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13 Fascinating Facts About Kurt Vonnegut

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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.

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7 Lost and Rediscovered Literary Works by Famous Authors
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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A number of literary works by famous authors that were once thought lost have recently been rediscovered. Some were found in private collections, others within vast archives, and one was even uncovered in an attic. A few of these works have delighted readers and scholars alike, while others may have gone unpublished for a reason—yet all offer fresh insight into the development of the writers who wrote them.

1. “TEMPERATURE” // F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In July 2015 Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand magazine, was searching through the rare book archive at Princeton University when he uncovered a previously unpublished short story by Princeton alum F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gulli makes something of a habit of searching for lost and unpublished works by famous authors, and in the past has uncovered a story by John Steinbeck, which was also published for the first time in The Strand. Fitzgerald's 8000-word short story, entitled “Temperature” and written in 1939, features a hard-drinking writer with a heart problem. In a sad echo of real life, just a year after he wrote it Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack.

2. WHAT PET SHALL I GET? // DR. SEUSS

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 2013, the widow of Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) rediscovered a pile of manuscripts and sketches that she had set aside shortly after her husband's death in 1991. The papers contained the words and illustrations for What Pet Shall I Get?, which was published by Random House in July 2015. It is thought the book was likely written between 1958 and 1962, since it features the same brother-and-sister characters found in Seuss’s 1960 bestseller One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

3. “SHERLOCK HOLMES: DISCOVERING THE BORDER BURGHS AND, BY DEDUCTION, THE BRIG BAZAAR” // ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting at a table in his garden, Bignell Wood, New Forest, 1927
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Sherlock Holmes short story supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was uncovered in the attic of historian Walter Elliot in 2015. The strange little story was written by Conan Doyle to be included in a collection of stories entitled The Book o' the Brig, which aimed to raise funds to rebuild a bridge across Ettrick Water, near Selkirk in Scotland, which had been destroyed during floods in 1902.

No sooner had the story been rediscovered, however, than some were expressing doubts about whether it had been written by Conan Doyle himself, especially since the flowery language doesn't seem in keeping with the renowned author's pared-down style. The full text of the story can be read (and puzzled over) here.

4. "THE FIELD OF HONOR" // EDITH WHARTON

Photo of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Alice Kelly, a researcher from Oxford University, was studying Edith Wharton’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in November 2015 when she discovered a previously unpublished short story. The unfinished nine-page story was stuck to the back of another manuscript, and is entitled "The Field of Honor." It centers on the First World War and is critical of the women who only superficially helped with the war effort, perhaps explaining why it was not published at such a sensitive time.

5. "POETICAL ESSAY ON THE EXISTING STATE OF THINGS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Crayon drawing of poet Percy Shelley circa 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was in his first year of university at Oxford in 1810/11, he wrote and published a poem critical of the Napoleonic wars under the pseudonym “a gentlemen of the University of Oxford.” The 172-line poem was printed in a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” and was not attributed to Shelley until 50 years after his death. All copies were thought lost until 2006, when one was found amidst a mysterious private collection and offered for auction. Only scholars had access to the poem until 2015, when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in Oxford to add to their world-famous collection of Shelley works and papers. The poem became the library’s 12 millionth book to be acquired and is now available online for all to read.

6. EARLY STORIES // TRUMAN CAPOTE

A black-and-white photo of a smiling Truman Capote
Evening Standard/Getty Images

A Swiss publisher poring over Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library several years ago rediscovered a variety of short stories and poems the author had written before the age of 20. While four of the stories had been published in Capote’s school literary magazine, The Green Witch, the majority of the pile was brand-new to the reading public. In October 2015, Penguin books released the stories as The Early Stories of Truman Capote.

7. THE TURNIP PRINCESS

While looking through the archives of the city of Regensberg, Germany, researcher Erika Eichenseer uncovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 German fairy tales, which had lain unnoticed for 150 years. The stories had been collected by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, who traveled around the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz recording folktales, myths, and legends in order to preserve them. He published the results of his research in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, but his matter-of-fact accounts of the stories were somewhat overshadowed by the more artful stories of his contemporaries the Brothers Grimm, and his book fell into obscurity. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales contains 72 of the lost tales and was published by Penguin in February 2015.

A previous version of this story ran in 2015.

