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Even with the All Pikes Peak Reads spotlight shining brightly on the writings of Science Fiction master Robert A. Heinlein (author of Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, one of the books on the APPR list for this year’s space theme), few are aware that Heinlein and his wife Ginny called Colorado Springs home from the late-1940s until 1965 during which time he wrote some of his greatest works, including Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers.
In the article below by local educator Eva Syrovy, she details the location and history of the home, links to a Popular Mechanics article about the house from 1952, and outlines some of the many subtle ways (never overt) that Heinlein incorporated Colorado Springs culture into his novels.
If, after reading this article, you want to know even more about Heinlein, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, and his life in Colorado Springs, there will be a lecture by David Silver, President of the Heinlein Society tomorrow night in Gaylord Hall on the main floor of the Worner Center on the Colorado College campus. Enjoy!
by Eva Syrovy
Before Modesitt and Jordan, Moon and LeGuinn, Anderson and Card, Robert Anson Heinlein was the grand master of science fiction. And he lived right here in Colorado Springs.
I don’t remember which friend introduced me to Heinlein’s writing, but I have been its fan at least since high school. His writing, simple and predictable in philosophy but vital and adventurous in plot, kept me sane through many a college finals week. Not that I agreed with everything he had to say, even then. Later, as I grew beliefs and principles, I began to realize how far removed his writing is from my own politics. As life went on, I met a whole series of men in all kinds of places, from psychology grad school to oil field, who quoted the sayings of one of his best-known heroes, Lazarus Long, the way Southern Baptists quote the Bible. Lazarus is an interesting character in one of Heinlein’s later books, Time Enough For Love. Amiably profligate and a thousand years old, he travels the galaxy in his yacht, seeding the star systems with his descendants and doling out pearls of wisdom. Even I resort to his common-sense, versatile sayings sometimes. “Live life fully; moderation is for monks!” — indeed.
Robert and Ginny, his beloved third wife, moved to our fair city sometime in the late 1940’s, probably in 1948, after their marriage in October of that year. This was not Heinlein’s first visit to the area. In 1923, as a high school student, he climbed Pikes Peak, one would imagine using Fred Barr’s new and eponymous trail. Decades later, he used our backyard mountain as a runway for imaginary spaceship launches. Heinlein also spent time at Denver’s Fitzsimmons hospital in the thirties, recovering from tuberculosis brought on, probably, by repeated bouts of seasickness. Having recovered, Henlein next attempted a career in politics in California. He worked with Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement, and ran, on the Democratic ticket, for a congressional seat in an election, which he badly lost. His candidacy was probably undermined by the old-time establishment Dems, who regarded the EPIC people as unwelcome interlopers. Robert Heinlein began his writing career by selling his first story, “Lifeline” in 1939, but during WWII devoted his skills to the war effort; so his writing career did not really get started until 1945. By 1954, the Gazette quoted Time Magazine as naming him one of the two top science fiction writers of the time.
The couple’s move to the Springs was motivated by their logical conclusion that the city was far enough from both coasts and their centers of population to be relatively safe in the case of a nuclear attack, and that Cheyenne Mountain would provide a shelter from an attack on Camp Carson. Finally, an advantage to being to boondocks! And boondocks this was — a 1955 article exclaims that the population of Colorado Springs is up to 53,000. The Heinleins bought a lot almost twice the size of the properties around it on Mesa drive in the Broadmoor, and got to choose their house number: 1776. Robert was the architect for the house they began building in 1950. The resulting structure was featured in a “house of the future” article in Popular Mechanics in 1952, reproduced in full on the web.
For the home of a man who even then was at the top of the pile for science-fiction writers, the house was quite small — 1150 square feet. It also had privacy that, even by today’s standards, would probably be the envy of movie stars. Although there were windows, they were placed to make it very difficult to see the inside of the home, at least in the days before helicopters became ubiquitous. The house was built of cinder blocks, and painted dark green. Even the Gazette, in its otherwise very flattering article, refers to it as “squatty”. Its inside was also rather spare — the Heinleins clearly did not go in for doodads, or in fact any sort of art. In an early letter Robert comments that he would like to write a book similar to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, only about art — this may be a key to why no art hung in his own house. The record collection, on the other hand, was extensive, and was stored in overhead bins, and speakers were distributed throughout the house. Music, especially classical, was clearly very important to Robert — in many of his books, turns in plot are introduced with notated passages. Garbage went directly out of the house by way of a flapped chute between the kitchen and the outdoor trash bin. The dining table coasted, on wheels, from kitchen through a space in the wall to dining room, allowing full loading before a dinner party and full unloading after, in the kitchen. The cat had a “cateteria” of its own, which dispensed chow automatically and was, of course, built in. The Heinleins always had cats.
