DanKaraWritingRetreat

Dan Wakefield, A Tribute to a Friend

DanKaraWritingRetreat
(photo of Dan and Kara at a writing retreat)

Dan Wakefield didn’t swear on Sundays. He hadn’t owned a car since an accident in Miami over fifteen years ago. He enjoyed good company, excellent conversation, and readily expressed aggravation towards technology — his nemesis. Dan was my mentor, my friend, and Chief Curmudgeon in my life for over a decade.

One evening, while Dan and I were walking to his favorite bar, The Red Key Tavern, we  were discussing end-of-life preferences:

Me: What would you like your epitaph to read?

Dan: Here lies the unknown companion.

Me: Why?

Dan: Years ago, when I was living in New York, my attorney called me to ask if I would go to dinner and have good conversations with his friend who was going through a tough time. The paparazzi snapped some photos of us as we exited a restaurant, and we ended up on page six with the caption, “Mia Farrow seen with an unknown companion.”

Dan then turned the question to me.

Me: “She always wore appropriate footwear,” I blurted out, unsure where my answer came from.

Dan: Is that Didion?

Me: No, it’s me, I just came up with it.

I was honored that Dan thought I was quoting Joan Didion. Dan was friends with her and John Dunne. He was also friends with James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and John Updike. Dan was the last living journalist to cover the Emmett Till trial. He interviewed the Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, and wrote extensively about the Vietnam War. He ripped up and literally swallowed a story he had written while on the trip to Israel when he thought he was about to be detained — this man had a life in journalism that no one could replicate. His last few books were about his friend, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dan assembled a collection of graduation speeches of Vonnegut’s in IF THIS ISN’T NICE, WHAT IS?, and Dan’s last book, which was released at the age of 90, was KURT VONNEGUT: THE MAKING OF A WRITER.

Dan and I became instant friends when I interviewed him for a story not long after he moved back to Indianapolis. This was when I became Dan’s “unknown companion.”

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(photo: Mark Vonnegut, Kara, and Dan at The Red Key)

One morning, I joined Dan for coffee at Moe & Johnny’s (now known as The Bulldog). Dan walked on the side of the island in the coffee bar area, absconded the basket of muffins, and cut in front of a woman to ask the lone barista which one was blueberry. I can only assume he had not noticed the woman beside me. I apologetically told this woman, “I don’t believe he saw you.”

She replied in a loud, strong southern drawl, “Oh honey, that’s alright. Is he your grandfather?”

Overhearing this exchange, Dan exploded with a robust, “JESUS CHRIST!”

I added quickly, “He has Tourette’s.”

Dan, offended by both our comments, huffed off to our table.

A few of my favorite Dan Wakefield quotes:

“I was the guy at weddings that my friends’ wives were hoping that they’d never see again. I was the wild one, taking them out to drink.”

“Sometimes when I cook at home, I make salmon teriyaki, but it’s really nerve-wracking to time it when the carrots come out, so sometimes I just make some frozen shit.”

“I’ve tried making these [sticking a fork in the fried brussel sprouts on his plate at Mimi Blue restaurant] at home. It didn’t work out.

When Dan had an idea for his first novel, he was taken to dinner by his agent at a swanky restaurant and was not-so-politely told to “stick to journalism, kid; you are not a novelist.” Dan did not heed this advice and wrote GOING ALL THE WAY late at night and on weekends for the proceeding year. He shared the book with his publisher, who sent it to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Both graduated from Shortridge High School in Indianapolis a decade apart. Vonnegut loved it and told their (now) shared publisher to “Get this man in our stable!” Back then, writers within publishing houses edited one another’s work. The two became fast friends. Dan’s website for years was “Kurt Vonnegut’s 2nd Oldest Friend.” The first oldest friend was their shared attorney from their publishing company, and when he died, Dan didn’t change the website domain.

Vonnegut wrote and recorded the introduction to GOING ALL THE WAY. Dan got Ben Affleck, who starred in the movie, to read the audiobook (ten minutes before GOOD WILL HUNTING).

Our relationship involved me taking Dan to fun events and helping him communicate with his website team — this intermediary role was important to maintaining the relationship. Dan was easily confused by technology, but he did his best to stay up to date with trends, including having a podcast. These things happened because of his ability to gather students around him to help, which he honed while teaching creative writing at Florida International University for seventeen years prior to relocating back to Indianapolis. He might have been very comfortable spending most of his time alone, but he certainly required a team.

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(photo: Dan in his element: The Red Key with a glass of red wine. Notice the portraits above.)

During the pandemic, Dan would entertain on his front porch. The cost of admission was an iced coffee and a scone — which I make from scratch, and after he had the first one, I wasn’t allowed to come back without bringing more (so I started freezing them).

We enjoyed a wonderful friendship. Dan was generous with his time and writing advice. Receiving a compliment from him felt like receiving a coveted book award.

My favorite, most memorable night out with Dan was visiting an art exhibit curated by his friend Will Higgins on April Fool’s Day, 2017. En route to The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (IMOCA), Dan offered full disclosure of the exhibit. “It’s a collection of presidential urine samples that Will has amassed. I hear Bill Clinton’s is the largest bottle.” Full blog post on this found here. Trust me, it is worth the read! My stomach and face muscles hurt for days from laughing.

Two years ago, when my 16-year-old son Jake died, Dan sent me a letter. He had macular degeneration and a host of other health concerns, so this was no small effort from him.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Kara,

I’m sorry it took me so long to write this letter. I wanted to do something more personal than a sympathy card because “sympathy” doesn’t quite cover it.

Even before I heard about your son, I had spoken to some friends in different places around the country and of different ages and what struck me was the feeling I had that came out in a sentence in my mind, “everyday life is brutal”. What you experienced goes beyond that.

I am reminded of the quote I used to have on my website which I think I should put there again but I don’t remember the ancient wise man who said it but the quote is “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

I will not try to give you any attempt at wisdom, I will only say my heart is with you. You are a strong person and you will emerge from this even stronger. I would not say that to everyone, but I think it will be true of you.

Anything I can do that might be useful, please tell me. It would be a privilege to be of use to you at this time.

May whatever goodness in the universe surround you and bless you.

Love, your friend,

Dan

Back at you, Dan.

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(photo: Dan at IndyReads Feb 2023 with the release of his last book. Age 90.)
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8 Comments

  1. Everything you write…..Everything you post…STOPS ME ! It has value.
    It’s so worth reading 💌

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