Sixty-five years ago, Houghton Mifflin published a slim volume of fiction titled Mister Roberts, based loosely on the experiences of the author, Thomas Heggen, who had served as assistant communications officer in the cargo ship USS Virgo (AKA-20) in the South Pacific during World War II. The title of the book and, to some extent, the character and personality of the book’s titular hero were based on Charles Roberts, Heggen’s best friend—and a cousin of mine.
Mister Roberts was one of the first World War II accounts to be published, but unlike the torrent of memoirs and histories that were to follow (and that continue to this day), Heggen’s book was not a chronicle of combat experiences or a sweeping account of the clash of mighty forces. Rather, it was the story of a naval supply-ship crew on board the fictitious USS Reluctant, contending with boredom as well as the cruelty, caprice, and incompetence of a feckless skipper, Captain Morton—known universally by the officers and men of the Reluctant as “Old Stupid.”
Far from the action, writes Heggen, the Reluctant
operates in the back areas of the Pacific. In its hold it carries food and trucks and dungarees and toothpaste and toilet paper. For the most part it stays on its regular run, from Tedium to Apathy and back, about five days each way. It makes an occasional trip to Monotony and once it made a run all the way to Ennui, a distance of two thousand nautical miles from Tedium.
Art Imitates Shipboard Life
In part to deal with the boredom of life on board the Virgo, young Heggen began writing a series of character sketches and short stories based on his experiences and observations.
In real life, Captain Morton was Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Herbert Ezra Randall, a Merchant Marine officer who had disdain for the ways of the Navy. Like his fictional “Old Stupid” counterpart, Captain Randall did own two palm trees, and like the characters Doug Roberts and Ensign Pulver, Heggen threw them over the side.
Like the men of the Reluctant, Heggen did spy on the Navy nurses’ shower room, although he used the sighting scope of the Virgo’s 5-inch gun, not binoculars.
Ensign Pulver, the main comedic character in the novel, was an amalgam of two of Heggen’s fellow officers, Ensign George Moscharka and Ensign Ed Fahl; the latter was well known for his incessant ranting against the captain. And like the fictional Captain Morton, Captain Randall repeatedly denied the crew liberty in port and penalized them for violating an endless number of petty rules and regulations.
Following his release from active duty in December 1945, Heggen spent several months reworking the material he had written on board the Virgo into a novel, which he titled The Iron-Bound Bucket after the nickname the Virgo‘s crew had given the ship.
When Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish Heggen’s manuscript, editor-in-chief Paul Brooks advised the author that he needed a more tightly focused title and suggested that he name it for the character of Lieutenant (junior grade) Roberts because “he is the one who holds the ship together.” Heggen agreed.
Mister Roberts was published in 1946 and became an overnight sensation, selling 100,000 copies in the hardbound edition and eventually more than a million copies in paperback. Chapters of the book were published in seven magazines.
The novel debuted to excellent reviews for the most part. The New York Times raved, “Mr. Heggen has written a little classic.” The New York Post declared, “It comes very close to being perfect.” The Chicago Daily Tribune termed the work “a small masterpiece.”
The book was adapted into a play by Heggen and Joshua Logan; it became a huge success on Broadway (Heggen and Logan received the first Tony Award presented for Best Play) and then in cities across the country. The success of the book and the play made Heggen a wealthy man (the play alone brought him the then-amazing income of $4,000 per week) and the toast of New York society.
The hit play, in turn, was made into a highly successful 1955 movie starring Henry Fonda as Roberts, Jack Lemmon (in an Oscar-winning performance) as Pulver, James Cagney as Captain Morton, and William Powell as the wise and venerable Doc. The bittersweet film, at times uproariously funny and at times tear-inducing, marked Fonda’s return to movie screens after a long hiatus. If Fonda wanted to make a movie comeback, Roberts was certainly the role with which to do it. To the public, Fonda already was Roberts; he’d won a Tony in the original production on Broadway, where he performed the part more than 1,300 times. The movie version of Mister Roberts remains a perennial favorite on cable TV and DVD. It spawned a 1964 sequel, Ensign Pulver, as well as a short-lived TV sitcom in 1965–66.
Laughs, Leadership Lessons, and Tragedy
Mister Roberts is generally known as a comedy—the opening performance on Broadway went 30 minutes longer than projected because the audience laughed so much. And indeed, there is much that is funny about the book, the play, and particularly the movie—which borders on slapstick at times—but there is also a serious side to the work.
In his superb foreword to the book, republished by the Naval Institute Press in 2009, retired Navy Commander David P. Smith writes:
Mister Roberts is more than an introduction to an enticingly different world; it is a study in leadership, a series of case studies in what to do and what not to do when entrusted with the authority and awesome responsibility of rank. It serves as an inspiration, warning, and challenge, and is made real by the intrusion of human frailties and palatable by the embellishment of humor.
Robert Longbottom, who directed a 2005 revival of the play at Washington’s Kennedy Center, made a similar point. “The most important thing about being a leader is to create more leaders,” he told The New York Times, “and that’s what I think Roberts does without ever negotiating it with himself or analyzing it.”
For Heggen, the overnight-sensation author, the sudden and immense success of Mister Roberts did not produce happiness or further best-sellers. Despite his new-found wealth, swarms of admiring fans, and the doting of dozens of beautiful women, he descended into despair, dogged by writer’s block that prevented him from producing another single typewritten page.
