13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut

Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Best known as the eccentric author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut filled his novels, plays, and short stories with irreverence, satire, and wry wit. He wrote about dystopian societies, disillusionment with war, and skepticism, particularly connecting with millions of readers in the 1960s counterculture. To celebrate what would have been Vonnegut’s 95th birthday, we compiled a list of facts about the beloved science fiction writer.

1. HE MET HIS FIRST WIFE IN KINDERGARTEN.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.

2. HIS MOTHER COMMITTED SUICIDE ON MOTHER'S DAY.

When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead. She had committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and the 21-year-old Vonnegut soon went to Germany to fight in World War II. In an interview with The Paris Review, Vonnegut remembered his mother as being highly intelligent, cultivated, and a good writer. "I only wish she’d lived to see [my writing career]. I only wish she’d lived to see all her grandchildren," he said.

3. HE TURNED HIS PRISONER OF WAR EXPERIENCE INTO A BESTSELLING BOOK.


By United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because Vonnegut was flunking his classes at Cornell, he decided to drop out and join the army to fight in World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944, German forces captured him, along with other American prisoners of war, in Dresden. Forced to work long hours in a malt-syrup factory, he slept in a subterranean slaughterhouse. In a letter he later wrote to his family, Vonnegut described the unsanitary conditions, sadistic guards, and measly food rations. After surviving the February 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, Vonnegut was forced by his captors to remove jewelry from the corpses before cremating them. "One hundred thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt," he said in his Paris Review interview.

Later in 1945, Vonnegut got frostbite and was discharged from the army (he earned a Purple Heart). Over two decades later, in 1969, Vonnegut published the bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which gave readers a fictionalized account of his wartime imprisonment. He later said that only one person benefited from the raid in Dresden: him. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that," he said.

4. CONTRARY TO RUMORS, HE WASN’T FRAT BUDDIES WITH DR. SEUSS.

An urban legend suggests that Vonnegut and Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) were college friends who spent time together in the same fraternity. But according to Snopes, the tale of Geisel and Vonnegut’s friendship is greatly exaggerated … that is, it’s false. The two authors probably never met, and they didn’t attend any of the same schools (plus, Geisel was 18 years older than Vonnegut). Geisel did, however, once visit a friend who belonged to Cornell’s Delta Upsilon fraternity. Geisel drew a mural on the wall of the fraternity’s basement, and Vonnegut saw his drawings at Cornell a decade later as a student.

5. HE HELD A SERIES OF ODD JOBS TO SUPPORT HIS FAMILY.

In 1947, Vonnegut began working in public relations for General Electric, an experience that he drew upon to write Cat’s Cradle. He wrote articles and short stories for magazines such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, and his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. Vonnegut then briefly wrote for Sports Illustrated, managed a Saab car dealership in Massachusetts (the first in the U.S.), and worked as an English teacher.

6. HE ADOPTED HIS SISTER’S THREE KIDS.

In the late 1950s, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer and Alice’s husband died in a train accident within the span of a few days. Although Vonnegut already had three children with his wife, he adopted his sister’s three sons. Since he now had six children to support, Vonnegut spent even more time writing to earn money.

7. HE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE.

Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After getting divorced in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son became psychotic, and although he married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol, an experience he wrote about in 1991 in Fates Worse Than Death, a collection of essays.

8. HE GRADED ALL HIS BOOKS.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Vonnegut discussed his grading system for his books (he also wrote about this system in Palm Sunday, a collection of his works published in 1981). He gave himself an A+ for his writing in Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five but wasn’t as generous with Happy Birthday, Wanda June or Slapstick, which both received Ds.

9. HE LOVED WATCHING CHEERS.

In 1991, while speaking to the press to promote his Showtime television show Vonnegut’s Monkey House, he extolled the virtues of the NBC show Cheers. "I’d rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written," he said. Although he viewed television in general with skepticism, he made an exception for the long-running sitcom, calling it television’s one comic masterpiece: "Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it’s significant. It’s funny," he said.

10. HE TRIED TO STOP SMOKING BUT GAINED TOO MUCH WEIGHT.

A lifelong smoker, Vonnegut began smoking cigarettes as a young teenager. Interviews with the author described his chain-smoking, his preferred brand (Pall Mall), and his frequent coughing and wheezing. Vonnegut admitted that he quit smoking twice, but neither attempt succeeded long-term. "Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching 250 pounds," he told the Paris Review. The second time, his lack of smoking made him "unbearably opinionated" and curtailed his writing time. "I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again," he said.

11. THANKS TO CAT’S CRADLE, HE FINALLY GOT HIS MASTER'S DEGREE.

While studying anthropology as a young man at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut wrote his graduate thesis comparing 19th century Cubist painters to Native American artists. Vonnegut later explained that the faculty rejected his dissertation, and he dropped out of his master’s program there: "I left Chicago without writing a dissertation—and without a degree. All my ideas for dissertations had been rejected, and I was broke, so I took a job as a P.R. man for General Electric in Schenectady." But the quality of his novel Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963, persuaded University of Chicago faculty to accept the novel as his dissertation. So 20 years after he dropped out, Vonnegut finally earned his master’s degree in anthropology.

