Joseph Heller's Long Forgotten Musical Comedy

Before Catch-22 became a huge success, Joseph Heller wrote the play that he believed would make his fortune. Fifty years later, the lewd production has almost entirely been written out of his career.

November 6, 2014

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium...

A letter from producer Diana Krasny to Joseph Heller from Yale's Rare Books collection (photo by Edmund Richardson)

In July 1962, Joseph Heller was open to any offers that came his way. Catch-22 was showing few signs of success: published nine months earlier, it was selling slowly. Heller and his family had left Manhattan behind to spend the summer on Fire Island. He was restless, worried about money, and eating enough for three. Late at night, he would sit outside on the deck of his house, waiting for something to happen.

One day, something did, a thick envelope arrived with a pitch inside: would he be interested in writing the script for a new musical, Howe & Hummel? His collaborator would be a prominent composer, Harold Rome, whose latest show featured Barbra Streisand’s Broadway debut. The subject was two 19th century lawyers, William Howe and Abraham Hummel, and the scams they ran in New York. With his novel seeming more of a misfire than a blockbuster, Heller jumped at the chance.

The plot of the musical didn’t stray too far from history: the real Howe and Hummel were two of America’s most crooked and celebrated lawyers. From the 1860s until the end of the nineteenth century, New York belonged to them. They were the quintessential odd-couple: Howe was gigantic, Hummel not even five foot tall; Howe’s hair was big, Hummel was bald; Howe kept an onion-soaked handkerchief in his pocket so he could cry on cue (he cried a lot), Hummel blackmailed millionaires and their wayward sons. Howe dropped to his knees to plead with a jury, while Hummel sat in the shadows smiling. They extorted, bribed, turned perjury into an art form, and won cases in spectacular style.

Their office was opposite New York’s old Tombs prison, a fetid columned edifice modelled on an Egyptian mausoleum. Inside the office, gangsters, pick-pockets, murderers, and tycoons lined up. Howe and Hummel were lawyers to some of the most remarkable men and women of the 1800s. The one and only P. T. Barnum. The miraculous Victoria Woodhull: pioneering editor, Wall Street broker and the first woman to run for President of the United States. The perfidious and titanic spiritualist, Madame Diss Debar, “of many aliases,” as the newspapers put it, with “a number of husbands, and several prison terms.” (Howe and Hummel turned prosecutors against her after one of her dupes appealed to them for help.) Then there was the belly-dancer Little Egypt, who danced the hoochie-coochie and was arrested for it. After Howe and Hummel secured her acquittal, she was hired by an admiring Oscar Hammerstein.

Howe was gigantic, Hummel not even five foot tall; Howe’s hair was big, Hummel was bald; Howe kept an onion-soaked handkerchief in his pocket so he could cry on cue (he cried a lot), Hummel blackmailed millionaires and their wayward sons.

For Heller, this was a world of rare delight and promise. Over the next few months, letters and ideas flew back and forth between him and Rome, and his script for Howe & Hummel took shape. “My spirits are soaring with confidence,” he wrote to their producer, Diana Krasny in March 1963. “It seems, to my taste, at least, as funny a script as I have ever read. I don’t think there is a single scene that does not have at least something valuable in the way of comedy and irony, and there is not one love story, but three! (Don’t make me list them.)” Howe & Hummel was going to be “monstrously successful” as far as Heller was concerned: this was the project that would make his fortune.

“I just hope,” he wrote, “I haven’t jinxed the damned thing with this letter.”

Howe & Hummel has never been performed. It hasn’t even been published. In the 50 years since Heller completed it, it’s never had so much as a public reading. Only two copies of the typescript survive, while more than 10 million copies of Catch-22 have been sold.

In his script, Heller took the real Howe and Hummel, and made them more conniving and wondrous still. He gave them a law-office like no other:

In the private office of Howe and Hummel, a man with a red fez paces between several nearly-naked belly dancers who are tuning up their arms, legs, and various parts of their bodies. A man in a knotted white turban practices scales on an oriental flute. Clerks, toughs, and floozies walk through, and a prizefighter trains at the punching bag.

Their clients are still the lowlifes of old New York, but Heller’s Howe and Hummel are now their puppeteers, dispatching burglars and blondes to every corner of the metropolis, arranging bank-robberies like dinner-dates.

Well, it’s about a bank robbery.

(makes notes efficiently)
Is this a bank you have robbed, or one you’re planning to rob? It makes a difference, you know. If you’ve robbed a bank and been caught, Mr. Howe is the one to see. If it’s a bank you’re planning to rob, you’d better consult with Mr. Hummel.

The business of these lawyers is not strictly the law, but bafflement, bribery and bombast. As the real Howe was fond of remarking: “There are two kinds of lawyers. Those who know the law, and those who know the judge.”

