An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut’s Pen Pal, David BreithauptMay 7th, 2007
I once wrote a letter to the late author Kurt Vonnegut. This was during college, and as I remember it, the letter was a long, rambling, Jack Kerouac rip-off, full of gusto and undergraduate angst.
Basically, it was embarrassing.
Vonnegut never wrote me back.
So it goes.
David Breithaupt met Vonnegut in the early 1980’s and wrote him many letters over the years. And guess what? Vonnegut wrote back!
In the wake of Vonnegut’s recent passing, The Nervous Breakdown interviewed the author David Breithaup via e-mail to learn more about Vonnegut, Spider-Man, jail, Allen Ginsberg, booze, and the night he (almost) hung out with Bob Dylan.
TNB: Hi David. For a number of years you’ve maintained a letter writing exchange with the late author Kurt Vonnegut. How did this come about?
Breithaupt: In the early 1980s I was living in New York City and working various jobs including some part-time work archiving tapes and videos for Allen Ginsberg. At the time, Allen would have his massive collection of mail, tapes, VHS tapes, books and manuscripts hauled to the Columbia University once a year for safe keeping. My job was to assign a code to each tape, decipher Allen’s tiny scrawl and notate what was on each item so future scholars could find it.
I believe there was some function which Allen and Kurt were both involved
with; they had like minds, many common sensibilities, so their lives
overlapped. Sooner or later, everyone marched through Allen’s apartment on
east 12th street and Vonnegut was part of that parade. I can’t recall what
the occasion was, but I used my brief encounter to keep in touch over the
following years. In fact, the bulk of our relationship was via phone or
letters so we had minimal actual face-to-face encounters. It was a
connection I valued immensely, knowing he was out there, keeping any eye on
the world, dropping off notes and bits of advice. Both Kurt and Allen became
kindly and wise grandfathers to me and generally took the time to advise me
despite their respective crazy schedules. I know I am one damn lucky guy.
Allen Ginsberg (left) and David Breithaupt, 1991
TNB: Of the thousand of letters that Vonnegut received each year, why do you think he responded to yours?
Breithaupt: This has mystified me over the years but part of the reason may have been because Kurt and I were both midwesterners. I grew up in central Ohio and he was a Hoosier next door. We both had Germanic backgrounds and we were often sending sightings of the other’s family names to each other. In fact our last correspondence was about Gunter Grass and his out-of-the-closet Nazi announcement.
My father, who was American-born, told me once that we may have had family members in the SS. Kurt’s last note to me was about a Vonnegut who was a doctor in some Nazi operation. We were both fascinated
and appalled by our respective family histories. Both of our names are
somewhat rare, mine being Breithaupt, which you don’t see too often, but I
believe his is even rarer. So whenever I contacted Kurt, I knew it was about
something he could speak to, writers I knew he admired, coping with personal
insanity, political events, family history and so on. I never wrote to ask
him the most random question, it was always something I hoped would
interest him and upon which he could pontificate. I suspect he received a
lot of mail asking ‘why do you write?’ or ‘where do you get your ideas?’ How
would you answer them? Especially if you were asked 100 times a day?
TNB: Were you able to discover a different side of Vonnegut through
his letters? Perhaps a side that he may not have shared in his books?
Breithaupt: Many of the things he wrote to me were things he covered in his books but of course they were fine tuned and personalized for me. For instance, I had to enter rehab for my drinking in 1987. I had just come back to Ohio the
previous year to take care of my mother who died a long, slow cancer death
and this vastly accelerated my alliance with alcohol. I entered rehab
(before it was fashionable!) and held on for the long haul. When I attended my first AA meetings, I was shocked by how my fellow recoverees based their sobriety on a belief in God, which I had no strong grasp on myself. I thought, am I going to be a drunk forever because of this? Of course AA allows you to use whatever Higher Power you need to recover, but the crowd I was with was using GOD, plain and simple, and it intimidated me. I wrote to Kurt about it and he responded with the most amazing letter about being in awe of the universe and how alcohol is the problem for every alcoholic, not lack of specific religious belief. I think that letter saved my life because no one else was advising me about this and I felt so much better after he wrote.
I hope I expressed to him how much those words meant to me. In that manner, Kurt was like Spider-Man, he would swing down and save you, then swing off, leaving you to wonder, who was that guy?
I knew Kurt had his own problems with depression, alcohol abuse and all the
other flotsam of life. What he communicated to me in his letters was a
personal reaffirmation of overcoming these obstacles with a deep and
mysterious love for life. The letters made me realize how close his life was
to what he wrote. I believe that is why he was such a great writer, writing
from the heart the way he did.
TNB: Was there one particular Vonnegut novel that stands out as having had an influence on you?