12. HE HAS OVER 210,000 TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 140 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 215,000 followers. Examples of his tweets? "How embarrassing to be human," and "We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap." Fittingly, the account follows just one person, @TheMarkTwain, for Vonnegut greatly admired the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn author.

13. THE VONNEGUT MEMORIAL LIBRARY CONTINUES HIS LEGACY.

Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis, The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. Opened in 2010, the library displays signed copies of Vonnegut’s books as well as early rejection letters. Visitors can also see his drawings, examine family photos, and view his typewriter, cigarettes, and Purple Heart. The library works to fight censorship, a cause that Vonnegut strongly believed in, by giving free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to students whose schools have banned the book. So it goes.

Oscar Wilde's Gold Friendship Ring Recovered Nearly 20 Years After It Was Stolen

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

After missing for 17 years, a piece of literary history has been found. As Smithsonian.com reports, a gold ring that writer Oscar Wilde gifted to his friend is back home at Oxford's Magdalen College, following its theft from the school in 2002.

The friendship ring's history at Oxford dates back to 1876, when Wilde was studying there with his friends Reginald Harding and William Ward. Ward was planning to drop out of school to travel, and Wilde and Harding wanted to give him something to remember them by. The gift—an 18-karat gold ring shaped like a belt buckle—is engraved with the initials of each member of the trio and a Greek inscription that translates to “Gift of love, to one who wishes love."

The ring wound up back at Oxford, where it was kept with a collection of Oscar Wilde artifacts at the university's Magdalen College until 2002. That year, a former college custodian named Eamonn Andrews broke into the building through a skylight and got away with the friendship ring and three unrelated medals. The thief was eventually apprehended thanks to DNA he left at the scene, but by then it was too late: He had already pawned the jewelry for less than $200. The gold band is estimated to be worth around $70,000 today.

Hopes for the keepsake's recovery deflated after that. Investigators assumed that it had been melted down by scrap dealers and declined to pursue the case any further. That seemed like the end of the story until 2015, when art detective Arthur Brand (known as the "Indiana Jones of the Art World") heard whispers of a black market ring that fit a similar description to the missing item. Brand theorizes that after originally being stolen from Oxford, the ring wound up in one of the safe-deposit boxes that got looted during the infamous Hatton Garden heist of 2015. After the heist, it hit the market again and landed on his radar.

With help from William Veres—a London antiques dealer—and George Crump—a man with connections to the British underground crime scene—Brand determined that the ring had recently switched hands. The new owner was shocked to hear that the unusual Victorian ring once belonged to Wilde and was fully cooperative in returning it to the college.

The ring will resume its official spot in Magdalen College's collection at a small ceremony on December 4.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Charlotte Brontë's Final "Little Book" Returning to Haworth After $665,000 Auction Bid

Brontë Parsonage Museum, Crowdfunder
Brontë Parsonage Museum, Crowdfunder

Soon after his father gave him 12 toy soldiers as a gift, Branwell Brontë and the three Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—established an imaginary, miniature land called the Glass Town Federation where the soldiers could reign. To supplement their game, 14-year-old Charlotte Brontë wrote a series of six books beginning in 1830 called “The Young Men’s Magazine,” which she made tiny enough for the soldiers to “read.”

Four of the books are kept at the family’s former home, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, in Haworth, Yorkshire. A fifth volume has been lost since the 1930s. Now, after a lengthy fundraising endeavor, the Brontë Society has purchased the last remaining volume at a Paris auction. It’ll soon be displayed alongside the other issues in the museum.

It isn’t the first time the Brontë Society tried to bring the book back home. According to The New York Times, it surfaced at an auction in Sotheby’s in 2011, but the society was outbid by the Paris-based Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, which later folded after being accused of fraud.

The Guardian reports that upon hearing the item would soon be up for auction again, the Brontë Society launched a month-long public campaign to raise money for its purchase, with the public support of Dame Judi Dench, honorary president of the Brontë Society. They crowdfunded about $110,000, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund along with other organizations will cover the rest of the $777,000 cost (bid and fees included).

The 4000-word book measures about 1.5 inches by 2.5 inches and contains all the trappings of a quality literature magazine—ads, stories, and writerly wit. One ad, for example, was placed by “six young men” who “wish to let themselves all a hire for the purpose in cleaning out pockets they are in reduced CIRCUMSTANCES.” And one of the three original stories includes a scene similar to the one in Jane Eyre when Bertha sets Mr. Rochester’s bed on fire.

“Charlotte wrote this minuscule magazine for the toy soldiers she and her siblings played with, and as we walk through the same rooms they did, it seems immensely fitting that it is coming home,” Brontë Parsonage Museum principle curator Ann Dinsdale said in a statement.

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER