Here is a look at Don Marquis and the most important people in his life: his family. His first wife, Reina, is at the top-left, in a photo from the first decade of the last century. It was taken in Atlanta, at about the time she met a young up-and-coming writer who bought several of her short stories for a new magazine he was editing, Uncle Remus’s Magazine. Their children, at top-right, were Bobby (above) and Barbara (below). Reina died unexpectedly in 1923, and two years later Don married Marjorie Vonnegut, lower-left, an accomplished Broadway actress. Don helped raise Marjorie’s son from a previous marriage, Walter Vonnegut, lower-right, know to his family as Colonel. Tragically, Don saw everyone but Walter die before his own pitiable death in 1937, at age 59, after a succession of strokes. Bobby died in 1921 at age 5, two years before his mother. Barbara — the adored “babs” to whom Don dedicated “archy and mehitabel” in 1927 — had always been a sickly child; she was 13 when she died in 1931. And Marjorie, who drove herself to exhaustion caring for Don in his final years, died in her sleep in 1936. Walter, however, lived for many decades beyond. He was 90 when he died in 2013. To the end, he fondly recalled his childhood with “Uncle Don.”
We regret to report that Walter Vonnegut Jr., known to his family and friends as “Colonel,” died January 9 at his home in Anacortes, Washington. He was 90 years old. Walter was the stepson of Don Marquis and the last living link to the author of “archy and mehitabel.” He was a gentleman, and a friendly soul.
Born December 5, 1922, Walter was the son of Walter and Marjorie Potts Vonnegut. His parents divorced in 1926 and soon afterward Marjorie married Don, whose first wife, Reina, had died two years earlier.
Walter and his older sister, Ruth, lived with Don and Marjorie in a townhouse at 125 East 62nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Walter helped take care of the family’s pet Boston terrier, Pete, whose adventures as “pete the pup” were told in several “archy and mehitabel” stories. The family (including Pete) later moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side, at 276 Riverside Drive.
Walter lived 10 years with “Uncle Don,” and in a 2005 interview he remembered Don as “friendly, pleasant. He was in his 50s at the time and he seemed old to me because I was very, very young.”
Don taught Walter chess, which they played whenever time permitted. However, Don was often loaded down with work. He had quit writing a daily newspaper column in 1925 but faced constant deadlines for magazine essays and short stories, book manuscripts, playscripts, and, when he was in Hollywood, movie scripts. He was a frequent guest on radio programs and was in high demand as a public speaker.
“We didn’t see a whole lot of him,” Walter said. “He often wrote late into the night. I thought he worked all night long, but it was probably until 1 or 2 in the morning. It was a rare occasion when he had dinner with us. It was an event — about once a week.”
Walter remembered that Don “did drink a little, but not to excess. I never saw him drunk. If he had been a heavy drinker I don’t think he would’ve lasted 10 years with my mother. She was a teetotaler.”
Marjorie was an accomplished actress. Her most famous role was that of Essie Miller in the Broadway premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness!” in 1933. She played opposite George M. Cohan, and Walter also had a role in the production, as young Tommy Miller.
Walter was 13 when Don was felled by the first of a series of strokes that left him unable to write. And then, less than a year later, on October 25, 1936, Marjorie died in her sleep after a brief illness. She had worked herself to exhaustion caring for Don and her family while also attempting to run an acting school. Walter’s young life fell apart in an instant.
“I never saw Uncle Don after October 1936,” Walter said. “He was hauled off by Maude after my mother died.”
Maude was Don’s older sister, remembered by Walter and virtually all of Don’s friends as bossy and unpleasant. With Marjorie dead and Don unable to care for himself, Maude stepped in and sent Walter away to live with Vonnegut relatives. She vacated the apartment on Riverside Drive and took Don to the home at 51 Wendover Road in Forest Hills, Queens, that she shared with another Marquis sister, Neva. Don was powerless to do otherwise.
“He was protesting,” Walter recalled. “He did not want to go. He couldn’t talk, but it was clear to me that he didn’t want to go.” One year later, on Dec. 29, 1937, Don died.
Walter went on to spend his teen years with his Vonnegut grandparents in Indiana, where he developed a lifelong friendship with a cousin the same age, the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Both Walter and Kurt Vonnegut went on to serve in World War II, in the Air Corps and Army, respectively, and both were captured and held as German prisoners of war. Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences as a POW during the Allies’ 1945 firebombing of Dresden were the subject of his novel “Slaughterhouse Five.”
Walter’s nickname, Colonel, by the way, had nothing to do with his military service. He was born in Kentucky, and a grandmother gave him that nickname as a “junior Kentucky colonel.” It stayed with him all his life.
After the war, Walter and his wife Helen moved from Indianapolis to Washington State, where they raised two sons, Kit and Ken. He taught math, English and drama at public schools in Anacortes and was active in local theater productions as a director and actor for many decades. Helen was killed in a car accident in 1994, and a year later Walter married a widow in Anacortes, Jean De Zan, who survives him, along with his sons. May he rest in peace.
Photo captions, from top-left:
1. Walter and Pete on the roof of the Marquis townhouse at 125 East 62nd Street in Manhattan.
2. Walter and his mother on the set of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” in 1933.
3. Walter and Jean Vonnegut, outside their home in Anacortes, Washington, in March 2005.
4. Walter with Robert Lyon, publisher of the 1976 edition of Don’s play “Everything’s Jake”; Jean Vonnegut; and Jim Ennes, a Marquis collector and namesake and the editor of DonMarquis.org, in March 2005.
5. DonMarquis.com editor John Batteiger, Walter, Jim Ennes, Robert Lyon and actor Gale McNeeley, in March 2005.
Don Marquis’ daughter wrote and edited the mimeographed newspaper, and the clipping from the Times says she had a paid circulation of 140 subscribers, including “many folk prominent in motion-picture and society circles, whose activities are recorded with unerring accuracy in the Sun’s columns.”
Barbara was a sickly child, and Don brought her from New York to Southern California on the advice of doctors, who hoped the warm weather would help her grow strong. Don was working on screenplays for Hollywood studios at the time, and he lived with Barbara and his wife Marjorie in Beverly Hills.
Sadly, the photo in the Times clipping may be the last one taken of Barbara. She developed bronchial pneumonia and died two months later, on Oct. 24, 1931. Her death sent Don into an emotional tailspin from which he never fully recovered. Check out the earlier blog post “A Photo From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1920” for more on that.