“Dear Jim Wolfe –”
Kurt Vonnegut’s correspondence with my father.
The dawn of email meant the Era of Great Letters was over. But I have a few of the last ones. They’re typed on a onion-skin paper on a Coronamatic 2200 and sent from Kurt Vonnegut to my father. The Vonnegut letters are appearing here for the first time.
You don’t need a long history of Dad, just enough to set the stage and understand why Vonnegut would find him worth corresponding with. Jim Wolfe was an imp of Irish ancestry. He never worked in a factory but was a union man for 45 years. As a postal clerk in Louisville, he quickly rose through the union ranks to publish the clerks’ newsletter, something that turned out to be key in revitalize the sagging union. At the same time he was relegated to an office in “Siberia” for his refusal to toe the line and turned down a promotion intended as a bribe to get him to stop publishing his writing that threatened the status quo. He went on to work for the Kentucky Federation of Labor where he met my mother (a union rep at a clothing factory) at a convention.
On us moving to Cincinnati, he worked as Education and Research Director for the Brewer Workers’ Union and then the Molders’ Union. With his two years of college education (including one at Oxford) he was the most educated man in the office (All of the officers had worked the line and rose through the ranks, but many never graduated high school).
As a self-motivator, Dad was free to create his own excessive workload. He authored papers, took over newsletters, spoke at union conventions, organized conferences, invited union leaders from around the world to our house for dinner and manned the American labor booth at Expo ’67 in Montreal (the summer he quit smoking).
Around 1979, as a constant committee-joiner and influencer, Dad had a position on the nominating committee for the Eugene V. Debs Award. It’s given out annually in Terre Haute, Indiana to those who contribute to the advancement of industrial unionism, social justice and world peace. Past recipients had included Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Nader and Julian Bond. As US union membership was waning with manufacturing jobs going overseas, he decided to focus on giving the award to the people who were putting the union struggle in front of the public. Some of the winners during his tenure were singer Pete Seeger, writer Studs Terkel, actor Ed Asner, director John Sayles and writer Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s contribution was Walter F. Starbuck’s labor union history in Jailbird. Kurt was awarded the Debs award in 1981.
Dad and Vonnegut (7 years Dad’s younger) remained penpals for a dozen years until Dad’s death in 1994. My father wrote multi-page letters and Vonnegut hammered back a paragraph or two. Some of Kurt’s replies and most of Dad’s original letters were lost. What’s presented here is what I’ve unearthed.
August 4, 1981
Dear Jim Wolfe –
A fellow Irishman, Tom Wicker of the NY TIMES, a friend of mine, is finishing up a huge (and almost certainly wonderful) novel about the Civil War. He began with family materials such as your great-grandmother gave you, and then immersed himself in letters and diaries and newspapers of the period. I don’t know if he will say so anywhere in the book, but every speech or thought in it of any importance will actually be a quotation from such sources. Wicker will not be guessing.
You are mistaken to call yourself a frustrated writer, since you have published so much. Nobody has gotten in your way – least of all yourself. Imagine all the bitter, close-to-exploding human beings who simply cannot get the language to work for them at all. The Irish have a tragic history, surely, but they have had an easier time with language, and more fun with it, than any other nationality I can name. It just pours out of an Irishman, and sounds like birds or brooks or breaking waves.
I have received two handsome black ashtrays from your union. I assume you sent them. They are much appreciated. How did you know I smoked.
To give you an idea of how high I have risen in our society – I had supper last night at the Mayor’s Mansion with our mayor Ed Koch, who is a sort of friend. I have a cousin, also from Indianapolis, who is his advance man. Most of the other people were lawyers. Koch, running a sort of seminar during dinner, had us recite about the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike. I said that every major advance by labor in most parts of the world had been earned by strikes in the face of laws which protected the public by making it illegal to strike. People struck anyway. Koch felt that Reagan was wrong to refuse to speak to the strikers. Koch will talk to anybody about anything at any time. He is a sort of Jesuit. He likes to argle-bargle. But he also has a policy, which he has implemented once so far, or fining the piss out of workers and unions once the strike is over.
