All the Way Home: Author Dan Wakefield on Returning to Indianapolis
An acclaimed writer and Vonnegut confidant reflects on the turn of events that exiled him from the city—and what led him to come back, 40 years later.
Editor’s Note: This essay appeared in the October 2012 issue. IM profiled Wakefield in January 2017.
In his review of Going All the Way for Life magazine, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Having written this book, [Dan Wakefield] can never go home again. From now on, he will have to watch the 500-mile Speedway race on television.”
In the month or so after my first novel came out in July 1970, his prediction seemed all too prescient. One person called to say he was coming to Boston to shoot me (a threat confirmed by one of his relatives, who assured me the man had a gun and had used it to shoot his third wife in the leg). Another man was going to find me and beat me up because one of my characters, whom he thought seemed like his wife, had sex with another of my characters he thought seemed like one of her old boyfriends. And a woman, whom I knew only to say “Hello” when we passed in the halls of Shortridge High School, claimed I ruined her marriage by revealing her sex life in the guise of a fictional character.
Many people firmly believe that “fiction” really is “fact.” I still have people come up to me and say, “Hey, that must have been wild when you and ‘Gunner’ got kicked out of the Meridian Hills swimming pool because he had a beard!” In fact, I never knew anyone in Indianapolis who had a beard in 1954 (the year the novel was set), and I imagine that anyone who did would have been called a Commie and run out of town. But now I just smile when the scene is mentioned and say, “Yeah, that really was wild!”
My publisher sent me on a book tour that summer of 1970 and wanted to add Indianapolis when a local TV station offered to pay all the expenses. I reluctantly agreed, but the plane was forced down at an emergency airstrip in Pittsburgh due to a bomb threat. The flight was scheduled to go to Indy, Kansas City, and San Francisco, and the caller had told TWA, “That flight will never get to Indianapolis.” As we passengers waited in a concrete blockhouse pondering whether to accept the airline’s offer of continuing on when the bomb was not found or returning to New York, I confessed my fears to a woman standing next to me.
“I’m from Bloomington,” she said, “and I’ve heard about your book; if I were you, I’d go back to New York.”
I took her advice, and for the next 15 years I only came back to see my parents and attend their funerals in the spring and fall of 1980. Regardless of the hysteria and hostility over Going All the Way, when I left home to go to college at Columbia in 1952, I never had any intention of living here again. I wanted to be a writer, and in those days writers lived in New York (that was the accepted wisdom, anyway). When I got a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard for a year, I fell in love with Boston, and later wrote in my memoir Returning that I considered it “home” and expected to live there the rest of my life. During those years of exile I either came to Indianapolis “under cover of night,” as I thought of it, to see my parents, or I sent them plane tickets to visit me wherever I was living at the time.
It was not until Ophelia Roop of the Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library called in 1985, inviting me back to give a talk and assuring me that my novel had become so noncontroversial it was used in reading clubs, that I agreed to return. She asked me to write a piece for the library newsletter announcing my forthcoming visit, and I began it by saying, “I come in peace …”
On that trip back, I reunited with old friends from Shortridge, including Jerry Burton, whom I’d known since kindergarten, and made new friends like Roop and Cathy Gibson, who was adult-services coordinator of the library; Jim Powell, who started the Writers’ Center of Indiana; Will Higgins and Dan Carpenter of The Star (where I got my start as a summer replacement reporter on the sports desk during college); and Susan Neville, the author of books I admired such as Indiana Winter. I began making trips back home to speak and lead writing workshops and have dinner with the Shortridge friends, though I still had no idea I would ever come back for good.
My return began through my long and happy connection with the Vonneguts. I first heard of Kurt Vonnegut when I worked as an editor on the Shortridge Daily Echo and learned that he too had held that position and gone on to publish stories in such prestigious weeklies of the 1950s as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. I devoured his stories and novels, sent him my own first books, and began a correspondence that led to our meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1963, when he was living on Cape Cod.
During that dinner at the home of mutual friends, Kurt and I talked more about Shortridge than books, and I had no idea what he’d think when the publisher sent him a copy of Going All the Way for comment five years later. He responded that it was an “important novel,” and his review in Life helped make it a bestseller. We became friends for life, and I could always count on his generous support, advice, and good humor.
I got to know Kurt’s first wife, Jane, who was one of those people with whom I felt an immediate friendship. She and Kurt came up to Boston and had dinner with Sam Lawrence, our mutual publisher, and me to celebrate the publication of Going All the Way. Jane—another Shortridge alum—told me how much she liked the book and could identify with the characters and their problems. Sometimes Kurt came up to Boston and took me to lunch at his favorite restaurant there, a German pub with sawdust on the floor called Jacob Wirth’s. After he moved to New York, I visited him on my trips there from Boston and Miami, where I taught at Florida International University from 1994 to 2009, and after lunch we would walk around the city, telling stories. He once said, “Dan, we never had to leave Indianapolis to become writers. There are people there who are just as kind and just as mean, just as smart and just as dumb, as anywhere in the world. That’s all the material a writer needs.”