In many ways, the house resembled a spaceship plunked down on the side of Cheyenne Mountain. Robert proudly commented that none of the windows opened and, that as far as he knew, the house was the only fully air-conditioned residence on the Front Range. The couple loved to entertain, sometimes for weeks, and were said to keep spare underwear and pajamas for guests who were stuck. Also with guests in mind, the built-in sofas folded out to double beds. According to the pictures and text of the Popular Mechanics article, just about everything was, in fact, built-in to the Mesa Drive house. Ginny allowed as to how this, combined with the total lack or ornamentation, made cleaning a breeze.
The Heinleins’ house was notable on the outside as well as the inside. The couple constructed a rock pond with a fountain, and called it the Stonehenge Project. In a typically witty letter, Robert describes them as being a “two wheelbarrow family”, their landscaping activities having outgrown the use of just one wheelbarrow at a time. In a passage from another letter, he discusses the process of moving very large rocks, and one is reminded of the tale he told of the colonists winching their way across a mountain pass on the planet New Beginnings, in the novel Time Enough for Love.
Virginia “Ginny” Heinlein deserved an easy-to-clean house. She was clearly the model for many of her husband’s heroines. Bright, beautiful, multilingual (she spoke six languages), athletic (a competitive figure skater in college, she taught Robert to partner her), she devoted her skills to helping Robert with his career from the time of their marriage on. She acquired a degree in chemistry before WWII, and she and Robert met while they were both doing war research in Philadelphia, she a WAVE lieutenant, and he a US Navy officer. When they met, during the war, Robert was married, to his second wife Leslyn, but his marriage was deteriorating badly. It may be worth noting that Leslyn’s politics seem downright socialist, whereas Ginny was far more conservative. In October 1948, Robert and Ginny were married, and the author was writing at least a book a year, with short stories in between. Ginny took over his files and his correspondence. She devised an effective “opus” system that allowed the author to dip on and out of some books for years. Robert maintained that Ginny was “smarter and better” than he was, and some of his books — Stranger in a Strange Land for example — were based initially on ideas contributed by his wife. Robert could probably not have asked for a mate better suited to his needs. Their mutual regard for each other —evident in the writing of both— was enviable and enriched both their lives.
The Heinlens lived in Colorado Springs for 15 years, from 1950 to 1965. They must have seen the city through some tremendous changes. Camp Carson began its transformation to Fort Carson at the same time as they began to build, and letters reflect the frustration the couple felt as prices of building supplies rocketed just as they began to need them.They built and stocked a bomb shelter in 1961 when it became clear that, far from the enclave of safety they had anticipated at mid-century, the Springs was a prime target for the nuke-armed Soviet bear. Heinlein’s book Farnham’s Freehold, which was published in 1963, is based, one would assume, on the shelter.
Little in Heinlein’s written output refers to the Springs specifically. This may be caused by his famous reticence to discuss his private life, which intensified during his time in Colorado, as he and Ginny battled an ever-increasing volume of fan mail and uninvited visitors. He does mention that it is almost impossible for him to get work done between June and September as friends and relatives inundated his house in search of the local resorts.
In 1952, Heinlein reluctantly agreed to participate in Edward Murrow’s “This I Believe”. His essay declares his belief in his “neighbors.” He mentions a “Father Mike” who lived down the street, and must have been a pretty great guy, because Robert, who ranted repeatedly and almost excessively against what he called “shamans”, says in his essay that he would go to Father Mike if he were in trouble.
During the time they lived in the Springs, the Heinleins were written up by the Gazette several times; each article vertiably gushed. In one, their house is described; there are two articles about their travels; and one extensively quotes Robert explaining why the US should maintain its nuclear weapon strength. On April 5, 1958, there was a full-page ad in the Gazette, taken out by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, urging the US to unilaterally suspend nuclear testing. Bob and Ginny decided to counter this with an ad of their own (and a novel—Heinlein’s reaction to the NCSNP is said to have been the inspiration for the novel Starship Troopers), complete with a cut-out letter people could sign, and that could be delivered to the congressional delegation. The ad emphasized that the Free World required the best nuclear weapons because the armies of the eastern dictatorships, Russia and China, were so much more numerous than those of the west. In the article covering his rationale for the ad, Robert said that the only way to prevent nuclear war was to make it too dangerous for the pragmatists in communist countries. Of course, none of the articles mentions Heinlein’s socialist adventure in the 1930s. Most likely, he conveniently failed to mention it, and in those years of McCarthyism, it’s hardly surprising; it is in fact surprising that Heinlein avoided testifying before HUAC himself. Another appearance in the Gazette is in a picture with the caption: “Heinlein and Ginny gave a party to welcome a new member of the Air Force Academy faculty to the Springs.” The wife of the new military leader was herself rather well-known, as a mezzo-soprano opera singer. The picture of the four of them is a great example of two of the local 50’s power couples.
