Meeting Jack Kerouac...
. . .a miscellany of first encounters with the Beat legend
It has been carefully compiled by Dana Cook.
Paul Bowles - No bullshit
(...) Jack Kerouac was among the guests. Gore [Vidal] and I went with him to an apartment in the Village. During the evening Jack grew expansive on beer. As we went out he handed me a paperback copy of The Subterraneans, in which he had written: "To Paul — a man completely devoid of bullshit." Later, when Jane [Auer Bowles] came out of the hospital and saw the book and its inscription, she said: "But are they all going through a Céline period, or what." (New York, late 1950s)
Allen Ginsberg - Poetic jock
He [Lucien Carr] described Kerouac in very romantic terms as a seaman who was a novelist or a poet, or writer, Jack Londonesque in style. (...)
So I went up to visit Jack one morning when he was eating breakfast, eleven or twelve, and we got into some kind of funny conversation, I don’t know what it was about any more. I remember being awed by him and amazed by him, because I’d never met a big jock who was sensitive and intelligent about poetry. (...) I don’t know what we talked about, except prose versus poetry ... (New York, 1943)
Joyce Glassman (Johnson) - Waiting for a check
"Hello. I’m Jack. Allen [Ginsberg] tells me you’re very nice. Would you like to come down to Howard Johnson’s on Eighth Street? I’ll be sitting at the counter. I have black hair and I’ll be wearing a red and black checked shirt."
I’m standing in Elsie’s kitchen, holding the phone Allen just handed me. It’s a Saturday night shortly after New Year’s.
"Sure," I say.
The windows of Howard Johnson’s are running with steam so you can’t see in. I push open the heavy glass door, and there is, sure enough, a black-haired man at the counter in a flannel lumberjack shirt slightly the worse for wear. He looks up and stares at me hard with blue eyes, amazingly blue. And the skin of his face is so brown. He’s the only person in Howard Johnson’s in color. I feel a little scared as I walk up to him. "Jack?" I say.
There’s an empty stool next to his. I sit down on it and he asks me whether I want anything. "Just coffee." He’s awfully quiet. We both lack conversation, but then we don’t know each other, so what can we say? He asks after Allen, Lafcadio, that kind of thing. I’d like to tell him I’ve read his book, if that wouldn’t sound gauche, obvious and uncool.
When the coffee arrives, Jack looks glum. He can’t pay for it. He has no money, none at all. That morning he’d handed his last ten dollars to a cashier in a grocery store and received change for a five. He’s waiting for a check from a publisher, he says angrily.
I say, "Look, that’s all right. I have money. Do you want me to buy something to eat?"
"Yeah," he says. "Frankfurters. I’ll pay you back. I always pay people back, you know. (New York, 1957)
Pete Hamill - ‘Jack, Jack’
(...) For an hour, I drank beer alone at the bar [of the Cedar Street Tavern] and listened to arguments over centerfielders. Suddenly Kerouac and his friends came in, shouldering through the door, then merging with the other drinkers, three deep at the bar. Kerouac edged in beside me. He was drunk. He threw some crumpled bills on the bar. I said hello. He looked at me in a suspicious, bleary way and nodded. The others were crowding in, yelling, Jack, Jack, and he was passing beers and whiskeys to them, and Jack, Jack, he bought more, always polite, but his eyes scared, a twitch in his face and a sour smell coming off him in the packed bar that reminded me of the morning odor of my father in the bed at 378. Soon he was ranting about Jesus and nirvana and Moloch and bennies, then lapsing into what sounded like Shakespeare but probably wasn’t, because his friends all laughed. (New York, 1957)
Timothy Leary - Saloon style
Jack Kerouac sat at the kitchen table, drinking red wine and unleashing a non-stop stream-of-consciousness monologue about the hinge in the middle of Allen’s [Ginsberg’s] penis and about barracuda Buddhas, etc., etc. Between the word games, puns, boastful teasing, and locker-room jokes, we fell to discussing sports. It turned out that, like me, Kerouac had developed a game of baseball-solitaire with rosters of imaginary players whose statistics — hits, runs, errors — he recorded.
