Kurt Vonnegut is famous not only for his novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but also for some great quotes. However, many of them include four-letter words and language not appropriate in the newspaper.
One of my favorite clean ones is what he inscribed on his work desk: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
A replica of that desk and other artifacts from the Vonnegut household are now viewable with the opening of a new, larger Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (vonnegutlibrary.org) in the cultural arts district of Indianapolis.
I had on a decent, frequently worn pair of jeans and sweater the day I visited the new museum location, so I think I was good.
The original Vonnegut Museum and Library opened in Indianapolis in 2011. At 1,100 square feet, it was limited in programming and exhibit space, but the staff did its best. Vonnegut’s Purple Heart from injuries in World War II and one of his beloved manual typewriters were on display.
The highlight was always Banned Books Week each September, when volunteers would reside in the window all week reading aloud from controversial tomes, including “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Banned Books Week will continue to be commemorated at the new museum location at the corner of Indiana Avenue and N. West Street. An interesting side note: The building that now houses thousands of Vonnegut’s works was originally a tavern that served Indianapolis Brewing Co. beers. Vonnegut’s maternal grandfather owned the brewing company.
Now at 10,400 square feet, the library and museum can accommodate any number of special events throughout the year, focusing on topics near and dear to Vonnegut. Among those are free speech and common decency.
The museum has declared 2020 the year of civic engagement, another topic that Vonnegut was passionate about. In addition to programs and special exhibits, the Freedom of Expression Cafe now includes a voter registration kiosk that allows visitors from almost all 50 states to register to vote.
Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. His paternal grandfather, an architect, designed and built Indianapolis’ ornate Athenaeum Building, which originally served as a German social hall. Among its occupants today is the Coat Check, one of the city’s most popular coffee shops.
The new museum, which has a coffee shop of its own named Bluebeard’s, dedicates a room to Vonnegut’s formative years in Indianapolis. Artifacts from the family home, high school yearbooks and doodles in college notebooks showcase what Vonnegut claimed to be all that anyone has ever liked about him.
“All my jokes are Indianapolis,” he once said. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
By far the most powerful exhibit is one that tells the real story behind “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut was captured in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge. He endured miserable conditions in a forced march and train ride to Dresden, where he was held in a former meatpacking house. His barracks was the fifth in a row of slaughterhouses.
It was here he huddled in an underground shelter in February 1945 as Allied forces firebombed Dresden. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners buried the estimated 25,000 dead and began the cleanup of the city.
Across the street, an African-American icon
Kitty-corner from the Vonnegut Library is the Madam Walker Legacy Center (madamwalkerlegacycenter.com), a 900-seat historic theater currently under renovation. The mixed-use space will include offices, a coffee shop and exhibition space.
Madam C.J. Walker was America’s first female African-American millionaire, born two years after the end of the Civil War. Her real name was Sarah Breedlove.
She rose from hoeing cotton in Mississippi as a sharecropper’s daughter, with just three months of formal education, to owning a billion-dollar empire of hair-care and makeup products for black women. The company provided employment to nearly 20,000 women around the world.
In short, she was Mary Kay before there was a Mary Kay Cosmetics. Today her products are distributed under the Sundial label.
Her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, provided the initials that she made more elegant by choosing the title “Madam” instead of “Mrs.”
“She was inspired by the French fashion industry, so she chose the ‘madam’ title to elevate the elegance of her product,” said Judith Thomas, president of the center. “She was into branding before we understood the concept of branding and marketing.”
Netflix subscribers will have the opportunity to learn more about Madam Walker in the upcoming miniseries “Self Made,” produced by LeBron James and starring Octavia Spencer. It premieres March 20.
Meanwhile, the Madam Walker story is a special exhibit at the Indiana History Museum through January 2021 (indianahistory.org). Visitors learn more about her life, the disease that ravaged her scalp and set her in search of a treatment, and how she empowered women of color around the world.
Madam Walker was a philanthropist for African-American causes. She contributed heavily to build a YMCA for people of color in Indianapolis. After attempting to attend a white-owned theater where blacks were charged more than whites, she built her own theater in 1927. The Art Deco, Egyptian- and African-inspired venue seats 900 and will be used in partnership with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
One of the first programs at the renovated theater includes a Martin Luther King Day event (Jan. 20) featuring a conversation with Kevin D. Richardson of the Exonerated Five (formerly the Central Park Five).
While renovation continues, programming that features people of color and their unique stories is slowly filling the calendar.
Attending a program at the Madam C.J. Walker Legacy Center might be a good excuse to buy a new outfit, because Madam Walker always believed in showing yourself at your best. But then you couldn’t walk across the street to the Vonnegut Library while heeding the Indianapolis author’s sage advice.
It’s a dilemma that should not prevent a visit to these neighboring centers in Indianapolis.
And so it goes.
Where to stay
The four-star Alexander Hotel is the official hotel of the Madam Walker Legacy Center and features an image of Madam Walker in the lobby created entirely from her hair combs (thealexander.com).
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a Kansas City-based travel writer.