”

Heinlein readers can easily imagine my stunned reaction.  I had read all of Heinlein’s published science fiction by this time; he was by far my favorite writer in any genre, and the most influential.

He was also a semi-mythic figure, well-known and visible to the public until around 1966, the time I was devouring his books.  Then he became reclusive and even a bit mysterious for the next several years.

I had written him a fan letter in the summer of 1970, offering my thanks for Red Planet and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and all the others, and wondering why there had been nothing new since 1966?  And why Mr. Heinlein was out of the public eye?

My letter was answered with a form letter and handwritten P.S. by his wife, Virginia, noting that her husband had been ill for much of the past year, but had a new novel about to be published (I Will Fear No Evil).  She added that he had appeared on the CBS broadcast of Apollo 11 in July 1969 — something I had forgotten.  (I was ill with pneumonia at the time.)

Soon thereafter, as I went off to college and acquired a subscription to Locus magazine as well as other contacts in the SF field, I would hear bits of information about Heinlein: he was still recovering from illness in 1971.  In December 1972, he and Ginny appeared on a cruise ship anchored off Cape Canaveral for the launch of Apollo 17.

I can remember my excitement at picking up a copy of Publisher’s Weekly in early 1973, and seeing a half-page announcement of a new Heinlein novel — Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long. [NOTE: The May 1973 hardcover had a slightly different type face and design than that in the early PW ad, omitting the subtitle.]

Heinlein “re-emerged” into the world in 1973, with the publication of Time Enough for Love, as well as the “unearthing” of his 1941 Worldcon guest of honor speech in Vertex magazine, which also published the first “new” Heinlein short story in years.   His 1973 Forrestal lecture at Annapolis was published in Analog.

I had sold a couple of short stories by then, one to an SF magazine, one to a mystery mag.  I attended the SFWA Nebula Awards event in Los Angeles in April 1974, where I saw Mr. and Mrs. Heinlein in person.

So by 1977, they were much less remote figures than they had seemed.

Blood Donor Card

Fan Blood Donor Card sent to the Heinleins, from the Heinlein Archives, courtesy of The Heinlein Prize Trust

Which is why, when I learned that Robert Anson Heinlein would be appearing at the Tucson SF Expo in conjunction with a blood drive, I wrote to 6000 Bonny Doon, Santa Cruz CA, and volunteered to be part of the team.

The Science Fiction Expo was a massively-ambitious event with guests ranging from Heinlein to Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Jack Williamson, numerous other writers as well as film personalities (Johnny Weismuller) and astronauts (Pete Conrad).

I expected, at most, a post-card in return, perhaps directing me to the appropriate parties on the Expo committee.

I did not expect a telephone call from Mr. Heinlein himself, making me chairman of a committee of one.

Most of the ninety-minute conversation dealt with the mechanics of putting on the blood drive — the number and address of the local Red Cross office, the contacts there, questions to be asked, etc.  I dutifully took notes.

Naturally I managed to sneak in a couple of questions.  I had read that RAH had started work on a new novel the previous fall.  He said he was only “halfway through it,” and that he was trying to keep it from growing too long.  “I want to keep the hardcover price under ten dollars.”

He was concerned about the long drought in their area.  “Ginny’s having a tough time keeping her plants alive.”

I telephoned Cindy at her brother’s: “Guess who I was just talking to?”

Within a couple of weeks, I received a package from the Heinleins that included a photocopy of “Are You a Rare Blood?”, the RAH article from the Compton Encyclopedia Yearbook, and several pages of “Notes for a Handbook on Blood Drives at SF Conventions,” dated from January 1 to January 14, 1977.

By then I had already followed Mr. Heinlein’s instructions, had contacted the appropriate local Red Cross officials as well as the chairman of the SF Expo.  My job in radio made it relatively easy to arrange for public service announcements, which I recorded and sent around to other stations.  I kept the Heinleins apprised of the planning by letter.

The looming problem was this: the SF Expo team had wildly over-estimated its attendance.  They had predicted that 5,000 people would come to Tucson that June — this at a time when few, if any, World SF Conventions could claim that many attendees.  Yes, there were Star Trek cons on that scale — but this was not a Trek con.  Nor was it being held, like the giant Trek events, in a major city.

