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.