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Friday, May 13, 2011

Sidney Offit shares memories of his friendship with Kurt Vonnegut

This month’s Library of America interview celebrates a beautiful friendship. Sidney Offit, editor of Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973, first met the author in the early 1970s, shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It was a time, Offit reports, “when there were two writers who young people seemed to read as scripture: Kurt was one, Herman Hesse was the other.”

Both aging amateur athletes in their forties, Vonnegut and Offit discovered they shared an enthusiasm for chasing tennis balls, and pursuing other adventures together. In a 1979 article about William Buckley, Vonnegut lists pages of names of his “New York friendships” (“a friendship with a person you have met at least once”)—only Sidney’s is crowned with “(best friend!).” In the LOA interview Offit shares many memories of their times together:
LOA: Vonnegut uses tennis as part of Rosewater’s therapy in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In your memoir you note that the historian James Flexner, one of your tennis six, viewed each player’s style as indicative of the player’s ego and character. Of Vonnegut he said, “his service is modest and he seems less interested in winning than just having fun and not embarrassing himself.” What did you learn about Kurt by playing tennis with him all those years?

Offit: Jimmie got it right. Kurt was all about fun. He’d get off some great lines. We were playing tennis once with our sons. We won the first two games. But then they were coming back strong. Suddenly, Kurt said to me: “Hey, let’s fall on the ball and run out the clock.”

LOA: Can you share some of your adventures with Kurt?

Offit: In the seventies a German filmmaker who had learned from Kurt about our Ping-Pong matches was determined to shoot us in action at the Broadway parlor where we boarded our paddles. A day or so before the filming Kurt and I decided to warm up. We arrived some time mid-afternoon and were greeted by the manager who had a way of looking at us as if we were visiting a speakeasy. “Ah, yeah, Kurt and Sid,” he said. “Table one.” At the time Kurt’s name was world famous but even some of his ardent fans didn’t recognize him. On the other hand, I was appearing on a local TV news show on Channel 5 three or four times a week, debating politics. Viewers may not always recall my politics but my face seemed to be familiar to perhaps as many as a half million New Yorkers.

Well, Kurt had invented this game of 100. “The hardest part of us ole guys playing Ping-Pong,” Kurt said, “was picking up the ball.” We were banging away—perhaps 86–82—when our ball flew over to where some kids were playing. This young guy brings the ball over and looks at me. “Say,” he says, “aren’t you the professor on television?” Kurt got a kick out of that. “Yes,” I replied. “What are you doing here?” he wanted to know. “I’m playing Ping-Pong with Kurt Vonnegut.” You could see the boy’s eyes light up. He ran over to tell his friends. “Guys, guys, that’s Kurt Vonnegut.” Then he came back with our ball. “Mr. Vonnegut,” he asked, “would you autograph this ball for us?” Of course, Kurt wouldn’t let me live down that I was the one who got recognized. “So you’re my famous friend.”
Read the entire LOA interview. (PDF)

Watch a video clip (YouTube) of Vonnegut and Offit playing a spirited game of Ping-Pong:

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

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