His son, Mark, became a good friend, too (as well as a writer of two excellent memoirs, and a beloved Boston pediatrician). He asked me to speak at Kurt’s memorial service in 2007 at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where I talked about Kurt’s kindness and generosity, not only to me but to countless other writers and friends. The service began with three young musicians coming into the room and walking to the front playing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and tears came into my eyes at the first notes. Mark later told me the music had been Kurt’s idea. “He said the only people who were paid worse than young writers were young musicians,” said Mark, “so any chance you have, you should hire them, and pay them as much as you can!”
Last September, after spending 17 years living and teaching in Miami, I felt like I had used up the city, so I cooked up a book project that took me to New York. A day after arriving, I was told by the minister whose life and work I had come to write about that he had changed his mind. Had God only given him this insight a week before, I would not have given up my bargain apartment in Miami Beach, packed up what earthly belongings I had not given away to friends, and moved to an apartment in East Harlem. I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Out of the blue, another family who had imparted a benevolent influence on my life (part of my karmic “karass,” to quote Vonnegut’s term) appeared to guide me out of the hole I was in. A few months before my ill-fated move to New York, I’d agreed to come to Indianapolis to speak about Vonnegut’s work on his birthday, in November, a talk sponsored by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and to donate to them a wonderful poster Kurt had made for me the year before he died. In 2008, I had received a call from Donald Farber, executor of the Vonnegut estate, offering me the job of editing and writing an introduction to a book, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. The collection brought back Indianapolis to me, as well as Kurt, and so I was happy to get the invitation to speak at the Library. As the time of the trip drew near, though, I regretted having committed to donate my time and expenses. Living in New York, even in a crummy apartment in a bad part of East Harlem, was draining my funds at a frightening pace. In hopes of learning about some little-known (but treasure-like) bed and breakfast with bargain rates, I called to ask the advice of Evans Woollen III.
I first met the Woollen clan when I dated Kithy Woollen at Shortridge. A memory of her inspired the first short story I ever published (“Autumn Full of Apples,” which was included in The Best American Short Stories of 1966). Our relationship was so purely innocent that a story about it wouldn’t stand a chance of being published in the current century. In the story, I wrote about going to the beautiful old house she lived in on Dean Road, which was then in the country, with nothing but woods around it, and the awesome experience of meeting her parents. Her father, Evans Jr., was the president of the Fletcher Trust Company (later the American Fletcher National Bank) and always wore a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain across the vest—I imagined him going to bed dressed exactly the same way. He is still my definition of “formidable.”
Kithy’s mother, Lydia, was formidable in her own way. As I described her in my memoir New York in the Fifties, she was “one of my favorite adults, a woman of charm and sharp wit, a kind of Midwestern Katharine Hepburn, more soft and slow in speaking but possessing the same intensity of gaze. When I came to see her daughter, she would engage me in conversations about books I was reading and tell me of authors she admired, treating me as if my opinions were worthy of attention.” She was the first person to tell me about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she loaned me his novel This Side of Paradise.
Kithy’s older brothers would hoot and catcall from the upstairs windows when I took her home from a date, but I only got to know the eldest, Evans Woollen III (known in my high-school days as “Chub”), when he moved to Boston a couple of years after his wife died. Evans was the co-architect of Clowes Hall at Butler, designed the new wing of the Central Library, was a Resident of the American Academy in Rome, and recently was labeled a “rock-star architect” by The Star (a description that I’m sure made Evans wince and caused his father to roll over in his grave).
After he moved back to Indianapolis, Evans lived with his mother, Lydia, in her last years, and I visited them there. But I felt he and I really got to know one another when he joined me and other friends on a hiking tour of the English Lake Country. After that, I visited Evans in Indianapolis following his mother’s death, and most recently in the solar-heated house he designed for himself with a panoramic view of the mountains in Boulder, Colorado. Every few months we talk on the phone about books and people and food. And because of his questing intellect, which led him to be a serious student of Advaita Vedanta (a type of Hindu philosophy), as well as the wry humor he inherited from his mother and his own wide understanding of the world, I consider Evans the wisest man I know.
When I called him to ask about bed-and-breakfast possibilities, he said without a moment’s hesitation, “You should stay with Cathy Gibson.”
I was puzzled and stunned.
“Evans, I haven’t even seen or talked with her for at least 10 years.”
She was the person, along with Ophelia Roop, who had engineered my return to Indianapolis to speak at the Central Library after my exile that followed Going All the Way. On many of my trips here after that first one, I had dinners and lunches with Cathy, one of my favorite people here or anywhere, but I had simply lost touch. I wouldn’t have dreamed of imposing on her out of the blue, but when I explained all this to Evans, he simply repeated the words that seemed to have become his new mantra: “You should stay with Cathy Gibson.”
If anyone other than Evans had given me this presumptuous advice, I would simply have thanked them and asked the operator for the location of the Motel 6 nearest to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. But I had called Evans because I trusted him, so what was the point in disregarding his suggestion?