Where’s my aged mother?

I have four aged mothers right here.

Send them all inside to begin memorizing testimony. And before the week is over, I’ll need forty-two more!

In Howe & Hummel, the firm is retained by Anthony Ambrose Mudge of the American Ice Company. He wants “a monopoly on every cake of ice sold in this country.” He also wants a divorce from his sassy and limpet-like wife, which is proving harder to acquire than his ice-monopoly. Howe and Hummel find a way. Since Mrs. Mudge had a previous husband, Charlie Block—whom she divorced before meeting Mr. Mudge—the duo track him down and persuade him to swear that he never received the divorce papers. Mrs. Mudge is therefore still Mrs. Block, and her second marriage never technically happened.

You know, when I swear that, I’ll be telling a lie.

We pay a little less for the truth.

The real Howe and Hummel specialized in hopeless cases: when Ella Nelson shot her lover four times at point-blank range, she called them in, and walked free. (Howe explained that her finger accidentally slipped on the trigger—four times.) Hummel once had 240 of the 300 prisoners held on Blackwell’s Island released on a technicality, simultaneously. The firm was kept on retainer by almost every thug, politician, and axe-murderer in New York. When 74 brothels were raided, and 74 madams were arrested, all 74 were represented by Howe and Hummel.

Back in Heller’s Howe & Hummel, the lawyers obtain Mr. Mudge’s divorce over the protests of the District Attorney, Conklin, and promptly pack Charlie Block off to Guatemala. Conklin realizes that the lawyers will set free every criminal he catches. He finally boils over:

I’ll get you two for this if I have to frame you for murder.

Much to everyone’s surprise, that is exactly what he does next. With Block untraceable, Conklin picks a corpse out of the morgue, names it Charlie Block, and frames Hummel for the crime. Half the police department—all of whom were duped by the two lawyers at some point—volunteer to give false testimony.

In Catch-22, Heller uses language like a conman. He bends reality until it is impossible to see where the distortions begin or end. Howe and Hummel, too, make the world buckle to their words, and transform it as they please. With Hummel facing the electric chair, Howe goes to court to prove that Block never existed in the first place. After all, Hummel can hardly be convicted of murdering a man who never existed.

I have produced many witnesses to prove that Charlie Block was murdered.

But have you produced even one, sir, to prove he had ever been born?
(as the courtroom gasps)
And that, your honor, is the basis of my defense. As heaven is my witness, I tell you all there never was such a man named Charley Horse!

Charlie Block!


Block, sir!

(maintaining the keenly effective softness of tone)
Boxer? Is that what you call your invention?

I call my invention Block! Your hon—

He admits it’s an invention!

To be the master of language is to be the master of reality: this is the heartbeat of both Catch-22 and Howe and Hummel. Yossarian, the protagonist of Catch-22, is desperate to avoid being sent back into combat. He must either declare himself sane (in which case he will be fit for duty), or declare himself insane (in which case he will be doing what any sane man would do in his situation, and will therefore be fit for duty). The power of words to reshape the world renders him helpless and keeps Howe and Hummel in business. Not only could they have found a way out of Catch-22, they probably would have invented it.

The lawyers’ world is just as askew as Yossarian’s. Without Howe and Hummel on your side, you don’t have a chance in Heller’s New York. Alderman John Dooley arrives too late to accept a bribe for a city contract and thereby gains a reputation for honesty. He spends most of the musical trying to shake off his title of “Honest John.”

You see what it is, John Dooley? Nobody trusts an honest man.

Hey, fellas, believe me. I’m not honest. I’m just like the rest of you.

Listen to Honest John—trying to make a good impression.

A toast to John Dooley—he’s as honest as the day is long.

The rat!

“Society,” as Hummel puts it, “has enough useful members. What society needs is more drunken bums.” Misreading defines Heller’s script; honesty has no place in it. Even a bank robber, trying to confess, cannot find the words that will allow him to be understood:

Who tipped you off about that payroll?

Howe and Hummel.

Who described that messenger to you?

Howe and Hummel.

Who told you how to get there?

Howe and Hummel.

It’s no use. He just keeps asking for his lawyers.

Howe and Hummel are the only heroes fit for Heller’s New York: a city where meaning is so twisted that love songs become confidence tricks. The show-stopping romantic scene? Two crooks compete for one girl by lying:

Through baby days I kept thin
Drinking left over gin
From a nipple no one sterilized!

From the gold crib in my room
I watched mum and her groom
Play games that still leave me surprised! […]

At five I hung around bars
Smoking spittoon cigars,
Singing songs that were slightly obscene.

At six a large English nanny
Would paddle my fanny,
While rendering "God save our Queen". […]

Oh life’s been no fun at all,
Nothing nice to recall,
No moments to look backward to.