Even the date was a problem: the University of Arizona, with its 30,000 students, ended its term in mid-May, three weeks before the Expo.  How many attendees were lost because of that?

It was obvious by early May that attendance at the SF Expo would be a fraction of the hoped-for figure — 500, not 5,000.

This presented obvious financial problems for the expo committee.  It also meant that the blood drive wasn’t going to get that hundred units.  Or even 70.  Or 50.

I wrote to the Heinleins warning them.  Ginny responded that they had been hearing of problems with the Expo, but that they were committed to an appearance at a smaller event in Phoenix the weekend prior, and were still planning to come to Tucson.

And they did, arriving on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 1, 1977, and checking into the Tucson Marriott.  I received a call at the radio station that afternoon, inviting me over.

I walked into the Heinlein suite, and found myself face-to-face with Robert and Virginia, but with Jack Williamson and G. Harry Stine, too.  Elizabeth Brown, the widow of Fredric Brown, was also present.  There were certainly others, probably twenty in number, none of whom I knew personally.  Sensing this, Mr. Heinlein introduced me to Jack Williamson and Harry Stine.

The impromptu party broke up around four, at which time Mr. Heinlein suggested that we check out the facilities for the next day’s blood drive.  Which we did.

Then he invited me to join Ginny and him for dinner.  “Invite your girlfriend, too.”

In fact, I telephoned Cindy from the Heinleins’ suite:  “Guess who wants you to come to dinner?”

Although I had found Heinlein, in 1974, to be older than his years, slow of speech and unsteady on his feet, in June of 1977 he seemed more vigorous — deliberate and precise in manner, but witty and energetic.  Although he was pale (“I have skin cancer, so I have to stay out of the sun”), he seemed healthy.

Ginny was white-haired, but still slim and striking.  She was protective of her husband, helping to move him along when fans loomed, offering reminders of phone calls to be made, people to be met.  She was also a bit humorless.  (On a couple of occasions throughout the weekend Mr. Heinlein made jokes that seemed to go right by her.)

Both Heinleins smoked cigarettes.

Cindy arrived at the suite, and we ordered hamburgers and beer from room service.  For the next several hours, the four of us simply talked.  (For some reason, I never for a moment considered asking Mr. Heinlein for an interview.  Selfish of me.)  Much of it was simple social chatter — where were Cindy and I from, where did we work, etc?  The Heinleins spoke of their own health struggles.  At one point Robert tapped his teeth and said, “These are still mine.  Arthur Clarke has a mouth full of false choppers.”

Torn between my desire to prolong the evening, but mindful of the danger of wearing out my welcome, I kept an eye on the clock.  Somewhere around eight-thirty I decided I had imposed enough.  Cindy and I excused ourselves, thanked our hosts, and drove off into the night.

But what a magical afternoon and evening it was.  The next morning, before heading back to the Expo for the blood drive, I sat down at my typewriter in the office of radio station KHYT, and made the following notes:

• Heinlein’s one and only try for political office took place in Los Angeles in 1938.  Dorothy Parker was one of the contributors to his campaign.

• The novel Sixth Column, based on a story by John W. Campbell titled “All,” was written in Chicago in 1940.  RAH says he needed the money to buy a car and “get the hell out of Chicago”.

• Space Cadet was written in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1947.

• Heinlein’s health gave him problems during World War II.

• Heinlein’s last stint in Hollywood was around 1965 [actually, early 1964].  The project [XXII Century] never materialized and the producers “moved across the street and made Batman, and made a fortune”.

• Heinlein referred to The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, published by Ace in 1966, as a “bottom of the barrel collection” and is trying to get the rights back.  He is scrupulous about having rights to his earlier material reverted to him — in some cases, so he can see that it is never published again.

• Mrs. Heinlein says that the pseudonym her husband used for his teenaged romances from the 1950s was “R. A. Heinlein”.  [Note: Why didn't I search out the stories? I had no idea what magazines the stories had appeared in.]

• On baseball: I had mentioned Manny’s off-hand references to the Yankees in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress: “I stopped paying attention to baseball around 1927.”

