Yesterday on April 11, 2007, author and artist Kurt Vonnegut died at the age of 85. He suffered brain related injuries after a fall that took place weeks earlier. I'm not mentioning him solely because he was a great writer, but because there are a few urban legends tied to him as well.
The three are: In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut gave an unusual commencement address at MIT, Authors Dr. Seuss and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. were college classmates and belonged to the same fraternity, and Author Kurt Vonnegut penned a opinion piece entitled 'Cold Turkey.' Two are false. Care to guess which one is true?
The third choice is correct. Vonnegut's essay was published in the May 10, 2004 edition of In These Times where he was a senior editor. He compared American leaders' dealings with the Middle East to "power-drunk chimpanzees" and our dependence on fossil fuels to those battling addictions. Vonnegut makes a lot of valid points in his essay and is worth the few minutes it takes in order to read it.
The first and possibly the most popular urban legend about Kurt Vonnegut is that he gave a commencement speech to the 1997 class at MIT. The individual who actually gave the speech was Kofi A. Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. How could a simple mix up turn into a popular urban legend? It has to do with one unusual phrase given as a piece of advice to the class of '97: wear sunscreen. Even though Annan gave it, the speech technically didn't write it. It derived from a June 1, 1997 column written by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich. Despite it all, having a famous name attached to the work brings publicity which she might not have obtained on her own.
Schmich's piece was also turned into a "spoken voice" recording featuring the voice of Australian actor Lee Perry entitled "Everyone is Free to Wear Sunscreen". It became a major hit in Australia as well as America in early 1999.
I'm not sure where the second urban legend originated or even why it began to circulate on the internet, but Kurt Vonnegut and Theodore Geisel a.k.a. Dr. Suess never went to college together. In fact, Geisel was Vonnegut's senior by eighteen years. Theodore went to Dartmouth College (the same year Vonnegut was born) and Oxford while Kurt went to Cornell University and later, the University of Chicago. There isn't even any evidence the two ever met. This is one of those situations where you shouldn't believe everything you read, especially on the internet.
Kurt Vonnegut's work is influential for past, present and possibly future generations. He will be dearly missed.