Sometimes historical research is like restoring an old painting. We see the general picture while discovering fascinating details as we uncover its obscured parts. My story is about filling in the details of a remarkable early May week in Rochester, 1995.
On May 4th, author Kurt Vonnegut spoke at the Rochester Arts & Lecture Series. About a week prior, Democrat and Chronicle reporter John Reinan interviewed Vonnegut. In the interview, appearing on May 3rd as “Unknown Soldier,” Vonnegut revealed for the first time the connection between his fictional character Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five and Brightonian Edward R. Crone Jr, a fellow prisoner of Vonnegut’s during World War II who died a month before its end:
I am going to tell you something that’s not generally known: I wrote a book called Slaughterhouse-Five and the leading character was named Billy Pilgrim. And he was, in fact, modeled after a young man from Rochester.
Apparently, because Vonnegut’s character portrait of Billy was not entirely favorable, Vonnegut resisted telling the story while Edward’s parents were still living. Edward’s mother died in 1985 so Vonnegut felt free to make the disclosure to Reinan. In the interview, mentioning that “Rochester has been very much on my mind these days,” Vonnegut intended to ask the audience if anyone knew about Edward Crone — now that the fact was public.
On the morning of the lecture, co-directors of the for the Rochester Arts & Lecture Series Susan Feinstein and Rosemary Mancini picked Vonnegut up at the airport. Having read Reinan’s extraordinary never before told story, Feinstein and Mancini asked Vonnegut if he wanted to visit Crone’s grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Vonnegut was flabbergasted. In April 1945, he had seen Crone buried in Germany, having no idea that years later Crone was reinterred in Rochester. At the grave, Vonnegut smoked a cigarette, wept, and chatted with his fallen comrade wherever he was.
The poignant and heartfelt moment must also have felt surreal, especially for an absurdist author like Vonnegut.
Was Vonnegut talking to the “real” Edward Crone, the awkward boy and maybe a reluctant, traumatized soldier who Vonnegut befriended and saw die? Or was Vonnegut talking to the persona he himself created, Billy Pilgrim, the science fiction time traveler on an odd and bizarre existential journey? I can see Vonnegut saying, Joe — Ed’s wartime nickname — I kinda made you famous. If you could read the book, hope it’s ok. (Vonnegut later said: “Edward Crone and Billy Pilgrim are identical.”)
That evening, as reported by Reinan, Vonnegut spoke for the first time about the Crone-Pilgrim connection and his pilgrimage to Mt. Hope:
Vonnegut said of the moment: “I was deeply moved, and it finally closed out the Second World War for me completely.”
In essence, Vonnegut was the first pilgrim to Crone’s gravesite, almost entirely forgotten until May 4th, 1995. Since, thousands have looked at “Billy Pilgrim’s grave” — as described and inscribed by Vonnegut in a 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five (above).
Later, Vonnegut mailed a check to the cemetery stipulating that flowers be placed on Crone’s grave every Memorial Day until Vonnegut’s own death. Vonnegut also served on the honorary board of the Rochester Cemeteries Heritage Foundation.
My Vonnegut/Crone journey began with After Parkland, discovering fallen Brightonians from World War Two. In the lobby of Brighton High School, I saw a memorial plaque presented by the class of 1945. When researching the fallen Brightonians, I reached the name of Edward R. Crone Jr. (April 26th 1923 – April 11th, 1945). Known as Ed, Crone graduated from in 1941.
From findagrave.com, I discovered — or rediscovered — that Ed was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery and the connection with Vonnegut. I had vaguely heard the Billy Pilgrim story but until then knew nothing of the particulars or that Ed was the figure.
In December 1944, Ed’s unit was captured in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. Along with 150 other prisoners, Ed was dispatched to Dresden, Germany in cattle cars. There he met and befriended Vonnegut.
In February 1945, housed in a meat-packing plant, the prisoners endured the Allied firebombing. Living on starvation rations, the men labored to clear the city of rubble and bodies. Suffering from malnutrition, Ed died less than a month before the end of the European war, his body interred in Dresden. After five difficult years of searching, in 1950 Ed’s parents went to East Germany, bringing their son’s remains home for reburial with full military honors.
Unlike Edward Crone in Dresden, in Slaughterhouse-Five Billy Pilgrim survives the war only to become a fatalistic time voyager in Vonnegut’s classic 1969 anti-war existential novel.
Curious and moved, I found Ed’s picture in Crossroads, the Brighton High School yearbook and made my own visit to Mt. Hope on a lightly snowing December afternoon almost exactly 74 years after Ed was captured during the Battle of the Bulge.See The Bulge and Rochester seventy-four years later
I didn’t think of Edward Crone again until George Cassidy Payne offered us Voyage to Illium: Scenes from Kurt Vonnegut’s Schenectady and Troy, part of his ongoing series about New York-related authors. In the preface to George’s piece — reminded that Ed was buried in Mt. Hope — I looked into Vonnegut’s connection with Rochester.
I learned that Vonnegut first visited Rochester in 1986, notable because he addressed the Unitarian Universalist Association’s convention and signed books at the then-beloved and now-gone Village Green Bookstore on Monroe Avenue.
