The Moenkhaus Gang

When I lived in Bloomington around 1984-85 I lived downtown in a large (now locally famous) apartment building called the Allen Building. Given the extremely cheap rent (bathroom down the hall, $135 a month) the vast majority of my neighbors were musicians, artists or just scenesters. But there were a couple of pensioners that I would occasionally see in the hall. I knew their names and would nod hello to them on the stairs, but nothing much more than that. One of these folks was Carl Moenkhaus, a thin balding man who never said much. I knew that there was a dorm building on the Indiana University campus called Moenkhaus but that was as far as the familiarity went.

Recently on the Indiana MFT site a discussion of Hoagy Carmichael’s early days in Bloomington came up. In the 1920s Carmichael famously hung out in the Book Nook, a soda shop/bookstore directly across the street from the gates to the university. By the time I lived in Bloomington the Book Nook was just a place to stop in and grab a Coke on the go, more a convenience store than a hangout. If memory serves they did still sell a few Cliff Notes and other minor books, though. In Hoagy’s day the Book Nook was evidently the hip place for the jazz kids to get together. One of these kids was William “Monk” Moenkhaus. Monk was great pals with Hoagy and evidently something of a Hoosier Dadaist. One source says that he was actually going to school in Zurich in 1914 (although according to what I’ve found he would’ve been 12 at the time, not sure how long he stayed there) and “apparently exposed to the Dadaist movement then taking shape in Zurich – or at least its intellectual fallout – and brought its principles back with him when he returned to study music in Bloomington.” If Monk stayed in Europe until he was 18, this would’ve been around 1920, then he was definitely old enough to have had meaningful contact with the Dada crowd.

If this is true we’ve found a direct connection between the Book Nook/Carmichael crowd and first wave Dada. In the early 80s when a friend of mine named his dorm room “The Cabaret Voltaire” and made Dada inspired flyers for our band Your Real Dad we had no idea that there could be any sort of connection between Zurich in the teens and the small southern Midwestern town we lived in.

I wasn’t sure exactly how old Carl Moenkhaus was but he seemed pretty frail in the mid-80s and did indeed die while I lived in the building. A bit more research turned up the fact that there was a zoology professor at Indiana named William Moenkhaus. As most professors at IU came from elsewhere, not the local community, and the last name not being a common one, I figured it was a good chance that Carl was closely related to Monk.

Then I came across this entry in the 1930 census. It appears that William “Monk” and Carl were both sons of William, Sr, 12 years apart. And given the fact that census takers in those days went from house to house and the next entry is for Alfred Kinsey (yes, THAT Kinsey) it appears that they were adjacent neighbors.

If only I’d known some of this at the time. What amazing stories could I have learned from Carl? The lesson from this is that history, amazing history, is all around us, all the time, no matter where we are. Don’t hesitate to reach out and gather as much of it as you can, before it’s too late.

–Stephen Lee Canner

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2 Comments

  1. Damon Fiandt said,

    August 31, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Good story. I found this blog searching for info on William Moenkhaus. I read that he was a Dadaist friend of a young Hoagy who said “You know, Hoagy, there are other things in this world besides hot music. I forget what they are, but they’re around.” Bloomington must have been an amazing place to be in the 1920s. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Elof Axel Carlson said,

    January 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    The father, William J. Moenkhaus I know from a very different history. He was a colleague of Carl Eigenmann also on the faculty and an ichtyologist. Moenkhaus and Fernandus Payne studied blind cave fish using a cave near Bloomington called gthe MacDoanald farm. Moenkhaus was suing fruit flies about 1903-1909 to study exolution andPayne went to Columbia for his PhD with E. B. Wilson and T. H. Morgan. Payne decided to use Moenkhaus’s fruit flies as a way to study flies grown in the dark for 69 generations to see if they deteriorated like cave fish. He also gave Morgan fruit flies he was using when Morgan decided to work on them to study evolution. Instead, Morgan found the white eye mutation that led to X-linked inbheritance and the beginnings of classsical genetics. I find it delightful to see a Moenkhaus connection to genetics, jazz, dadaism, and evolution all coming and going through Indiana University. Elof Axel Carlson [ecarlson31@netzero.com] IU PhD 1958


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