Robert A. Heinlein: A Biography

Robert A. Heinlein

a biography by
William H. Patterson, Jr.

Robert Anson Heinlein was born on 7 July 1907, in Butler, Missouri, the third son of Rex Ivar Heinlein and Bam Lyle Heinlein. At the time of Robert’s birth, the family had been living with his maternal grandfather, Alva Lyle, M.D. A few months after Heinlein was born, his family moved from Butler to Kansas City, where he was to grow up.

His consuming interest, from the 1910 apparition of Halley’s Comet, was for astronomy. By the time he entered Kansas City’s Central High School in 1920, Heinlein had already read every book on astronomy in the Kansas City Public Library.

Heinlein has said that he read all the science fiction he could lay hands on from the age of 16. The cosmic romances of Olaf Stapledon affected him particularly. He read the first series of Tom Swift books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

Heinlein entered the Naval Academy in June 1925. Heinlein graduated in 1929, 20th in a class of 243, and was commissioned with the rank of Ensign. He actually stood fifth in academics in his class, but discipline considerations lowered his class standing to 20th.

Following his tour on the Lexington, in mid-1932 Heinlein was assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Roper. The Roper was a smaller vessel than the Lexington, and, consequently less stable. The constant rolling of the destroyer caused Heinlein to be seasick much of the time, and late in 1933, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of his weakened condition.

When he finally recovered, he was retired (August 1934) with the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, medically unfit for service – “totally and permanently disabled.” His first choice of careers was a washout.

Heinlein attended classes at U.C.L.A. for several weeks, and then left college to take up politics. In 1938, he ran as an EPIC-endorsed candidate for the 59th Assembly District seat (Hollywood). The failed campaign was a pivotal event of Heinlein’s adult life. In the Fall of 1938, he was broke, with a new mortgage to support, and he had been crushingly and humiliatingly rejected in his second choice of career. Casting around for some way to support himself, he hit on what would become his third – and final – career.

In October 1938, Thrilling Wonder Stories announced a policy encouraging submissions from new and unpublished writers. This notice attracted Heinlein’s attention.

Over a four-day period in early April 1939, Heinlein wrote the story “Life-Line.” It was, by the standards of a later day, somewhat stiff, but Heinlein recognized that it was head-and-shoulders above the usual offerings of Thrilling Wonder Stories, so he sent it instead to John W. Campbell, Jr., at Astounding Science-Fiction.

By the time “Life-Line” appeared in the August 1939 issue of Astounding, Heinlein had sent half a dozen more stories to Campbell, which were rejected – but Campbell did buy “Misfit”. His first long effort, “Vine and Fig Tree,” Campbell scheduled for publication as “If This Goes On – ” in 1940, following E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Gray Lensman series. In the meantime, he published “Requiem.”

By February 1940, Heinlein had been able to retire the mortgage on his Laurel Canyon home. He would continue to write science fiction only as the spirit moved him. He set an “up or out” policy for himself: if ever he began to slip from top place in reader ratings or in payment rates or if he began to collect rejections, he would get out then, leave at the top.

Eventually (mid-1941) Campbell did reject a Fortean story Heinlein considered a fairly important work. Heinlein took it as a sign and quietly retired, fiddling with photography and masonry, his favorite hobbies.

Heinlein found, however, that he could not stay retired. He had somehow acquired a permanent itch for writing and allowed himself to be talked back into it. Campbell accepted a revised version of the rejected story, published later under Heinlein’s original working title of “Goldfish Bowl.”

Heinlein had been following the war news from Europe with increasing unease. He finished Beyond This Horizon on December 6, 1941. The next day, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. was in the war.

Heinlein immediately applied for active duty, but was rejected for medical reasons – tuberculosis scars on his lungs and myopia (nearsightedness) “beyond the limits allowed even for the staff corps.” But a Navy buddy, Albert Scoles, was in charge of the Materials Laboratory at the Naval Air Experimental Station at Mustin Field, near Philadelphia, and he wanted to take on Heinlein as a civilian engineer.

In the weeks before his appointment came through, Heinlein finished “Waldo” while living on John Campbell’s couch, and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.” Its appearance in Unknown Worlds in October 1942 was the last of his prewar fiction.

He and wife Leslyn found a house in Lansdowne, a suburb of Philadelphia, and Heinlein went to work on what he described as “the necessary tedium of aviation engineering.” Although he was trained as a “mechanical engineer specializing in linkages,” his experience with aircraft on the U.S.S. Lexington targeted him toward the Navy’s aircraft program.

