Knox Burger and Kurt Vonnegut had been acquaintances at Cornell University in the early 1940s, when Knox was editor of the humor magazine on campus, The Widow, and Kurt was a reporter for the Cornell Daily Sun.
Both had enlisted in the Army during World War II and lost touch until, by coincidence, Vonnegut began submitting short stories to Colliers magazine in 1949 where Burger was the magazine’s fiction editor. Knox published Kurt’s first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” and found him an agent. Later, when Knox was a paperback editor, initially for Dell and next for Fawcett, he published Vonnegut when no one else would, starting with The Sirens of Titan, then Canary in a Cathouse— Vonnegut’s first short story collection— and finally Mother Night, saving Kurt from print extinction.
Without Knox Burger the editor, there may not have been Kurt Vonnegut the published author.
Burger’s friends had told me he was a tough customer: A former a sergeant with the Saipan bureau of Yank, the Army’s weekly newspaper during the war, and the first American reporter on the scene after the firebombing of Tokyo. He liked fly-fishing, stiff drinks, the company of smart women, and girlie magazines.
His home was on the nineteenth floor of an apartment building on West 15th Street in New York. The woman answering my knock was a nurse, and asked me to wait. I sat in the living room on a sofa positioned perpendicularly to a wing-backed chair. The furniture was arranged in such a way that it would seem impolite to sit in that chair.
From the other side of the apartment, Knox entered. Eighty-five-years-old, he seemed to be making an effort to walk erect and straight-backed, trying to make his cane appear unnecessary. He was average height with a solid, youthful body, despite his age. His face was disfigured from jaw surgery due to cancer, as if someone had punched him so hard that the lower half was permanently out of whack. His mouth drooped on the right side.
I rose to shake his hand, and he squeezed hard.
“What you see is the dregs of a man,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Burger’s style as an agent matched that of his clients, most of whom had started by writing tough-guy, laconic fiction for men. One of his authors, for instance, complained that he was having trouble getting his hostage-takers through five cars of a subway train in New York.
“Make it three,” Burger recommended. The novel became The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by John Godey. Later, Knox made a killing agenting Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park.
We talked for an hour about Kurt’s apprentice years as a writer, during which I got the impression Knox was cleverer than he let on. Looking over the transcript of our taped conversation, I realized that he would feign ignorance at times and I would end-up explaining everything I knew: the interviewer interviewed. I got the impression I was being tested, but for what reason?
Then abruptly he said, “Excuse me.” He rose and returned a few moments later with a two-inch stack of what looked like typewriter paper, which he put to one side of the coffee table in front of me. “Here, you’ll need these.”
He pushed the stack of paper toward me. It was copies of correspondence between him and Kurt, maybe 200 letters dating from the Colliers days until a few years before Vonnegut’s death— over fifty years’ worth, with people’s names, titles of stories, and private talk.
Burger got to his feet, signaling the end of the interview. “Stay in touch.” I thanked him and said I would see myself out. “A pleasure,” he said, giving me the grip. Then he strode, as best he could, toward the other room. I watched him go like someone exiting off the stage into the wings.
Then after he’d gone, I took from my computer case a half-a-dozen girlie magazines, still in their plastic wrappers, and put them down beside his chair.
Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt 2011).