Kurt Vonnegut’s legacy is celebrated daily in Indianapolis, where a small but mighty museum has collected artifacts of the author’s life and work. Here are some new things we learned about the writer during our visit.
“That was before the world’s most dangerous mustache.”
I’m touring the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library with its curator Chris Lafave, and he’s showing me a picture of a young, Army-era Kurt Vonnegut. Clean shaven, his signature ‘stache nowhere in sight.
The Library, which opened in Indianapolis in 2011, houses items from all stages of Vonnegut’s life. Together the pieces tell the story of the boy from Indianapolis who would become one of America’s favorite authors.
During our tour, Lafave shared all kinds of surprising gems about Vonnegut. Here are some of the best things I learned and saw:
He Saved His Rejection Letters
Vonnegut kept all of his rejection slips in an old, red box from a now-defunct Indianapolis candy company. Inside the box were a ton of no’s from various magazines that Kurt submitted to over the years. One letter stated that Vonnegut’s piece on the firebombing of Dresden was “not quite compelling enough.”
And here’s one from the fiction editor at Woman’s Home Companion:
So it goes.
Writing Wasn’t His Only Job
When writing didn’t pay the bills, Vonnegut took on other forms of employment. Over the course of his working days, he put in hours at:
- General Electric. His older brother Bernard, a scientist at GE, got him a job in the publishing department.
- A Boston ad agency.
- Saab Cape Cod. Vonnegut was the owner and manager of the car dealership and apparently “ran it into the ground,” says Lafave. “Kurt insisted on taking the test drives himself and he’d take those corners a little tight. I guess he scared a few people.”
- A school for juvenile delinquents where, he allegedly said, he made the salary of a “relatively well-liked lunch lady.”
He Didn’t Write at a Desk
Ergonomics be damned. Vonnegut — who was 6’2” — preferred to sit in a low chair and write hunched over a coffee table. In the table, Vonnegut carved a quote from Thoreau’s “Walden” — “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
The Library recreated Vonnegut’s studio in their space.
The Library also houses Vonnegut’s typewriter, a Smith-Corona Coronamatic 2200. And there’s an unopened pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, which was lost behind the author’s book shelf at some point in the 1970s and discovered by his kids after his death.
Other Vonnegut artifacts include his Alplaus N.Y., volunteer firefighter card, his Purple Heart (which he claimed to have won for “frostbite”), and a Nazi saber he brought home from WWII.
He Graded Himself
Kurt gave letter grades to his books. He gave an A+ to “Cat’s Cradle” and “Mother Night,” but “Breakfast of Champions” only earned a C. “Slapstick” got a D.
You can watch him explain his grading system to Charlie Rose in this clip:
In school, Vonnegut’s grade were all over the place, too. He considered himself a “lousy student” and called college a “beer-soaked time.”
Before dropping out of college to join the Army, Kurt studied at Cornell, where a professor reportedly told him his stories were sophomoric. Vonnegut’s response: “That’s good. I’m only a freshman.”
He Liked a Little Mystery
One of the more intriguing items in the Library is an unopened letter sent by Vonnegut’s father to Kurt during WWII. No one knows why it was never opened.
Each year, the Library sponsors a scholarship contest for the students at Shortridge High School (Vonnegut’s alma mater). They have to write what they think Kurt Sr. wrote in the letter. “We’ve gotten some pretty entertaining responses,” says Lafave. “Like ‘The family treasure’s buried here. Here’s a map.’”
Explore the Library firsthand next time you find yourself in the Hoosier State. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is located at 340 N. Senate Avenue in Indianapolis.