What Happened with Carolyn Cassady
Hello, I'm Tom Dark, gigolo of letters. This joke will explain itself shortly. I'm also a self-taught failure.
How good a failure? Hard to judge. I'm too impatient for history to do that. Besides, I'd be dead, or it wouldn't be history.
As mighty a failure as Proust? No way. How about Melville? Well, when five readings of MOBY DICK over the years still wets my eyes right from "Call me Ishmael," for God's Eternal Sakes, how can you be a decent failure when you can't write something as immortal as that and then die in near-total obscurity? Also, Melville had a job where he could daydream and scrawl things down. They don't let you do that now. All that obvious thinking makes people nervous. I haven't got a job anyway. Starving. Sort of.
Twain would have been a failure had he not married rich, said Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Ambrose Bierce probably snuck off to Mexico because he was out of money and didn't want to die surrounded by all that tongue-clucking. That's how it goes for us failures, great and small. I'm too humble to say I'm a great failure, too proud to content myself with small failings.
My biggest failure to date is called "the 'zine," which I conceived and coined in 1985 at a dining room table in an apartment in Oakland, California. I commandeered a somewhat immature engineer in Wisconsin to print it up on his copy machine, using whatever he liked out of my letters. He'd print up 250 copies a month. I'd stick them in a news stall at Sather Gate, UC Berkeley. Immaturity was a key ingredient. Kids snapped them up and started imitating them right away, eventually, into the millions. I haven't checked a dictionary to see if "'zine" is now listed as a word. Anyway I expected it'd be imitated, and there we have it. It didn't make me a dime. I didn't mean it to.
My second biggest failure also has a name, "African Avatars and the Secret of Fatima," for which I got paid $200 in 2001. In it I prophesied that Jesus may or may not have returned already, and in either case, he's probably black. This news went world-wide republished in various languages in various MAGA'zines and internet sites, and according to the ex-Prime Minister of Congo/Brazzaville, in "every church in the Congo." 6 years later I'm still getting phone calls about it. Just yesterday, in fact. Thanks for the $200, Duncan. The rest of you can go shove, thankya Jesus.
Hard to place where my failed love-letter affair with Carolyn Cassady lies in this enumeration. She paid me a couple thou. In the throes of her infatuation, I learned that I'm a better writer than Jack Kerouac Himself. She never much cared for his stuff anyhow, she said. Thankya Jesus again. Here's the story:
Us failures, lacking literary resources, as unto the homeless "with nowhere to lay their heads," must paw through the garbage cans of society's castoff creativity and peek through the peepholes of forgotten places for our meager material. Sometimes we stumble upon dust-covered baubles to shine and sell. In this case it was an old motorcycle derelict named Stanley.
In spring of 2002 Stanley, scrawny, straggle-bearded, snaggletoothed, and on social security brought me a few snarled plastic bags full of cassettes he'd been recording for 15 years. They'd been suffering Tucson's sizzling summer heat in his beat-up one-room trailer near the dry wash in a dusty trailer park containing poverty-stricken teenage thieves.
The bags of cassettes comprised Stanley's life story. He wanted to get them down on paper and call the book "Knucklehead Tales," named after the true love of his life, an ancient Harley Davidson "Knucklehead" motorcycle which had taken him on every life's adventure, even the one where he figured out how to kill the rats coming out of his toilet in Oregon. The bike was called a Knucklehead because one would have to be a knucklehead to ride one, which Stanley and his galfriend did, all around the West, for years.
Perfect. I took the job.
One day Stanley, on tape, related a tale where he'd worked as an odd-jobber for a bookshop in Los Gatos, California. At this bookshop worked a woman named Carolyn Cassady.
It was a funny thing: Stanley had only recently read ON THE ROAD for the first time, at a nudist colony in Sonoma County, up north. Here now was "Camille," from that very book, in person. Nightly at dinner, Stanley said, Camille would tell her tales of Jack Kerouac and her husband Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty et al. She related having an affair with Jack under Neal's nose -- rather, over Neal's head, as Jack lived in their attic in those days.
What was the name of that book Carolyn was writing, Stanley wondered on tape. "Heart"-something... "Heart"-something. Dammit, he couldn't remember. He wanted to remember. I shut off the tape and called him up to see if he had yet remembered. Nope, he couldn't, but he still wanted to remember.
He wanted to remember so much I checked the internet for "Carolyn Cassady." Maybe I could ask her. I read and read. Oh, so that's who Carolyn Cassady is.
Carolyn Cassady was the wife and lover of two American literary figures, and the friend of a number of others who, in something like a conspiracy of mass magic, changed the face of modern American literature and altered the course of an increasingly rigid, crustaceous culture.
She married Neal Cassady and romanced with his closest friend, Jack Kerouac. She and Jack loved each other innocently until Kerouac's early death, which Carolyn put to Catholicism, not alcoholism (same diagnoses for her husband Neal, she wrote me). These days Kerouac's novels are required reading in school courses, cash-cows for "beat" scholars, and voluntary reading for imaginative teens. The magic is still in effect.
One afternoon when I flirted to a cute 17 year old girl at the local market checkout counter that I was now editing Carolyn's autobiography, she chirped back to me that she was now reading ON THE ROAD, on her own.
Carolyn Cassady loved Kerouac into literary reality, so I eventually told her. His fame 50 years later remains such that when I spoke his name to a 20-year-old at a local coffee shop, the young man declaimed "Jack Kerouac wrote ON THE ROAD on a single roll of butcher's paper stuck in his typewriter!"
Thirty years before that afternoon and ten years before the young man was born, I’d one day got myself a roll of butcher's paper, hung it on a clothes hanger on the wall over my dormitory desk, and tucked the paper into my typewriter carriage. My brother Duncan had told me that this is what Jack Kerouac had done. Like Kerouac, I too would write in a stream of non-stop, natural, unfettered Consciousness without having to so much as pause to put in a fresh sheet. Just let it roll.
Kerouac said he didn't use butcher's paper. Nor did I smoke marijuana when I wrote.
I found a website called Litkicks. I posted an inquiry. Pretty quickly I got an e-mail from one Levi Asher with her e-mail address in it. Thank you, Levi. Pretty quickly I e-mailed Carolyn, and pretty quickly she e-mailed me back. Something funny going on, said my cosmic antennae. Better pay attention.
HEARTBEAT was the title of Carolyn's book that heart-something Stanley couldn't remember. By then it had long been the title of a movie based on her book, called Heartbeat, starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek. It had failed at the U.S. box office 20 years previous, when that young man was born. Carolyn told me she loved Sissy Spacek and hated the movie for lines like "well fellas, which of you gets me tonight?" Please don't watch it, she begged. I so far haven't.
In a few exchanges Stanley was forgotten (not by me, I finished the job as always) and here arrived a solitary note saying "tell me about yourself."
It was a note from someone signing herself Cari, not Carolyn, and I heard a sort of murmur dipthong in that sentence somewhere. Full volume, it goes "tell me about yourself.. big boy..."
I took the bait. She seemed like a lovable lady, and something was up. Not sure what.
I couldn't possibly relate what-all is in the hundreds or thousand-some pages of correspondence that ensued between us. I'm tired to think about it four years later. Maybe scholars in beep-boop hats in the future will untangle it after our dusts are long dispersed. I called them "love letters." I insisted on this characterization to the point that the coquettish Cari (I forget who gave her that nickname) returned to Carolyn, and the frequency of her "XOX's" at the close of each letter dropped to a single "x" now and then, and eventually just a "ta." So it goes.
One of the wiser things I'd done was politely decline an invitation to come live with her over there in England, where she had a couple of trailers joined together to make a house in a tidier park than Stanley's.
It was easy to be that wise. The invitation came within a week or two of our first correspondence, and around that time also came her confession that she'd had an affair with a fifty-something year old man, she in her seventies, making her "quite the envy among her women friends" for it. (I learned later that this man suffered from serious bouts of a disabling schizophrenia... we failures can be pretty good detectives, as few notice us.) Carolyn now loved me fully, writing me oaths to that effect.
Okay, so I'm being mashed by an 80 year old woman six thousand miles away who wants to cuddle in bed. Fine. What else? What else funny is going on here?
I'd never read OFF THE ROAD, her version of the Beat Generation story, more or less. I bought a copy. I excused myself from all Thanksgiving dinner invitations to spend several days reading it. I liked it better than ON THE ROAD, which, like Stanley, I came across later in life; by then I'd had sufficient streaming monologues going on in my own head about where I'd been and where I'd be going. For that I found Kerouac's long riffing about doped-up young wildmen speeding from one crotch to the next, one hangout to the next, decades ago, a little lacking in urgency.
And I, like my pal Dee to whom I then passed my copy of OFF THE ROAD, wondered how and why this classy American middle-class crinoline woman got mixed up with that lot in the first place.
Dee is a constant reader who was unfamiliar with the Beat Generation and all its literature. Not so much as a poem by anybody in a sweatshirt and beret. Her favorite reading just then happened to be the Harry Potter books, which, Carolyn told me, were agented by her own agent. (But apparently not, I learned.)
Dee couldn't put OFF THE ROAD down, either. The tension of it kept her going too. Returning it in awhile, she said, "this was really great, Tom, but who are those JERKS?" She meant the giants Kerouac, Cassady, and the sometimes Ginsberg as Carolyn had impassively depicted them. Dee wanted to know who Carolyn really was, how she got mixed up with them, and why.
Bingo. The "something funny" feeling rang a ding.
Failures like me stick to the classics and the seeming obscure, but Dee is a world of readers. There is much painful in OFF THE ROAD; we both felt the wrench of our guts as Neal and Jack and Ginsberg did one damned puerile thing after another in Carolyn's sight, and Dee and me and we-all would like to know how that lady came to put up with it. So too wondered the several others who waited for Dee to finish reading.
There are no easy answers. All this is very important in terms of literary study -- which over the generations always proves out over the pop psychological explanations of the day (did I just prophesy again?). Carolyn herself was sick to death of the Beat Generation this and Beat Generation that. Yet somewhere on this planet every few minutes someone is still reading a Kerouac novel, and perhaps every few days or so, someone's reading Neal's own unfinished autobiography, THE FIRST THIRD.
Neal died shortly after Carolyn finally rid herself of him. He'd lost his most important personal mooring. In awhile, the love-play in our letters had me concluding it's unlikely Jack would have had the inner strength to pursue and complete ON THE ROAD without his own affair with this lady, who was now in her eighties and mashing me with divine expressions of cuddle-love. She made me want to write. How did this beat-stuff happen and spread as it has? We'd better start from the beginning: Carolyn Cassady-nee-Robinson's own self-written story. The world needs to know.
By Jove, I'd talked her into it. Carolyn began writing her autobiography to me -- her life apart from Jack and Neal and who-all created the Beats myth and later the Hippies myth and even the Slackers myth if by proxy. Let's have at it, then, and this time without the Loretta Young dress. Let's have the story of the truly naked lady beneath it.
OFF THE ROAD wasn't Carolyn's autobiography. It comprises a report she made of life with Neal and Jack and sometimes Ginsberg, trying to anchor things down and raise children like a normal, decent middle class mom. It was the fifties; reading it and its flowing, crinoline style, I imagined her writing it in the kinds of dresses Loretta Young swirled onto the stage wearing in her fifties television show.
Every mom was classy like that in those days, mine too. Church, school, politics and teevee taught that. So did observing one's parents, with one blind eye and the other half-closed. Every classy mom deserved a nice house, her own car for toting us kids around, a nice suburban or country neighborhood, and a dad who cheerfully provided all this, having fun working for a living, if grim now and then. It wasn't so hard to do in the nineteen-fifties (and hey, even the poor people weren't doing all that badly in those mythical good old days). For that, her account provides a sometimes breathtaking tension. Its present-moments as depicted -- Neal with a naked trio in her bed, she and Jack smooching while Neal's out philandering somewhere, ostensibly working, Ginsberg orally sexing Neal in the house with the KIDS around, everybody stoned and drugged and so forth -- all this leaves the reader naturally asking "why?" And why put up with it? Why not jail for all 'round and an easy divorce against Neal? Isn't that where the irresponsible bastards belonged? Carolyn's replies, by book, or in our correspondence, weren't satisfactory.
They are equally unsatisfactory in a most curious tale of her life long before having been heart-hijacked in Denver by expert car thief and cocksman Cassady. During the War (this means World War Two, for those who have forgotten), Carolyn was corralled and becaptived by a well-born psychotic murderer whom her parents wanted her to marry. How, how, could she not have got away from him? It is a mystery even her friends, who read the story as she'd earlier fictionalized it, could not understand.
Neither could the two hundred fifty pound boss I had, with the Marines bulldog tattoo, where I was working at the time, to whom I related the story. Hell of a story! It captured the attention of even a big bruiser like Bill.
She'd somehow gone lurching into the grasp of a psycho like that, the same way she let the "Cowboy Angel" lasso her life a few years later. Well? How? Could it have anything to do with the time she was kidnapped at age five? Don't know, but let the reader decide. In some way, where life's a stage, Carolyn played the underside of the Standard Issue American Woman in Crinoline. So far, with true tales like this, here was a practical winner of a book outpacing ON THE ROAD and OFF THE ROAD both.
Sadly, I must break a moment and mention my friend Merci, who has been present at a good deal more cultural history than Carolyn has. Merci's astute quip one afternoon proved worthier than all the words I'm committing to this tale.
Merci is an hundred years old now. I visit her sometimes daily. She's had quite a life. The great dancer Bo Jangles danced at the head of her wedding procession, two miles down Fifth Avenue, New York city; in that procession were celebrities strutting along in cheery vaudeville steps "whose names you'd know even today," she told me, still wary of name-dropping.
James Thurber put the very first copy of The New Yorker magazine in her hands as a birthday present. Merci to this day can't decide whether she liked Dorothy Parker or not, who was also in the gang along with characters with wonderful nicknames like "Skeets." She appeared on the front cover of the New York Herald, hiding in a big champagne slipper onstage during a police raid of the place for "public lewdness." She was a dancer, and her then-perfect body was sculpted by a famous sculptor, the statues of which stand today in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Or is the Guggenheim? She can't recall.
One day while I was working -- or rather, love-battling -- on Carolyn's new work, I brought Merci a copy of OFF THE ROAD.
"What's this," she asked. I told her.
She read the blurb on the back cover silently. "I can't believe this was the first time America had ever lost its innocence," said the lady who'd been to jail for lewdness before this lot was born. Some publicist had posed America as Pollyanna's back yard until Kerouac and the Cassadys gyred in through the thundering dark heavens.
Merci hadn't paid the Beat Generation much attention those few minutes ago, to her. She was marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma then, along with other things, including having been a publisher herself. I've always brought her my clients in person. I've always come away with a few words about them from her that sized things up unerringly, including lessons learned.
Carolyn is rewriting this book, I said. Before the lawsuit, Carolyn was already revising OFF THE ROAD, which had been on the market for years. She wanted to expand it by quite a few pages.
"Why? She already has a book," Merci said.
"I guess she didn't think this one was good enough."
"Well... there's a jackass in every parlor," she quipped, handing the book back to me. It's great to have a 100 year old around who has seniority to say smart things about an 80 year old.
It was so. Carolyn proved to be the most stubborn creature I've ever encountered in either the human or animal kingdoms. She had the soul of a literary goddess and the ego of a jackass. I kept a sense of humor about it by imagining the two of us boxing, me at 6'1" 200 pounds and she, tiny at 83, duking it out in a ring.
Brevity was one issue, but essential. What publisher, and what audience, wants a book about what she had for lunch in 1947, as it were? OFF THE ROAD had its jackass sitdown parts as well, discussions on the newfound spirituality among them. It had undigested new-age dogma, regurgitated as it were, overriding the more poignant paragraphs about the emotional breaks occurring among themselves over these things.
Back to our love-letter correspondence, and autobiographical progress. Carolyn confessed things to me -- of the emotional order of a confession, which lovers do -- meant of themselves to be in this new work.
But now she wants to delete the bit about masturbating on a cushion as a toddler. And now she wants to cut the bit about being raped, or close enough to it, by her older brother one Sunday alone together in the fine upper middle class house. And the girlish daydreams with the girlfriends! Douglas Fairbanks may have been an early dream of the swashbuckling Neal, we don't know, but use it, it's charming! What girl hasn't masturbated? What girl hasn't been sullied by a boy? What girl has never had a dream-man? No, no, no! No! THIS is the good stuff. THIS is the unpolishable truth swishing beneath the crinoline skirt keeping up the chatty ladylike appearances at Sunday Brunch.
A good failure teaches by example, as taught in Catholic elementary school. So I'd write the increasingly taciturn stubborn Carolyn all about me in sheer candor. And anyway, she asked me to tell me about myself. So here I am, starving now. So there I am, embittered at my mother. And over here, t'other embarrassing thing, brag, or fact. The daily things. Out with it. Take the hint.
Well, it did the trick. Maybe too much. She loosened up enough to put the childhood rape scene in the very introduction of the work, right where it didn't belong -- and with a homemade psychoanalysis (must finally use those college courses?) that this one unpleasant afternoon was the reason she remained frigid the rest of her life, until she was sixty-something years old.
Hold on there. Frigid? What about the big orgasm on that date with the Navy Boy before the war? How about the affairs while Neal was in prison? How 'bout the feeling of obligation to screw a man, just to be friendly?
(And isn't this pretty much what happened with women through the whole Beat Generation, Hippie Movement, Generation X, and whatever names we make up about human cultural behavior nowadays?)
Sigh. All this self analysis. Just tell the story, ma'am; but by now, I was tired and working for free.
I've skipped over this bit, as I must skip so much else. In the interim, the steady-selling OFF THE ROAD had been taken off the market by a cowardly publisher owing to a somewhat indefensible lawsuit by Kerouac's relatives, demanding money for Carolyn's use of Jack's letters to her... 14 years after it had been on the market. While Carolyn was blaming me for starving, her own rug had been pulled out from under her. I'd had a dream some months before then that she'd be facing destitution.
I told her I'd work for free. It was that important, and something, something would happen to make it work. We failures know an important work when we see one. Time wore on. By now I'm a goddam janitor. But I didn't want any other editing work.
After awhile, something happened. Walter Salles, acclaimed for his screenplay "The Motorcycle Diaries," was now screenwriting ON THE ROAD. Producer, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, whose son had owned the movie rights for 18 years.
Success! Acclaim! Money money money! A tie-in with Carolyn's own story for use to advantage by the most successful literary agent on the whole planet!
I hear from Carolyn some more. She's "disengaged" this agent and rejected the publisher who'd take this now-oversize revision of OFF THE ROAD, minus Jack Kerouac's letters. She's fiddling around with some bozo with whom I can tell by now, she's infatuated, who probably thinks he's roped himself a cash cow.
And I learn the fact that I had been "disengaged" awhile back without knowing it. My "300 page rule of thumb" totally out of the question; the damned "chatty" thing had reached nearly 500 pages of chat by 1948. Even so, I said I'd pare it all down, an Augean thing to do for nothing. No, she's gone over it and made it more "chatty." After all this work trying to prevent a book that would otherwise earn the title, to quote my friend Ivey Brown, "Memoirs of an Old Lady." After all this time knowing the blunt stuff she wrote me about herself, and Cassady and Kerouac, needed to be told to the world... like a great big Beat Emetic.
Editor for hire here.
Good Heavens, what year is it now?
Good heavens, what year is it now? 2012! This was, like, 10 years ago, a correspondence that lasted 2 or 3 years, some hundreds of pages. Some thousands. Historical? I dunno.
Last night I had a curious dream that kept repeating itself: "Make sure people know that Allen Ginsberg was a notorious pedophile." It's true. Carolyn told me that when he'd visit decades later, he'd brag to her about his "conquests" of little boys, eight and nine years old. She tolerated this because, after all, pretending to be stars in this charade of perversity suited her rather prima donna demeanor. But Allen Ginsberg was a notorious pedophile. Otherwise, she complained, Ginsberg was interested only in talking about himself.
I woke wondering why that dream, why now, and why important that people know that Allen Ginsberg was a notorious pedophile. Then I learned that the movie production of "On The Road" is finally finished and the trailer is out to watch. I'd told Carolyn those years ago that "something" would happen that would promote the autobio she never did do up right. Turned out to be this movie, didn't it?
My main theme with her was to tell the truth. I see she's done that in subsequent interviews, now admitting that not just one brother, but two, had sex with her in her idyllic childhood. "The Beats" is a mythologization of a lot of lurid goober behavior, apart from the cultural "loosening up" it served to whatever extent. People do need to recognize that.
So maybe people eager to see the movie should watch it bearing in mind that Ginsberg was a notorious pedophile, for one thing. Oh, but when you're a star, these pecadillos don't matter?