The wedding ceremony was not exactly conventional—a fast three minutes, stripped of all fuss and formality. And when the judge asked the bride: “Will you keep him in sickness and in health?” any remaining shred of solemnity collapsed as about 100 guests roared with laughter.
Ministering to novelist Joseph Heller in his sickness and health isn’t something new to Valerie Humphries, who has been doing it for the past five years. She was the nurse assigned to care for him when he contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a bizarre form of paralysis that rendered him almost helpless for six months.
Heller, 63, the celebrated author of Catch-22, who has gradually regained his health, retained his customary bleak sense of humor. “If you think this is a good wedding, wait ’til you see the divorce,’ ” quipped the master of the put-on.
After Heller futilely attempted to crush a glass underfoot—a Jewish wedding tradition—he and his bride accepted the well-wishes of the assemblage, among them stars from the literary and show business world. There was Dustin Hoffman, who arrived late, having spent the day in the cutting room working on his latest movie, Ishtar. There was Arthur Gelb, managing editor of the New York Times, and his wife, playwright Barbara. There was playwright Murray (Luv) Schisgal and writer-director Marshall (Lovesick) Brickman.
And, of course, there was Speed Vogel, 68, a character somewhere between fact and fiction who came out of Joe Heller’s Coney Island youth and now shares his life. “I can honestly say this is a marriage made in heaven,” said Vogel who, when Heller was physically unable to date, was Joe’s proxy, escorting Valerie to restaurants and shows. “Before her, he was a curmudgeon,” Vogel says of his usually reclusive friend. “He was bitter and angry and impatient. Now he’s absolutely happy.”
The ceremony took place in the elegant Upper East Side Manhattan town-house of the couple’s friend, financial investor Stanley Cohen. The bride, wearing a backless gown of antique lace with silk sashes, seemed a tower of control, as she has been throughout Heller’s ordeal. “I love Joe,” she said. “I’ve never been married and I think I’ll make Joe very happy. I think it’ll thrill him beyond belief. And besides, we laugh a lot.” They were traveling in Europe last year when he proposed.
“He’s made me happy since the first day I met him,” says Valerie, who won’t reveal her age (even her husband doesn’t know, or want to know). “And he was desperately sick in the hospital. I thought, if someone sick can make you laugh and be fun to be with, it must be the optimum situation.” In fact, when she was assigned by chance as his private nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital, she confused him with another New York writer. “I thought he was Norman Mailer,” she says.
After his hospital discharge, Valerie followed Heller to the Howard A. Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, then became his housemate in his East Hampton, L.I., home. “I was not prepared to enter into an intimate relationship with a woman again,” recalls Heller who went through a bitter divorce with his first wife, Shirley, in 1984 after a long separation. The children of the first marriage—Ted, 31, and Erica, 35—did not attend the wedding. “They are adults,” says Heller. “We have a fine relationship, but they’re on their own.”
Heller has just signed a two-book, $4 million contract and promises to write a sequel to Catch-22. “I don’t have many interests. My work is my life. Now I know who I am and what I have to do. I know I don’t have that much time.”
After the wedding buffet of warm smoked salmon, Swedish meatballs and Grand Marnier wedding cake, the couple went off to Palm Beach for a honeymoon. The final word on the event was uttered by Valerie, who, considering what they’d been through, said, “Thank God I’m not his nurse anymore.”