During a 2005 trip to New York to promote Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, one of my rewarding encounters was with the longtime broadcast journalist Bill Vitka. After we talked about Desmond for CBS Radio News, Vitka mentioned that he had recently interviewed Kurt Vonnegut. He said Vonnegut told him that Desmond was his favorite musician. Back home, I arranged for Vonnegut to be sent a copy of the book. Vitka and I planned to get together with the great writer on a later visit to New York. My next New York trip was brief and hectic. I decided to set up the meeting when the three of us could have a relaxed visit. Then Vonnegut fell and suffered the brain injury that led to his death on April 11.
In the course of preparing a story about Vonnegut, Bill stayed in touch with him. Last November Vitka delivered to the author a copy of the feature profile that he developed out of their interview. He took his younger son, Sean, with him to Vonnegut’s townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side . What follows is the story of that visit. Bill sent it to me in an e-mail message. I asked his permission to share it with you.
I grieved when Vonnegut died.
His voice is still on my phone machine.
He had called several times — while I was working on an interview/feature for the Network — to make sure I got things right.
On Meeting Kurt Vonnegut (11/18/06)
When Sean and I were ushered into Kurt Vonnegut’s townhouse on New York’s East Side, what we found was a home.
His wife, Jill Krementz, had to wake him. We were expected but not at that hour (3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon).
Vonnegut was a redwood, hair like gray broken branches. He smiles. Extends his hand. Tell us to make ourselves at home, then politely he plants himself in a soft, upholstered chair that he knows well.
He’s sizing us up, subtle to the point of being sly. I catch his eye sometimes as he drinks us in.But malice, any kind of ill will, seems so foreign to his nature as to be a distance measurable in light years. All I feel is a sensation of disarmament. My defenses stand down, willingly conquered.
Sean is quite animated. He does much, if not all, the talking for a patch. Vonnegut is curious about his schooling, asking questions and Sean answers, enjoying the attention — but more then that — he rises to meet someone who would address him as an equal. Sean is 17.
There is an out-of-time character about Vonnegut, not unlike Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. He isn’t tethered to the 21st century or to the last, but outside of both. He speaks with a kindness, even innocence as though he hasn’t grown up.
At this moment, I can’t imagine the source of the razor wire, which I know can be found in his writing. His jokes, satire — gallows humor — doesn’t seem to fit the man.
If he comes to know us by our answers, I come to know him by his questions. Our name, Vitka, he hasn’t heard before. What nationality is it? Where did we come from? Our parents, perhaps my parents and grandparents — who were they? I oblige. He rewards us with details of his own family. There is, like us, a Catholic bloodline. He says his grandparents were so consumed by Darwin that they became free thinkers. They abandoned religion. He had asked us about belief. He was curious about the Byzantine rite on my Mother’s side. Did the priests marry? As we – Sean and I — draw closer to our past, Vonnegut draws more from his own childhood. He recalls blues musicians from the South who performed on his family’s lawn. Jazz and Blues. Joe Heller’s name comes up. He misses Joe.
Vonnegut is now 83, an age when so many that you know are gone.
His family, he said, came over before the wave that brought my family to Ellis Island. They were entrepreneurs. They had money. They were smart. They invested. They did well.
At some point I realized that he could feign sleepiness, even laziness, to disguise casualness with a purpose. He was working.
He talks about teaching. He’s been talking to Sean about the classroom for fifteen minutes or so and he mentions that John Irving was one of his students at the Iowa Workshop. What did you teach your students, about writing, I ask? He answers that it takes two. A writer is writing for a reader. (as much as a reader needs a writer.) It’s not enough to write. Someone has to read what you write (as though it would be incomplete otherwise).
He talks about reporting. One of his first jobs was just that in Chicago. He would talk to a guy on the phone, filing the story, telling him that Joe Whatzit, age 48, was arrested for disorderly conduct and drunkenness at the corner of Waverly and Blastoff. “See,” he says, “everything in the first sentence is right out there. The reader doesn’t want to find out on page 48 that Lizzie was black. He wants to know right away.” You can’t — shouldn’t — cheat the reader is the lesson. Would, to do otherwise, mean the writer is cheating his or herself?
At first I think he will smoke the Pall Mall cigarette he has pulled from the pack, drawn from beneath the sweater which I am sure he slept in, but instead he is stroking it, as though a man petting a cat. Over the course of an hour, he does this but does not light it
He talks about the golden age of radio. (I work in radio) I mention someone at the CBS Broadcast Center who had said he remembered Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater. So I picture him planted in front of a radio, a machine the size of refrigerator — listening intently and laughing. Because he likes jokes. Because, I suspect, he likes people. Because we are fools. Because we make mistakes. Because, in Vonnegut’s universe, it doesn’t matter — but it does. He doesn’t want to hurt people and he doesn’t want people hurt but the human race continues to find original, if not ingenuously cruel methods to inflict pain. And he’s looking at 17-year-old Sean as he talks about radio. I mention Fred Allen but he is addressing Sean and says “Say good night, Gracie.”
A working journalist since 1972, Bill Vitka has been a correspondent for CBS News and NBC News. To hear his 2006 Vonnegut profile, go to this archive podcast of the CBS News Weekend Roundup hosted by Dan Raviv and advance the timing slider to 33:59. Or listen to the entire hour and hear how little things have changed in the world, which might have saddened but not suprised Vonnegut.