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Remembering My Friend Carolyn Cassady, Late Queen of the Beat Poets

Carolyn, who died last Friday, September 20th at the age of 90, loved throwing rocks at the Beat industry from the sidelines. She was an arch Anglophile, who was the widow of the man who inspired On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s early poetry...
September 25, 2013, 11:00am

Carolyn Cassady, who died on Friday at the age of 90.

Of all that was said and written about last year’s film adaptation of Kerouac's classic beat novel On the Road, nothing was more perfect than this quote that Carolyn Cassady gave to the Telegraph about actor Garrett Hedlund, who played the character (Dean Moriarty) based on her late husband, Neal. “I think he was the most boring person I have ever met,” she told journalist Peter Standford. “He didn’t ask me a single question about Neal, but instead told me how his turkeys in Minnesota bobbed their heads to Johnny Cash music. And then he came here, chauffeur-driven car waiting outside, sat in the chair where you are now, and read to me from his diary for what felt like four hours.”


Carolyn, who died last Friday, September 20th at the age of 90, loved throwing rocks at the Beat industry from the sidelines. The way she explained it, there was always interest, but intense fascination came around every five years or so, as a new film, or book of letters, or whatever, was released—at which point, she became an excellent interviewee. An arch Anglophile, she moved to the UK in 1983, and as widow of the man who inspired On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s early poetry—and then, with Neal’s blessing, became Kerouac’s lover—she was a dynamite source for an article.

Carolyn used the opportunities she was offered to try to get her realistic, less-mythical side of the story across. It wasn’t always what journalists and editors wanted to hear. The last time I sat in that same chair Garrett Hedlund had occupied—in her immaculately kept mobile home near Bracknell in Berkshire, close to the hospital where she passed away—was in 2004 on assignment from style mag Dazed & Confused. They'd asked me to profile Carolyn. It didn’t go well. Or rather, I was happy with the article I filed, then Dazed editors added something incorrect into the piece that ran, which was devastating to Carolyn and me.

I had history. As a teenage Beat fanatic, I’d been a visitor at Carolyn’s flat in Belsize Park in London, before she moved to the Home Counties. I’d bring friends and alcohol around, and we also met a couple of times at the Chelsea Arts Club, where she’d been given a complimentary membership that she felt bad about seldom using. Perhaps, over the course of four years in the mid-1990s, when I was in my late teens, we saw each other ten times, and then my visits became less frequent. In the meantime, aged 18, I had traveled to the States and drove a $500 Chevrolet van from the east coast to the west. Carolyn had given me and my two friends Ginsberg’s number in New York—more of that later. I only went to her home in Berkshire twice, the second time for the Dazed interview. In fact, the last contact I had with her was in 2004.


I dreaded having to call Carolyn and tell her that something had been added to the piece that she would find offensive. It wasn’t my fault, but it felt like a betrayal. Here was a woman who had helped me secure a place to study at the University of California, Berkeley on a free, one-year student exchange program when I was 21 by writing me a highly flattering letter of reference. My dad, the charmer, still thinks that’s the only reason I got in. For the Dazed piece, she also trusted me with her invaluable collection of monochrome slides of Jack and Neal that she took in the 50s, which remain the most iconic images of the two heroes, including the one below that for years was the cover of the paperback version of On the Road.

Carolyn's husband, Neal Cassady (left) poses with her lover, Jack Kerouac

Those images provided her primary source of income, and there was a charge made to Dazed for their use with the article. Carolyn was not wealthy, and in my interview she bemoaned the fact that a raincoat of Kerouac’s had been bought some years earlier by Johnny Depp for a staggering $10,000. After Neal died in 1968 (Jack died a year after that), she’d simply got rid of clothing and items of no particular value to her. Never, she said, did she imagine that a Hollywood superstar would end up paying what was actually over $50,000 for a number of Kerouac’s belongings. Clearly, Neal’s possessions would be of considerable interest, as well.


Carolyn wrote a book, too—Off the Road—but it never sold well, not least because it paints a picture of the Beats that’s contrary to the legend created by the novels and poems. For the most part, she wrote, Neal was a dedicated, hard-working family man—warm, attentive, and responsible—although he certainly caused Carolyn misery by suddenly charging off in search of his fabled “kicks.” Often, his trips were organized, planned ahead, and taken with Carolyn’s permission. But not always.

“Neal was a split personality,” Carolyn told me in 2004. “There were fundamental things that ran through him like compassion and non-violence, but there were unquestionably two sides to him. The other Neal had a wild nature driven by sexual desire.”

She claimed to know little of that side of her husband, except indirectly, and in that respect there had always been a naivety to Carolyn that was central to her charm and good nature. (To be clear here, Neal’s open-mindedness to sex was the reason he had no issue with his wife having an affair with Kerouac, and Carolyn never had much of a sex life with Neal because she found him to be too aggressive a lover. Also, Carolyn and Jack showed no affection towards each other in front of Neal.) My interview for Dazed was hooked around the publication of a collection of Neal’s frantic letters that were the primary inspiration for Kerouac’s "first thought, best thought" spontaneous prose style. By reading some of them for the first time, decades after they were written, Carolyn claimed to still be finding out about Neal. For instance, she learned that many of the cars he claimed to have “borrowed” were never returned to their owners. “I always said that he would never deprive anybody of anything,” she said. “In these letters he describes how he stole them, stripped them, and sold them.”


A mugshot of Neal Cassady taken by Denver police.

She also said she had only recently worked out exactly why Neal—raised on skid row in Denver by an alcoholic father—was attracted to her. “It’s taken me 60 years to deduce that one of his main ambitions in life was to become respectable,” she said. “The minute he met me he realized that here was an educated girl from a middle-upper class family and here was his passport. I came along and that was that.”

