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.
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 after 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.