Tag Archives: Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut and His Super-Duper Atomic Bowtie

Mark Vonnegut has said that the father he knew growing up wasn’t a famous author. He was a family man, a struggling freelance writer, who couldn’t get a job teaching English at the local community community college. And that’s not to mention his father’s disasterous foray into selling SAAB automobiles on Cape Cod, either— another of Kurt’s attempts to make money.

For almost twenty years before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, Vonnegut was broke most of the time. (Someone claiming to be his newsboy told me he was somehow never around at the end of the month to pay for delivery.)

The poignancy of how success and the comfort of money eluded him year after year can be summed up in a tale, here told for the first time: Kurt Vonnegut’s idea for an atomic bowtie (alas, another anecdote that didn’t make final draft of his biography). In 1950, Vonnegut was sure that a bowtie polka-dotted with the symbol for nuclear energy would be a big seller and bring him money he so desperately needed to keep writing and supporting his family.

Science to the rescue!

You might be tempted to scoff at the idea as unworthy of a writer who would later became famous for his earth-friendly pronouncements. “We could have saved the earth,” he fumed later in life, “but we were too damned cheap.” In 1950, however, like most Americans, Vonnegut was simultaneously awe-struck, intrigued and darkly humorous about anything atomic. To appreciate how that could be, you have to put on a pair of Eisenhower-era X-Ray Specs (if only they really worked!), as biographers often try to do, and peer into the past.

By the the mid-twentieth century, Americans had waded through the muck of the Great Depression and then World War II. In the early Fifties, a desire to be done with self-sacrifice and world war released a sense of fantastic acceleration. The word “super” captured the feeling of technology coupled with a better life.

“Super” suggested “modern,” “unstoppable” and somehow even “uniquely American.” New super highways tempted drivers to streak coast-to-coast in a matter of days. Supermarkets groaned with food choices while parts of the world were near-starvation; the United States became the first uncontested superpower; and when jets penetrated the invisible barrier of sound with a thunderous crack, Americans learned to say “supersonic.”

In fact, no development could have been more emblematic of this giddy and anxious era than the atomic bomb, the ripping apart of matter itself.

The atomic bomb had been dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force a Japanese surrender in 1945. Then in July 1946 the United States exploded two more at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, primarily as a warning to the Soviet Union to back-off. The word “atomic” became synonymous with supernatural, frightening, thrilling, and yet a full-bore, world-wide demonstration of American strength and know-how.

Popular culture and business tried to cash-in on the excitement. During the five years afteratomic-toy Hiroshima, a dozen songs on the radio used “atom” or “atomic” in the title including, “Jesus Hit Like the Atomic Bomb.” Toy manufacturers hustled to get plastic and tin atomic cannons, robots, guns, and submarines— many of them made in Japan— on department store shelves.

Vonnegut’s idea of selling bow ties occurred to him suddenly, judging from his correspondence. The inspiration came from noticing the ribbon used to mark off “hot areas” in radioactive sites. He got a few feet of it, priced out the cost (fifty cents apiece), made a sample bowtie, and mailed it to his friend from college, S. Miller Harris, whose family owned Eagle Shirt Company.

Quality, he assured Harris, wouldn’t be a concern— it wasn’t supposed to be a sartorial statement, just a fad. He sketched out a publicity campaign, calling into play his skills as a former public relations writer for General Electric.

First, they would give one of the bowties to every member of the Atomic Energy Commission (perfect photo op); then they would get a Hollywood high school cheerleading team to choose the teen idol they’d most like to be in a nuclear reactor with. They would send the heartthrob who won the vote a bowtie and take a picture of him wearing it, surrounded by the star-stuck girls. It would be called the Bobby Soxer Oscar.

Harris, who’s family had been in the shirt business for a long time, took a pass on the idea. Kurt dropped it too after that, but like Jimmy Durante said about his jokes, when it came to brainstorms, Vonnegut “had a million of ‘em.”

Fortunately, he put them in his fiction instead of trying to sell them, but the big payoff was a long time coming.





