The Big Question for Many: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and The Clemens Vonnegut Jr. House

So this is a tricky dilemma for the Vonnegut House. It's tricky because we don't want to give the impression that the house ever belonged to Kurt Vonnegut's parents or to him, but we know the name Vonnegut conjures up one person to almost everyone. His fame might be what made this home uniquely restorable among so many good candidates on the lake, and it's not a mistake to assume he spent some time on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, including at our house.

 

To be frank, and then go into some neat redeeming detail, Kurt's direct line of the Vonnegut Family lived in the home across the lawn to the north, the pretty Yellow one with the stone foundation some 50 feet north, now owned by a very nice family from Michigan. Clemens Jr. was the famed author's Great Uncle if my calculations are correct. These are 'those' Vonnegut's, and yes, he spent his childhood summers, until World War II moved him on, among the 5 or so houses his extended family owned right here, including ours. 

The Vonnegut House is named after Clemens Jr. for many reasons, for one he built it, and was kind of a quirky guy we fell in love with, but one of them is that we don't want to give a false impression that this was Kurt's House. The whole extended family was interesting, which is why they had one if not three famous family members (Obviously Kurt Jr., his brother Bernard who invented the chemistry in the process of Cloud Seeding, and Kurt Jr.'s son Mark who gained some international renown with a good book or two.). The rest of the Family achieved a lot of  recognition in Indianapolis as prominent Citizens in it's nascent days, significant businessmen in Indy's growth, and as a bunch of unique thinkers. They were one of the families that became significant in civic life by starting businesses that grew with the town, like the Hardware store, the casket company, a brewery, an architectural firm, and many may know that Clemens Jr. was actually Indiana Representative Clemens Vonnegut Jr. due to one term in the State House representing part of Indianapolis. They made a National and perhaps International mark when Vonnegut Hardware became the exclusive vendor of the crash bar mechanism, the emergency door bar you see everywhere in public buildings which was invented as a result of the Chicago Theater Fire by a friend of theirs, which likely was the main driver of the family's fortunes.

A son like this, one with so many questions and so unique a perspective usually doesn't come from an ordinary family, and in this case he didn't. Kurt will be the first to tell you that his family wasn't entirely healthy, nor average in ways he might have appreciated, but they were unique and they created not only his unique experiences until he left home, but a row of nice houses on what was a beautiful but fading frontier in the late 1880's. To be honest, Indiana stopped being a frontier likely sometime after The patriarch of the family, Clemens Sr. Came over from Germany in the 1850's, and Indianapolis was reaching a population of about 10,000 people, but Indiana was still a place of opportunity and unpredictability, wild lands and great forests, and they were riding the cusp of it. There was no direct train to Culver until a few years after the Vonnegut House had been built.

Did Kurt spent time in the Clemens Vonnegut Jr. house, or sleep in it?

pretty much without question. By his own words:

…The closed loop of the lakeshore was certain to bring me home not only to my own family’s unheated frame cottage on a bluff overlooking the lake but to four adjacent cottages teeming with close relatives. The heads of those neighboring households, moreover, my father’s generation, had also spent their childhood summertimes at Maxinkuckee, making them the almost immediate successors there to the Potawatomi Indians.

according to his writings, the children treated all the homes as home, and he ranged from one to the other as children might range through an Indian village.

It's also accepted that he spent his first Honeymoon in the home to the north, with Jane Marie Fox, right after he returned from the Second World War. Since his branch of the family had fallen on relatively hard times and sold their particular home during the depression, he was lent the home as a favor by the subsequent owners. It's said one of his romanic honeymoon meals was at the old Shack on the campus of then Culver Military Academy, now broadened to Culver Academies, with the shack now moved under the dining hall to accommodate the colossal Huffington Library where it once sat charmingly by the lake within view of his home.

And the coup du grace, (not that we are uniquely obsessed with Kurt, anything but! However, it's fair to say we appreciate him a lot and he did inspire us a bit.) is this video sent to us by a man named Robert Weide, famous for producing the hit TV program Curb Your Enthusiasm featuring Seinfeld Co Creator Larry David. Well before his success with Larry David, Wide began a Documentary about Vonnegut in the 80's, and he brought him to Culver in 1994 to get some reminiscences of by his own admission his happiest childhood memories here on the lake. You might recognize the little platform to the right of our porch as the place of discovery of one of the most interesting concepts of so many of his books:


This Documentary is expected to come out in the next few years after life took Weide on a long diversion, and we are hoping to show it in the newly revamped Culver Theater.

After shooting wrapped up for the day back in 1994, our neighbors to the south, the Hrycak's will tell you that they stood there in awe as Kurt came by again and knocked on Ralph Vonnegut's door, which is our door, The Clemens Vonnegut Jr. house door now, and came in to hang out for a few hours with his cousin on the porch. As far as we know, this it the last time he came through Culver, but according to him, his heart was always here:

I made my first mental maps of the world...on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee. Because everything about that lake was imprinted on my mind when it held so little and was so eager for information, it will be my lake as long as I live. I have no wish to visit it, for I have it right here.
— Kurt Vonnegut

We hope this answers the question... if you want to learn more, there are a number of books both by Kurt Vonnegut and others that explore his time on Lake Max, including We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek. His work Hocus Pocus is quite apparently set on a lake inspired by Lake Max, and Slapstick mentions the academy as the current castle of the King of the Midwest in a post apocalyptic future. He also apparently mentions Culver In Timequake, his collection of biographical essays. Renovating Vonnegut also goes into deeper detail on the Vonnegut family in regards to Lake Max.

This link also leads to some good information from the Culver Library and Antiquarian Society including some more very personal quotes by Kurt about Lake Max and Culver.

 

 

To Book or Inquire please contact Kathleen Aman

 (574) 404-7740

Aman.Kathleen@Gmail.Com