The Girl With the Cake: Thirty Years Later

At work this morning, a customer asked me if we had a copy of Richard Brautigan’s story collection, Revenge of the Lawn (1971, Simon & Schuster). It’s a book that can be hard to find, but luckily we had a copy. It just hadn’t made it out to the shelf yet. While we waited for another employee to bring it out (I was stuck at the cash registers for the opening hour), I told the customer that I was a big fan of Brautigan and she told me that she was the woman on the cover.

She said, “I have to get the book and show my nieces and nephews that their aunt Sherry was on a book cover once.”

I’ve always thought the Brautigan covers were pretty great in their simplicity. Especially the cute hippie girl motif. Here’s another cover, this time for my 2nd favorite Brautigan, The Abortion.

My favorite Brautigan book is this overlooked gem:

Sadly, no cute girl on this cover.

Anyway…so this lady tells me the she was not only the cover girl with the cake but she was also his “lover.” This was probably the closest I would ever get to the legendary author, so I instantly turned into super fanboy. I guess I felt kind of like a Star Wars fan meeting the guy who played Boba Fett or something. My lit-geek adrenaline was kicking in hard. I always loved Brautigan’s 60s-style perverse humor, minimalist poetry, and open-ended sentiment. He was one of my first loves as a book reader.

My co-worker, Christopher, walked up with the book just then and also started geeking out. He began asking her questions about the cake and she said she made it herself. Of course, all I wanted to know was “What was he really like?”

“When we first got together, I looked in his closet and saw all these ties, and he never wore anything but blue jeans and casual shirts, so I asked him, What are all these ties for? And he said, For tying up my girlfriends.”

I had to step aside a few times to ring up customers buying books, but I listened to Christopher talking with her and heard some other bits and pieces of her story. She had been a school teacher somewhere in California and a lot of the parents of her students were famous people. “Richard would come and hang out at my school just so he could try to meet Francis Ford Coppola,” she said.

She talked about staying in Montana with him where their friends included Thomas McGuane, Jimmy Buffet, and “the Fondas.”

I could tell that she was full of stories and I eagerly said, “I’d like to interview you. Have you ever been interviewed?” And she kind of brushed me off and said, “I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times.”

I asked her if she lived in Portland and I think she misheard me, because she started talking about his death. “I helped him find that house in California where he shot himself,” she said. Then I think I asked her something dumb, like: Was he depressed about something? And she said something strange that I hadn’t heard before. She thinks he may have had AIDS and was also in pain with scoliosis. She said he had a lot of women, many of these Japanese. I sort of wondered if she was implying that Japanese women were higher risks for disease. (Just now–I googled around about Brautigan’s death and found this very interesting article in, of all places, People Magazine.)

I asked her if maybe his waning popularity in the 80s was a factor in his emotional state (he shot himself in September, 1984) and she simply said, “He didn’t care about that stuff.”*

After she left the store, I couldn’t stop talking about this strange and wonderful encounter. I realized that although I had read a bunch of his books, I didn’t really know much about his life. A quick Internet search revealed this woman to be Sherry Vetter. I never found out if she lived in Portland or if she was just passing through. I sort of wish I had gotten a quick photo taken with her, or as Christopher said later, “We should have went down to Whole Foods and bought her a cake to pose with.”

Richard Brautigan would be 76 if he were still alive. I bet he would have put out a few more awesome books. It’s a shame he didn’t.

Richard and his signature hat, mustache, and typewriter.

*I didn’t disagree with her on this point, but I do think it may have been a bummer for him to go from selling 2 million copies of Trout Fishing In America to lackluster sales and bad reviews of his later work.

Another interesting story about a woman in Brautigan’s life (his first wife!) was published a couple of years ago by Arthur (introduced by my good friend, Mike Daily).

18 responses to “The Girl With the Cake: Thirty Years Later

  1. Nice blog Kevin. I fell in love with Brautigan in the late ’80s after going to a reading by Keith Abbott at Naropa. Keith had written a pretty amazing memoir of Brautigan called “Downstream from Trout Fishing in America.” After reading the memoir, I picked up a copy of Willard and fell in love with Brautigan. I love his twisted sense of humor, the brevity and conciseness of his word choice, and a real sense of who he was that leaks through when you read his work.
    Don McIver

  2. I am so envious! I fell in love with his book covers when I was a freshman in college (during my short-lived hippie phase). One day reading “Revenge” in a coffee shop and old man came up to me and asked me if the girl on the cover was me. I’ll never forget that. Lucky you!