One of the more interesting aspects of his work was two letters written in the closing weeks of the war, formally urging the Navy to take up space exploration. One was killed at the Materials Laboratory. The other went up the naval hierarchy, finally reaching the level of Truman’s cabinet. When the sponsoring officer was asked if these spaceships might be launched from the surface of a seagoing vessel, the proposal was officially turned down, and so the Air Force would later become the official “owner” of space exploration.

Some time in 1945, Heinlein had been approached by “a Philadelphia publisher” to do a “boy’s book.” The Philadelphia publisher turned down Young Atomic Engineers: Atomic rockets and rogue Nazis on the moon were too “out there” for his line. Heinlein’s new agent, Lurton Blassingame, took the manuscript to Scribners, where Alice Dalgliesh, the editor for the juvenile division, recommended they buy it. Heinlein’s book was scheduled for release in 1947 under the title Rocket Ship Galileo.

All the writing of this period (1945-1947) was produced under difficult and trying circumstances for Heinlein, because his personal life was going to hell. The relationship with Leslyn had disintegrated in alcoholism, beyond any possibility of repair. In 1947 he moved out while Leslyn applied for a divorce.

On Heinlein’s suggestion, Virginia Gerstenfeld had come to Los Angeles and enrolled in the advanced degree program at UCLA when she was released from the Navy in July 1946. They had seen little of each other since she came to Los Angeles: she was studying and trying to earn a living before her GI benefits ran out. She has said that Heinlein had called and asked her to help him pack and move out.

Virginia Gerstenfeld – “Ginny” – was no doubt an impressive human being. Their subsequent history together demonstrates her intellect and strength of character. They saw each other periodically over the next year, though they were in different parts of the country at different times. They were married in October 1948.

The new Heinleins would shortly relocate to Colorado. Heinlein has spoken of his search for a place that would avoid fall-out from the major atomic targets on the coasts, and the area around Denver seemed ideal. It was also ideal for making a break from his past. He finished up work with Alford “Rip” van Ronkel on their “spec” screenplay for “Destination Moon” and chose Colorado Springs as a likely location.

As 1948 ran down and Heinlein started writing Red Planet, his third juvenile for Scribners, John Campbell received a fan letter with an intriguing “gimmick”: it commented on the contents of an issue of Astounding that would not appear for a year yet, in November 1949. Heinlein and Campbell cooked up a scheme to make this fictitious issue come true, and Heinlein agreed to write a story to the title the fan had mentioned for the new Heinlein serial, “Gulf.”

Robert and Ginny brainstormed the problem one evening in the fall of 1948. Ginny was already an integral element of Heinlein’s professional life, having organized and vetted his working files into the “opus system” Heinlein described for L. Sprague de Camp’s 1949 The Science Fiction Handbook. On this occasion, one of the ideas she threw out was a twist on Kipling’s Mowgli – a human raised by Martians. Heinlein was galvanized by the idea, but thought it would take longer to develop than he had available. They passed on to other ideas, and “Gulf” turned out a very short novel on the superman/next-step-in-evolution theme that was popular just then.

In the meantime, Heinlein cracked the last of the major markets he had targeted in his postwar plan. His 1948 script for “Destination Moon” was purchased by George Pal and scheduled for production in the summer of 1949. Robert was hired to do technical direction on “Destination Moon”. The Heinleins duly set off for Hollywood, but the production was delayed as the script was re-written and re-written. “Destination Moon” is considered the first modern science fiction film. It was nominated for an Oscar in three categories (Art, Direction, Set Direction, and Special Effects) and won the Award for its Special Effects.

Heinlein wrote his fourth Scribner’s book, Farmer In The Sky, the first to be serialized (in Boy’s Life, as Satellite Scout) before release of the book.

Among the contracts that came in while they were building in Colorado Springs was a television adaptation of his second juvenile for Scribner’s, Space Cadet, into the television series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Heinlein did no scriptwriting (or even consulting) for the series. Since that network was not carried by the local television markets, he did not even see the show until years later.

The 1950’s were a vintage era for the Heinleins. Ginny had introduced Robert to figure skating. In 1952 they began traveling, with a tour of the National Parks. In 1953, they took a six-month round-the-world tour, and Robert wrote a kind of fascinating travel-diary called Tramp Royale, but again there were no takers. It was shelved until after his death, but they continued to delight in world travel. The Heinleins were a gregarious and outgoing couple, entertaining houseguests, sometime for weeks at a time, between jaunts.

One consequence of his increasing fame he found flattering, if distracting: in 1952, he was invited to be a guest speaker on Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” program for CBS radio. He scripted a kind of credo for the post-war period.

