NYT’s ‘M*A*S*H’ Retrospective Lacks 20/20 Heinz Sight

Page One of yesterday’s Arts section in the New York Times featured James Poniewozik’s big takeout on the 5oth anniversary of the seminal television dramedy, “M*A*S*H.”

Five decades ago, “M*A*S*H” anticipated today’s TV dramedies, showing that a great comedy could be more than just funny.

The pilot episode of “M*A*S*H,” which aired on Sept. 17, 1972, on CBS, lets you know immediately where and when you are. Sort of. “KOREA 1950,” the opening titles read. “A HUNDRED YEARS AGO.”

The Korean War could indeed seem a century away from 1972, separated by a gulf of cultural change and social upheaval. But as a subject, it was also entirely current, given that America was then fighting another bloody war, in Vietnam. The covert operation “M*A*S*H” pulled off was to deliver a timely satire camouflaged as a period comedy.

The year before, CBS had premiered Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” a battlefield dispatch from an American living room. But “M*A*S*H” was another level of escalation, sending up the lunacy of war even as Walter Cronkite was still reading the news about it. The caption acknowledged the risk by winking at it: Who, us, making topical commentary?

Poniewozik’s piece is a smart, in-depth lookback at a TV classic – with one glaring exception.

Here’s Poniewozik’s description of the genealogy of “M*A*S*H.”

[By] the early 1970s, even die-hard anticommunists saw Vietnam as a lost cause. Pop culture was changing, too, as evidenced by the success of “All in the Family” and of Robert Altman’s 1970 film “M*A*S*H,” based on a novel by Richard Hooker (the pseudonym of H. Richard Hornberger).

Poniewozik – and the Times 1997 obituary of Hornberger – both fail to mention that the novel was co-authored by the great W.C. Heinz, who was a distinguished World War II correspondent and became one of the finest American sportswriters of the 20th century.

For those of you keeping score at home, here’s how Heinz described his contribution to the novel in a 2004 interview with Nathan Ward for American Heritage (via MASH4077TV).

What happened was that a doctor named J. Maxwell Chamberlain helped me write my novel The Surgeon and, previous to that, a Life cover piece about a lung operation. Another doctor, H. Richard Hornberger, had studied under Chamberlain and sent him a letter saying, “That clown who wrote your book might be interested that I have a book I put together from my experiences in Korea.” Betty [Heinz’s wife] read it and enjoyed it, which let me know that it was funny – within the realm of decency, once I cleaned it up, since it was full of those jokes that doctors like to make about the body. So that’s the way we got together. Then it took quite a while, maybe a year, back and forth. I eventually tied everything together. As much as it got tied together; there isn’t a hell of a story line in MASH, just a succession of operations and techniques and humor. The only thing that holds it together is the characters and the familiarity that the reader comes to have with them.

RJ at MASH4077TV writes that “while not a co-author per se Heinz was responsible for threading together Hornberger’s storylines into a somewhat coherent narrative.” I dunno, pretty much sounds like a co-author to me.

Regardless, I’ve long kept a 20/20 Heinz Sight watch, mostly because he so rarely gets his due either as a novelist (Pete Hamill described The Professional as “one of the five best sports novels ever written”) or as a sportswriter (see What a Time It Was for some of his best work).

Heinz did get his due, however, in Jeff MacGregor’s 2008 Sports Illustrated obituary. Here’s part of it.

W.C. Heinz may have been the best pure sportswriter who ever lived. I had the privilege of writing a long profile of Bill for this magazine in September 2000. (It’s online at SI.com/heinz.) After which we became and remained friends. As precise as he was generous, he mentored me—as he did every younger writer who came to him—and was a stern advocate for simplicity and understatement. For an authentic, straightforward voice. He wanted all of us who did this work to bear those truths forward. So for what I’m about to write, he’d scold me. Too big, he’d say. Don’t go overboard.

W.C. Heinz was the Prometheus of modern American sportswriting. There is sportswriting before Heinz, and there is sportswriting after Heinz. He is the bridge between the ancients and the Jet Age. He gets us from Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen to Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson. The light he brought to us all, to those of us who read and write about sports, was the twofold fire of realism and literary merit.

Back then, I tried as well to give Heinz his due.

MacGregor also wrote this in his Heinz obit:”His 1949 column from the New York Sun, ‘Death of a Racehorse,’ is the Gettysburg Address of sportswriting.  A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it . . .”

That column is here, and it’s every bit as fabulous as MacGregor says. Then again, W.C. Heinz wouldn’t want me to go overboard.

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