14 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut
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 his life and career, here are 14 fascinating facts about Kurt Vonnegut.
1. Kurt Vonnegut met his first wife in kindergarten.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on November 11, 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 1979.
2. Vonnegut’s mother died by 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, who had died by suicide. 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 P.O.W. experience into a bestselling book.
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, Vonnegut 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, Vonnegut 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—in fact, 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. Vonnegut 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. Vonnegut attempted suicide in 1984.
Although Slaughterhouse-Five made him a famous, bestselling author, Vonnegut struggled with depression in the midst of his literary success. After separating from his wife in 1971, he lived alone in New York City and had trouble writing. His son was diagnosed with schizophrenia (though it was actually probably bipolar disorder), and although Vonnegut married his second wife in 1979 (and they adopted a daughter together), his depression got worse. In 1984, he attempted suicide, 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. Vonnegut 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 had a connection to the Cape Cod Cannibal.
In Vonnegut’s words, his daughter, Edith, met Tony Costa “during a crazy summer she spent on her own in Provincetown, [Massachusetts], knew him well enough to receive and decline an invitation he evidently extended to many girls: ‘Come and see my marijuana patch.’” That illicit garden was where Costa buried the bodies of his several of his victims. He was arrested in 1969 for the murders, dubbed “the Cape Cod Cannibal,” and convicted the following year.
11. Kurt Vonnegut 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.
12. Thanks to Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut 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.
13. He has over 220,000 Twitter followers.
Although Vonnegut died in 2007 at 84 years old, his ideas live on in 280 characters or less. A Twitter account dedicated to the writer tweets his quotes several times a day to more than 220,000 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.
14. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library continues his legacy.
Located in his birthplace of Indianapolis and opened in 2010, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library honors the writer’s achievements and keeps his legacy alive. 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.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.