Birth, childhood, and early education
Heinlein, born on July 7, 1907 to Rex Ivar Heinlein (an accountant) and Bam Lyle Heinlein, in Butler, Missouri, was the third of seven children. He was a 6th-generation German-American: a family tradition had it that Heinleins fought in every American war starting with the War of Independence.
He spent his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri.
The outlook and values of this time and place (in his own words, "The Bible Belt") had a definite influence on his fiction, especially in his later works, as he drew heavily upon his childhood in establishing the setting and cultural atmosphere in works like Time Enough for Love and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. The 1910 appearance of Halley's Comet inspired the young child's life-long interest in astronomy.
When Heinlein graduated from Central High School in Kansas City in 1924 he aspired to a career as an officer in the US Navy. However, he was initially prevented from attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis because his older brother Rex was a student there, and regulations discouraged multiple family-members from attending the Academy simultaneously. He instead matriculated at Kansas City Community College and began vigorously petitioning Missouri Senator James A. Reed for an appointment to the Naval Academy. In part due to the influence of the Pendergast machine, the Naval Academy admitted him in June 1925.
Heinlein's experience in the Navy exerted a strong influence on his character and writing. In 1929, he graduated from the Naval Academy with the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Engineering, ranking fifth in his class academically but with a class standing of 20th of 243 due to disciplinary demerits. Shortly after graduation, he was commissioned as an ensign by the U. S. Navy. He advanced to lieutenant, junior grade while serving aboard the new aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931, where he worked in radio communications, then in its earlier phases, with the carrier's aircraft. The captain of this carrier was Ernest J. King, who served as the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet during World War II. Heinlein was frequently interviewed during his later years by military historians who asked him about Captain King and his service as the commander of the U.S. Navy's first modern aircraft carrier. Heinlein also served as gunnery officer aboard the destroyer USS Roper in 1933 and 1934, reaching the rank of lieutenant. His brother, Lawrence Heinlein, served in the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Missouri National Guard, reaching the rank of major general in the National Guard.
In 1929, Heinlein married Elinor Curry of Kansas City. However, their marriage only lasted about a year. His second marriage in 1932 to Leslyn MacDonald (1904–1981) lasted for 15 years. MacDonald was, according to the testimony of Heinlein's Navy friend, Rear Admiral Cal Laning, "astonishingly intelligent, widely read, and extremely liberal, though a registered Republican," while Isaac Asimov later recalled that Heinlein was, at the time, "a flaming liberal". (See section: Politics of Robert Heinlein.)
Virginia and Robert Heinlein in a 1952 Popular Mechanics
article, titled "A House to Make Life Easy". The Heinleins, both engineers, designed the house for themselves with many innovative features.
At the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard Heinlein met and befriended a chemical engineer named Virginia "Ginny" Gerstenfeld. After the war, her engagement having fallen through, she moved to UCLA for doctoral studies in chemistry and made contact again.
As his second wife's alcoholism gradually spun out of control, Heinlein moved out and the couple filed for divorce. Heinlein's friendship with Virginia turned into a relationship and on October 21, 1948 — shortly after the decree nisi came through — they married in the town of Raton, New Mexico, shortly after setting up housekeeping in Colorado. They remained married until Heinlein's death.
As Heinlein's increasing success as a writer resolved their initial financial woes, they had a house custom built with various innovative features, later described in an article in Popular Mechanics. In 1965, after various chronic health problems of Virginia's were traced back to altitude sickness, they moved to Santa Cruz, California, which is at sea level. They built a new residence in the adjacent village of Bonny Doon, California. Robert and Virginia designed and built their California house themselves, which is in a circular shape.
Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti
Ginny undoubtedly served as a model for many of his intelligent, fiercely independent female characters. She was a chemist and rocket test engineer, and held a higher rank in the Navy than Heinlein himself. She was also an accomplished college athlete, earning four letters. In 1953–1954, the Heinleins voyaged around the world (mostly via ocean liners and cargo liners, as Ginny detested flying), which Heinlein described in Tramp Royale, and which also provided background material for science fiction novels set aboard spaceships on long voyages, such as Podkayne of Mars, Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, the latter initially being set on a cruise much as detailed in Tramp Royale. Ginny acted as the first reader of his manuscripts. Isaac Asimov believed that Heinlein made a swing to the right politically at the same time he married Ginny.
In 1934, Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During a lengthy hospitalization, and inspired by his own experience while bed-ridden, he developed a design for a waterbed.
After his discharge, Heinlein attended a few weeks of graduate classes in mathematics and physics at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but he soon quit either because of his health or from a desire to enter politics.
Heinlein supported himself at several occupations, including real estate sales and silver mining, but for some years found money in short supply. Heinlein was active in Upton Sinclair's socialist End Poverty in California movement in the early 1930s. When Sinclair gained the Democratic nomination for Governor of California in 1934, Heinlein worked actively in the campaign. Heinlein himself ran for the California State Assembly in 1938, but was unsuccessful.
