In recent weeks, I have seen several references on social media to an article that claims the Red Key Tavern was Kurt Vonnegut’s hangout. Can you confirm or deny this information? ~ Peter D., Indianapolis
Although the January 21, 2014, listing on BuzzFeed’s “12 Historic Bars Every Book Nerd Needs To Visit” is a nice plug for both Indianapolis and the Red Key Tavern, the supposed reason for this accolade is not supported by any facts whatsoever. It simply is not possible that the Red Key was Kurt Vonnegut’s “favorite watering hole,” or that regulars could have “. . . seen him writing and drinking in his booth.” Neither the events in Kurt’s life nor their locations are consistent with his hanging out at the Red Key Tavern. His whereabouts over the years will be chronicled below. In addition, details about the Red Key Tavern — an establishment that did not even exist until several years after Kurt had left Indianapolis — will totally refute BuzzFeed’s claim.
Born in November of 1922, Kurt Vonnegut was only 17 years old when he was graduated from Shortridge High School in June of 1940. He was not old enough to drink in a bar in the summer after high school. Once Kurt left his hometown for college in the fall of 1940, he did not ever physically reside in Indianapolis again for any length of time. He came home on vacation breaks from Cornell University, but his trips to Indianapolis were brief sojourns from his college studies. Also, the legal drinking age in Indiana was 21 in the 1940s, and Kurt was still a minor throughout the entire time he attended Cornell University.
Kurt dropped out of Cornell University in 1942 and enlisted in the Army. In 1943, the Army sent him to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to study engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Later in 1943, the Army sent Kurt to Europe to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, a period in his life that is well-known to Vonnegut followers. He was captured by the Germans late in 1944 and was detained in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden until May of 1945. Kurt returned to Indianapolis after his release from the POW camp in 1945, and married his childhood sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. By December of 1945, the couple moved to Chicago, where Kurt attended the University of Chicago and worked for a Chicago news bureau.
In 1947, Kurt and Jane moved to Schenectady, New York, where Kurt worked for General Electric. Son Mark and daughter Edith were born in Schenectady. Kurt’s first short story was published in Collier’s in 1950, before the Vonneguts left Schenectady. In 1951, Kurt made the decision to resign from his corporate job and devote all of his time to writing. The family moved to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, first to Osterville and then to Barnstable. In a January 2011 article in Yankee Magazine, daughter Edie Vonnegut is quoted as saying of her father, “He wanted to write, and he wanted to live by the sea.” In 1952, Kurt’s first novel, Player Piano, was published. In 1954, younger daughter Nanette was born.
Kurt’s father, Kurt Vonnegut Sr., died in 1956, after which time there were no immediate family members left in Indianapolis to compel Kurt Jr. to return for the kinds of family gatherings that people often go “home” — events like relatives’ weddings, graduations, milestone birthdays, babies, and the like. Subsequent trips to Indianapolis were to visit lifelong childhood friends, attend Shortridge High School reunions, appear at speaking engagements, and receive awards. On those occasions, Kurt was usually on a schedule, and he would not have had any free time to hang out in local a bar, “. . . writing and drinking in his booth.”
In 1958, Kurt’s sister Alice and brother-in-law, James Carmalt Adams, tragically died within forty-eight hours of one another. Kurt and Jane then adopted three of the Adamses’ four children. Throughout the 1950s, Kurt’s life was filled with parenting and writing, the latter activity including the aforementioned Player Piano (also known as Utopia), Sirens of Titan, Canary in A Cathouse, and Welcome to the Monkey House. His life centered in and around Barnstable, Massachusetts, which is about 965 miles away from the Red Key Tavern. Although Kurt visited Indianapolis from time-to-time and may have at some time dropped in at the Red Key Tavern, it’s simply not physically possible that he was ever in the area long enough to make the Red Key — or any other Indianapolis bar, for that matter — his “favorite watering hole.”
In 1965, Kurt temporarily resided in Iowa City, Iowa, while he taught at the prestigious Writers’ Workship at the University of Iowa. In 1967, he returned to Dresden on a fellowship to do research for his book, Slaughterhouse-Five. Besides Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt also completed Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater during the 1960s, all written on the Cape.
In 1970, Kurt taught creative writing at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his play, “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” opened on Broadway. In 1971, Jane and he separated, and Kurt moved to New York City. For the remainder of his life, his primary residence was Manhattan, which is about 715 miles from the Red Key Tavern. In 1972, the feature-length film based on Kurt’s book, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was released. In 1973 and 1974, he was a professor at City University of New York. Kurt also completed Breakfast of Champions in 1973 and Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons in 1974, both written in New York.