  3. Excellent blog, KS. I was just starting college when Brautigan died. Read about it in Rolling Stone, probably.

    Revenge of the Lawn is one of the finest collections of stories I know. I have about three editions, one of which is that one with the cute girl on the cover. Magic, that you met her.

    My question is, though, do people still read Brautigan, because it seems like they do. He just doesn’t get the mentions that Barthelme does.

    • People do still read him. I put him in the same class (and era, of course) as Vonnegut and early Tom Robbins. I often point him out to young readers at the store when they ask for recommendations.

      • That’s great. I like to hear that. (I have to admit, though, I think he’s slightly of a higher class than Vonnegut and Robbins. After all, he wrote “1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” quite possibly the most perfect short story in English.

  4. Awesome!

  5. have you read his daughters memoirs of her relationship with him? I never finished it but there is some interesting stuff in it. heartbreaking to read of him calling her while she was in college telling her he was going to kill himself and her having to talk him down.

    and I think anyone, regardless of how much you don’t care about that kind of stuff, would be bummed from selling millions to being forgotten with later work. which sucks as trout fishing is probably the book of his that resonates the least with me. except for the montana one which every time I have tried to pick up to read I couldn’t fall into it.

  6. And Kevin I can’t even begin to tell you how bummed I am that I didn’t ask her for the recipe for that cake! Being a baker and a having a life long sweet tooth I’d love to try my hand at it. She said she put so much chocolate in it that the batter was hard to stir. I gonna give it a shot and (hopefully) track her down and beg her for the recipe!
    Christopher

  7. That was a fun encounter. I’m glad you were there to chat with her while I had to “work.” Do you remember any other funny things she said?

  8. kevin, from what I heard, he’d stopped going to the bar in bolinas a few days before he shot himself. he cracked me up at a reading one time, it still sticks with me. he cracked himself up on stage doing it. like a joke he had trouble getting to the punchline. I still can see it so vividly.

    the love letter to enda or something like that is a book of poems, his early stuff, you should most definitely find. me, I like the gothic western one, hawkline monster, and then some of his japanese women ones (I doubt the std/aids angle).

    shively

  9. I was an assistant editor at Dell/Delacorte publishing in the 80s and did some scutt work for Seymore Lawrence, Richard Brautigan’s publisher/editor. One day I was asked to call Brautigan to tell him there was an egregious typo on the dust jacket of his new book. This is the kind of phone call that creates a pit in the stomach of a young editor, especially one who was inspired to pursue publishing in the first place because of authors like Brautigan and Vonnegut (also published by Dell/Delacorte). So Brautigan picks up the phone, I tell him the bad news, and he replies that if there’s no mistake in a book, then there is no escape hatch for the demons.

  10. I was reading Jubilee Hitchhiker which I bought from gatz when he was in seattle reading from it. I stopped to grab my copy of Revenge… read a few stories to my wife (who has a cold and always enjoys being read to) and wondered who the girl with the chocalate cake was? of course the iNternet led me here and I was pleasantly suprised by this article. I never got to meet Richard but my contribution is that 1984 Oakland Raiders/KC Chiefs game, well my dad was a total Raiders nut/fan and we watched it and cheered after George Blanda kicked a last second field goal to win it, at the exact moment of our cheering, Richard took off for the other side. So it goes.

  11. Pingback: RICHARD BRAUTIGAN REVENGE OF THE LAWN : BOOK/SHOP

  12. Adelaida Leptich

    Hello Kevin,
    Sherry Vetter was my 5th grade teacher at Notre Dame in San Francisco in 1970. She is the teacher that made the greatest impact in my life. I’ve been trying to find her and thank her for years. Any info you have on her would be greatly appreciated.

    Adelaida Leptich

  13. Hi Kevin. Thanks for sharing. I wrote fiction about him in a writing class. One woman in the class knew him in Montana. My mouth got dry. I was nervously wondering what he was like. She said he got drunk all the time and hit on her and her friends. She was not impressed. I still love his writing. Keith Abbot and Ianthe Brautigan have written great books about Richard.

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