Real 'suncreen speech' author sets record straight


(Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune wrote a satirical commencement speech in her column on June 1. Somehow, her piece exploded into an Internet hoax that had the makings of a legend, as it made the rounds disguised as an address supposedly delivered at MIT's 1997 Commencement by author Kurt Vonnegut. Ms. Schmich, an innocent victim, set the record straight in her column on August 3. Portions are reprinted here with permission.)

I am Kurt Vonnegut.

Oh, Kurt Vonnegut may appear to be a brilliant, revered male novelist. I may appear to be a mediocre and virtually unknown female newspaper columnist. We may appear to have nothing in common but unruly hair.

But out in the lawless swamp of cyberspace, Mr. Vonnegut and I are one. Out there, where any snake can masquerade as king, both of us are the author of a graduation speech that began with the immortal words, "Wear sunscreen."

I was alerted to my bond with Mr. Vonnegut Friday morning by several callers and e-mail correspondents who reported that the sunscreen speech was rocketing through the cyberswamp, from L.A. to New York to Scotland, in a vast e-mail chain letter.

Friends had e-mailed it to friends, who e-mailed it to more friends, all of whom were told it was the commencement address given to the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The speaker was allegedly Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine Mr. Vonnegut's surprise. He was not, and never has been, MIT's commencement speaker. Imagine my surprise. I recall composing that little speech one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M's. It appeared in this space on June 1. It included such deep thoughts as "Sing," "Floss," and "Don't mess too much with your hair." It was not art.

But out in the cyberswamp, truth is whatever you say it is, and my simple thoughts on floss and sunscreen were being passed around as Kurt Vonnegut's eternal wisdom.

Poor man. He didn't deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way. So I called a Los Angles book reviewer, with whom I'd never spoken, hoping he could help me find Mr. Vonnegut.

"You mean that thing about sunscreen?" he said when I explained the situation. "I got that. It was brilliant. He didn't write that?"

He didn't know how to find Mr. Vonnegut. I tried MIT.

"You wrote that?" said Lisa Damtoft in the news office. She said MIT had received many calls and e-mails on this year's "sunscreen" commencement speech. But not everyone was sure: Who had been the speaker?

The speaker on June 6 was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, who did not, as Mr. Vonnegut and I did in our speech, urge his graduates to "dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room." He didn't mention sunscreen.

As I continued my quest for Mr. Vonnegut -- his publisher had taken the afternoon off, his agent didn't answer -- reports of his "sunscreen" speech kept pouring in���������������������������

Fortunately, not everyone who read the speech believed it was Mr. Vonnegut's. "The voice wasn't quite his," sniffed one doubting contributor to a Vonnegut chat group on the Internet. "It was slightly off -- a little too jokey, a little too cute��������������������������� a little too 'Seinfeld.' "

���������������������������I did, however, finally track down Mr. Vonnegut. He picked up his own phone. He'd heard about the sunscreen speech from his lawyer, from friends, from a women's magazine that wanted to reprint it until he denied he wrote it.

"It was very witty, but it wasn't my wittiness," he generously said.

Reams could be written on the lessons in this episode. Space confines me to two.

One: I should put Kurt Vonnegut's name on my column. It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-Mart jeans. Two: Cyberspace, in Mr. Vonnegut's word, is "spooky."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.


Topics: Campus services

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