• On critics: I had asked if he really thought that no critic had written anything insightful about his work. “Of course not.” He then cited David Samuelson’s then-recent article about the Future History stories [NOTE: Samuelson spoke to RAH while preparing the paper,   "Major Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein: The Future and Fantasy," originally published in Voices for the Future, Thomas D. Clareson, Ed.  Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.  Reprinted in Robert A. Heinlein, Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, Eds.  New York: Taplinger, 1978 ]

• On book reviews:  RAH published three reviews in Astounding during World War II.  [I went looking for these in the University of Arizona library, which had an excellent SF collection from the estate of Fredric Brown, but was unable to find the pieces.  Year later I learned that they were not listed on the contents pages of the magazines in question.]

• The Heinleins’ house located 15 miles north of Santa Cruz in the mountains (1200 feet), yet it commands a view west to the Pacific. The property includes an orchard and is surrounded by an electrified fence. The house itself is circular, with battlements.  Interior features include built-in furniture and sound system.

• “The Black Pits of Luna” was written in four days, and sold to Saturday Evening Post for $4,000, astounding money for 1948, and pretty good for 1977.

• I mentioned the writer James Oberg, who had been publishing articles in Analog.  “Oberg writes a good stick,” he said, a comment I was happy to pass along to a very happy James Oberg.

The blood drive took place on Thursday, June 2, 1977, and went very smoothly. The only negative was the number of units we got — 35 rather than the 50 we had hoped.  Because the event had raised awareness of the need for blood donations, the Red Cross professed itself satisfied, and so did the Heinleins. (They were interviewed on local television and radio throughout the weekend, and took at least one side trip to the University of Arizona medical center to tour facilities.)

The Heinleins remained in Tucson for the balance of the Expo, and hosted a party on Saturday night in their suite.

Cindy and I were present, off and on, for much of the Expo, too.  Other incidents I witnessed: at the Saturday night party, one of the convention volunteers, a young woman, asked RAH why he and Ginny didn’t have children. I expected a bit of Heinlein frost — instead, he simply shrugged and said, “We wanted them, but they never came.”

At the close of one of the afternoon panels, Mr. Heinlein wanted to talk to astronaut Pete Conrad, who was at that moment surrounded by autograph seekers.  He turned to me and said, “Do you know if Conrad’s rank is captain or a commander?”

“Retired captain.”

“You’re sure?”

The one thing I knew better than Heinlein’s work was astronauts. “Absolutely sure.”

Mr. Heinlein turned away and said in a voice that could only be described as commanding: “Captain Conrad!”

Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the Moon,  instantly rose into the air and spun to face Mr. Heinlein: “Yes, sir!”

The weekend was as exhausting as it was fascinating.

In December 1977, I mailed Ginny a report on the failed blood drive — “The Best Laid Plans” — intended for publication in the proposed blood drive handbook. She responded that she and Robert were about to leave on a trip that would last until mid-January.

A year after the Expo I would have another lengthy telephone conversation with RAH (he had called me on some SFWA business), then would see Ginny again at the Phoenix WorldCon. (RAH was then recovering from brain surgery and not yet cleared for air travel. He was, Ginny said, well enough to drive himself into Santa Cruz and take in a movie…)

I would see them again — briefly — at space development conferences in 1982 and 1983, and kept up a sporadic correspondence with Ginny until the late 1990s.

Robert and Ginny skating

Copyright the Heinlein Archives, courtesy of The Heinlein Prize Trust

On the last day of the convention, as night fell, Cindy and I grabbed dinner at an outdoor café. “Look,” she said. “Isn’t that the Heinleins?”

There, walking hand-in-hand, were Robert and Virginia, Robert in a blue blazer and white slacks, Virginia in a summer dress. They were not just walking, but almost gliding, as if ice-dancing.

Sure enough, when they reached a vantage point that gave them a view to the west, where the sun was setting over “A” mountain, Robert took Ginny’s hand and twirled her.

And that is how I will always remember them.

Michael Cassutt


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One Response to Encountering the Heinleins by Michael Cassutt

  1. sandycee says:

    I am a very new reader to RAH books. Reading this story has just given me reason to continue to read the many of his books which were gifted to us by a friend. Thank you for your very wonderful story. You have given me a small insight into an author, I am hoping to call a favourite. A pity about the Red Cross blood drive, though any blood contribution is better than none.
    Namaste

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