New York Times
August 6, 1997
What Vonnegut Never Said Is Now the Talk of the Net
By IAN FISHER
So it went that Kurt Vonnegut's wife received an e-mail late last week
that purported to reprint a commencement speech he gave this year at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was short and funny, and
it began: "Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1997: Wear sunscreen."
"She was so pleased," Vonnegut said in an interview Tuesday. "She sent
it on to a whole lot of people, including my kids -- how clever I am."
If Vonnegut's own wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, did not doubt
that he was the address's author, it is no surprise that an unknown
multitude of others -- perhaps hundreds of thousands of people wired
into the Internet -- also did not.
At least since Friday, the speech has bounced around the world through
e-mail. In the process, yet another prominent cyberhoax -- or maybe
simply a cyberinnocent mistake -- was born.
The speech was never really a speech at all. It was a newspaper column
written by Mary Schmich, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, who said
she wrote it "while high on coffee and M&Ms" on May 31. The next day
it was printed in her newspaper under her byline without reference to
Vonnegut or MIT. Five days later, the United Nations Secretary
General, Kofi Annan, delivered his own commencement speech at MIT,
where Vonnegut has never been the commencement speaker.
The question Vonnegut and Schmich are now asking is, what exactly
happened between June 1 and now?
For Vonnegut, who had no trouble envisioning the future in his novels,
the episode seems to have cemented his already cranky belief that the
Internet is not a part of the future worth trusting.
"How can I know whether I'm being kidded or not, or lied to?" he
asked, from his home on eastern Long Island, N.Y., where he somewhat
defiantly does not surf the Net or get e-mail. "I don't know what the
point is except is how gullible people are on the Internet."
Schmich, who received about 250 e-mails from around the world Tuesday,
had a similar response.
"I've heard from a couple of cyberlovers out there excoriating me for
damaging the Internet," she said. "But this is just one of those
stories that reminds you of the lawlessness of cyberspace."
"Until this moment, I thought it was just one of the curiosities of
cyberspace," she added. "But having been roped into it in a very
personal way, it suddenly seems less merely interesting and more
She said she felt the column struck something "true," and the
sentiments seemed stamped with gold when Vonnegut's name got attached
to it, supposedly in a speech at an institution no less vaunted than
MIT. There was something about it that made people with e-mail pass it
"I have to say that I tend to get rid of those kinds of things really
fast," said Barbara Reiss, a 32-year-old psychotherapist in Manhattan,
who received it Thursday. "In this particular case, I thought it was
poignant enough to forward it to, I don't know, a whole lot of friends
whom I believed would appreciate it."
"Bad weather is good and having a life is bad."
- AOL geek Steve Case on what factors make people get on the internet