Author to Culver audience: Maxinkuckee was Vonnegut's 'peace'

Last Saturday’s annual meeting of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver seemed fitting on a number of levels. First, it was held in the very cottage (formerly the Shirk-Robinson cottage, today the Bramfeld, and once the summertime “home” of composer Cole Porter as a youth) on whose porch the organization first formed, 20 years ago on the east shore of Lake Maxinkuckee, in the summer of 1991.
Second, the spark for that initial effort to preserve and share Culver’s history, said AHS president Jim Peterson, was lit by a suggestion from the late Catherine Rasmussen, who died in January, 2010. Further, the meeting’s featured speaker was Mary Jane “Maije” Failey, a close childhood friend of late author Kurt Vonnegut, who also happened to be Rasmussen’s cousin.
In introducing Failey, former summer resident Nancy Baxter -- whose Indianapolis company, Hawthorne Publishing, was responsible for Failey’s recent book about Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek: The Young Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis and Beyond” -- said Failey was given the nickname “Maije” at Lake Maxinkuckee by Mary Glossbrenner, another summer resident and part of an “Indianapolis gang which included Kurt Vonnegut.”
Failey told the audience her mother first rented a cottage for the summer on the lake in 1937.
“We loved the dances at the Academy and the boys,” she recalled, adding she particularly loved the Dunn cottage on the east shore, where Wesley Dunn introduced her to C Scow sailboats, of which she became enamored. She said the Dunn cottage was also central to a “sweet little romance people love to hear about” centered on a weekend there and revolving around Failey and another girl, Dunn, Vonnegut, “the moonlight night and all the glamour of Lake Maxinkuckee and youth.”
The title of her book, Failey explained, had its genesis in Vonnegut’s height of six feet, three inches, and Failey’s of less than five feet.
She described Vonnegut as, “The prince of tragedy, the court jester of mirth, and the purveyor of ‘and so it goes,’” a phrase made famous in Vonnegut’s tragicomic, now-classic novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” about the horrors he experienced during World War II and the bombing of Dresden, Germany.
“For the rest of his life,” she noted, “his peace was Lake Maxinkuckee. Everything came back to this lake. This was where everything related. His mirth was his happy, zany times with his family here, Kurt being the youngest of three: Alice, Bernard, and Kurt. He swam all the way across the lake in his birthday suit, with Alice and Bernard rowing alongside in a rickety rowboat to protect him and cheer him on...there were five Vonnnegut cottages in all.”
The Great Depression of the 1930s, Failey said, caused suffering for the Vonnegut family. Kurt was taken out of the private Orchard School in Indianapolis, where his family lived when not at the lake, and where their fortunes had been made, and put into public school there.
Kurt Vonnegut and his wife Jane spent their honeymoon in the former Vonnegut cottage on the lake, she added, which by then was no longer owned by the family, though the then-owner allowed them use of it for the week.
Failey also said Vonnegut often employed names of Indianapolis of Maxinkuckee friends for fictional characters in his famous books, such as “Mrs. Greenleaf,” based on Anne (Marmon) Greenleaf of the east shore.
“Any one of you could be in his books,” Failey told the audience.
She said publication of her book has brought contact from former classmates offering Kurt Vonnegut stories to tell. One was a call from former summer resident Carol Baxter Sommerville, who told Failey the story of a card Vonnegut sent her in response to a letter she’d written about his Maxinkuckee days.
“Thanks for the archival material of a Culver that is no more,” Vonnegut wrote. “There should be a wailing wall at the Academy for people such as us (who remember it as it once was).”
For all her affection for Vonnegut, Failey said she and many of Vonnegut’s other friends struggled with his divorcing his wife Jane, leaving her and the couple’s children, and moving to New York, which is where Failey said “he really started” his career. She said she found peace in learning, more recently, of Vonnegut’s words in a letter to Houston, during the period Jane was dying of cancer.
“She is surely consoled by her deep religious faith, her adoring children, her second husband…and the knowledge that her first husband loves her too.”
Failey said of Vonnegut’s phrase, “and so it goes,” to her meant, “period, get over it -- it’s the cork in the bottle of grief...and disappointment. That was his favorite saying.”