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It's Witty Advice . . . but It's Not Vonnegut's

August 07, 1997|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Will the real Kurt Vonnegut Jr. please stand up?

In recent days, an Internet hullabaloo has broken out over a graduation speech that he purportedly delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It began with the immortal words, "Wear sunscreen," and wandered through a delightful, amusing string of proverbs, including:

* "Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements."

* "Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room."

* "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."

* "Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them when they're gone."

E-mail aficionados around the globe forwarded the speech to friends, co-workers and relatives.

But, as is often the case with stories on the information superhighway, truth was left bound and gagged in a ditch on the side of the road.

In reality, novelist Vonnegut had nothing to do with the alleged commencement address. And neither did MIT. The words were hijacked from a June 1 newspaper column by Chicago Tribune scribe Mary Schmich. (You can find them at http://www.chicago.tribune.com).

"Imagine my surprise," Schmich wrote earlier this week, after readers began alerting her that she was now Kurt Vonnegut. "I recall composing that little speech one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M & Ms."

Likewise, Vonnegut was surprised to discover that someone else's prose was being attributed to him. "It was very witty, but it wasn't my wittiness," he reportedly told Schmich.

How did it happen? Schmich says she tried tracing one of the e-mails backward to its original source but discovered that "the pursuit of culprit zero would be endless."

So her theory, based on correspondence from people who received the speech with no author listed, is that someone inexplicably decided to slap Vonnegut's name on it. From there, the "sunscreen speech" assumed a life of its own.

The author's fans were rapturous about the new discovery. On Internet user groups, several readers exclaimed: "It's definitely classic Vonnegut" and "This is wonderful. Just one more reason why everybody needs to read Vonnegut!"

"I don't think this ever would have spread if it didn't have a famous name attached," Schmich says. "Having a famous name inflates something beyond what it really is."

Which might explain why Schmich is thinking about putting Vonnegut's name on all her columns: "It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of Kmart jeans."

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