Irving “Speed” Vogel, who was co-author with Joseph Heller of the best-selling book “No Laughing Matter,” died on April 14 at his home in Sag Harbor of natural causes. He was 90.
Born in New York City on March 3, 1918, to Rose and Julius Vogel, his given name was Irving but he was dubbed “Speed” by a camp councilor when he was four years old after taking a long time to tie his shoes. The name quickly became permanent, so much so that when he was eleven and a friend knocked on the family’s apartment door asking for “Irving,” his father turned the boy away saying “Nobody here by that name.”
A history graduate of the University of West Virginia, Mr. Vogel worked in the textile business in Manhattan with his first wife, Ria Herlinger, although he more frequently found himself at his unheated sculpting studio on 28th Street in the flower district. His sculptures were of fanciful subjects—a roller coaster ride, kids climbing a backyard fence, a balloon man, even Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof”—and most were made of found metal that he welded, with the addition of colored glass. He also painted in oil, did pen-and-ink drawings and created collages from paint chips.
One of his fellow 28th Street denizens, Zero Mostel, a devoted painter and eater, was one day overcome by delicious smells emanating from another artist’s studio. He knocked on Mr. Vogel’s door and then another until he found Ngoot Lee, who began cooking for Mr. Mostel and Mr. Vogel. Soon others followed, and thus what the men laughingly called “The Gourmet Club” was formed. The club was an assemblage of writers, artists and show business people that included Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Mario Puzo, Carl Reiner, David Z. Goodman, the writer of “Straw Dogs,” Joseph Stein the writer of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Julie Green, a diamond merchant, and author George Mandel, among others.
A gifted raconteur with almost encyclopedic knowledge of jokes and their origins—Mr. Brooks once called him “Huck Finn on his raft in Manhattan.”—Mr. Vogel honed this talent as a charter member of the group. The men would meet weekly to eat, mostly at Chinese restaurants, and talk. At the end of the meals, the group climbed into cars, headed for Little Italy for ices, and, if the weather was cold, scavenged for wood to bring back to Mr. Vogel’s studio where they continue their talks.
Both between marriages, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Vogel, were roommates in Manhattan for a short time and in the 1960s, Mr. Vogel worked with Charles Gwathmey in the early days of Gwathmey Siegel Associates. Later in the early 1980s, while Mr. Vogel was helping his friend, Joseph Heller, recover from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, he wrote an article for The New York Times, entitled, “How to Beat the High Cost of Living in the Hamptons.” A book contract with Putnam ensued.
He went on to co-author “No Laughing Matter,” which chronicled Mr. Heller’s bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. This sudden-onset neurological disease caused Mr. Heller to be paralyzed and spend months in a hospital’s intensive care unit and then many additional months in rehabilitation at Rusk Institute. During this time, Mr. Vogel tended to Mr. Heller. Mr. Heller wrote the serious parts of the book while Mr. Vogel was his comic foil. In The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called the book “positively cheering. . .richly amusing. . .curiously uplifting.”
In 1986, Mr. Vogel married author Lou Ann Walker aboard a friend’s sailing yacht, “The Sumurun,” in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland. The couple then bought their home in Sag Harbor.
In the late 1980s, after Mr. Heller had moved to East Hampton, Mr. Vogel to Sag Harbor, Mr. Green to Southampton, and Mr. Brooks part-time to the Hamptons, the Gourmet Club was reconstituted as the South Fork chapter of the Gourmet Club, meeting regularly at Barrister’s Restaurant after a gym workout.
He is survived by his wife, Lou Ann Walker of Sag Harbor, a professor at Stony Brook Southampton; two sons, Matthew Vogel of Bridgehampton and Peter Vogel of Fire Island; three daughters, Katherine Walker Vogel of Sag Harbor, Karen Vogel of California and Julie Browner of California and New York; two step-daughters, Miranda Hentoff of Manhattan and Jessica Hentoff of Missouri.
A memorial service was held on April 17 at Yardley & Pino Funeral Home in Sag Harbor.
In lieu of flowers, donations to East End Hospice, P.O. Box 1048, Westhampton Beach, NY 11978 or Memorial Sloan Kettering, c/o Dr. Stephen Nimer’s research, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021 would be appreciated by the family.