Kurt Vonnegut Walks Into a Bar

Terry McDonell recalls how the legendary writer handled his Scotch and his fans.

Kurt Vonnegut smoking

The following is excerpted from The Accidental Life by Terry McDonell, out in paperback today. Electric Literature has partnered with McDonell to create terrymcdonell.com, which chronicles his storied career as a magazine editor with photos, memorabilia, and reflections not found in the memoir.

I was on the corner of Third Avenue and Forty-eighth Street, and Kurt Vonnegut was coming toward me, walking his big, loose-boned walk. It was fall and turning cold and he looked a little unbalanced in his overcoat, handsome but tousled, with long curly hair and a heavy mustache that sometimes hid his grin. I could tell he saw me by his shrug, which he sometimes used as a greeting.

I was on my way to buy dinner for some Newsweek writers who were suspicious of me as their new assistant managing editor. I had been brought in from Rolling Stone, and no one at Newsweek had heard of me. I didn’t know them either, but I knew Kurt, who was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York. We were neighbors on Forty-eighth Street, where he lived in a big townhouse in the middle of the block, and he’d invite me over for drinks. I had gotten him to contribute to Rolling Stone by keeping an eye out for his speeches and radio appearances and then suggesting ways they could be retooled as essays.

“Come have dinner,” I said. “I’ve got some Newsweek writers who would love to meet you.”

“Not in the mood,” Kurt said.

“They’re fans,” I said. “It’s part of your job.”

Kurt lit a Pall Mall and gave me a look, one of his favorites, amused but somehow saddened by the situation. He could act, Kurt.

“Think of it as a favor to me,” I said. “They’re not sure about me, and I’ve edited you.”

“Sort of,” he said, and I knew he had already had a couple drinks.

He never got mean, but he got honest.

“What else are you doing for dinner?” I said, knowing he seldom made plans.

“The last thing I need is ass kissing,” Kurt said.

“That’s what I’m doing right now.”

“They’ll want to know which novel I like best.”

“Cat’s Cradle,” I said.

“Wrong.” He flipped the Pall Mall into Forty-eighth Street, and we started walking together toward the restaurant.

The writers were already at the table, drinks in front of them. They looked up when we came in, surprised to see Kurt with me. There were six or eight of them, including the columnist Pete Axthelm, who was my only ally going into Newsweek because I knew him from Runyon’s, a bar in our neighborhood where everyone called him Ax.

I introduced Kurt around.

“Honored,” Ax said, or something like that, and the ass kissing began.

The social dynamic of any table of writers, I had already learned, was dependent on the charity of the dominant writer, in this case clearly Kurt, who was both self-deprecating and blunt. The waiter came but no one ordered food. The empty Scotch glasses were backing up. The writers asked Kurt about his work habits, his hours, stuff like that. When did he write?

“All the time,” Kurt said. “That’s all I do.” He let that settle, stirred his drink with a long finger and added, “You could say I’m writing now.”

That last sentence had an edge but it was intimate too, almost generous, the way Kurt said it. Everyone nodded, and some loose talk followed about deadlines and guys who had trouble meeting them. Axthelm, who had started as a sportswriter, said he’d heard a story about how Kurt had worked briefly at Sports Illustrated before it launched, when the editors were going through the exercise of putting an issue together every week, practicing to go live. Part of the story was that the managing editor, Sidney James, had hired a collection of established sportswriters from around the country, but they couldn’t write well enough. So then he hired a few pros living in New York City, but these guys didn’t know sports. That was Kurt’s group, and Kurt cocked his head: yes, he had needed the money.

The heart of the story was that Kurt was assigned a short piece about a racehorse that had jumped the fence in mid-race and attempted to escape the track. Ax stopped there to note that it was obviously not much of a story and the details were sketchy — a stupid nothing of a piece, the kind editors were always dialing up hoping to get a little humor into the mix. Someone asked if Kurt had had reporter files to write from, had anyone been on the scene to report back with some detail for him to use? Kurt didn’t remember. Ax shrugged. The waiter was back, also listening to the story.

“So Kurt sits there at his desk all morning in the Time and Life Building,” Ax went on, his punch line in sight. “He’s thinking, and he’s thinking about what he’s doing and finally he types one sentence and leaves. That’s it, and he’s not coming back. One sentence on an otherwise blank page still in the typewriter: ‘The horse jumped over the fucking fence.’ ”

It was a story about Kurt, but it was also about what Ax called “newsweekly fuckedupedness,” by which he meant contempt for writers by silly editors who didn’t know what they wanted. More drinks were ordered. Ax said Kurt was the inspiration for how he was going to quit, too, when it came time, which would be soon because of the even worse and increasing fuckedupedness at Newsweek.

Kurt got that and smiled but there was something in the way he looked at the faces around the table, something now not quite right about his place at that table. Maybe Kurt had heard the story too many times. Or maybe he just didn’t like the idea that Ax knew the story. Ax picked up on this too and as the waiter was now, finally, taking food orders, he started talking about how much he loved all of Kurt’s novels and could recite from them and wanted to ask Kurt a really lame question that he knew was lame but that we would all want to know the answer to.

“Of all your work, everything you’ve done, what’s your favorite novel, or maybe just which one do you like best now?”

“Good,” Kurt said, and stood up from the table. “Cat’s Cradle.”

He lifted his glass of Scotch as if in a toast but wouldn’t look down at me, sitting to his right. “I think you’re all moderately gifted.”

And he left.

From THE ACCIDENTAL LIFE by Terry McDonell. Copyright © 2016 by Terry McDonell. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Now available in paperback from Vintage Books.

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