Sunday, July 6, 2014

The story behind M*A*S*H

On a cold, crisp winter’s day nine years ago, Eric Moskowitz and I went to a nursing home in Bennington, Vt., to meet W.C. Heinz, the writer. We both admired Heinz’s boxing writing and World War II reporting. We hoped to pick up some tips at the feet of a master.

Moskowitz, now an ace reporter for the Boston Globe, recorded the interview and transcribed it. We were both disappointed that Heinz had dementia and often lost his way answering questions, but I am glad Eric preserved what he did say that day. One of his best stories was about the writing of M*A*S*H, a minor work in a life of gems but the one that made Heinz rich.

The Nevada after being hit at Pearl Harbor.
I pulled the transcript out recently because of the hubbub surrounding the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Heinz was off Normandy that day on the Nevada, which had been repaired after nearly sinking at Pearl Harbor.

He told us how World War II correspondents sent their stories home from ships or from the field. At sea, they placed stories in synthetic waterproof bags with lead weights in them. When a courier came alongside, they tossed the bags in the water, where the courier fetched them with a hook. Should the bags escape the hook, one purpose of the weights was to sink the newspaper copy, keeping it from the enemy. Heinz did not recall losing a story using this method.

Transmitting from a moving army on land had no such perils, other than the obvious one that the best correspondents were those who worked nearest the front. “Eisenhower had a great idea,” Heinz said. “They moved the transmitter right up with the press – one in every army.” The military used encryption to transmit the stories so that the Germans could neither interrupt nor intercept them.

Heinz dedicated his first book to George Hicks, a well-known radio broadcaster who was on the USS Ancon, the communications command ship during the landings on Omaha Beach. On that day Hicks’s “report went out first and was heard all over the world,” Heinz said. After the two of them became buddies, Hicks told Heinz, “Your stuff is so good, you know, you’ll be a very successful writer.”

Time proved Hicks right. The proof is in two anthologies: What A Time It Was: The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports and When We Were Young, Heinz’s best stories from World War II.

Yet even Hicks could never have predicted the source of his friend Willie’s greatest success. Heinz wrote two books about doctors and ghosted an autobiography of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers’ football coach. He found Lombardi obtuse. When Moskowitz asked him what Lombardi was like, Heinz said: “Lombardi was easy to work with for one day. After the first day, he said, ‘How long is this going to take?’ ”

The book, Run to Daylight, sold well, but Heinz was still working up to his breakthrough.
J. Maxwell Chamberlain, a cardiac surgeon, had helped him write his first novel, The Surgeon, Chamberlain introduced him to Richard  Hornberger, a doctor from Maine who had written a novel about his experiences at army field hospitals in Korea.

Heinz with his typewriter.
Heinz showed the manuscript to his wife Betty, who was from Montpelier and had a strong sense of propriety. When she laughed at certain passages, Heinz decided to take on the project. He wrote Hornberger, and soon they were working together.

Heinz described Hornberger as  a “shy man.  . . . He said, ‘I want to get this goddamn book published.’ ” He told Heinz he didn’t care about the money – Heinz could have it all. Heinz wouldn’t hear of it and offered Hornberger the better portion of a 60-40 split.

Heinz drafted three chapters and showed them to an editor at William E. Morrow, who offered an advance of less than $5,000 – “not very much but you take it,” Heinz said.  It took about a year to finish the manuscript. The two men worked under the joint pseudonym Robert Hooker. Hornberger’s “characters were all what I call ‘stick people’ – you know, they had no dimensions to them. He wanted to be a writer, but he wasn’t, really.” Heinz turned the characters into “living human beings.” He also did what he could to provide Hornberger’s episodic story with structure.

M*A*S*H came out in 1968. The film appeared in 1970, its screenplay written by Ring Lardner Jr., and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.The television series ran from 1972 to 1983.

M*A*S*H: Bill Heinz's goldmine
For Heinz the popularity of book, film and TV show meant royalties, royalties, royalties. “The money started to grow very rapidly,” he said. He described the weekly checks as “ridiculous . . . enormous . . . It was a hell of a lot.”

Heinz’s career as a sports writer had ended by then. He was in Miami in 1964 to cover Cassius Clay’s challenge of Sonny Liston for his heavyweight boxing title. When he heard after the fight that a serious infection had hospitalized his daughter Barbara, he rushed to her side. But the infection killed her at age 16.

Bill and Betty Heinz moved to Dorset, Vt., with their younger daughter, Gayl. In time the Heinzes used the M*A*S*H windfall to establish the Heinz Family Trust to support the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. It is now known as the Barbara Bailey Heinz and Gayl Bailey Heinz Fund.

I asked Heinz, who died in 2008 at the age of 93, whether he didn’t find it ironic that after all the stirring reporting and writing he had done from battlefields and sporting arenas , it was a rewrite job that had made him rich.

“I suppose so, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Heh heh heh. Oh no, I don’t want to go around saying, ‘Hey, I wrote this or that.’ But I do get trapped all the time into the M*A*S*H thing.”

Whenever he gave a talk about his career, people asked, “Where did M*A*S*H come from?”

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