The death of Kurt Vonnegut on April 11, caused by complications from a fall, reminded me of our brief but amiable exchange of letters, some ten years ago. Our correspondence concerned his family history and had nothing to do with his literary career—or so I thought at the time.
On a fellowship to Germany in the 1980’s, where I studied at the University of Hanover, I became curious about other Americans who had studied there. I found the records of the author’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, who trained in Germany in the 1880’s and became an important architect in Indianapolis. I passed these records on to Vonnegut, and asked if he had any of his grandfather’s drawings or letters.
Of course, Vonnegut’s defining moment, as the New York Times called it, came in 1945 when he lived through the firebombing of Dresden. Captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to the city to work in a factory, making vitamin supplements for pregnant women. When the air raids came, he survived by taking shelter in an underground meat cooler. This experience served as the basis of his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five, which used science fiction as a way of addressing the madness of war. Published in 1969, when the Vietnam war lent it particular poignancy, it made Vonnegut a literary celebrity.
In his letters to me, Vonnegut downplayed the importance of his family’s architectural career (his father was also an architect). Instead, his “family’s most beneficial contribution” was the development of the modern emergency exit. This, he wrote, was the invention of his great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, a hardware store owner who was horrified by the tragedy of the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, America’s deadliest fire. A total of 602 victims were claimed in the mad stampede to the doors, and most bodies were found piled in heaps just inside the entrance.
Clemens Vonnegut realized that the theater doors could not be operated unless one stood away from them and operated the handle, something impossible to do when being crushed against it. He conceived the idea of a strip of metal on the door, which would open it automatically whenever someone pushed up against it—or was pushed.
So was born the “panic bar.” The late Vonnegut suggested that I look for some of these on my college campus: “Some old such fixtures may still be in use at Williams, bearing the trademark ‘VONDUPRIN.’ The ‘VON’ is for Vonnegut.” He was correct. Since then I have grown accustomed to finding Vonduprin doors throughout the country.
The Iroquois Theater fire happened two decades before Vonnegut’s birth, but accounts of it clearly dominated the family’s history and his childhood. In that mythic account, architecture, fire, and death converged—as they would again in his Slaughterhouse-Five. I might have asked him about this, had it not seemed presumptuous to proceed from a cordial exchange of information to the offering of speculative literary interpretation. Such was the odd architectural background to Vonnegut’s literary career. “I would have been an architect,” he wrote in his second and last letter, “but Father told me to be anything but that.”