In search of Phoebe Hurty, Kurt Vonnegut’s mentor

I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions again after many years, and was struck by the dedication:

who comforted me in Indianapolis—during the Great Depression. 
When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. —JOB

The introduction to the book expands on this a bit:

The person to whom this book is dedicated, Phoebe Hurty, is no longer among the living, as they say. She was an Indianapolis widow when I met her late in the Great Depression. I was sixteen or so. She was about forty. 

She was rich, but she had gone to work every weekday of her adult life, so she went on doing that. She wrote a sane and funny advice-to-the-lovelorn column for the Indianapolis Times, a good paper which is now defunct. 


She wrote ads for the William H. Block Company, a department store which still flourishes in a building my father designed. She wrote this ad for an end-of-the-summer sale on straw hats: “For prices like this, you can run them through your horse and put them on your roses.”  

Phoebe Hurty hired me to write copy for ads about teenage clothes. I had to wear the clothes I praised. That was part of the job. And I became friends with her two sons, who were my age. I was over at their house all the time.

She would talk bawdily to me and her sons, and to our girlfriends when we brought them around. She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything. 

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty. I think now that grace was easier for her than it is for me because of the mood of the Great Depression. She believed what so many Americans believed then: that the nation would be happy and just and rational when prosperity came. 

I never hear that word anymore: Prosperity. It used to be a synonym for Paradise. And Phoebe Hurty was able to believe that the impoliteness she recommended would give shape to an American paradise. 

Now her sort of impoliteness is fashionable. But nobody believes anymore in a new American paradise. I sure miss Phoebe Hurty.

Well, I thought, what can I find out about Phoebe Hurty, using the resources of

At first the trail was somewhat confusing. The 1940 city directory for Indianapolis has the following entries under Hurty:

Two years later, the 1942 directory has this:

So it looks like Phoebe was the wife of Gilbert, who died some time between 1940 and 1942, and that he was president of the Hurty-Peck favouring extracts company; and her mother-in-law Ethel also died between 1940 and 1942. Meanwhile there is a Gladys S. Hurty who works for the William H. Block Company as a copywriter, but seems to live at the same address as Gilbert and Phoebe.

This doesn’t quite match Vonnegut’s account. He has Phoebe, not Gladys, as the copywriter at Block’s. (Also he implies that she was already a widow when they first met when he was about sixteen; but he was born in 1922, and Gilbert was definitely still alive in 1938.) A bit more digging and I found documentary evidence for the following timeline:

  • June 1891: Gladys Sutton is born in Austin, Texas. Her parents are John Adam Sutton (1858–1917) and Katherine Belle Miller (1867–1944). Her father is 32 and her mother is 24. He is from Indianapolis, she is from Texas.
  • 1907/08: birth of her only sibling, John A. Sutton. Gladys is 16 or 17.
  • by 1920: she has married her first husband, Robert Leroy Craig (1891–1974) and the 1920 census records them living with her widowed mother and her brother in an apartment at 2456 Meridian St, Indianapolis. (NB that Meridian Street is now split between North Meridian Street and South Meridian Street, both of which have buildings numbered 2456.) The census, enumerated on 14 January, gives her and her husband’s ages (correctly) as 27.
  • 8 February 1921: birth of her first child, Robert Leroy Craig Jr (1921-2009). Gladys is 29.
  • 9 July 1923: birth of her second child, David Frederick Craig (1923-2003). Gladys is 32.
    (Both sons appear to have living children.)
  • The 1930 census records Gladys as aged 38, divorced and living as a boarder with a German family; the boys, aged 9 and 7, are living with their father, his second wife and her 19-year-old daughter.
  • 13 Jan 1935: Gladys married Gilbert Johnston Hurty (1878-1940). She is 43; he is 56.
  • The 1940 census records her and Gilbert living with the two boys at 1210 Pickwick Place (the address given in the city directory)
  • 24 Jun 1940: Gilbert dies. He is 61; Gladys has her 49th birthday that month.
  • 11 Nov 1940: Ethel Johnston, Gladys’s mother-in-law, dies, aged 84.
  • 29 May 1956: Gladys dies, aged 64.

There is only one reference to a Phoebe Hurty in official records anywhere that I could find: it is cited as the name of Robert Craig Jr’s mother, on his 2009 death certificate.

