“Wear Sunscreen”: The Story Behind the Commencement Speech That Kurt Vonnegut Never Gave

On June 1, 1997, Mary Schmich, Chica­go Tri­bune colum­nist and Bren­da Starr car­toon­ist, wrote a col­umn enti­tled “Advice, like youth, prob­a­bly just wast­ed on the young.” In her intro­duc­tion to the col­umn she described it as the com­mence­ment speech she would give to the class of ’97 if she were asked to give one.

The first line of the speech: “Ladies and gen­tle­men of the class of ’97: Wear sun­screen.”

If you grew up in the 90s, these words may sound famil­iar, and you would be absolute­ly right. Aus­tralian film direc­tor Baz Luhrmann used the essay in its entire­ty on his 1998 album Some­thing for Every­body, turn­ing it into his hit sin­gle “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sun­screen).” With spo­ken-word lyrics over a mel­low back­ing track by Zam­bian dance music per­former Roza­l­la, the song was an unex­pect­ed world­wide hit, reach­ing num­ber 45 on the Bill­board Hot 100 in the Unit­ed States and num­ber one in the Unit­ed King­dom.

The thing is, Luhrmann and his team did not real­ize that Schmich was the actu­al author of the speech until they sought out per­mis­sion to use the lyrics. They believed it was writ­ten by author Kurt Von­negut.

For Schmich, the “Sun­screen Con­tro­ver­sy” was “just one of those sto­ries that reminds you of the law­less­ness of cyber­space.” While no one knows the orig­i­na­tor of the urban leg­end, the sto­ry goes that Vonnegut’s wife, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Jill Kre­mentz, had received an e‑mail in ear­ly August 1997 that pur­port­ed to reprint a com­mence­ment speech Von­negut had giv­en at MIT that year. (The actu­al com­mence­ment speak­er was the Unit­ed Nations Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Kofi Annan.) “She was so pleased,” Mr. Von­negut lat­er told the New York Times. “She sent it on to a whole of peo­ple, includ­ing my kids – how clever I am.”

The pur­port­ed speech became a viral sen­sa­tion, bounc­ing around the world through e‑mail. This is how Luhrmann dis­cov­ered the text. He, along with Anton Mon­st­ed and Josh Abra­hams, decid­ed to use it for a remix he was work­ing on but was doubt­ful he could get Von­negut’s  per­mis­sion. While search­ing for the writer’s con­tact infor­ma­tion, Luhrmann dis­cov­ered that Schmich was the actu­al author. He reached out to her and, with her per­mis­sion, record­ed the song the next day.

What hap­pened between June 1 and ear­ly August, no one knows. For Von­negut, the con­tro­ver­sy cement­ed his belief that the Inter­net was not worth trust­ing. “I don’t know what the point is except how gullible peo­ple are on the Inter­net.” For Schmich, she acknowl­edged that her col­umn would prob­a­bly not had spread the way it did with­out the names of Von­negut and MIT attached to it.

In the end, Schmich and Von­negut did con­nect after she reached out to him to inform him of the con­fu­sion. Accord­ing to Von­negut, “What I said to Mary Schmich on the tele­phone was that what she wrote was fun­ny and wise and charm­ing, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.” Not a bad end­ing for a col­umn that was writ­ten, accord­ing to Schmich, “while high on cof­fee and M&Ms.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Shape of A Sto­ry: Writ­ing Tips from Kurt Von­negut

22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Von­negut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

Kurt Von­negut Reads from Slaugh­ter­house-Five

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Comments (11)
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  • RestArea says:

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle sore­ly in need of an edi­tor’s touch

  • Anthony says:

    May I PLEASE.…

  • tintin says:

    i ws inspired by this spewech song when i first heared it yeast­e­day by the fm radio

  • Marie Winterbottom says:

    ‘tintin’, love the sense of humour … Awe­some & you’ve absolute­ly made my day! Thanks for the laugh. Or (in com­mon mod­ern-day lin­go) ‘Tx 4 da larf’. I’d love to see the rest of your oh-so-skill­ful­ly, and of the high­est stan­dards, edit­ed ver­sion…?!

  • sloppy says:

    he should’ve gave the speech in my opin­ion

  • Christy says:

    oh my god stop, my eng­lish teacher made us read this com­mence­ment speech and write an essay response, say­ing kurt von­negut was the author

  • Muggle says:

    He sounds like home nostalgia…I can almost smell the swim­ming pool on lock­hurst down here in Brook­lyn on Albany ave lol ..his voice is com­plete­ly Serene and com­fort­ing to my sens­es .…haven’t heard speench like this in eons…

  • Geoff Hill says:

    In my youth I dis­cov­ered and adopt­ed Kurt for my uncle. It was a good choice. If you’re young now, he’s still there.

  • Will Edwards says:

    I was in jail serv­ing a ten year sen­tence when this song came out. It made a dif­fer­ence. And now 22 years lat­er my life is remain­ing on track and I cred­it the goals and ambi­tions I adhered to part­ly because of advice giv­en to me by oth­ers. It would behoove most peo­ple to lis­ten.

  • Jorn C. K. Pedersen says:

    I heard the Song “Spock Thoughts” per­formed by Leonard Nimoy the oth­er day, and those two songs were iden­ti­cal in tone though not lyrics. Both are advice on how to lead your life, with Spock Thoughts, nat­u­ral­ly, more log­i­cal, on life, mon­ey, career etc. I can’t find any­thing about the release of Spock Thoughts, but one source places it in 1977, though I’m not sure how reli­able that source is. Clear­ly, one has to be inspired by the oth­er. Any­one knows which is which?

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