Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian, a bombardier with the US Army Air Corps during WWII. Yossarian becomes convinced that the military will never let him go home as they keep raising the required number of missions – so he seeks another way out. In 2011, we finally found my grandfather’s war diary; this was the diary my father always said I should compare to Catch-22. What followed was years of research and a realization that Papa Julie’s World War II story was known by millions, but somehow eluded those of us closest to him.
After coming up empty with various short story submissions to The New Yorker, Joseph Heller received a letter back with the following constructive criticism:
“One little suggestion, though: are you writing out of your own experience? If you’re not, I think it might be interesting for you to try – for a while, at least – to concentrate on people you know and emotions you share.” (Donald Berwick, The New Yorker, September 8, 1947 (as per “Just One Catch – A biography of Joseph Heller” by Tracy Daugherty, 2011; page 110)
While Catch-22’s opening page notes that the characters are “fictitious”, speaking at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in New York City during December 1970, nine years after publication, Heller stated that “In many cases, actual people I know were starting points for the characters…” Unbeknownst to the public, at the time of the book’s initial publication Joseph Heller had written a letter to Simon & Schuster, detailing real life inspirations for many of the characters.
The letter was dated February 27, 1961, ahead of initial publication later that year. Heller noted the letter was “undertaken to indicate for the legal advisors of Simon & Schuster the extent to which characters in the novel might be identified with living people.”
- Regarding Milo Minderbinder, Heller warned “here we may be a little close even for my comfort, both because of a slight similarity in names and because of the activities and opportunities common to all mess officers. The name of my mess officer was, believe it or not, Mauno Lindholm.”
- Heller noted that Hungry Joe “bears considerable resemblance, I realize now, to a pilot in my squadron whose name was Joe Chrenko. Chrenko was given a medal for cracking up a plane whose landing gear would not come down; later on he admitted that he had forgotten to try the emergency landing gear procedure.”
- The letter continues, “one tentmate of mine named Ritter supplied some of the inspiration for Orr and much of the details of appearance…Ritter was shot down over water once and ditched safely…I doubt very much if he ever deserted from the Army and rowed to Sweden.”
- Heller notes that “Doc Daneeka comes from Brooklyn. My own flight surgeon, Dr. Moreno came from Brooklyn.”
Heller and Simon & Schuster held secret most of these connections until 37 years later with the publication of Heller’s autobiographical memoir, “Now and Then” in 1998.
In Now and Then, Heller provided some further details of the real life inspirations. Regarding Orr, Heller noted Edward Ritter’s “patient genius for building and fixing things” and “recurring close calls in aerial combat” provided the basis for fashioning this character.
He noted that Major Cover helped to secure rooms for the men stationed on Corsica when they were able to go on short rest and relaxation trips. As Heller noted, “even a limited cast of characters ought to include a tribute to our able squadron executive officer, Major Cover” who became Major_de Coverley in Catch-22.
Even Huple’s pet cat in Catch-22 had its inspiration on Corsica. Heller noted that Francis Yohannan owned a pet cocker spaniel he bought in Rome, which became Huple’s cat in the novel…in order “to protect its identity”.
Heller’s disclosures regarding the novel’s main character, Yossarian both privately to Simon & Schuster at the time of initial publication and in all public statements Heller made after, offered less specifics of the character’s true essence…