Joseph William Allan Heenan, one of New Zealand's most able and imaginative public servants, was born on 17 January 1888 at Greymouth, the son of a bootmaker, William Joseph Heenan, and his wife, Mary Poynton, a schoolteacher. He was raised in the small West Coast town of Maori Creek until the age of four, when the family moved to Wellington. Joe attended Mount Cook Boys' School and Wellington College, won a Victoria College Queen's Scholarship and Wellington College Governors’ Scholarship, and also made his mark on the sports field. From his father, a champion athlete and an Olympic Games boxing and athletics coach, he inherited a passion for sport, and a restless, inquiring mind; with his mother he shared a love of literature.
In 1904 Heenan began studying at Victoria College, graduating LLB in 1917, and in 1906 he joined the colonial secretary's office (later the Department of Internal Affairs) as a temporary junior clerk. Although he failed to obtain a position in the Crown Law Office in 1909, he was able to put his legal knowledge to use at Internal Affairs, advising ministers and the under-secretary, and drafting bills. By 30 he was recognised as an ‘outstanding' officer with an ‘invaluable' legal and general knowledge of the department in which he was to spend 28 years, including nearly 14 at its helm. His progress ‘from the log cabin of cadetship to the White House of Under-Secretary' was interrupted, however, by 15 years at the newly created Office of Law Drafting, where he was transferred in June 1920 as an assistant law draftsman. He became first assistant law draftsman in 1930.
On 20 February 1912 Joe Heenan married Hilda May Andrew at St Peter's Church, Wellington. They settled across the harbour at Eastbourne, where Heenan served on the Eastbourne Borough Council from 1914 to 1916, and became active on the local sporting scene. Over the years he would make a considerable contribution to New Zealand sport as an administrator and commentator. He served on many local and national sporting bodies, including the East Harbour Amateur Sports Club and a boxing club he ran with his father. He also held office on the Wellington Rugby Football Union and the Athletic Rugby Football Club, the New Zealand Softball Association, the New Zealand Boxing Association, the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association, and the New Zealand Olympic and British Empire Games Association. He wrote for the press on athletics, boxing, Olympic sports and, his greatest love, horse-racing. From 1925 until 1934 he contributed the turf notes by ‘The Saint’ in the New Zealand Free Lance. His knowledge of thoroughbred breeding and racing was renowned. A school friend later recalled that at 10 Joe knew most of the horses racing in Australasia, and as under-secretary at Internal Affairs he was known to interrupt meetings to consult on the telephone about bloodlines. He is said to have permanently alienated the punctilious parliamentary librarian G. H. Scholefield, who discovered that he frequented the General Assembly Library in a cloth cap to read the racing pages in the daily papers. Heenan also put his legal expertise to the service of sporting bodies, redrafting the rules of the New Zealand Racing Conference in 1931 and those of the New Zealand Trotting Conference in 1949, and twice revising the rules of the Boxing Association.
Under the pseudonym O'H Aonian, Heenan contributed to the Sydney Bulletin on literary subjects: from Rupert Brooke and J. M. Synge to the colonial jurist J. W. Salmond (whose legal texts, he argued, were works of art). A voracious reader, he had a particular fondness for the Georgian poets and Joseph Conrad, an interest in language and an appreciation of fine printing. In the 1930s he became a member of the New Zealand Centre of PEN, and at the inaugural New Zealand Writers' Week in April 1936 (for which he made available some departmental funds) he gave a talk on Herbert Guthrie-Smith's ecological memoir Tutira, under the title ‘New Zealand's greatest book'. His appreciation of the rising generation of New Zealand writers was less sure, but he would none the less seek ways to use the resources of the state to support them.
Heenan returned to Internal Affairs, as the under-secretary and clerk of the writs, in April 1935, a few months before the election of the country's first Labour government. It was a happy conjunction of talent, personality and opportunity. Internal Affairs was the ideal charge for someone of Heenan's interests and attributes, and its influence was enhanced in turn by his. The multifarious responsibilities of the branch of government he called the ‘Omnibus department' ranged from gaming and racing and wildlife, to local government, physical welfare and recreation, the care of overseas guests, and cultural patronage. Among Heenan’s particular achievements was the drafting of the Patriotic Purposes Emergency Regulations in 1939. Distinguished visitors whose tours he managed included Eleanor Roosevelt (1943), Lord and Lady Mountbatten (1946) and Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery (1947). In 1946 he was appointed to the three-member royal commission on gaming and racing, whose report ushered in the legalisation of off-course betting and the establishment of the Totalisator Agency Board. He sat ex-officio on many other public bodies, including the Board of Trustees of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum, the National Council of Physical Welfare and Recreation, the King George V Memorial Fund Board, the New Zealand Geographic Board, the Town-planning Board, the Local Government Loans Board and the National Patriotic Council.