I also found Reinan’s May 3rd article, a comprehensive and fascinating account of what we knew of Ed’s life gleaned from remembrances of Brightonians and fellow soldiers.I called John, now a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. John explains how the story unfolded — perhaps the most memorable of his career — and his fevered efforts to complete the piece in a short time span:
When Vonnegut told me that his model for Billy Pilgrim was a soldier from Rochester, I immediately knew I had to pursue the story. This was 1995, pre-Internet, so I had to turn to city directories, school yearbooks and other printed sources. I looked at Brighton High yearbooks and called people who appeared in photos with Crone. I called people who city directories showed lived near the Crone family. Fortunately, Rochester — at least at that time — was a fairly stable community, and many people who grew up there still lived in the area. One of the best finds was discovering his old Latin teacher, Esther Galusha, still living at 91 years old.
Somehow — I can’t remember how — I was referred to Gilbert Doxsee, who had served with Crone and went on to become a college history professor. He had been in touch with several of their old Army mates and graciously helped connect me with them. Having talked with nearly a dozen people who knew Crone in Rochester and in the Army — and, of course, with Vonnegut — I had enough material to write.
I took passages describing Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five and juxtaposed them with comments from Vonnegut and others about the real Edward Crone, using them to introduce each new section of the article. Doing it that way, the resemblances between the real and the fictional soldier were quite striking.
I researched and wrote this article in just a few days — maybe six or seven at most. I was really in a fever pitch, knowing what a tremendously moving story it could be. Now, after 30 years as a news reporter and thousands of articles, it’s still one of my very favorites – and probably “the” favorite.
(For more on Reinan’s article, see Shadows of Slaughterhouse Five: Recollections and Reflections of the Ex-POWs of Schlachthof Fünf, Dresden, Germany (2008) by
For all that John’s research revealed, I still wanted to know more about Vonnegut’s dramatic May 4th visit to Mt. Hope the day after the article appeared.
I turned to former director of the Memorial Art Gallery Grant Holcomb (a Talker subscriber) who has studied Ed’s life. According to an April 28th, 2004 Democrat and Chronicle article, Grant’s interest in Ed began when — as member of Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery — Grant cared for the graves of Ed and his parents, Nora and Edward J. Crone Sr., planting flowers with his son.
Grant has written about Crone for Historic Brighton News and given talks at the Brighton Memorial Library, the Welles-Brown Room of Rush Rhees Library on the University of Rochester’s River Campus and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. Grant also contributed to Shadows of Slaughterhouse-Five.Grant knew of Vonnegut’s 1995 visit to Mt. Hope. Grant did not know all the particulars except that Vonnegut was taken to the cemetery by the co-directors who ran the series, Susan Feinstein (now deceased) and Rosemary Mancini, now Rev. Rosemary Lloyd.
With Grant’s tip, I discovered Rochesterian Steven Huff, author of In Our Home Ground: Journeys to authors’ graves in Upstate New York (and another Talker subscriber) wrote about Vonnegut’s pilgrimage after having talked with Rosemary Lloyd about a sermon she gave in 2007 soon after Vonnegut’s death:
As I and others have, Steve made his own visit to the grave.
Vonnegut’s biographer Charles Shields also highlighted Vonnegut’s trek to Mt. Hope:[Footnote 25 referencing the flowers in Mt. Hope is from “Dresden Bombing” by Catherine Williams The Pulteney St. Survey (Hobart and William Smith Alumni Magazine). In the interview with Williams, Vonnegut said to him Crone and Pilgrim were identical.]
A year later, Vonnegut gave his own impressions of the pilgrimage in a 1996 interview with Lee Reloff:
From these accounts, I can picture Vonnegut smoking his ubiquitous cigarette unexpectedly standing over the grave of a man he knew and saw buried whose essence twenty five years later Vonnegut transformed into an unforgettable literary figure.
To finish the story, I called Reverend Rosemary Lloyd now living in Boston. Rosemary kindly provided the 2007 sermon written about by Huff and Shields as well as a photo of the copy of the 25th edition of Slaughterhouse-Five signed by Vonnegut as testimony to their visit to “Billy Pilgrim’s grave.”As we talked, Rosemary filled in a few missing details from the portrait. That evening when Vonnegut waxed about life and meaning and absurdity it was over dinner at the now-gone The Brasserie. Vonnegut spent the night at The Strathallan. We still don’t know when he learned that Ed’s mother had died, freeing him to talk about Billy Pilgrim.
Rosemary remembered how funny, sympathetic and humane was Vonnegut. She won’t forget his startled response when he learned Ed was buried in Rochester and his eagerness to drive directly to the cemetery to see the grave.
May 4th, 1995 was indeed eventful. As Vonnegut landed at the airport, he was preparing to ask Rochestarians that evening if anyone remembered Ed who — after Reinan’s article the day before — the world now knew as Billy Pilgrim.
Suddenly, a half hour or so after arrival, Vonnegut was face-to-face with a grave he didn’t know existed of a man he hadn’t seen in 50 years who represented the horror of war both endured together.
When Rosemary watched Vonnegut from a respectful distance — his tall form bent toward the headstone — she sensed the palpable effect this unexpected pilgrimage had on the author. Memory, sorrow, and imagination seemed to swirl with the smoke from his cigarette as he said a final good bye to the man who inspired the creation of Billy Pilgrim.SEE ALSO