So, it begins to look as if Gladys and Phoebe Hurty were the same person, but were listed separately in the Indianapolis city directory in the different roles of Block copywriter and Gilbert’s wife. I got confirmation of this from her obituary in the Indianapolis News of 29 May 1956:

Gladys Hurty, former news writer, is dead

Gladys (Phoebe) Sutton Hurty, 61 [actually 64], former writer, had always been keenly interested in literature. She was attending a class on great books at Butler University last night when she suffered a stroke. She died on arrival at Methodist Hospital. Her home was in Golden Hill.

Born in Texas, Mrs. Hurty had lived in Indianapolis more than 50 years. She was the widow of Gilbert J. Hurty, former owner of Hurty Peck dealers in extracts.

For a number of years Mrs. Hurty wrote articles for The [Indianapolis] News’ editorial page under the name of Phoebe Craig. Also for a time she wrote a column in the [Indianapolis] Times under the pseudonym of Jane Jordan. For 20 years Mrs. Hurty had been an advertising executive at Block’s.

Her work there included writing copy for men’s clothing ads. Mrs. Hurty was planning to retire at Block’s June 30 and take a European tour. She was a member of the Woodstock Club, Great Books Club and the Contemporary Club.

Services will be at 3 p.m. Thursday in Flanner Buchanan Fall Creek Mortuary, with burial in Crown Hill Cemetery. Survivors are two sons by a former marriage, Robert L. Craig, Indianapolis, and David F. Craig, New Orleans; a brother, John A. Sutton, Indianapolis, and six grandchildren. Funeral: Home, with burial in Crown Hill. 

It’s sad that she died so suddenly, just a month before she would have retired.

Dan Wakefield, who knew Kurt Vonnegut from their childhoods in Indianapolis (but is ten years younger), did a little more digging for his biography, Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer, told in the second person, present tense.

One of the mothers who reads the Echo [a high school newspaper] is Phoebe Hurty, an advertising copywriter for the William H. Block Company, one of the big downtown department stores. She likes what you write and sees that you write often; she hires you to write advertising copy for the Echo about the clothes that Block’s Department Store sells to teenagers. The deal is that you wear the clothes that you write about to school, and you pose as a model in ads that the store makes for its teenage clothes.

Phoebe Hurty becomes your mentor. Her legal name is Gladys Sutton Craig Hurty, but she doesn’t see herself as a Gladys, so she picked out a name she thinks suits her better: Phoebe. She uses another name for the advice column she writes for the Indianapolis Times: Jane Jordan. Her advice is to the point and practical.

A girl writes to tell “Jane Jordan” that she likes a boy who was respectful and nice, but on her last date with him, he’d been drinking and said if she really cared about him, she’d “surrender.” Here is “Jane Jordan’s” advice: “I think I would ignore the incident. If he behaves properly when he is sober, enjoy his company, and avoid him when he drinks.”

In an interview in the Indianapolis Times, Phoebe tells about her philosophy for raising her two sons to become independent.

“When they were very little, the garage was their playhouse,” she says, and one cold day they started a fire to keep warm. Phoebe came home from work to find the street clogged with fire trucks. The fire the boys had made to keep warm had nearly burned down the garage. Phoebe says her son Bobby “gave me one agonized look and said, ‘Mother, I will eat turnips.’ I saw that he wanted to be punished to relieve his sense of guilt and that in his opinion, nothing could be worse than turnips. So we had turnips for dinner and nothing more was said. We’ve never had a fire since.”

You get to be friends with Phoebe and her sons Robert, who is a year older than you, and David, who is a year younger, and you hang out at their house all the time.

Phoebe Hurty talks bawdily to you and her sons and to your girlfriends when you bring them around. She’s funny. She’s liberating. She teaches you and her sons to be impolite in conversation, not only about sexual matters, but also about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about everything.

So I’m pretty satisfied that I’ve filled out Vonnegut’s brief reference to Phoebe Hurty, born Gladys Sutton, for a few years Mrs Craig, and Jane Jordan in her advice columns. There’s one more log to add to the fire, though. The Indianapolis State Library has digitised several dozen editions of Block’s Booster, the in-house magazine for the employees of William H. Block and Company, and Phoebe Hurty is mentioned several times (as Phoebe, not Gladys). Notably, in the May 1948 issue, there is a two-page photo spread on the store’s advertising department, and one of the pictures features an indistinct Phoebe. (I’ve shifted the caption from its original position in the article, for clarity.)

That’s her on the right, the month before her 57th birthday. It’s a shame that the photographer didn’t catch her as well as her colleagues, but I’m grateful for what we have; and anyway Vonnegut’s pen-portrait is much more descriptive than any image could be.