Breithaupt: That’s like naming a favorite Beatles song, it’s a tough question. I have different favorites for different frames of mind. What captivated me over
the years was the horror of what he experienced in his WW II episodes and how he may have been able to exorcise that period of his life in Slaughterhouse-Five. Perhaps all his books were exorcisms, that’s what interests me personally as a writer, to be able to digest the balls that are pitched your way. For me, part of Kurt Vonnegut’s great stature as a writer is that he covered so much ground in his work. That’s why it is hard for me to pick a stand out. There is a Vonnegut book for all seasons. The man was always reassuring to me, despite his underlying gloom. Recently, I have been re-reading Mother Night, it’s a good one for thinking over our current debacle in Iraq.
TNB: Talk to us about your reaction to his death.
Breithaup: I have to use a threadbare cliché from Mr. Donne, “No man is an island,” and when he passed on, I felt as though a part of my life was over too. I knew this day was coming but you can never be prepared. It will be hard reading a book or having a question he can no longer answer or discuss. He was always there and now he isn’t. However, he left many blueprints for us in his books which we can study, and he left the world a better place. Will we ever know how many lives he enriched and will continue to delight? It is a sad event
of course, his passing, but ultimately I’m glad he was on this planet and
lived, and I am extremely lucky to have intersected lives with him. Very lucky.
I remember what Allen (Ginsberg) said to me after my mother died. He patted
me on the shoulder and said ‘Hey, it’ll happen to you and me.’ This was
Allen’s way of cheering me up, the Vonnegut school of morbid optimism! But
it put it in a proper perspective for me. We are all traveling the same
route and perhaps we can sit down in the next world with Kurt and family
members and lost dogs and catch up. My personal wish is that Kurt is hanging
out with Eugene Debbs, one of his big Hoosier heroes. If so, they are having
a great time, I’m sure.
TNB: In looking at your Myspace page, it appears that you’ve hung out with some other famous authors, including Allen Ginsberg and Hunter Thompson. How did you meet these guys? Are you some sort of author stalker or something?
Breithaupt: When I moved to NYC I wrote to Allen Ginsberg and offered to do office work for free. My friends said it was a waste of time, that I would never hear from him. What is there to lose, I thought? Two months after I wrote, I received a note from Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s secretary, saying come on down. Which I did. And I will never forget how nervous I was walking up 1st avenue from Astor Place. Allen’s buzzer was broken at the time, so they had me call from the corner so they could throw the key down to me in a sock. I walked the wide marble flights of stairs with sock and key in hand and knocked on his door, and suddenly I was in Allen Ginsberg world.
If you knew Allen in NY, you knew every writer in NY and across the globe.
Over time I was able to meet William Burroughs, Corso, Huncke, Robert Frank
and on and on. However, I never got to meet Bob Dylan, who was a visitor to
east 12th street. I missed one such visit by a day, damn it. Allen said he
and Bob walked down to Tompkins Square Park (which was nearby). Allen was
taking pictures as he often did at that time and it seems they pissed off a
homeless man who didn’t want his picture taken. Allen said he chased them
across the park, and I have always enjoyed that vision, imagining Allen and
Bob running through the park with an angry character in hot pursuit. That
must have been a Kodak moment.
For awhile, I worked part-time as a newstand checker for Rolling Stone and
Hunter Thompson made the
rare appearances to the RS HQ.
He gave the guys in the mail room the Woody Creek street sign he made off with after shooting it of course. I never knew him much at all, though I would have liked to. The last time I saw him alive was when I took one of my daughters to see him down in Louiseville (his hometown) in the late 1990s to celebrate an anniversary publication of F&L in Las Vegas. Everyone was there: Warren Zevon, Johnny Depp, Hunter’s mom and his son, Juan. It was quite a guest list. I am happy to have that last memory of him. You have to witness
history while you can.
But no, I hope I’m not an author stalker! Other writers are the people who
share my same passions. I have many great friends but few who can converse
for hours about the things in literature about which I am most passionate.
It is other writers who can fill this void for me. When you read a writer
who speaks to you on some level of chemistry that jolts you, I think it is
natural to connect with them or want to at least. I have plenty of friends
who are not famous writers but are equally great in my eyes, in their own
TNB: Your Myspace page also lists your occupation as writer. Can you discuss your work and tell us what you’re thinking about these days?
Breithaupt: Over the years I have published short stories in magazines like Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse and have a manuscript of short published works that Jonathan Lethem was nice enough to write an intro for. Slowly I am
looking for publishers. I was also lucky enough to work with the great poet,
Charles Plymell and edited a book of his work called Hand On The Doorknob. Last
year I had the sad and strange fate to serve a year in Federal Prison for
the bizarre charge of illicit sales of archeological artifacts. This was a
bogus charge involving the sale of what was eventually deemed to be stolen
library books. So I am preoccupied these days with the American Justice
system (or lack of it), our bleak political times and the completion of the
memoir I wrote in the Big House, working title, American Felon. As always, I
am surfing new literature, old literature, and especially memoirs, because I
am most interested in how people resolve traumas in their own lives. Writing
a memoir in prison saved my life and kept me occupied. Kurt sent me books
and sent books to my friends who remained in lock-up after I left.
Which titles did he send? Jailbird, of course.
I will miss that guy.
TNB: Thank you for your time.
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