So I took a hit of red wine and a deep breath and called Cathy to ask if I could stay at her house for three days and nights. Her only question was “Would you mind if I had a dinner party for you?”
As I huddled on my clammy living-room couch in East Harlem (the bedroom faced the street, and the noise on weekends precluded sleep), I considered the genuine warmth and hospitality that Cathy had exuded. I thought of my old friend, Jane Rulon, who I knew was coming to Cathy’s dinner. Jane had been the head of the Indiana Film Commission (alas, it is no more) when we filmed Going All the Way in Indianapolis in 1997, and without her tireless help before and during the next-to-impossible 30-day shoot, the movie would not have existed. Working with Jane under that round-the-clock pressure made her a friend for life.
I picked up the phone and called her.
“This will sound kooky and probably is,” I said, “but on Sunday morning after Cathy’s dinner, would you drive me around downtown Indianapolis to look at apartments?”
Maybe the time had come to defy Kurt’s injunction against my return in his review of Going All the Way, and instead remember his declaration that we could be writers in our hometown as well as anywhere else. I had sold my fender-bendered car and given up driving when I left Miami, but I thought if I could find a spot downtown where I could walk to the essential places, I might just give it a shot. The morning after Cathy’s splendid dinner, Jane and I looked at some apartments that seemed too uptight and formal (my great publisher Sam Lawrence described my taste as “raffish Bohemian”), but we passed one building that looked old-fashioned and offbeat enough to suit me. The management office was closed until Monday, and I had to fly back to New York Sunday night, so I asked Jane—who has since passed away—if she’d go to see if they had any apartments for rent. She called me the next afternoon; one would be available in December. She described the place and said she thought I’d like it.
“Tell them I’ll take it,” I said.
After shipping what was left of my earthly goods to Cathy’s house, I stayed there while she recruited her friends to furnish my new pad. Jim Lingenfelter, the architect and president of the Library Board of Trustees, and his wife, Georgia Cravey, who had helped me research a piece for The New York Times Magazine in her library days, hit Audrey’s Thrift store, several Goodwills, and even liberated a desk and a bookcase from the basement of the ACLU of Indiana (Cathy is president of the board). A few weeks later, Karen Kovacik, Indiana’s Poet Laureate, found me the ideal living-room couch at The Salvation Army. As George Costanza’s father announced when he told his wife he was taking up cooking again: “I’m back, baby!”
Among my first orders of business was to have dinner with the Shortridge gang—or rather, what’s left of it. Our ranks have been depleted by three of our guys who’ve gone on to The Great High School in the Sky. We survivors got together at Mama Carolla’s in Broad Ripple and, as always, had plenty of laughs and stories we never tire of telling. Another Shortridge connection inspired me to register Republican for the first time in my life—not because moving back transformed my politics, but because I wanted to vote for an old classmate, Senator Dick Lugar, whom I knew to be a principled man and a credit to our city, state, and country, regardless of party affiliation. We wrote “rival” sports columns in the Echo and shared a weekend at a student journalism convention in French Lick where he taught me to play gin rummy—and what it means to have the courage of your convictions, as he said his prayers aloud every night.
Barb Shoup, a great new friend and fellow author, asked me to lead a class for the Writers’ Center of Indiana in the spring, which turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had teaching. Out of the class came new friendships, and the warmest reintroduction I could possibly have had to the city. As Vonnegut predicted, I found that there are people here who are just as kind and just as mean, just as smart and just as dumb, as anywhere else on the planet. He always got it right when he told you something, as he did in his books, stories, and the letters he wrote throughout his life—letters that Publishers Weekly called “as splendid in their own way as those of Keats.”
After I moved back here, several people asked if I’d returned because of all the wonderful new cultural advantages the city has to offer. They were disappointed when I admitted that the only cultural institutions I was interested in were the Central Library and the Red Key. I mean, no other joint in the world can match its jukebox of hits from the ’30s through the ’60s. Where else can you nurse a glass of red and listen to Bunny Berigan’s 1937 classic “I Can’t Get Started”?
To quote Gunner Casselman’s order of another beer at The Red Key (a line delivered by Ben Affleck in the movie of Going All the Way):
“Hit me again, Russ.”
The late Russ Settle, the legendary owner and bartender of The Key, served Affleck his beer in the movie, as he had served more than a few to me, home on holiday vacations in the ’50s, and on many returns. Russ is no longer with us, but his spirit lives on in the warmth and memories of The Key, and in the music there that served as a soundtrack for so many of our lives.
I had forgotten, though, just how far I had traveled to get back here—a journey that took me through New York, Israel, Boston, Hollywood, Miami, and New York—until I got a letter from Rev. Carl Scovel, my minister and friend in Boston. He wrote that he was “interested to hear of your odyssey ending at last in Ithaca.” Like Odysseus, after all my great adventures and narrow escapes, I had finally found my way home.
Read more from Dan Wakefield at DanWakefield.com