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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s General Electric (And Schenectady) Origin Story

One of America's greatest writers got his start in the Electric City as a publicist for GE.

Kurt Vonnegut, third from left (obscured), taking down notes at a General Electric presser. (Mary Robinson)

My wife tells this story like it happened yesterday: When we were dating, the one time she thought I was going to break up with her was during the week of April 9, 2007, when I didn’t call her for a few days. That was because I was in mourning. On Wednesday the 11th, my literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had died, and it sent me spiraling into a deep depression. So it goes.

My reverence for Vonnegut springs eternal not only because of his novels (my all-time favorite is God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater), but also his connection to the Capital Region. In 1947, the General Electric Company (GE) in Schenectady hired him as a publicist. Vonnegut’s debut novel, Player Piano, tips its cap to the Electric City and GE in the guise of fictional town Ilium (ironically, Greek for “Troy,” and not to be confused with the actual Upstate New York town of Ilion) and its Ilium Works (a stand-in for Schenectady Works), respectively. Vonnegut even swiped his main character’s name, Dr. Paul Proteus, in part, from one of GE’s most famous engineers, Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

There had also been a fuzzy memory on my mom’s side of the family that, at some point during his life—and by process of deduction, it would’ve had to have been in the late 1940s—my grandfather (her father), Van Ladd, had either been in a bar and shared a drink with Vonnegut or simply seen the soon-to-be-famous author around town somewhere in Schenectady. (It’s tough trying to fact-check family lore, so this snippet was left out of the magazine story.) Maybe as a sign that the story had actually been true, when my grandmother had passed away suddenly in 2004, and shortly after, our family was in the process of moving grandpa out of his home on the GE Realty Plot to a nearby, one-story home in Niskayuna (his bad knees had prevented him from scaling the grand staircase), I’d saved a few knickknacks from their home for posterity, including a first edition of Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which sat on the bookshelf in their study. (It now sits in my own study.) Maybe they’d bought the local hero’s 1965 novel for a reason? We’ll never know, I guess.

While Player Piano (or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, for that matter) is certainly not Vonnegut’s best work—check out Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle—it still helps to pay tribute to a city where I spent a sizable part of my youth.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is the Director of Content for saratogaliving.com and the Executive Editor for saratoga living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others.

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