For my troubles and woe
What have I got to show?
The least that the fates ought to do
Is to give me you, my darling,
Make one stinking dream come true.
After all I’ve been through
The least they could do—
Is give me you!

(Penny grows increasingly impatient by the tearful, unflattering nature of the appeal each makes to her and finally walks off. Watson and Brubaker move each other with their respective tales of hard luck and end up in a mood of mutual commiseration.)

Howe and Hummel, supremely adapted to New York City, would like nothing more than a quiet retirement far away from it. But, as Howe puts it, “a man has to steal an awful lot of money before he can afford to live honestly.” In the meantime, they are the only ones who can untangle New York’s misdirections. Without them, honest and dishonest alike are lost. Howe bids his clients a tender farewell: “May there always be someone to take care of you all.”

In June 1963, production contracts were signed. The script was almost ready. It was monstrous and hilarious, a cockeyed thing of beauty.

Meanwhile, sales of Catch-22 were exploding. Suddenly, Heller’s name was everywhere. He waltzed through Manhattan, all eyes on him. Alice Denham, a Playboy model and collector of literary bad boys (she rated Heller somewhere between the weepy Nelson Algren and the insatiable Philip Roth) recalled him exclaiming in triumph, “I’m hot, hot! Greenbacks, at last!”

But Heller was growing unhappy with his limited control over Howe & Hummel, and Rome and Krasny did little to win him over. The young, grateful writer they had hired was suddenly a bigger star than either of them. Rome, with a string of hits to his name, did not like being upstaged. Krasny picked at Heller’s script, nervous of its lewd delight: the half-naked women who swarmed Howe's office with “a dance that is vulgarly lascivious,” the judges and aldermen haggling over bribes. “I am terrified,” she wrote to Rome, “that [Howe and Hummel] are about to become caricatures.”

In subsequent years, Heller would rewrite reality as artfully as Howe and Hummel, and erase Howe & Hummel from his life. His autobiography spares not a word for the project he devoted so many months to. Scholars and biographers have followed his cues.

Rome planned to spend the summer of 1963 fine-tuning the show with Heller. But Heller and his family abruptly decamped to Beverley Hills. He was being paid a small fortune to work on the screenplay for Sex and the Single Girl.The Hellers were gleeful. “Everything,” his daughter Erica recalled in her memoirs, “from a car and driver to toys, meals, clothing, tennis lessons, even my father’s mint-flavored, splintery Stim-U-Dents was going to be free.” Rome, left to sweat in New York, was furious.

A few months later, with Sex and the Single Girl going into production, over two million copies of Catch-22 had been sold, and Heller was well on his way to becoming a culture-hero. He knew the story of himself in a way he had not in July 1962. He was a novelist. He was the novelist. Swiftly and politely, he severed ties with the production. “Joe [is] not continuing,” Krasny wrote to Rome, “because of a novel he wants to write.”

Without him, the wind was sucked out of Howe & Hummel’s sails. Rome stubbornly shopped it around the offices of every major New York producer, but none took it up. Harold Prince, the King of Broadway, wrote “I cannot muster up much enthusiasm.” Eventually, Heller’s script and Rome’s score were packed into heavy cardboard boxes, and filed away in the archives with the rest of Rome’s papers. There they have remained.

In subsequent years, Heller would rewrite reality as artfully as Howe and Hummel, and erase Howe & Hummel from his life. His autobiography spares not a word for the project he devoted so many months to. Scholars and biographers have followed his cues. The script as Heller left it oscillates between stiletto-sharp drama and a draft’s uncertainty, yet its strengths drown out its weaknesses. Howe & Hummel could have been the triumph that Heller dreamed of. But the closest he ever came to acknowledging its existence was when he remarked to George Plimpton that once, “I started a musical comedy.”

By 1902, the firm of Howe and Hummel had dominated New York for almost half a century. That year, though, Howe died of a heart attack, and not long afterwards Hummel was caught suborning perjury. He was sentenced to a year in prison. For the firm, it was the end. “Abraham Hummel put aside his snug-fitting, cutaway coat and dark, striped trousers, his kid gloves, and his spring overcoat, pulled off his tiny, high-heeled shoes without assistance, removed his silk underwear, and delivered himself into the hands of a keeper of the Blackwell's Island Penitentiary,” wrote The New York Times on May 20th, 1907. Following his release, Hummel left New York for London, and died there in 1926. He kept no records.

Back on Fire Island in the summer of 1962, this is now the story of Joseph Heller, waiting for something to happen. “I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid.’” Something happens in this story too, but an envelope from California does not arrive with a job inside. Instead, Heller finds the opening words for his second novel, Something Happened.

Heller got the last word. When an interview asked why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, Heller slammed down his full stop: “Who has?”

Howe and Hummel would have been proud.

Manuscript and letters accessed at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn't get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He's currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.