The Heinleins traveled a lot during the years they made Colorado their residence. They went on two multinational tours, both of which were also documented by the Gazette. The first of these was a sightseeing trip to the southern hemisphere; on the second one, they made a point of visiting the Soviet Union. Ginny spoke Russian, and this gave them an access to the people that was, in those days, unprecedented. Neither had any particular affinity for socialism at that time. And when they came back, they inveighed against vociferously. Robert commented in his interview on the contrast between the palatial offices of government officers and their Intourist guide, who wanted only his own bathroom; on the agricultural practices that seemed to produce only dustbowls; on the public and apparently unfettered drunkenness; and that life for the common Soviet man, far from being a socialist paradise, was, in his estimation, far more expensive than for his counterpart in the USA. It is not surprising that, having made these observations, they focused a great deal of their intellectual efforts on countering communist ideology.
The Pioneers Museum, unfortunately, has almost nothing regarding Heinlein in their collection. Apparently the Heinleins took all their papers with them to California. Matt Mayberry, the director of the museum, did, however, remember that there was a diary that mentioned the author. I read this during one of the more pleasant afternoons of my life, in the special collections room of the Museum.
Landell Bartlett, the diarist, was an aspiring science fiction writer himself, and had apparently published a novel titled Vanguard of Venus that was made into a radio play. His friend Stan Mullen was somewhat more successful, publishing several pieces and The Gazette wrote an article when his novel, Kinsmen of the Dragon was published. Stan was a close enough friend of Bob and Ginny’s that he house-sat for them during their international tours, and hosted social ocassions there as well. He also threw a Halloween party at his house at which the guests were supposed to come constumed as scary Hawaiians. The Heinleins must have neglected to read the invitation closely because Bob came as a zombie and Ginny as a vampire. There is also record of Heinlein addressing the Quill club, a local writer’s group, early in his residence in the Springs, but no record of this address exists locally.
Colorado Springs Business Journal columnist John Hazlehurst, a child of the old North End, vaguely recalls an introduction to the author (who, at the time, was spending some of his time writing adventure sci-fi tales aimed at boys). Hazlehurst also notes that one of Heinlein’s unpleasant characters shares his last name, which could mean that there were some words between Robert and Hazlehurst’s father, or perhaps just that the author found the name interesting. Heinlein utilized literary devices to insult people he was mad at in other books, so the former conclusion would make sense. There is also a record of a ham radio conversation between Robert and John Campbell , the editor of Astounding science fiction magazine, from a house “on the North Side” (North End?) of Colorado Springs.
By 1965, the Heinleins had outgrown the house at 1776 Mesa. At the same time, Ginny suffered from a series of health complaints that they attributed to altitude. They decided to move Santa Cruz, California, where they built another, larger house, at Bonny Doon. Robert died in 1988, Ginny in 2003. Little of the original house remains on Mesa Avenue but the famous bomb shelter. Certainly, the current residence looks nothing like the “squatty” house in which the Heinleins lived, and the rock pools on which they worked so hard are little more than green concrete shells.
Much of the infromation in this article comes from a book Ginny edited, called Grumbles from the Grave, a collection of correspondence between Robert, Blasingame, and some others. Other sources include the Gazette, Heinlein’s own books, the RAH website, and a surprisigly concise, yet complete on-line biography, written by Bill Patterson in 1999, and reviewed by Virginia Heinlein herself. And, of course, Landell Bartlett’s diary..
During his time in the Springs, Robert A. Heinlein wrote 25 novels and some of his most famous stories including: “The Green Hills Of Earth”, Double Star, The Door Into Summer, Citizen Of The Galaxy, Have Spacesuit-Will Travel, Starship Troopers, “The Menace From Earth”, The Unpleasant Profession Of Jonathan Hoag, Stranger In A Strange Land, Podkayne Of Mars, The Past Through Tomorrow, Farnham’s Freehold.
Heinlein’s books have been a guilty pleasure for me over the years – something I have loved to read but suspected I should despise as oversimplified and unrealistic. My ambivalence is not unique – RAH did not fit into anyone’s neat category. In which ideological box , after all, do you put a man, who is said to have put the idea of the church of scientology into L. Ron Hubbard’s head by noting that “in America, if you call something a religion, you can get away with anything”, who casually advocated a lethal form of Social Darwinism, who seemed to support free love in most of his later books but was clearly passionately and exclusively devoted to his wife, who wrote one of the most cogent defenses of the right to bear arms I have ever read, but was not a hunter, though he “kept camp” for friends who did indulge in the practice? And, most interestingly, a man who in his youth ran for a congressional seat as a member of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement, and in 1964 helped his wife start up the local office of the “Gold for Goldwater” campaign? Was he just someone who ebbed and flowed with the times, did he have a private side that was so distinct from his public self as to be unrecognizable? Or is he simply a tale-teller of science fiction whose assertions are over-interpreted as philosophy? I still do not know. Considering these divergent aspects of the man, it is not particularly surprising that his history here in the Springs is not widely known. We — I was going to say Americans, but I think it applies to human beings — like our icons to be simple and easy to understand. We do not like contradictions and complexities in their beliefs. And considering the life of Robert Anson Heinlein, you fairly swim in complexity and contradiction when you read him.