Even with these distractions, Heinlein managed to push out two novels in most years, one for the Scribners juvenile line, the other for the adult market. And there were his own collections to assemble – particularly the collections of his Future History stories (The Man Who Sold The Moon, Revolt In 2100, and The Green Hills Of Earth) – as well as one notable anthology of Fortean stories for which he wrote the introduction, Tomorrow The Stars, plus short stories in the intervals between major projects.

In 1956, Heinlein was given his first Hugo, the award given by science fiction fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention, for Double Star, which had been published in 1955.

One project Heinlein continued to work on periodically was the Mowgli satire he and Virginia had come up with in 1948. Apparently he continued to collect notes and drafts of fragments until well into 1952. He tried again in 1953, but was not satisfied with the result and shelved the project again. In 1955, he was 43,000 words into the manuscript of A Martian Named Smith, but it did not jell.

On April 5, 1958, Heinlein was again working on the Mowgli story – this time titled The Heretic – when a full-page ad appeared in the local newspaper, sponsored by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, urging the U.S. to suspend nuclear testing unilaterally. Outraged by what they considered a major blunder in the Cold War’s international brinksmanship, the Heinleins jointly prepared a responsive full-page counter-ad, whose text Heinlein preserved in Expanded Universe as “Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry,” and encouraged others around the country to do the same. Heinlein found himself attacked by his colleagues in the science fiction community for excessive conservatism.

Following the Patrick Henry campaign, he went back to writing, but not to The Heretic. Instead, he wrote Starship Troopers, with a strong anti-communist message, and shocked the science fiction community silly.

Starship Troopers was serialized as “Starship Soldier” in The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction in October and November 1959, and the book was released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in December. Predictably, the reaction of critics has been one of spluttering indignation, but Starship Troopers does what science fiction does best when it is at its best: it challenges the reader to re-think his basic assumptions. Nor, despite the volume of noise, was Heinlein’s reputation in science fiction fandom diminished: Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award at the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention, Heinlein’s second.

And then Heinlein went back to work on The Heretic. This time he wrote through the huge novel, working title The Man From Mars, and finished it in spring 1960. It was 800 pages and 220,000 words (an “average” novel is about 80,000 words and 300 pages in manuscript). The Man From Mars was unlike anything Heinlein had let himself do before, an amazingly iconoclastic and complex satire of sex and religion, with clever name games and private jokes embedded in the story. It might be difficult to market – it might not sell at all.

Lurton Blassingame sent The Man From Mars manuscript first to Putnam’s because they had an option on Heinlein’s next novel. They wanted to publish it – but without the sex and religion. What would have been left, Heinlein pointed out, was not a publishable book. Eventually, Putnam’s agreed to accept the kind of book Heinlein had written. Heinlein edited the manuscript down to 160,000 words, and it was published in 1961 as Stranger In a Strange Land.

Putnam’s originally had hoped for a juvenile, so Heinlein did write a kind of off-beat juvenile for them in 1962: Podkayne Of Mars, a science-fictionalized version of his “Puddin'” girls’ stories. In 1962, Stranger In a Strange Land received Heinlein’s third Hugo Award.

Heinlein’s next books were wild zigs for him, starting with a full-bore exploration of the sword-and-sorcery epic that was just coming back into vogue: Glory Road with a “turn” in the last hundred pages that refreshed the possibilities of the genre.

In 1963, sales of the Avon paperback issue of Stranger suddenly took off. The book had been “discovered” by what would become the “counterculture,” and Heinlein found himself elected a personal guru for people he had never met.

By 1965, the Heinleins had outgrown the Colorado Springs house; Ginny’s health problems relating to altitude sickness had gone from intermittent to chronic; and the original rationale for choosing Colorado – to be away from nuclear targets and out of the fallout drift patterns – was long gone. In 1957, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) set up its headquarters to correlate data from the Arctic Distant Early Warning (DEW) line at nearby Ent Air Force Base, then the Air force opened the U.S. Air Academy nearby, and, to put a cap on it, NORAD was building into Cheyenne Mountain, virtually in Heinlein’s back yard, construction to be completed in 1966. Colorado Springs had become the #1 nuclear target in the U.S. – a fact Heinlein’s friends lost no opportunity to rib him about. Heinlein took his revenge by pounding Cheyenne Mountain flat in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

After some surgery and a brief scouting trip to the Seattle area, they found a wooded lot in the Bonny Doon area of the mountains close to the ocean near Santa Cruz, California, and Heinlein began the tortuous two-year process of designing and building another ultra-modern house customized to the Heinleins’ lifestyle. The structure was circular in plan, giving all the bathrooms direct access to the pool area outside, so that nobody would have to track through the main part of the house. And he added a cat-free guest house to accommodate houseguests such as the de Camps, with cat hair allergies.

