The November 25, 2011 edition of the New York Times Book Review carried a review by Christopher Buckley of the new Kurt Vonnegut biography And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt & Co., 2011). The first paragraph of the review informs the Reader that Mr. Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day. This fact is repeated in the eleventh paragraph with a parenthetical (Thanks, Mom.).
It was this snarky aside that made me sit up and take notice of its casual cruelty and the reduction of a woman to an archetype with one arch and unnecessary phrase. It made me take note of the author, Christopher Buckley, so I would know with whom to be annoyed and it made me want to learn more about Kurt Vonnegut’s mother.
From the Internet I learned she was Edith Leiber Vonnegut, heiress to a beer brewing dynasty. I learned that she was a failed writer and that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. named his own daughter after her.
When our copy of And So It Goes arrived at the Library I copied the pages relating to Edith Leiber Vonnegut along with like pages from another new book, Unstuck in Time: A Journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s Life and Novels by Gregory D. Sumner (Seven Stories Press, 2011).
And So it Goes is the most detailed and evocative of the two. From it we learn that Edith Leiber’s grandfather, Peter Leiber, had in 1868 co-founded the brewery on which the family’s fortunes rested. Peter and his brother sold the brewery to an English syndicate in 1889 but Peter stayed on as President of the newly formed Indianapolis Brewing Company and his son Albert, the father of Edith, was named managing director.
Peter went on to be appointed Consul General of Düsseldorf; eventually retiring to a castle in Germany. Albert, in collusion with a representative of the new owners, set up an account ostensibly for ice but in reality used to fund Albert’s lavish lifestyle; thus revealing the true measure of the man.
Albert Leiber’s first wife was Alice Baris, daughter of the Director of the Indianapolis Maennerchor, Carl Baris, and a musician in her own right. She died of pneumonia in 1897 when Edith was nine and her brothers were seven and five years old. Her father soon remarried what the author describes as “a strange and beautiful woman,” Ora D. Lane, from the strange and beautiful land known as Zanesville, Ohio. Known as O.D. to her friends and loved ones, and “Odious” by her stepchildren towards whom the new Mrs. Leiber showed obvious and open hostility. Albert Leiber, running true to form, took out his marital frustrations by beating his sons. He eventually divorced this harridan only to turn around and marry a girl who had been one of his daughter’s classmates.
Edith Leiber had been educated at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania and made her debut in London during the 1908 season when she was nineteen years old. She had been courted by an heir to the Royal Doulton Porcelain Work but broke off the engagement when she came to suspect her suitor was more interested in her family’s money than in her. The same suspicions ended Edith’s engagement to a Prussian Calvary officer who she met while visiting her grandfather in Düsseldorf.
Returning to the United States, Edith moved into a cottage her father had built of himself on his 400-acre hunting estate, Vellamada, built with ‘ice” money and overlooking the White River. It was here that she connected with a childhood friend, Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., the architect son of a locally famous architect father, scion of a respectable fortune built on a chain of hardware stores. The pair married in a lavish ceremony in 1913.
At first the couple seemed well suited. They were both raised as pacifists and freethinkers. They loved the arts and literature. They were social and they were very, very, rich. When children came they were distant parents, preferring the help take care of the daily chores associated with little ones. Then the tide began to turn.
Kurt Vonnegut was never the architect his famous father was and, in fact, drawing from his most lasting accomplishment, moving the old Bell Telephone Building while employees continued to work away inside, leads one to suspect he might have been happier as an engineer.
It was shortly after this lifetime achievement that Kurt Vonnegut Sr. was forced to disband his firm and work for home. Prohibition had dinged the family fortune but it was the Stock Market Crash of 1929 that really gutted them. The family fortunes waned and waxed as the family moved to less expensive homes and, though never desperately poor, they became known, according to Sumner in Unstuck in Time, as, “charge-account deadbeats.” Edith began to despise her charming, eccentric husband and, according to her son, “she expressed hatred for Father as corrosive as hydrofluoric acid.”
As their finances tumbled Edith began to become “half-cracked.” In the 1930s, after taking a class at the YWCA, she began writing short stories and sending them out to popular magazines of the day in hopes of raising money to help support her cash-strapped family. All were rejected although she kept sending them out until the time of her death. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ascribed his mother’s lack of literary success to her having a style that was too outdated and formal. He did acknowledge his mother as having made him aware of writing as a business and a profession but he ascribed any talent he may have inherited as sourced from his father who was busy perfecting his dream of a self-cleaning pipe stem.
By 1944 the Vonnegut family fortunes were on an upswing. His father was working on steady, if uninspiring, projects as a technician in support of the war effort. The family had built a home designed by Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. in Williams Creek, still one of the most exclusive and upscale neighborhoods in Indianapolis, but the eight miles between the suburbs of Williams Creek and the mansions of Downtown Indianapolis.
Shields observes that, “Few people outside her family knew, or would believe, that the plump, suburban Mrs. Vonnegut with the dyed dark hair and the severe expression had once been a red-haired American heiress illuminating the social season in Edwardian London; that heel-clicking Prussian suitors right out of The Merry Widow had vied for her hand.” Like Erich von Stroheim, Edith Leiber Vonnegut’s era had passed. Edith, who had a history of depression dating back to childhood, was prescribed barbiturates so she could sleep.
In January, 1943, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., youngest child of Kurt and Edith Leiber Vonnegut, dropped out of Cornell University, where he was struggling both personally and academically, and joined the U.S. Army. His father was angry and his mother was anguished. In May, 1944 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. came home on a three-day pass from his training at nearby Camp Atterbury. That Saturday, May 14th, 1944, Mother’s Day, Edith’s daughter Alice found her mother dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. Alice summoned her brother Kurt who went to go get their father. Edith Leiber Vonnegut was fifty-six years old.
Unstuck in Time is more of a book for people interested in the literary work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and how his life impacted that work. And So It Goes is a fuller, more nuanced work that really captures an overlooked place in time, Indianapolis at the turn of the 20th century as Indianapolis is often overshadowed by Chicago, Cincinnati and even St. Louis and Shields really captures the pre-WWI Germanic influence that still lingers over the place.
In researching Edith Leiber Vonnegut I found a woman more interesting and complex that the walking womb and ovaries that delivered The Great Man to the World as Christopher Buckley would have us believe. She was a woman determined by more than just her biological functions. More than Mom. Researching Edith Leiber Vonnegut makes me yearn to see photographs of this woman who is described as a pale-skinned, blue-eyed, auburn-haired beauty and to see with my own eyes how her visage changed throughout the years. It makes me wonder if any of her rejected fiction has survived. It makes me think that this is a woman deserving of her own biography, her own identity, a life all her own separate from the men who saw her as purely ornamental until the ornament lost its luster.