Long before the play opened, the producer was panned. One reviewer worried in print about a “botched-up job.” Theatrical old-timers called her a “wipe-out,” a contemptuous term for a figurehead producer. A New York paper sneered that she was only “Daddy’s little girl.”
Edie Vonnegut had her problems when she booked Howard Ashman’s musical adaptation of her father Kurt’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater into an Off-Broadway theater. The closest she had ever come to overseeing a production was putting on fashion shows in 1972 for Giorgio Sant’ Angelo. Yet, Kurt never doubted that the second of his three children—still a tender 29—could do the job. “She’s tough, a hustler,” he proudly notes, “and she’s got exquisite taste.” Edie responds with a smile: “Kurt thinks a little nepotism is good for everyone.”
Aside from snippy notices, Edie’s first problem was money. To stage Rosewater, she needed $400,000. “What did people do before the Touch-Tone phone?” she wonders; she made a hundred calls a day. “In the beginning I was naive,” she admits. “I thought I could raise it all in a week, because everyone I talked to said, ‘Sure, I know a guy who will just sit down and write you a check for $100,000.’ Now I only count the money when it’s in.”
She finally corralled over 70 backers but did not let up. She helped patch up cast and choreography changes and shrewdly rented the same downtown theater, the Entermedia, that launched Grease and Oh! Calcutta! An artist of some skill, she designed posters that have appeared all over New York. When costume designer David Graden needed materials, fabric-crazy Edie knew the place: a Brooklyn warehouse with 20-foot-high bales of musty treasure. After two weeks of previews, Rosewater will open October 14.
Kurt’s pride in his daughter is exceeded only by her own satisfaction. “I’m grown up,” she says. “I got the theater. I got the money. I’m making the decisions.” Her triumph was just the tonic Kurt needed after a mild bout of angina this summer. “I’ve never seen him in better form,” Edie says. “He’s mellowed out. It’s like he’s too tired to be mean anymore.”
Of course Jailbird helps too, his novel that shot instantly onto the bestseller lists. “It restored my honor,” he says. Vonnegut was both a cult figure and critics’ darling for years. But after he separated from his wife, Jane, and moved to New York 10 years ago (they were finally divorced last spring), reviewers were less enchanted with his writing. The breakup was difficult. In addition to their own brood, the Vonneguts had raised the four orphaned children of Kurt’s sister. The novelist, now 56, explains, “I was one kid too many. I needed someone to fart around with. Jane never had the time.”
Son Mark angered his father in 1975 with a book about his schizophrenic crack-up, titled The Eden Express. Kurt objected to some paternal references. Now 32, Mark is a Harvard Med School graduate interning in Boston. The youngest Vonnegut, 24-year-old Nanny, works in a New England health food store.
Edie’s closeness to her father may date back to a brief period of living together when she was 16. They left the rest of the family in Barnstable, Mass. and set up housekeeping in Iowa City, where Vonnegut taught at the renowned Writers’ Workshop. Kurt says it was a “marvelous time for her. She hung out in the student union, where the intellectual life of the university really takes place.” Later Edie dropped out of colleges and art schools from Boston to Mexico. “The schools kept trying to break my spirit,” she says. “I kept on painting.”
In her early 20s she came to New York. “I was lost,” she admits, explaining away a “little dumb marriage” to ABC-TV commentator Geraldo Rivera. They divorced in 1975. After the turbulent three-year marriage ended, Edie went back to her studio. Since 1976 she has been selling whimsical art deco heads to Henri Bendel’s in Manhattan. Her knockoffs of Leonardo da Vinci go for $1,000. She once wrote Norman Rockwell, pleading to be his apprentice on the grounds that he was “the closest thing to Da Vinci working today.” The illustrator demurred, so Edie worked alone, developing a Renaissance lighting technique from books. Soon she found a trendy market.
Her interests are novel and eclectic. “When I started roller-skating three years ago people thought I was crazy,” she says. Now she demonstrates her zippy style in a TV commercial for Ramblin’ Root Beer, a new Coca-Cola Co. product. New Jersey department stores have paid her $100 (plus new clothes) just to skate through their aisles for half an hour.
Lately Edie has been helping Kurt and his companion for 10 years, photographer Jill Krementz, decorate a 1740 Long Island home they bought from painter Frank Stella. Someday Edie would like to “build a house from scratch, like a sculpture—carve the doors, make the bed, the fireplace, the tiles for the bath, everything.” After Rosewater she also hopes to make a film on New York’s “tilt people,” as she calls them—”the crazy street people, like the ones who dress all in purple, collect manure from the Central Park stables and sell it to the rich people with penthouse gardens.”
It is Vonnegut country, Edie’s version. “Things are working out now,” she says.