There seems to be cosmic design in the fact that today is not just Armistice Day, but also Kurt Vonnegut's birthday. I celebrated it as such for all the years (not enough) that I knew him, and until he died a couple of years ago. I see no point in not celebrating it now.
Kurt hated war more than he hated anything except maybe what was happening to this country he loved. His novel, Slaughterhouse Five was the best anti-war screed ever written, its inimitable passage of reversing the film so the bombs instead of landing and destroying, went back up into the bellies of the planes they were dropped out of, all the way back to the factories where workers assembled them, so no harm was done. Jack Kornfield, my Jewru, read that passage as he would read the poet Rumi, at one of his retreats. I hope I told that to Kurt, -- I can't remember--though he probably would have been uncomfortable at the thought of being part of spiritual teaching, If there is design to this universe, then it was no accident that he was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed, so he could write in his searingly sardonic fashion first hand of the stupidity of war.
When the husband of my classmate, Laura Maoglio, Gunther, a scientist, won the Nobel prize, he put it to a fund to rebuild the Dresden cathedral, and asked Kurt to contribute. But he wouldn't. When I asked him why, he said he didn't think it should be rebuilt, that it should be left in ruins, so people could see what war did. He was a sad man, brilliant and darling, and it is one of my greatest joys
that I could actually count him as friend.
We met after he publicly defended me without ever having met me during the ordeal of my libel suit, when he stood in an auditorium and said "Today is a very sad day: a publisher has turned against a writer," so my editor at Doubleday, whose forum it was, (and who sued me after the Supreme Court declined to hear my case so Doubleday had to pay the oaf who sued me) had to be helped from the stage. I read about that incident in The New York Times, (I was living in LA) and all the agonies I had been through when noted authors refused to support me(a lot did, but Bellows, Roth, et al. declined) were softened. Vonnegut. A literary hero. And he'd put his mouth where his words were.
A few weeks later Gay Talese invited me to a party in New York for Jerzy Kozinski and Kurt was there. He sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me, and marveled at my having been able to remember so much of the real dialogue that occurred at the nude marathon I'd attended, and subsequently fictionalized(YES! It was FICTION!) in Touching, the novel that was the source of all the grief. "How did you do it?" he asked me. "Did you have a microphone under your blouse?" "Kurt," I said, "I didn't even have a blouse."
After that, when I came to New York, we would have lunch. They were always long and desultory, with little of the stimulating conversation you would expect from tales of the literati. But always there would be one sentence or a thought that lifted me, and gave me the courage to continue through bleak times. "Women are very resourceful," he said, with his drooping, graying red mustache like a canopy over the careful words. "You're resourceful." So even though I had lost a chance in the community, such as it was, to be taken seriously as a writer, I had a champion. The best. When Don Fine, my last editor, was in the hospital at the end of his life, wanting to see no one, Kurt said "Go see him anyway. It will do him good to see a pretty woman." That was the first time since the death of my husband that I'd felt pretty.
His wife, who'd abandoned him for another man and then came back, thought we were having an affair, and intercepted my letters to him, innocent notes that expressed concern after his heart attack. But before she'd changed her mind and returned, we'd had a chance to spend time together in the Hamptons, where I was desperately trying to write another novel, so I could have a ticket back to a career. That was a particularly hard time for me and my son, who was off-center and angry, alienated from me at losing his young father, but agreed to visit me in Springs, where I was living that autumn. "Bring him around, we'll have dinner," Kurt said, generously.
"I have a surprise for you," I said to Robert, when I picked him up at the airport.
"We're going to have dinner with Kurt Vonnegut," he said.
I was stunned. "How did you know?"
"Well, I knew he was around here and if anyone could smoke him out, it would be you."
I am so happy I smoked him out. I did not get to see him much once she was re-installed.. But I did call him the last November 11th he was still here, to wish him Happy Birthday.
"That's very neighborly of you," he said. Neighborly. What a fine fellow. He told me once when I lamented the lack of a real community, "Go to the drugstore and introduce yourself to the pharmacist, then the drycleaner. The checkout stand at the grocery guy. And you'll have your community."
"I meant a writer's community," I said.
"Well, next time you're in New York, go to Elaine's."
Happy Birthday Mr. Vonnegut.