Joe, Speed, Mel, Mario, and me

May 1st would be the 83rd birthday of Joseph Heller, if he hadn’t died in 1999.

Some point during this month of April also marks the 20th anniversary of my exiting St. Louis Children’s Hospital in 1986 after a four month stay.   Joseph Heller’s autobiography, “No Laughing Matter“, co-written with his friend Speed Vogel, was also published in 1986.

It all began one typical day in the life of Joe Heller. He was jogging four miles at a clip these days, working on his novel God Knows, coping with the complications of an unpleasant divorce, and pigging out once or twice a week on Chinese food with cronies like Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, and his buddy of more than twenty years, Speed Vogel. He was feeling perfectly fine that day — but within twenty-four hours he would be in intensive care at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He would remain hospitalized for nearly six months and leave in a wheelchair.

Heller’s novel, God Knows, would cause me much grief years later in college.  The “pigging out once or twice a week” was with a group which referred to themselves as the “Gourmet Club”. As Speed writes:

We laughingly called ourselves “The Gourmet Club.” It started in the 1960s. Once a week I’d gas up the Jeep and start on the Upper West Side picking up the guys: Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, George Mandel, Joe Stein, Mel Brooks (the funniest man alive), Julie Green (a diamond merchant whom the funniest man alive calls “the funniest man alive”) and Ngoot Lee (a painter and our Chinese dining guru). Sometimes Carl Reiner or Charles Gwathmey would show up. A meal in Chinatown was a crucial part of our lives.

Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were writing the pilot for “Get Smart!” at Talent Associates on Madison Avenue. They had a pool table there, and while we waited for Mel to finish up, the rest of us would shoot a few games. For a time in the late 1950s, Mel and I had been roomies, and one night we started joking about this producer we knew who lived high on the hog on Central Park West but who had flop after flop on Broadway. At the time, I didn’t figure it was the germ of a fine idea.

I was born in the 1960s.  The fine idea was of course The Producers.

In July of 1986, Joseph Heller wrote the following words:

[You] have a sense of humor good enough to qualify you for the Gourmet Club, if it is ever revived.

He wrote those words to me!  Was he just being kind to a 17 year old kid who went through the same ordeal he did, but without the famous friends?  Maybe.  It’s also possible he didn’t write it.  A few months after receiving the postcard, I received a letter.  He wrote that he wasn’t sure if he had written earlier, and thought he might have handed it off to Speed to reply to.  (Speed had learned to sign Joe’s name while he was in the hospital.)  So Speed may have written those words, but since he too was a member of the Gourmet Club, they’re equally valid.

Currently, once a week, I dine out with some writing colleagues of mine.  It’s not Chinese food.  I’d love it if it were.  We usually think of ourselves more of an Algonquin Round Table than a Gourmet Club.  But whatever works.

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