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10 Fun Facts About Paddington Bear
HarperCollins
HarperCollins

Don't tell Winnie the Pooh, but he's not the only big shot on the children's book bear market. Paddington Bear has been charming children and adults alike since 1958. As he readies for his second big-screen outing in Paddington 2, which hits theaters on Friday, here's how Paddington came to be.

1. IT STARTED WITH A LONELY TEDDY BEAR.

Have you ever seen a neglected toy abandoned on a store shelf or tossed aside, unwanted, and felt oddly sorry for it? That's exactly how Paddington Bear came about. Author Michael Bond was roaming Selfridges department store on Christmas Eve in 1956 looking for a gift for his wife when he came across a lonely teddy bear all alone on a shelf.

“I felt sorry for it," Bond said. Though Bond purchased him, the idea of the abandoned bear stuck with the would-be author. He began writing stories about it, mostly for his own amusement, then realized he might have something children would be interested in.

2. PADDINGTON ISN'T HIS REAL NAME.

Paddington isn't this beloved bear's real name. He has a Peruvian name, but tells his adoptive family that no one would be able to understand it (we find out much later that it's "Pastuso"). They decide to call him Paddington, which is the name of the railway station where he was discovered. The bear Bond took home from the department store on Christmas Eve received the same name because Bond and his wife lived near Paddington Station at the time.

3. HE WASN'T ALWAYS FROM PERU.

Originally, Paddington wasn't going to be from Darkest Peru. First drafts had Paddington calling "darkest Africa" home. But after Bond got an agent, the agent informed him no bears exist in Africa. Peru, however, does have spectacled bears.

4. IT TOOK SEVEN YEARS FOR MICHAEL BOND TO QUIT HIS DAY JOB.

British author Michael Bond, who wrote the Paddington Bear series of books
JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images

It took about seven years from the time the first book was published in 1958, but eventually the sales of Paddington books allowed Bond to retire from his job as a cameraman for the BBC.

5. BOND WAS SURPRISED BY PADDINGTON'S SUCCESS.

Paddington books have sold more than 35 million copies and have been translated into over 40 languages, which surprised Bond. "I am constantly surprised by all the translations because I thought that Paddington was essentially an English character," he once said. "Obviously Paddington-type situations happen all over the world."

6. THERE'S A STATUE OF PADDINGTON AT PADDINGTON STATION.

There's a little statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station. He's just the size you would expect him to be. When you're done snapping a photo with him, you can march yourself over to the Paddington shop at the station, which sells nothing but Paddington Bear gear.

7. PADDINGTON FACED IMMIGRATION ISSUES IN 2008.

Poor Paddington faced a rather grown up situation in 2008. When P.B. goes to report his stolen shopping cart, the police discover that he's in London illegally from Darkest Peru and immigration issues ensue. "There is this side of Paddington the Browns don't really understand at all," Bond said. "What it's like to be a refugee, not to be in your own country."

8. HE ONCE TRADED IN MARMALADE FOR MARMITE.

Of course Paddington adores marmalade, and no reason is ever given for that ("Bears love marmalade" is all we get). But in 2007, he decided to give Marmite a try instead. Although he had been enjoying marmalade for the 49 years prior (always keeping an emergency sandwich under his hat, just in case), it was apparently the right time to try something different, and he finds a Marmite and cheese sandwich to be "rather good." But don't expect Paddington's favorite fare to be replaced anytime soon—it was a one-time advertising promotion.

9. IT TOOK 15 YEARS FOR PADDINGTON'S WELLIES TO BECOME FAMOUS.

Paddington's famous Wellies weren't that famous until the plush version of him came out in 1972. The owner of a small business called Gabrielle Designs decided to make a Paddington stuffed animal for her children because there wasn't one on the market yet. Although the bear had received a pair of Wellington boots in 1964's Paddington Marches On, he wasn't necessarily known for them. The Wellies were placed on the stuffed bear's feet just to help him stand upright, and he became known for his colorful boots when the toy became a commercial success.

10. THE REST OF HIS SIGNATURE OUTFIT HAS ITS OWN HISTORY, TOO.

Speaking of Paddington's clothes, here's where the rest of the famous outfit came from: The blue duffle coat was purchased for him by the Browns soon after he came to live with them. The old hat was handed down to him from his uncle, who is still in Darkest Peru with Aunt Lucy. Aunt Lucy is the one who placed the "Please Look After This Bear" tag around his neck.

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