Neal was more than aware of the myth that was being built around him. “Neal Cassady did everything a novel does,” Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, once said about him, “except he did it better because he was living it and not writing about it.” That idea caused him grief. Towards the end of his life, he once referred to himself as “Keroassady”—a half-fictional man—and it’s telling that he said the following to Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky, at the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, 1955: “Come over here, Peter, come stand next to me.” When asked why, he replied: “Well, I don’t know anybody here.” And yet, at that reading Ginsberg first presented "Howl," his soon-to-be-banned poem, in which is written: “N.C., the secret hero of these poems, cocksman, and Adonis of Denver.”

When Neal first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he felt summoned by Kesey, who had partly based the book’s lead character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, on Dean Moriarty from On the Road. Kesey lived near the Cassadys in Palo Alto, California, south of San Francisco. He’d been away in Oregon helping his brother set up a creamery, and when he returned home one day, he discovered Neal on his lawn bouncing up and down like an excited kid or a boxer getting ready for a bout. Kesey introduced himself. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” Neal jabbered back feverishly, “Why hello, Chief.”


Kesey and Cassady became friends and when, in 1964, The Merry Pranksters—the loose band of intellectual misfits and acid missionaries who had been gathering around Kesey—took off across America, Neal was recruited to drive their psychedelic painted bus. The hero of the Beat Generation was now at the heart of the hippy movement—single-handedly connecting two revolutionary generations—but by 1964 he was fast becoming a tragic, drug-addled figure, and something of a parody of himself. He would play off his own legend, have sex with hippy girls and, fueled by amphetamines, talk continuously.

“In the beginning I said, ‘Don’t ever bring that Kesey person here,’” Carolyn told me. “But then he came and cooked dinner and he was so good to me. God, he was nice. Any time he was going to write or produce something about Neal, he would call me and say, ‘Come along, you have be part of it.’ I got to go backstage at Grateful Dead concerts. It’s not something I’d listen to ever, but I went because of the personalities. I liked all the people. I just didn’t like their lifestyle. And I was against the drugs. I think they destroyed Kesey. The stuff he wrote after he got into drugs is just rubbish.”

Eventually, Carolyn and Kesey fell out and it’s somewhat typical of her that she had shaky relationships with nearly all the Beats who made it through the 60s.

The ongoing attraction of the Beats is very easy to understand. At the core of the novels and poems are the twin ideals of space and speed, and those two things will forever seduce young people, wherever they come from. The director of On the Road—the Brazilian Walter Salles, who also directed The Motorcycle Diaries—first read Kerouac’s book in 1956 when he was at university. At the time, Brazil was under a military dictatorship. “We were living in a country where freedom was such an impossible goal to attain,” he said before the film’s release, “and here were those characters that were trying to live everything in the flesh and not vicariously, trying to find that last American frontier and the frontier within themselves. It had a profound impact on me.”


The book had a profound impact on me, too, leading me and two friends to work for a few months after we left school, save up a couple of grand between us and take off on our own Beat-like adventure. My dad had told me that under no circumstances we were to buy a car and attempt to drive cross-country, so we bought a van instead and drove 10,000 miles from Boston to San Francisco, via the Deep South, over the course of almost four months. We slept in the back of the van, even in the inner city, and ran out of money a long time before we made it to California. Almost unbelievable to think of it now (we were three 18-year-olds who knew nothing about anything), but we made it across by singing for our suppers—my friends, both called Andy, were talented guitar players and I learned harmonica. Many mornings we were woken by the police, but we never got in serious trouble and, of course, the first pit-stop when we reached San Francisco, after a treacherous crossing of the Rockies in freak snow storms, was the City Lights Bookstore—spiritual home of the Beats.

The letter of reference Carolyn wrote to the University of California on the author's behalf

I sent Carolyn a postcard from there, and later told her that we’d never managed to meet up with Ginsberg in New York, despite her kindly asking him if we could visit. We called but the phone was answered by a boy our age (Ginsberg often, ahem, had a young live-in student at his Lower East Side apartment) who scared us off. As one of the two Andys remembers, “I think it all seemed a bit far-fetched and we didn’t push it any further.”


“All along the roadside, you see the smattered and charred remains of people who had fairly loose heads and who, in a effort to emulate Cassady, burned themselves,” hippy leader Wavy Gravy once said to Neal Cassady’s biographer, William Plummer. “I’m not talking about ten or 20 people. I’m talking about the hundreds who read On the Road and were turned on by the Prankster mystique and who wanted nothing more than to be Neal Cassady.”

I never wanted to get burned, although I did return to America the next year with a student loan and took off on another trip. By the time Carolyn had helped me get to Berkeley, my interests in books and music had moved on. In short, I bleached my hair and became a raver. There are, though, two things from my years as a Beat freak that will forever be sacred to me. When I took those slides down to a photographic shop in Clerkenwell to get prints made up for the Dazed story, I helped myself (with Carolyn’s permission) to two prints of my own, which I treasure—one of her looking gorgeous in the 50s, and the same one of Neal and Jack that you see above. And when I last saw Carolyn, she played me something I feel extraordinarily privileged to have heard: a tape recording, never (to my knowledge) released, of her, Jack and Neal reading to each other and fooling about. Neal begins by reciting a passage from one of his favorite writers, Proust, before Jack takes over and rattles through an excerpt from his book, Dr. Sax. That’s how Carolyn remembers her husband and his best friend—her lover—and it’s not surprising she made it clear that she wouldn’t be seeing the film of On the Road.


Carolyn Cassady was born in Lansing, Michigan, US on April 28, 1923. She died in Bracknell, Berkshire, England on September 20, 2013.

This piece is adapted from one that published previously in the Stool Pigeon.

Follow Phil on Twitter: @phil_hebble

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