I’d have to agree that Dad calling himself a frustrated writer was somewhat of a stretch. In addition to the speeches and papers, he referred to himself as a professional letter writer especially letters to the editor that were regularly printed in the Cincinnati Post and the conservative Cincinnati Enquirer, often more frequently than their paid columnists. Back in those days papers listed your address at the tail of your letter and every phone number was listed in the White Pages. At age 5, I was trained to answer the phone and proudly picked it up only to get a death threat for one of Dad’s letters in the paper. Later Mom told me that in conservative Cincinnati hate-calls to the house were a common occurrence, but she tried her best to shield me and my sister from them.
Kurt’s reference to my great-great-grandmother is the tales she told about the Civil War from when she was in her 20s. She would gather the kids around and regale while Dad (a student of history from the time he could read) would frustrate her with details that didn’t add up. Unto This Hour was Tom Wickers’ novel, published in 1984.
In 1981 Reagan dealt a huge blow to American labor unions when he shut down the air-traffic controllers strike.
The ashtrays were little, cast-iron skillet shapes as I recall. The “How did you know I smoked” was a joke. If Vonnegut’s fingers weren’t on typewriter keys, they had a filterless Pall Mall between them. Smoking in public was normal at the time.
In 1983, Vonnegut spoke at Northern Kentucky University and my sister and I took Dad to see him before his speech. As you can see, Jim Wolfe was more than a head shorter than Vonnegut. Despite his many honors that he seemed to ignore, Vonnegut talked proudly of winning the Debs award. I asked him about the idea of taking NKU’s $6,000 speaking fee that night. He noted that colleges were not as poor as you might think and were paying questionable political figures ten times that much. So he was not only a more thoughtful speaker than flash-in-the-pan conservatives of that day, but a bargain. It also meant a few less opportunities for conservatives to congest the college speaking circuit.
Vonnegut lit a filterless and I asked him, if at 61, why he’d felt no ill effects from his smoking. He thought his passion for swimming as a kid had given him big, healthy lungs that cancer found tough to bring down. Kentucky (the tobacco-producing state where he spoke) still has no statewide bans in place.
He talked with joy about the private adoption he and wife Jill Krementz had just gone through to get their daughter Lily who would go on to become an noted actress. He later joked to Dad in a letter that if anything should happen to him and Jill that he directed that Lily “should be raised by Jim Wolfe in Cincinnati”. I’d read the letter long ago, but haven’t found a copy.
October 18, 1985
You should have had a warm letter from me in hand at the moment of your retirement. I have such respect for what you have done with your life so far and am honored to have you for a friend. You have been remarkably stubborn about remaining fair and sane, no matter what. What an ideal American!
If you are not as famous as you deserve to be, the explanation is simple and appallingly American: you did not go on television enough. That is the whole ballgame now.
Cheers and love –
Dad retired from the Molder’s Union in ’85. The brass held a retirement roast that didn’t go off as planned: No one had a joke to lampoon him. Was he perfect? Of course not. But he often put others before himself, so our family had to share him with the world.
The reference to television is likely to the notoriety that TV interviews could bring someone at the time. In 1985 CBS’ 60 Minutes killed in its time slot and was the 4th most popular TV show overall. Barbara Walters interviews on ABC’s 20/20 were also legendary.
March 23, 1986
Dear Jim –
I thank vou for that whiff of a Nobel Prize. The opening line of my acceptance speech would be this: “You have made me an old, old man.” Nobel’s intent, of course, was to make extremely capable persons in their primes independent of patrons. The Swedes have protected themselves from errors in judgement by awarding the prize for literature to person’s whose work is all done. Why guess about what somebody might do in the future? Physicists and chemists and biologists who haven’t won by the time they’re thirty-five, on the other hand, don’t have a chance. They are thought to burn out early.
Dad “nominating” Kurt for a Nobel was probably around the publication of Galapagos released the year before.
August 22, 1986
Dear Jim –
It would be ugly to honor our friendship on the basis of its utility. Still, I have to say that you have been of real use to me, and very recently. The stuff about the production out that way of ROSEWATER arrived in time for me to take it to a meeting last night with a writer and two producers who want to turn the book into a movie. One problem with my work, as one of the reviewers noted was my morals may seem too intrusive and idiosyncratic for the tastes of many people. So we agreed that the script writer should tone those down. We want a hit not a flop.