On 19 May 1949, Heggen was found dead in his bathtub; the official cause of death was asphyxiation by drowning. The police report noted that Heggen had ingested 44 of 50 prescription sleeping pills from the bottle on his bed stand, and his death was deemed a probable suicide.
The Roots of Literature’s Lieutenant
The underlying motif of Mister Roberts is the ongoing conflict between the officers and crew of the Reluctant with Captain Morton, whom Heggen describes as “stupid, incompetent, petty, vicious, treacherous.” Between this tyrant and those bound to him by sea duty, “The warfare is declared and continual.”
Mired in this contentious state, the men of the Reluctant look to Lieutenant Roberts, the cargo officer, for leadership.
Heggen describes Roberts as “a hero . . . a young man of sensitivity, perceptiveness, and idealism.” He is a natural leader who
was rather quiet, and his voice was soft and flat, but there was something in it that made people strain to listen. When he was angry he was very formidable, for without raising his voice he could achieve a savage lashing sarcasm. He had been a medical student on the outside; he loathed the Captain; and all the circumstances of his present station were an agony to him. The crew worshipped him.
Heggen named his Doug Roberts character after two college friends whom he particularly admired: Doug Whipple and Charles “Chuck” Roberts. Roberts served as editor of the Daily Minnesotan, the University of Minnesota student newspaper, where Heggen worked under him as an assistant editor.
According to John Leggett, who wrote a dual biography of Heggen and fellow writer Ross Lockridge (Tom and Ross: Two American Tragedies), Roberts had a heavy hand w ith a bottle of liquor, which he kept in his desk drawer, and he and Heggen had numerous late-night talks about the many interests they had in common, writing and authors among them.
Following Heggen’s graduation, Roberts helped get both of them admitted to Naval Officers Candidate School at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and the two spent many an evening together in local watering holes.
‘A Nice Name . . . So I Appropriated It’
Heggen admired his friend’s steadiness, irreverent sense of humor, and natural leadership qualities, and after the war he wrote Chuck to advise him that “the title of my book, out in July, I guess is, ‘Mister Roberts’ and the hero is a Navy lieutenant of that name. ‘Roberts’ has always seemed to me a nice name and so I appropriated it. The hero is quite a nice guy, I think and not at all libelous to anyone named Roberts.” My cousin later told me that in a conversation with Heggen, the author told him that the character of the fictional Mister Roberts was based, in part, on him.
Following World War II duty as gunnery officer on board the escort carrier USS Bogue (CVE-9), my cousin went on to a distinguished career in journalism. He worked for a number of Chicago newspapers, including the Chicago Daily News, where he got a tip about a burgeoning scandal at the Chicago Downs racetrack. Following the lead he discovered that 13 members of the Illinois Legislature had been involved in insider stock trading with the racetrack association and had made a financial killing on the deal. Chuck’s scoop became a local, and then national, sensation, earning him an article in Time magazine.
This success in turn brought Chuck to the attention of Newsweek magazine, which hired him as Chicago bureau chief in 1951. In 1952 he covered the presidential campaign of Governor Adlai Stevenson, and later that year he was promoted to White House correspondent, going on to cover the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.
Chuck was in Dallas on 22 November 1963 when President Kennedy was shot. The first reporter to reach Parkland Hospital, he wrote of the unforgettable sight of Jackie Kennedy, her suit stained with blood, sitting motionless and in shock outside the operating-room door.
Chuck was one of three reporters to witness Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office on board Air Force One and was one of two to fly back to Washington on the plane. Chuck’s calm demeanor and eye for detail stood him in good stead in the maelstrom of Dallas, and his Newsweek coverage of the assassination and its aftermath was riveting.
He later expanded on that with a carefully researched book, The Truth About the Assassination, that debunked the many conspiracy stories that were circulating. Chuck conducted the first interview with Lyndon Johnson after he took the presidential oath and he was afforded extensive access to Johnson and his staff in the White House. His multiple interviews with them resulted in another book, LBJ’s Inner Circle.
His relations with the president were extremely cordial until he wrote a piece on Johnson for Newsweek in which he coined the soon-ubiquitous term “credibility gap.” This angered the president and limited access to him.
Chuck left Newsweek in 1972 and died of cancer on 15 January 1992. I had the honor of presiding at his memorial celebration at the National Press Club, during which I mentioned that Chuck and Mister Roberts as much as anything had impelled me, on a whim, to enroll in the Navy ROTC program at Miami University in 1964.
A New ‘Mister Roberts’ Serves
My commissioning as an ensign in 1968 resulted in two deployments to the western Pacific on the destroyer USS Henderson (DD-785) first as deck officer, then as antisubmarine-warfare officer and nuclear weapons officer. As a junior officer I was, of course, addressed by the crew as “Mister Roberts.” Everyone had seen the movie, and so naturally I was subjected to considerable ribbing about palm trees and suchlike.
My three years in the Navy proved to be exceptionally rewarding. In addition to plane guard duty in the Gulf of Tonkin and gunline duty offshore in South Vietnam, I made port calls on many exotic locales I never would have visited otherwise. Junior officers on a destroyer are given many challenging duties, and it was deeply satisfying to me to successfully discharge them. Most important, my naval service engendered many friendships, some of which continue to this day. For all of this, I am grateful to Mister Roberts.