In 1979, Jane and Kurt were divorced. Kurt married Jill Krementz by year’s end. In 1982, Kurt and Jill adopted a daughter, Lily. In 1997, the novel Timequake was published. In 2000, Kurt joined the faculty of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was also hospitalized in 2000, following a fire in his New York home. In the remaining years of his life, recognition of the man and his work continued to grow. Kurt was honored by the Indiana Historical Society as an Indiana Living Legend, named the state author of New York, was part of an art exhibit at the Indianapolis Art Center, and was inducted into the Shortridge High School Hall of Fame. In 2007, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library designated 2007 as “The Year of Vonnegut.” He made periodic trips to Indianapolis whenever honors were being bestowed upon him, but Kurt Vonnegut continued to reside in New York City all the while.
After reviewing the places in which Kurt resided over the years, HI set about searching for information on the Red Key Tavern. In an article Nora Spitznogle wrote for NUVO on April 5, 2010 — the day after Red Key owner Russel Settle died — Nora reported that Russ opened the Red Key Tavern on April 2, 1951. By that date, Kurt and Jane Vonnegut had already lived in Chicago, Illinois, and Schenectady, New York; had produced two of their three biological children; and were about to settle into a new home on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
In an Indianapolis Monthly article on April 15, 2011, Daniel Comiskey reported that he too had heard rumors that Kurt Vonnegut drank at the Red Key. In that IM piece, Russ Settle’s son Jim Settle was reported as saying that his father did not know who Kurt Vonnegut was. Russ was the kind of guy who would have made it his business to know one of his regulars, especially if that customer was a celebrity who was writing novels while hanging out in the Red Key Tavern.
In searching for details on the Red Key, HI also remembered that the Red Key Tavern has no booths. The bar’s seating consists of tables and chairs. HI was also reminded of the fact that Kurt did his writing on an electric typewriter. It’s quite a stretch to imagine that Kurt toted his typewriter from Cape Cod or New York City and set it up in a booth at the Red Key Tavern, when there are no booths in the establishment.
HI then reached out to Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, Nanny, as an obvious source of credible information. Nanny replied, “People get A LOT of details about my father’s life wrong, big ones as well as small ones. But you are spot on at every turn, here. When my father did visit Indianapolis over the years, for things like funerals and honorary events, he usually stayed with Majie Failey, a dear friend to both of my parents. My father gave me a tour of his old haunts in Indianapolis in 1994, while he was being filmed for Bob Weide’s documentary. He never once mentioned the Red Key Tavern. We ate at the Woodstock Club, where my parents were married, which included a few martinis. He was encyclopedic in his memories of who lived where.”
If there was ever any establishment to which Kurt Vonnegut went when he was visiting Indianapolis, HI surmises it would have been Woodstock Club, Meridian Hills Country Club, or the Rathskeller Restaurant in the lower level of the Athenaeum. Kurt’s gandfather’s architectural firm, Vonnegut and Bohn, designed Das Deutsche Haus, and generations of Kurt’s extended family were members of the Athenaeum. Even so, his visits to any of the above would have been sporadic and on widely spaced occasions.
It seems reasonable that in order for a neighborhood bar to become a person’s “favorite watering hole,” a person would have to live in the vicinity of that establishment for a much longer period of time than Kurt Vonnegut ever spent in Indianapolis after he was legally old enough to enter a bar. In addition, a person can’t have been seen “. . . writing and drinking in his booth,” in an establishment that has no booths. The BuzzFeed listing of the Red Key Tavern as Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite watering hole simply cannot be true.
Thanks, Sharon. Like Peter D., I saw the publicity about bars and authors and wondered about its accuracy. While I could see that he might have been a rare visitor, especially since Dan Wakefield seemed to have an association with the Red Key (wasn’t a scene of “Going All the Way” filmed there?), it didn’t seem that Kurt ever could have been a regular sitting in the corner writing away. You’ve proven that in detail.
Thanks for your comments, Tom. I agree with you completely. It’s certainly possible that Kurt heard about the Red Key Tavern from local friends and went there, when he was visiting in Indianapolis. However, he would never have been in town long enough for him to be construed as a Red Key regular, nor is it likely that Kurt did any writing while he was a customer in the establishment.
If regulars did see a writer in the Red Key Tavern, it would indeed more likely have been Dan Wakefield. The Red Key does appear in Dan’s works. Unfortunately, until more recent years — when both Vonnegut and Wakefield became better known to the general public — locals may have mixed up the two men.
The Red Key Tavern was established in 1933.
Anyone who drank at the Red Key knows of Russ’s finicky, if not cranky, personality. Russ got really pissed if you moved chairs around or engaged in any bad language. I can’t imagine him tolerating the noise of an electric typewriter.