As for the idealism of you and Sylvis and Debs and so on: It seems to me that it can’t be part of the dialectic because of the perpetual state of war in this country, where we were raised for the total destruction of any opponents. When I was at General Electric, the truly manly executives, much admired by women, wanted nothing less from the unions than unconditional surrender. They’ve got it now, and what Reagan has given us is an army of occupation, whose members are rounding up the last of the liberals, and displaying them in chains and comical costumes to jeering crowds. Placards might be hung around their necks , saying, “While there is a lower class I am in it –” and so on.
Thanks again for your friendship, useful or not.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was published in 1964. Dad noted in his previous letter to Kurt that the play of Rosewater was opening in Cincinnati in a couple of months and that he had tickets. And like many great stories, the movie of it was never made.
Vonnegut had worked at GE as a technical writer and publicist early in his career.
When Dad retired, he started the Sylvis Society, a nonprofit honoring William Sylvis. Sylvis was founder of the International Iron Molders’ Union and was instrumental is founding the National Labor Union in 1866, the first America-wide labor organization. Sylvis’ greatest accomplishment was establishing the 8-hour work day. Dad’s initial goal with the society was republishing Sylvis’ biography Pioneer of American Labor by Johnathan P. Grossman. Grossman happily gave him the copyright and the book was quickly back in print. The Sylvis Society published a few more books and organized conferences and symposiums.
As ambitious as the society was, the staff consisted of only Dad (who would skip a day when his crippling arthritis was acting up) and Jim Cebula, a neighbor and history professor at the University of Cincinnati.
April 12, 1987
Dear Jim –
Always good to hear from you. Letters from you and a few others living in the boondocks, away from this tiny island, are comforting reminders that this country still has a big flywheel of decency and common sense.
I have just finished a book about an Armenian-American painter, who concludes near the end of his life that nobody really lives here, that everybody, no matter how long his family has been here, has the idea in the back of his mind that he is going to loot this virgin continent and then go home a rich man. Secretly every American looks at his fellow citizens as a bunch of dumb Indians who don’t know the value of what they have, and so deserve to be diddled.
On this island, of course, the principal activity is the liquidation of the continent’s assets. The commission and legal fees are tremendous, and well within the law. There is no need to cheat.
P.S. – I enclose a blasphemous piece from the December 1986 North American Review
Vonnegut had two houses. The one on the tiny island was in Manhattan at 228 East 48th Street (now Kurt Vonnegut Way) where he lived for 40 years. The piece he’s referring to is Requiem: The Hocus Pocus Laundromat by Kurt, John F. Collins and Jacob Landau.
To put the “…looks at his fellow Americans as a bunch of dumb Indians…” line into context: Vonnegut is lampooning the false narrative sadly created by the American cowboy movie. As comedian Jonathan Winters said in his stereotypical Native American chief voice when asked what his people wanted most: “Ten minutes alone with John Wayne.” At the time of this letter the term Native American hadn’t taken hold and Indian was still considered acceptable in society.
March 22, 1990
Dear Jim –
Always good to hear from you and I don’t reply nearly as often as I should. You are invariably interesting and warm.
I have finished yet another novel, Hocus Pocus, which will be out next September. It took me three and a half years, and felt like ambulatory pneumonia for the whole of that time. It is about a West Pointer who was in charge of the evacuation from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon. He resigns his commission and becomes a teacher in a little college for very dumb rich kids in upstate New York. Across the lake is a prison which grows ever more enormous and crowded. In the year 2000 there is a mass escape. Practically everything in the country, including the prison, is owned by the Japanese.
The Pantheon tempest-in-a-teapot tragedy is yet another demonstration of the thuggishness of ownership for the sake of ownership. There are all these people who have enough money to buy simply anything, but have no sympathy or genuine enthusiasm for the beauty and usefulness of their properties. Friends of mine say the issue with Pantheon was political. I only wish it were. It was accountancy. As Abe Martin, the Hoosier humorist said, “When somebody says it ain’t the money, it’s the money.” First God died, and then politics. What next?