While not destitute after the campaign — he had a small disability pension from the Navy — Heinlein turned to writing to pay off his mortgage. His first published story, "Life-Line", was printed in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Originally written for a contest, he sold it to Astounding for significantly more than the contest's first-prize payoff. Another Future History story, "Misfit", followed in November. Some saw Heinlein's talent and stardom from his first story, and he was quickly acknowledged as a leader of the new movement toward "social" science fiction. In California he hosted the Mañana Literary Society, a 1940–41 series of informal gatherings of new authors. He was the guest of honor at Denvention, the 1941 Worldcon, held in Denver. During World War II, he did aeronautical engineering for the U.S. Navy, also recruiting Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Pennsylvania. While at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards, Asimov, Heinlein, and de Camp brainstormed unconventional approaches to kamikaze attacks, such as using sound to detect approaching planes.
As the war wound down in 1945, Heinlein began to re-evaluate his career. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the outbreak of the Cold War, galvanized him to write nonfiction on political topics. In addition, he wanted to break into better-paying markets. He published four influential short stories for The Saturday Evening Post magazine, leading off, in February 1947, with "The Green Hills of Earth". That made him the first science fiction writer to break out of the "pulp ghetto". In 1950, the movie Destination Moon — the documentary-like film for which he had written the story and scenario, co-written the script, and invented many of the effects — won an Academy Award for special effects. Also, he embarked on a series of juvenile novels for the Charles Scribner's Sons publishing company that went from 1947 through 1959, at the rate of one book each autumn, in time for Christmas presents to teenagers. He also wrote for Boys' Life in 1952.
Heinlein had used topical materials throughout his juvenile series beginning in 1947, but in 1958 he interrupted work on The Heretic (the working title of Stranger in a Strange Land) to write and publish a book exploring ideas of civic virtue, initially serialized as Starship Soldiers. In 1959, his novel (now entitled Starship Troopers) was considered by the editors and owners of Scribner's to be too controversial for one of its prestige lines, and it was rejected. Heinlein found another publisher (Putnam), feeling himself released from the constraints of writing novels for children. He had told an interviewer that he did not want to do stories that merely added to categories defined by other works. Rather he wanted to do his own work, stating that: "I want to do my own stuff, my own way". He would go on to write a series of challenging books that redrew the boundaries of science fiction, including Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
Later life and death
Beginning in 1970, Heinlein had a series of health crises, broken by strenuous periods of activity in his hobby of stonemasonry: in a private correspondence, he referred to that as his "usual and favorite occupation between books". The decade began with a life-threatening attack of peritonitis, recovery from which required more than two years, and treatment of which required multiple transfusions of Heinlein's rare blood type, A2 negative. As soon as he was well enough to write again, he began work on Time Enough for Love (1973), which introduced many of the themes found in his later fiction.
In the mid-1970s, Heinlein wrote two articles for the Britannica Compton Yearbook. He and Ginny crisscrossed the country helping to reorganize blood donation in the United States in an effort to assist the system which had saved his life. At science fiction conventions to receive his autograph, fans would be asked to co-sign with Heinlein a beautifully embellished pledge form he supplied stating that the recipient agrees that they will donate blood. He was the guest of honor at the Worldcon in 1976 for the third time at MidAmeriCon in Kansas City, Missouri. At that Worldcon, Heinlein hosted a blood drive and donors' reception to thank all those who had helped save lives.
Beginning in 1977 and including an episode while vacationing in Tahiti in early 1978, he had episodes of reversible neurologic dysfunction due to transient ischemic attacks. Over the next few months, he became more and more exhausted, and his health again began to decline. The problem was determined to be a blocked carotid artery, and he had one of the earliest known carotid bypass operations to correct it. Heinlein and Virginia had been smokers, and smoking appears often in his fiction, as do fictitious strikable self-lighting cigarettes.
In 1980 Robert Heinlein was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, chaired by Jerry Pournelle, which met at the home of SF writer Larry Niven to write space policy papers for the incoming Reagan Administration. Members included such aerospace industry leaders as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, General Daniel O. Graham, aerospace engineer Max Hunter and North American Rockwell VP for Space Shuttle development George Merrick. Policy recommendations from the Council included ballistic missile defense concepts which were later transformed into what was called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" as derided by Senator Ted Kennedy. Heinlein assisted with Council contribution to the Reagan "Star Wars" speech of Spring 1983.
Asked to appear before a Joint Committee of the United States Congress that year, he testified on his belief that spin-offs from space technology were benefiting the infirm and the elderly. Heinlein's surgical treatment re-energized him, and he wrote five novels from 1980 until he died in his sleep from emphysema and heart failure on May 8, 1988.
At that time, he had been putting together the early notes for another World as Myth novel. Several of his other works have been published posthumously. Based on an outline and notes created by Heinlein in 1955, Spider Robinson has written the novel Variable Star. Heinlein's posthumously published nonfiction includes a selection of correspondence and notes edited into a somewhat autobiographical examination of his career, published in 1989 under the title Grumbles from the Grave by his wife, Virginia; his book on practical politics written in 1946 published as Take Back Your Government; and a travelogue of their first around-the-world tour in 1954, Tramp Royale. The novels Podkayne of Mars and Red Planet, which were edited against his wishes in their original release, have been reissued in restored editions. Stranger In a Strange Land was originally published in a shorter form, but both the long and short versions are now simultaneously available in print.
Heinlein's archive is housed by the Special Collections department of McHenry Library at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The collection includes manuscript drafts, correspondence, photographs and artifacts. A substantial portion of the archive has been digitized and it is available online through the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Archives.