Thanks, Louis. I have heard about “Russel’s Rules,” and I agree with your observation. If, as his son Jim believes, Russ did not know who Kurt Vonnegut was, Russ would probably have viewed someone operating an electric typewriter in his business as rather impertinent. As there is no report of Russ having thrown someone out for pecking at a keyboard, I think that’s because there never was one. I wrote to the BuzzFeed’s author for the source of her information, but she would not answer me.
I was thinking the same. In a bar where you were scolded for placing your coat on the back of the chair, it’s hard to imagine Russ ever allowing a typewriter on a table. Thanks for your continued sleuthing, Sharon!
I think there is probably confusion between Dan Wakefield and Kurt Vonnegut on this. Evidently, Dan Wakefield lives in the Broad Ripple area.
I can (somewhat) understand Kurt and Dan having been confused with one another very early on in their writing careers, before each of them became better known. Both grew up on the north side of Indianapolis; both went to Shortridge High School; both got the writing bug when they worked on the Shortridge Daily Echo newspaper; both went east to prestigious New York universities; both wrote books that were made into feature-length films. However, Kurt and Dan are ten years apart in age, their styles of writing and subject matters are very different, and their life experiences were nothing alike.
I love the whole Mailbag series, and this article especially. Thanks for the great detective work.
Nice Sherlockian job of winnowing out the truth. The Red Key was my dad’s hangout, but he never became a famous anything. Probably because he was hanging out at the Red Key too much.
Fun, fun piece of work to read for all of us KV fans.
Interesting read! I asked Dan Wakefield about this once when we drove past Red Key together. For what it’s worth, he told me he truly doubted that KV ever went there, and if he did, he certainly didn’t know about it.
Thank you for taking the time to post a comment. Since there is no doubt about Dan Wakefield’s long association with the Red Key, learning that Dan doubts Kurt ever went there holds a lot of weight with me.
I have been a neighbor and “regular” at the Red Key for 40 years but I am not part of the in crowd that is allowed behind the bar and that is okay with me. I think that the hub-bub about Russ’s alleged crankiness is somewhat overstated. People of a certain age will remember when Indiana’s Blue Laws were very stupid regarding Bar operations. Prior to the 1970’s you could not be legally served unless you were seated, women were not allowed to sit at the bar and if you wanted to change tables you had to have someone on staff physically move your glass and bottle from one table to another and (of course) alcohol sales were completely verboten on Sunday. The convention industry got that all changed in order to bring in more convention business but Russ was a little slower to adapt. IMHO his crankiness was overstated although he did keep a .38 revolver hidden under the bar counter and would have used it if he felt it necessary. I never knew him to directly eject any patrons from the bar although on two occasions he told two groups of drinkers to “drink ip and get out.” The first I observed was a wedding party where one of the groomsmen put a condom on a beer bottle and shook the bottle. The second was a trio of young Irishmen whose language was unusually loud and obscene. They were sitting next to Russ’s daughter in law and did not pipe down when she asked them to do so. The Irish-American contingent at the bar was ready to take action on their own until Russ stepped in and skillfully defused the situation. Russ was more interested in running an orderly bar than in making money.
Single women could always feel comfortable at the Red Key as Russ would protect them if necessary – not that it ever was. Russ wanted a steady but not large crowd in his bar and I remember on a few occasions he would lock the door if it was getting too crowded. He particularly hated the bar bus tours that roamed the city.
“All they want to do is have one drink and steal my glasses” he would say. He was really a softy. In his younger days he was quite a drinker himself and his first partner in the Red Key died an early death from his excesses. Russ, who was always stone-cold sober during the years that we were friends, did not tolerate patrons who were obviously drunk. I suppose that you could call the place a dive, but it was and is a very well run drive. Contrary to the Yelp reviews, the drinks there do not seem that cheap unless you are comparing them to the fern bars or high end bars where a mixed drink will set you back $10-12 a pop, If I wanted to get lit up I could find much cheaper places to drink. The tradition goes on and things change slowly.. The pin ball machine that paid off is long gone and replaced by an ATM machine. The question “do you take credit cards?” will get you a smart-ass answer. Twenty years ago, after a long search for the proper material, Russ found a supplier of naugahide and had the leather bench seating replaced. The English landscape murals were cleaned at about the same time and have reacquired their grime. The toilets are nasty as bar toilets should be. The new larger windows in front have caused some rearrangement of furniture and the extensive rework of the concrete and steps have allowed space for some outside tables. There is a rumor that al fresco service could start in the Spring. Life goes onl.
Thank you for your reminiscences about the Red Key. HI appreciates your taking the time to write. The Red Key holds a lot of memories for many us. My own go back to 1962.
Since you have some “history” with the establishment and the neighborhood, can you comment on the question the reader asked (that prompted this article)?
Hi Sharon: My own Indiana heritage goes back to being certain my grandfather fought and was killed with Co C , 31st Indiana Volunteers at Shiloh..