The first years at the Bonny Doon house were occupied by other matters than writing. A new series of collections appeared, culminating in the 1967 omnibus of the Future History stories, The Past Through Tomorrow, which had been in the works since 1963. In 1967 he also won his fourth Hugo Award, for The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

July 20, 1969, is probably the most important day in human history – the day men from Earth first set foot on another planet, Earth’s moon. Robert Heinlein was a guest commentator (along with Arthur C. Clarke) with Walter Cronkite on this historic occasion.

In January 1970, I Will Fear No Evil was in the initial stages of cutting when Heinlein developed a perforated diverticulum. By the time it was discovered, seventeen days later (Mrs. Heinlein indicated that Heinlein had an extraordinarily high threshhold of pain), peritonitis had set in, and he very nearly died. All the business affairs, including getting the new book ready for publication, fell on Ginny’s shoulders, with only the barest minimum of feedback from a man sometimes too weak to manage more than a nod or a word or two in response to questions. Recuperating from major illnesses was always a full-time job for Heinlein, and this one took the better part of two years. During this period, Heinlein gave a few a few interviews, but it was not until 1972 that he was back to strength for writing.

Heinlein’s near-brush with death kept him busy just surviving for nearly two years. There were few projects. By 1972 he felt well enough to write and started Time Enough for Love.

He was awarded the first SFWA Grand Master Nebula Award in 1975. The years of 1976 and 1977 were spent organizing blood drives, tied in with his appearance as Guest of Honor for the third time at a World Science Fiction Convention, “MidAmeriCon,” in Kansas City, Missouri, over the Labor Day weekend of 1976. Heinlein continued to write during these years, but for one reason or another, he decided not to publish the work.

At the end of 1977, exhausted by the ongoing effort of the blood drives, Robert and Ginny took a vacation to the South Pacific. Early in 1978, they were walking on a beach at Moorea, Tahiti, when he had a Transient Ischemic Attack, a brief blockage of blood to his brain that can be a precursor to a cerebral stroke. A CAT scan ruled out a brain tumor, but the flow of blood to his brain continued to decrease. Only two months into a six month regime of medication he was “dull-normal, slipping toward ‘human vegetable,'” sleeping 16 hours a day and barely functional the rest of the time. A heart catheterization for angiogram revealed that his left internal carotid artery was completely blocked, too high for surgery. A carotid bypass operation restored oxygen flow to his brain.

As soon as he was able to work, Heinlein started writing The Number of the Beast. An abridgement was published in Omni Magazine, and the advance paid by Fawcett/Columbine was a record-breaking $500,000.

In July 1979, Heinlein was requested to give testimony in Washington D.C. before a joint session of the House Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Science and Technology, on the subject of applications of space technology for the elderly and the handicapped. It was not a subject on which he had expert knowledge but any opportunity to promote the Space program called for superhuman effort. As a NASA functionary’s testimony covered the technical material in depth, on July 19, he gave a performance testimony drawing extensively on his own high-tech carotid bypass operation more than a year previously.

1979 was also the year Heinlein provided new material for the 1966 collection The Worlds Of Robert A. Heinlein. Altogether there was an additional 84,000 words of new material for Expanded Universe.

In 1981 Heinlein had to give up all non-writing work. Friday appeared in 1982 and was immediately hailed as a return to the master storytelling of his adventure-writing days. But there is no sacrifice of subtlety in Friday: it is a powerful and complex examination of prejudice on many levels.

In 1983, the Heinleins took a long-delayed trip to Antarctica, the only continent they had not yet visited. Heinlein came home and wrote Job: A Comedy of Justice, another great departure, for Job is a deliberate evocation of James Branch Cabell, one of Heinlein’s earliest models. The next two novels took off from the discoveries and inventions of The Number Of The Beast.Heinlein was still actively participating in the space movement in the early 1980s. On December 8, 1984, a Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy met at the home of science fiction writer Larry Niven in Tarzana, California, to discuss the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”).

On Heinlein’s 80th birthday, June 7, 1987, Putnam’s published what would be his last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, sending balloons and chocolates to Bonny Doon.

Heinlein’s health had been worsening over the years. By 1987 he needed rapid access to advanced medical facilities. He and Ginny gave up the Bonny Doon house and found a place in nearby Carmel. He was in and out of the hospital four times in his last year.

On May 8, 1988, he died peacefully in his morning nap. His body was cremated, his ashes strewn in the Pacific from the deck of a warship. He has returned to the elements from which we all came: If we want to take his body to the stars, it will have to be in a jar of seawater. Heinlein would probably find that appropriate.

Excerpted from a longer version that originally appeared in

The Heinlein Journal, Issue 5, July 1999