P.S. – Hocus Pocus is dedicated to the memory of Eugene Debs and I quote him: “While there is a lower class…” etc.
The full quote is While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Debs was founder of the Industrial Workers of the World and imprisoned for six months for his involvement in the Pullman Strike of 1894, despite being represented in trial by Clarence Darrow. Ironically Debs had discouraged members from striking, but was overruled.
To put the “everything…is owned by the Japanese” comment into context, at the time news stories were rampant about Japanese businessmen buying up Hawaii.
Imprints of Random House published Vonnegut’s books. Pantheon was another they’d consumed. Dad had written to Kurt about the Pantheon controversy a few weeks earlier when editor Andre Schiffrin refused to drop titles and reduce his staff. He was invited to resign. Pantheon was the premier publishing house of liberal thought at the time. The move put cash-over-content and foretold of changes to come in the publishing industry.
February 23, 1992
Dear Jim –
What a good pal you are. I was slightly misquoted in your local paper. What I said was, “Educating a beautiful woman is like pouring honey in a fine Swiss watch. Everything stops.” That’s a line from a play of mine.
You have such high ideals that you never talk about women in your notes to me anyway. The writer Günter Grass told me a while back that everything in his life was going great except for the woman thing. Such is my situation too. I am out here on the permafrost of Long Island with only a white male cat for steady company.
A friend of mine on Cape Cod was the roommate of George Bush in prep school and then at Yale. He says Bush has no center, no core of beliefs. He is no prize himself. All he does is make hand-carved, hand-painted models of fish, which are sure a lot simpler than Fokker tri-wings or clipper ships.
The line is from Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
As for “the woman thing”, he and Jill were married from 1979 until his death in 2007. Kurt suffered from depression most of his life.
The Bush was George Senior, elected three years earlier in 1989.
Vonnegut’s other house was in Sagaponack on the north end of Long Island. His last two mailings had a return address from a PO box there.
Index card postmarked December 9, 1992:
Merry Christmas to you, you feisty, unchurched old pro-union geezer. What one dares not say about Elliot Abrams and his darling wife is that they have caricatured themselves as an anti-Semite might have done. I worry about people who feel nothing when causing the deaths of others. Churchill, when Home Secretary, had to sign death warrants for people sentenced to hang. He said he always “slept like a baby” afterwards.
Elliot Abrams was a foreign policy advisor to both Ronald Reagan and George Bush and married to artist Rachel Decter, a radical Zionist. Abrams was Jewish and born to Democrat parents, but became a staunch conservative. The comment was likely about the killing of Palestinians. In 1992, 19 Israeli civilians and 15 Israeli armed forces were killed in Palestine. The same year 136 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army and two more were killed by Israeli civilians. This trend would increase on both sides the following year.
I called Kurt in 1994 to let him know that Dad had passed. He spoke of grabbing a bite to eat a dozen years earlier on Debs Award weekend and helping Dad with his chronic knees across a busy, divided highway amid honking cars in Terre Haute to get there. So much for Hoosier Hospitality.
Kurt sent this to me shortly after the call:
Dear Kevin - -
The news of your dear dear father’s death is both terrible and beautiful, since he lived so intelligently and decently. I customarily say in lectures that what makes life almost worth living for me is the saints I meet almost any time, almost anywhere. Your father was prominent among the saints I’ve met. So American! It’s as tough to be a humanist as it is to be a First Amendment absolutist. How I wish there were a heaven now, so your old dad could be there. But doing what for all Eternity? Aye, there’s the rub.
Dad’s influence on giving the Debs Award to those in the media who put the spotlight on unions continued after his passing. Later the honor would go to columnist Jim Hightower, playwright Howard Zinn, humorist Molly Ivins, actor Robert Duvall and actor Danny Glover.
It was four years after Dad’s death that I met documentarian Michael Moore, while I was producing the Gary Burbank Show at WLW radio in Cincinnati. He and his crew came by to film part of The Big One, about his book tour and probably his worst movie. (I’m in the movie for almost a full fourth-of-a-second). I told Micheal that Dad had pushed for him to get the Debs award for his groundbreaking Roger and Me. I think he almost cried. It was a pets-or-meat moment for both of us.