Heenan considered the highlight of his administrative career to be the New Zealand centennial celebrations of 1939–40, of which he was chief executive officer. He was especially proud of the centennial publications. The historical surveys – which included J. C. Beaglehole’s essay on the Maori voyagers and the European discovery of New Zealand, F. L. W. Wood’s on international relations and E. H. McCormick's seminal essay on literature and art – were Heenan's brainchild. He wanted the surveys to be models not only of historical scholarship written for a popular audience, but also of the printing craft, and he enlisted Beaglehole, the university historian and typographical enthusiast, as adviser to the department's Centennial Branch. Although the standard of scholarship in the surveys was uneven, they remain a significant historiographical and publishing event. Moreover, both they and the companion series of pictorial surveys, Making New Zealand, were popular and, to Heenan's particular delight, widely praised for their design and production. He had the additional satisfaction of co-writing the pictorial survey on racing – one of the series's best sellers.
Heenan and Beaglehole developed a strong mutual respect. When, as the centennial celebrations wound down, Heenan had the Centennial Branch permanently established as the Historical Branch, he placed Beaglehole in charge, and Beaglehole recruited some of his brightest history graduates. Later Heenan arranged the government grant that enabled Beaglehole to embark on his major scholarly work, on the life and journals of Captain James Cook, the first volume of which was dedicated to Heenan. Heenan was also instrumental in having Eric McCormick, the editor of the centennial publications, transferred from the medical corps to collecting war archives in 1941; from this came the creation, under Heenan's direction, of a War History Branch.
Creative literature was also part of Heenan's evolving scheme of state support for scholarship and the arts; a scheme which, he once confessed, arose partly from his own unrealised literary ambitions. In 1947 he arranged for Frank Sargeson to receive a permanent ‘literary pension' from Internal Affairs. He helped the poet–printer Denis Glover to obtain a building permit for the Caxton Press, and sought advice from Glover about other possible recipients of departmental funds. As a personal demonstration of support for the burgeoning indigenous literary scene he took out a three-year subscription to the literary periodical Landfall in advance of the first issue.
In 1946 Heenan facilitated the establishment of the New Zealand Literary Fund, despite his reservations about placing control in the hands of an independent committee. His preferred model of patronage was the Cultural Fund he created the same year within Internal Affairs, initially as three ‘special funds': for physical welfare and recreation, for culture and the arts, and to provide bursaries for young New Zealanders to pursue artistic studies abroad. The fund was Heenan's inspired solution to the problem of what to do with £80,000 of accumulated surplus art union profits. It was administered by the prime minister and minister of finance as trustees, acting on the advice of Heenan's department; he in turn consulted a few trusted advisers, principally Beaglehole and Andersen Tyrer, conductor of the National Orchestra. There were critics of the confidential, personal way in which Heenan dispensed government funds for cultural purposes – ‘backing horses off the course', as A. R. D. Fairburn, one of his fiercest detractors, put it – and it did not long survive Heenan's retirement and a change of government in 1949. But the Cultural Fund itself continued, until superseded by an arts council in the 1960s. Through the Centennial and Historical branches, the Cultural and Literary funds, and in other less formal ways, Heenan played a major role in the establishment of the state as the principal patron of literature and the arts in New Zealand.
A stocky man, of ruddy complexion, with a shock of snow-white hair that had once been fiery red, Joe Heenan had a robust sense of humour, abundant energy and enthusiasm, a generous interest in people and a talent for making friends. His gift for administration lay in his expertise at managing committees, functionaries and politicians, his ability to recognise talent and ‘give his subordinates their heads', and to select advisers he trusted. He developed an affectionate rapport with his staff, and possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge and prodigious memory. He also enjoyed an effective relationship with members of the Labour ministry, many of whom knew him from his law-drafting days. He found his own minister, Bill Parry, a ‘gem', and mastered the art of dealing with the minister of finance, Walter Nash, who appreciated Heenan's ‘informed, courteous, and co-operative approach to administrative problems' and ‘genius for organising'. Heenan's political views were liberal rather than Labour, and he prided himself on the political neutrality that is the traditional role of the public servant. However, in temperament and design he was in tune with an activist Labour administration. He developed a particularly close relationship with the prime minister, Peter Fraser: they shared tea on Wednesdays after Executive Council meetings, and a belief in the proper role of the state to foster the things of the mind.
Heenan was anticipating his retirement in August 1948 when, in March, Fraser asked him to stay on to manage the royal tour planned for early the following year. Making his first and only trip overseas, he went to London in June–July 1948 to make arrangements with Buckingham Palace. He travelled in both directions via the United States, renewing his acquaintance with Americans he had met during the war, and meeting H. L. Mencken, with whom he had corresponded for some years. He found the journey exhilarating and exhausting, and returned vowing never to leave the country again (‘I have started this travelling business too late in life', he observed). His health was troubling him too: in 1947 he had developed severe diabetes. When the royal tour was cancelled due to King George VI’s ill health, he confessed himself greatly relieved.
Heenan formally left Internal Affairs in January 1949, successfully evading the prime minister's attempts to organise a grand send-off. Official recognition had come in the form of a CBE in 1937, and he was knighted in 1949. In his retirement he served on the Literary Fund advisory committee. He also accepted a position on the executive of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, having earlier avoided joining organisations whose interests might bring them into contact with his department. He was a keen conservationist and gardener, particularly successful with irises and freesias. Friends and former colleagues urged him to write his memoirs, but he had made little progress when he died suddenly at home on 11 October 1951. He was survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.