How Vonnegut’s Family Made a Fortune in Beer, and Lost It When the Bubble Burst

On his mother’s side, Kurt Vonnegut’s ancestors were the Liebers of Indianapolis. The Liebers’ story in the United States was similar to the Vonneguts— German immigrants who found their feet quickly in business.

But an interesting difference was that whereas the Vonnegut side tended toward civic responsibility and improvement, the Lieber side was hell-bent on making money as fast and as profitably as possible. Wealth would elevate them quickly into the German-American aristocracy of Indianapolis, which Kurt indicated to me, and also in his writings, that he was proud to be part of when he was young.

How the Lieber side of the family eventually realized their dream of riches was by creating an ocean of beer in the Midwest.

The gargantuan Indiana Brewing Company made millionaires of Vonnegut's maternal side of the family, until the bubble burst with Prohibition in 1919.

The gargantuan Indiana Brewing Company made millionaires of Vonnegut’s maternal side of the family, until the bubble burst with Prohibition in 1919.

Peter Lieber, Kurt’s immigrant great-grandfather, purchased an Indianapolis brewery in 1865. Peter knew nothing about making beer, but Midwesterners— half of whom were German and Irish— were thirsty to drink it. Lieber found investors, hired a German who was an expert brewmaster, and arranged to have his product capped in a bottling factory owned by an in-law. To make the taste of beer from P. Lieber & Company distinctive from the hundreds of other small breweries in the region, a secret ingredient was added during the brewing process: a pinch of coffee. Lieber named his beer Dusseldorfer, and his small-time brewery grew into the giant Indianapolis Brewing Company. In 1900, Dusseldorfer beer won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition, and Peter retired to (where else?) Dusseldorf, Germany.

Now, with his father out of the way, son Albert Lieber was free to milk the company. He discovered that he shared something in common with the representative of the British syndicate owning the Indianapolis Brewery Company— both men were corrupt. The pair agreed to create a special account for off-the-books expenditures. Under item “ice,” they would put their personal expenses for leisure.

Albert used “ice” to build Vellamada on the White River outside Indianapolis, a 400-acre summer residence with hunting grounds. He used it to make under-the-table payments to his coppersmiths from the brewery to build gorgeous guesthouses at Vellamada. “Ice” paid for servants, an English butler, horses, a liveried footman, carriages and automobiles.

Booth Tarkington, 'Wet-Ass Club' Alumnus

Booth Tarkington, ‘Wet-Ass Club’ Alumnus

In town, he used “ice” to finance good times with Indianapolis’s fun boys who belonged to his league of merrymakers, the “W-A” or “Wet-Ass” club. Initiates were led blindfolded to a spot in the brewery and then had their butts blasted with beer from a spigot. Novelist Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons), an Indianapolis native received his special gold W-A pin this way. Said a family historian, Albert “entertained his friends without thought of cost: the choicest viands, rare wines, flowers, the whitest linens and choicest porcelain chinaware. He soon acquired the reputation of a millionaire who counted the cost of nothing.”

Somehow, Albert’s profligacy hardly made a dent in the treasury of the huge Indianapolis Brewing Company. The sums he tossed around in conversation were staggering, if true. An advertisement in the Indianapolis Star in 1914 boasted that the brewery employed five hundred workers to produce thirty million bottles of beer annually, and used two hundred and ten draft horses to pull the cases to warehouses.

The party ended suddenly when Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, usheringprohibition1-1 in the era of Prohibition. Within a decade, the Indianapolis Brewery Company, and Albert Lieber, were ruined. Had Albert diversified somehow, he might have avoided disaster, but the name Lieber was writ in beer. Albert sold Vellamada in 1920.

The taste of the award-winning Dusseldorfer was enjoyed one more time more, however. In 1996, while Kurt was exhibiting some of his prints in Denver, Colorado, a local microbrewery, Wynkoop, bottled a special beer for the occasion, brewed with a pinch of coffee after the recipe used by Vonnegut’s great-grandfather, Peter. Vonnegut drew a self-portrait for the label. The name of the beer was Kurt’s Mile-High Malt.