When in Indianapolis, visit best seller author Kurt Vonnegut’s neighborhood. His home is privately owned now and can be seen from the street at 4401 N. Illinois St. Shortridge High School is still in operation at 3401 N. Meridian. There is now a Kurt Vonnegut mural by artist Pamela Bliss at 345 Massachusetts Ave and the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library at 340 N. Senate St., Indianapolis. The museum is a very interesting place with knowledgeable hosts. Website is vonnegutlibrary.org .
In 1930 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was eight years old. His family was hit by the economically crippling winds of the Great Depression and Prohibition. Their upper class aristocratic life was crashing because of economics. Kurt, Sr. was not getting enough new design work as an architect and his income was shrinking. Mother, Edith Lieber Vonnegut, was an heiress to the Lieber Distillery, owned by her father, Albert. Prohibition closed down the distillery. Edith refused or could not cut back on expenses. She continued to throw extravagant parties for her Junior League society friends and then couldn’t pay the butcher or grocer. The family fortune soon dwindled, leading eventually to Edith’s depression and 1944 suicide.
Kurt’s father and grandfather Bernard, were both talented architects and had designed many important buildings in Indianapolis. There is some controversy on who designed Kurt’s family home. After some research, the Kurt Vonnegut Library & Museum has decided that Kurt, Sr. designed this wonderful three story Arts & Crafts house at 4401 N. Illinois St. in Indianapolis. A leaded glass window in the front door bears his parents’ monogram, and the entire family left their hand prints in cement outside the back door. The family moved in 1923 and during the depression they were forced to put the home up for sale in 1930; it was difficult to sell. From that point on, Kurt, Jr. remembered his parents were always quarreling in the master bedroom. In 1938 they moved to 49 West 42nd St. Then in 1940 they moved to a home on Ridge Road in William Creek. Both his parents were affected deeply by their economic misfortune. His father withdrew from normal life and became what Kurt called a “dreamy artist”. His mother became depressed, withdrawn, bitter, and abusive. She labored to regain the family’s wealth and status, and Kurt said she expressed hatred “as corrosive as hydrochloric acid” for his father. Their marriage was definitely circling the drain. Edith Vonnegut plunged into writing and tried to sell short stories to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post but she received nothing but rejection letters.
Though Kurt’s family was of German decent, his family never mentioned their German heritage. And, they never encouraged the children to learn German. In fact, the teaching of the German language was dropped from all public high schools. Even German restaurants changed their names. Grandfather Bernard designed the Das Deutsche Haus. Its name was changed to the Athenaeum during this period. It’s located at 401 E. Michigan St. The Rathskellar is a great German restaurant and bar currently located inside the Athenaeum; the food is very good. America had fought WWI against Germany and the public wanted nothing to do with Germany. The German culture was lost to Kurt. The anti-German sentiment was so strong that his parents raised him “without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of patriotism.” In his home were lots of great books to read. His favorite were plays by George Bernard Shaw. He especially liked reading the prefaces. At age 12 he discovered Aristotle’s views on women. He laughed as he said, “it was rather dirty”.
The three children were all attending private schools. Bernard was attending Park School and Alice was attending Tudor Hall School for Girls. Because they had so many years invested in their schools, their parents allowed the two older children to finish at these schools. Kurt finished the third grade at Orchard Country Day School. Because his parents could no longer afford tuition for him, he was then enrolled in public school 43 (James Whitcomb Riley Elementary). It was a few blocks from his home. Kurt’s mother wanted to reassure her son that after the Depression he would be back with his upper class friends of society. Kurt loved his public school. “She could not understand,” he said, “that to give up my friends at Public School No. 43…would be for me to give up everything.” Then Kurt went on to Shortridge High School in 1936.
Kurt really liked Shortridge. “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of. Great teachers at Shortridge were celebrities. I would look up to them.” Kurt commented, “Shortridge High School was an elitist high school. In a way it was a scandal because you could go there no matter where you lived, if you could get there. It was for over achievers. It was for people who were going to college. So we were very special and we were hated for being ritzy.” The school newspaper had been going on at Shortridge since 1906. “My parents had also worked on the Shortridge Daily Echo. The way it came into being was that when they built Shortridge High School, they had a vocational department and they had a print shop.” The Daily Echo was one of the few daily high school newspapers in the nation. During his junior and senior years, Kurt was co-editor of the Tuesday edition of the Daily Echo. The other co-editor was Ben Hitz, a grade school buddy from Orchard. Madelyn Pugh was also one of the daily editors in Kurt’s class. She went on to become a lead writer for the “I Love Lucy” show. Both Madelyn and Kurt were in the Fiction Club together; the club encouraged and nurtured their writing.
Kurt said his student term with the “Echo” allowed him to write for a larger audience, his fellow students. An experience he said was “fun and easy”. “It just turned out that I could write better than a lot of other people,” Vonnegut observed. “Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.” Kurt graduated from Shortridge in 1940. Growing up in Indianapolis was very important to Kurt. Upon revisiting Indianapolis in 1986, he told an audience: “All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” It has been observed that in most of Vonnegut’s books there is a character from Indianapolis, even in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
“So it goes.”