Virginia Heinlein, 86; Wife, Muse and Literary Guardian of Celebrated Science Fiction Writer

Times Staff Writer

Virginia Heinlein, who gave her husband, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, the idea for his acclaimed 1961 novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” and inspired many of the strong female characters in his stories, died Jan. 18 at a retirement community in Atlantic Beach, Fla. She was 86.

Heinlein died in her sleep after a long struggle with respiratory illness and a broken hip suffered on Thanksgiving, said David M. Silver, secretary-treasurer of the Heinlein Society.

Her husband’s muse, manager and literary guardian, Virginia Heinlein was widely known and respected in the science fiction community for her devotion to the Heinlein legacy after the prolific writer’s death in 1988 at the age of 80.


She was responsible for the posthumous publication of the original, uncut manuscript of “Stranger in a Strange Land” in 1990, as well as for “Grumbles From the Grave,” a selection of his letters; the travel memoir “Tramp Royale”; and a political handbook, “Take Back Your Government.”

Robert Heinlein was considered by many to be the most influential science fiction author since H.G. Wells. During a five-decade career that produced 37 novels and 11 short-story collections, he won an unprecedented four Hugo Awards, given by popular vote of science fiction fans for the best novel of the year.

“Stranger in a Strange Land” was his best-known work. It became, to the author’s dismay, a favorite of the iconoclastic ‘60s generation, in part for its apparent advocacy of free love and cynicism about organized religion.

The story behind the novel began with the November 1948 issue of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. In keeping with the speculative nature of the genre, a letter writer complimented the editor on an issue a year in the future, going so far as to mention stories by specific writers. The editor, John W. Campbell Jr., decided to fulfill the letter writer’s fantasy and have the stories written for the November 1949 issue.

The letter writer said one of the stories was “Gulf” by Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein accepted the assignment, then held a brainstorming session with his closest advisor -- his wife.

“Among other unsuitable notions, I suggested a story about a human infant raised by an alien race,” Virginia Heinlein wrote years later.


Her husband liked the idea, made some notes, but then set them aside. The idea was “too big” for a short story, so he pursued a different theme for “Gulf.”

He returned to the notes for the other story in fits and starts over the next decade. The eventual result was “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which introduced the character Valentine Michael Smith as a baby raised by Martians on Mars with a wisdom far beyond that of any earthling.

The author turned in a manuscript 800 pages long. His publishers, fearful of some of the contents, including lengthy descriptions of Martian sex, requested a big reduction, of about 250 pages.

“He always resented the fact they had made him cut a substantial amount of his work,” Silver said. “She wanted it restored.” But it took an act of Congress and Robert Heinlein’s death before that could be accomplished.

In 1976, Congress passed a law that allowed renegotiation of copyright issues after an author’s death. The copyright for “Stranger” came up the year after Heinlein died, in 1988.

Virginia requested a copy of the original manuscript, which was archived at UC Santa Cruz along with other papers. “I ... read that and the published version side by side,” she wrote. “And I came to the conclusion that it had been a mistake to cut the book.”


In 1990, the unexpurgated, 220,000-word version of “Stranger” was published by Ace/G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Reviewers were split over the new edition. Some, like Rudy Rucker in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, preferred the older, shorter version, commenting that much of the material restored in the new one was “glaringly sexist.” Others, such as novelist Kurt Vonnegut, found the restorations salutary. Writing in the New York Times, he pronounced them “icing on a cake which for people who like that kind of cake was already quite satisfactory.”

The Heinleins married in 1948, a few years after they met at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia, where she was a chemist and aviation test engineer and he a civilian engineer. He had been a first lieutenant in the Navy before receiving a medical discharge because of tuberculosis in 1934. She was his assistant, even though as a lieutenant commander she outranked him.

A Brooklyn dentist’s daughter who majored in chemistry at New York University, she was an accomplished swimmer and diver who reached national competitive levels in figure skating. She spoke seven languages, including French, Latin and Russian, and studied for a doctorate in biochemistry at UCLA.

Her husband, who called her Ginny, once described her as “redheaded and quite ... an athlete -- four letters in college -- and [she] could probably lick me in a fair fight.... She outranks me on the Navy rolls, which seems to give her quite a bit of satisfaction.”

Athletic throughout her life, she once saved Robert’s life when he collapsed on a hill in Tahiti. Although shorter than he, she threw him over her back and carried him down to the beach, where he was flown to Australia for medical treatment.

Another time, she amazed him and a friend, writer Jerry Pournelle, when they were snowbound at their house in Colorado Springs. The two men were desperate for breakfast, but seeing no hope of obtaining any after inspecting the Heinleins’ 1948 Cadillac frozen to the driveway, returned glumly to the kitchen. There, to their astonishment, was Virginia, frying bacon and eggs.


“She said, ‘I just went up the hill and got some. There were steel lugs in the tire, some water in the driveway, and the tires had frozen, so I just took a pot of hot water and got them loose and drove up the hill.’ ”

Virginia Heinlein, Pournelle said, “was a better engineer than he was. He was very proud of her.”

She was the model for many of the superwomen who crop up in her husband’s stories, such as Maureen Johnson Smith, the mother of the immortal Lazarus Long in “Time Enough for Love,” published in 1973. The female characters tend to have red hair, like Virginia’s, as well as great wit and an ability to overcome adversity with aplomb.

Greg Bear, a science fiction writer who knew the Heinleins, said he has met women who were inspired by Robert’s stories to become scientists. “And Robert,” Bear said, “was inspired by Ginny. Ginny was their original.”

The Heinleins had no children. Her ashes will be scattered in the Pacific Ocean, as were her husband’s.