Shacking up with one's creative mentor—and then getting a book deal out of it—is such a cliché it's even spawned a literary genre: a mishmash of great-man biography and tell-all memoir, with a hint of Freudian conference paper thrown in. The specialty is nameless, but certain titles would be apt. The de Beauvoir. The Maynard. The Toklas (Gertrude Stein being the rare great woman to bed a protégé). Now it's time to add another name to the list: the Rackstraw. Loree Rackstraw was a 30-something single mother and Iowa Writers' Workshop student in 1965 when she met, and had a fling with, her fiction-workshop mentor, a then relatively unknown novelist named Kurt Von-
negut. The encounter was brief. Two semesters later, Rackstraw graduated and took a teaching position in Cedar Falls, a hundred miles away. Vonnegut returned to his wife and family on Cape Cod, where he finished his darkly humorous masterpiece "Slaughterhouse-Five" and catapulted to literary stardom. Yet their short affair spawned a decades-long friendship and correspondence, which forms the subject of Rackstraw's new book, "Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him."
Like the pioneers of the form, Rackstraw considers herself a serious author, and she peddles her story as something more dignified than salacious pillow gossip. Still, one has to ask: why did Rackstraw, now in her 70s, choose this twilight moment to write about Vonnegut (he died in 2007, but knew of her plans for a memoir)? And what—if anything—separates Rackstraw and her fellow mistresses from, say, "Gennifer Flowers: Passion and Betrayal"?
The motivation question is key when a person chooses to sell her side of the affair. Some kiss-and-tell authors write about their former lovers to advance their own reputation. Bettina von Arnim published her romantic exchange with Goethe—which began when she was 21 and he, 58—to boost her insider cred in the German Romantic movement. (She certainly became an insider—she later leaked hot and heavy letters from Beethoven.) Women of more secure social standing have used details of a writer's sexual tics and inner turmoil to titillate fellow followers and shed new light on his character—Samuel Johnson's high-society lover, Hester Thrale, hinted that the good doctor had a thing for masochism and liked to be whipped; Simone de Beauvoir revealed Jean-Paul Sartre's taste for ménages à trois. Still others sell out of monetary duress: Joyce Maynard wrote a memoir and auctioned off her J. D. Salinger letters in 1999, supposedly to pay for her children's tuition (she netted $156,600 and countless diatribes from Salinger fans).
But Rackstraw does not come across as a mercenary, fame-grubbing type. Nor is she interested in bringing her literary Samson to his knees. She has a more high-minded, and parasitic, motivation: she wants to insert herself into Vonnegut's official history, from which she has been noticeably absent. Their friendship is not mentioned by any of his obituaries, nor did Vonnegut bring her up in public interviews or book dedications. Rackstraw devotes a large chunk of her book to recounting how she followed Vonnegut with the fervor of a true believer: she read early copies of his manuscripts, promised him glowing write-ups in her North American Review journal and castigated critics who questioned his unconventional narrative choices or refused to take him seriously. In the mid-1980s, around the time of Vonnegut's 11th novel, "Galápagos," Rackstraw dedicated herself to studying his work and published impassioned, albeit obscure, essays on his significance to the Western canon. ("You're going to find it very tedious being a Vonnegut scholar," he told her, but he lapped up her "rave reviews" and forwarded her all manner of bric-a-brac, including a banned Polish copy of "Mother Night," with the comment, "Any nut who tries to collect all my stuff surely won't have this one.") Rackstraw even links herself to a female muse character in Vonnegut's later work and claims, "I knew of only two persons who'd believed early on he was a creative genius whose work was deeply significant: [first wife] Jane Vonnegut and myself."
And yet, it is hard to know how close the student was to the master. Rackstraw is elusive about their physical relationship, and we only suspect that the fling was sexual: "We broke a couple of taboos," she says. "I was a participant in the 'beautiful trouble' [Vonnegut] got into and got out of again." Which taboos? What kind of trouble? Rackstraw makes a point of telling us she assumed Vonnegut had separated from his wife at the time. She describes late nights with Vonnegut around the kitchen table and one autumn evening spent cuddling in an Iowa orchard. But when Vonnegut phoned out of the blue of that spring they spent together to say his wife would be arriving in Iowa the next day, Rackstraw writes, "The pain felt like betrayal, even though I realized I had no real right to feel that." When Rackstraw meets Jane, she says, "I felt like she had some sense of my earlier relationship with Kurt but she and Kurt had not discussed anything specific, so far as I knew. Nor had Kurt and I, either, at any length. It was evident to me he was loyal to Jane, so I was too."
Those elliptical Iowa passages are Rackstraw's raciest. The next 12 chapters cover a relationship that was, for 40 years, largely epistolary. In their letters—and in rare meetings, when Vonnegut passed through the Midwest on a lecturing tour, or when Rackstraw headed East to visit old Iowa alum—glimmers of mutual attraction are few and foggy. When Rackstraw gets married in 1971, Vonnegut comments on her name change—which she takes to be a sign of jealousy. A few years later, after Vonnegut has been living with his soon-to-be second wife, Jill Krementz, he invites Rackstraw on an impromptu trip to Key West. Near the end of their time in Florida, he impishly asks her, "I think it's possible to love two people at the same time, don't you?" Rackstraw also hints that Krementz—now Vonnegut's official widow—was envious of her and that Vonnegut had doubts about the marriage.
Still, it's hard to interpret what's truly going on behind Vonnegut's voluble correspondence and Rackstraw's restricted access to the man. What is deeply problematic about "Love as Always, Kurt"—as with most tell-alls—is that it's difficult to know whether Rackstraw is downplaying their relationship or embellishing it. Which raises a sticky point: when a trailer-park gal sells her celebrity sex diaries to Us Weekly, we all agree it's trashy and possibly exaggerated (even though we eat it up). But when a scholar publishes a memoir of her teacher-lover, she gets to call it serious biography. Do we buy this? Or shouldn't we also question her agenda—especially when, as with Rackstraw, she maintains she doesn't have one? Perhaps the main difference between Rackstraw's book and tabloid pulp is that the latter aims to deflate a public figure, whereas Rackstraw wants to protect Vonnegut's reputation. But in order to bolster her right to be guardian of the flame, she's had to drag in their affair—while at the same time making sure no tawdry details escape to mar Vonnegut's character.
It's common for an artist's acolytes to jostle for control of his or her reputation. When Johnson died, Thrale and James Boswell both scrambled to publish their competing memoirs. When Mary Shelley's father-in-law banned her from writing a biography of her husband and mentor Percy Bysshe, she one-upped him by annotating Percy's poems with her own interpretations instead. Here, Rackstraw has assumed the task of burnishing Vonnegut's life into sweet and sentimental caricature. The darker stuff—his manic ups and downs, his 1984 suicide attempt, the ethicality of a teacher hooking up with a student—are swept away under a torrent of cheerful and homey anecdotes. But in staying loyal to Vonnegut, Rackstraw betrays her audience. If she wants to be a biographer, it's her duty to question and complicate Vonnegut. Instead, she ends up beatifying him, summing up her project in her description of their bond: "From the beginning, it defied analysis, so I simply accepted it." Readers will wish she'd done otherwise.