I spent my early years from 1935 in Indianapolis 7 blocks from that famous Red Key, and in 1956 became old enough to have a beer there.
Russ was a nice guy and the place was, with piano, a fun neighborhood bar.
I went to PS80 , same as Dan Wakefield and was quite nostalgized (made up word) when Red Key was mentioned in book/movie.
I would have to say it is highly unlikely Kurt Vonnegut even set foot there since he left Indy for Cornell before legal drinking age, and would not have hung out there in any subsequent visits after the POW time with his PTSD.
I stopped at Red Key about a year and a half ago when in Indy for 500. I asked about Russ and was told by his daughter-in -law that he had passed away.
I had a beer and tenderloin sandwich,noting that the place had not changed a bit from 50s/60s. Sha also showed me a photo of Dan Wakefield prominently placed.
Kurt Vonnegut, who I met in 1997 at a “Timequake” book signing would, I’m sure, have fit in perfectly to the Red Key’s Hoosier Hospitality atmosphere. Something I miss after having left there in the 60’s.
I got so carried away with the Red Key Tavern that I forgot to address the question about Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt grew up in a home at 44th and Illinois (about 2 miles southwest of the Red Key). It is not clear if he was living there when he graduated from High School in 1940. His parents were forced to put the home on the market due to the depression, and it did not sell for a very long time. They eventually downsized to a new home they built in Williams Creek, which was then a much less desirable rural neighborhood about 6 miles northwest of the Red Key. I am pretty sure that he spent parts of the summers of 1940, 1941 and 1942 in Indianapolis. At some point he took summer classes at nearby Butler University in an attempt to get credit for some chemistry or other science courses he was having trouble with at Cornell. It is quite possible that he visited the Red Key even though he was a minor. As I recall from my youth (I was born 16 years after Kurt) people in those days did not necessarily carry ID and young people were never carded. If you looked old enough and showed some maturity, you could easily be served in most places before the age of 21. I have read all of Kurt’s stuff and have studied his life rather carefully. A lot of his works are autobiographical, and I am sure that if the Red Key had made an impression on him he would have mentioned it somewhere. Dan Wakefield, who now lives in Broad Ripple, visits the Red Key once or twice a week. I could ask him, but that would be redundant, wouldn’t it.
Perhaps the connection between Vonnegut and the Red Key has to do with one of his short stories – I cannot remember which. If I remember the details, the narrator was an accountant who’d been hired to help out a working-class joe with his investments. The client wanted to keep them secret from his wife because if she knew he had extra money, she’d make him quit his second job, playing piano at the Red Key on the weekends.
Then again, I may be confusing my Indy bars (I haven’t lived there since 1977) – perhaps it was a bar on Central instead of College. I know it wasn’t the Uptown!
I moved to the Red Key neighborhood in 1973 and have been going there 1-2 times a week (except when traveling) ever since. There has always been an upright piano at the back of the bar, but I have never known it to be played on a regular basis. Two of Russ’s daughter used to play and sing at Christmas and on special occasions. Also occasionally over the holidays Russ would hire a three piece band to play. My friend Craig Smith and his band (Big Jim and the Twins) have played at least twice. I was present only one other time when a guest dared to tinkle on the keys, but it is likely that I missed a few other occasions. The main source of music at the Key has always been the Jukebox with its retro 45’s.
I lived in the Red Key Neighborhood in the late 50’s and very early 60’s. At no time can I recall a piano player other than an occasional Friday Night sing along, and the small upright piano being played by one of the regular woman patrons.
I didn’t say I saw this, John, I said the account was in a Vonnegut short story. Since it’s fiction, Vonnegut could have set the story anywhere he pleased and conflated the Red Key with a more musically-oriented venue like The Patio if he’d felt like it.
In reality though I found a copy of the story online. It’s “The Foster Portfolio,” published in 1951 and reprinted in Welcome to the Monkey House. The name of the bar/restaurant isn’t ever stated that I saw as I skimmed it. The piano player was named “Firehouse Harris,” though — wasn’t there once a bar on the near north side called The Firehouse? Bear with me – I moved away in 1977…
I sat with family members several times in food-serving upscale bars in the 40’s when I was around eleven. Did anyone ever say that Vonnegut ‘hung out’ or ‘frequented’’ my second cousin Russel’s bar? If not, what’s the debate about? Lots of people occasionally dropped by. Even I was there once as a young person (13-17?).
My Uncle Dennis took me to the divier Crossroads, Russ’s first bar, when I turned twenty one. As usual, I had just a coke but loved the ‘date’ with my handsome accountant uncle, the first since he’d taken me to Riverside Amusement Park
Russel was also good looking when he was young. His mom, my Great Aunt Flossie, used to cut my hair in her downtown beauty shop near Blocks’ department store.