(...) ... Jack Kerouac was scary. Behind the dark good looks of a burly lumberjack was a New England mill-town sullenness, a Canuck-Catholic soggy distrust. This is one unhappy kid, I thought.
"So what are you up to, Doctor Leary, running around with this communist faggot Ginsberg and your bag of pills? Can your drugs absolve the mortal and venial sins which our beloved savior, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, came down and sacrificed his life upon the cross to wash away?" He was teasing, and yet he wasn’t.
"Why don’t we find out?" said Ginsberg quietly.
I produced the bottle, counted out the pills, and we all launched off.
Kerouac continued to drink and rant like a sailor in a port-town bar, striding around the room, jumping on chairs, declaiming funny, poetic gibberish. He leaped on the couch. "I’m King of the Beatniks. I’m François Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you hot-lick, spiral improvisations from my tenor typewriter." It was charming, witty, and lovable, but when the drug started to expose my tender tissues, the noise became jarring. I longed for the familiar mushroom silence.
By this time I had shared voyages with over a hundred persons, but no one had tried to control, dominate, overwhelm the experience like Kerouac. He was imposing his saloon style on it, and for me it was simply too much. (New York, 1960)
Ned Rorem - His problem
... a truly eerie get-together at Chandler Cowles’. "Everyone" was there, from Auden to Zadkine, but mostly younger genii ... The purpose was for Great Minds to Commune and eventually collaborate, at the fee of one hundred dollars per contribution, on what would become an evening of Album Leaves next summer at Spoleto. The eeriness came from the silence not of communion but of embarrassment, since conversation between Great Minds is not easy and we know what its dearth leads to. So at the liquor tray near which I’m standing demurely in a pink bow tie ... Jack Kerouac approaches and, with a twick, undoes the tie, saying, "You’re a doll." "So are you." "Yes, but I like girls." "Well, that’s your problem." (...) (New York. 1958)
Gore Vidal - ‘I fucked him’
Allen [Ginsberg] was surprised [in 1994] that I had known Jack since 1949. "I suppose back then he would have come on to you like a dumb football jock."
"Quite the opposite. Anyway, that was my come-on, only with me it was tennis, not football. No, we met at the Metropolitan Opera House, in the club circle, in evening dress." I’ve always found that first encounter satisfyingly incongruous. Jack was with a publisher, and I was with a friend of the publisher, a brilliant alcoholic writer with a future that he was systematically losing. The writer had paid both Jack and Jack’s beloved Nemesis, Neal Cassady, for sex. (...)
I can still see Jack vividly. We are standing at the back of the opera box, which is so crowded that our faces are only a few inches apart. I feel the heat from his body. The eyes are bright and clear and blue; the body muscular, not yet bloated; a drop of water slides alongside his left ear and down his pale cheek, not sweat, but water that he must have just used to comb his thick black Indian-like hair. We were also coming on to each other like two pieces of trade—yes, I was attracted.
" ... what did you and Jack do?"
"Well, I fucked him." (New York, 1949)
Kurt Vonnegut - Thunderstorms in the head
I knew Kerouac only at the end of his life, which is to say there was no way for me to know him at all, since he had become a pinwheel. He had settled briefly on Cape Cod, and a mutual friend, the writer Robert Boles, brought him over to my house one night. I doubt that Kerouac knew anything about me or my work, or even where he was. He was crazy. He called Boles, who is black, "a blue-gummed nigger." He said that Jews were the real Nazis, and that Allen Ginsberg had been told by the Communists to befriend Kerouac, in order that they might gain control of American young people, whose leader he was.
This was pathetic. There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man. He wished to play poker, so I dealt some cards. There were four hands, I think—one for Boles, one for Kerouac, one for Jane [Kerouac’s wife], one for me. Kerouac picked up the remainder of the deck, and he threw it across the kitchen. (Hyannis, Mass., mid-1960s)
Carolyn Cassady - Astute observations
Jack Kerouac had written from New York that he would be going to San Francisco and would stop in Denver ... [...]
Jack’s brooding good looks and shy, gentle nature were comforting and attractive to me, but I considered him only a friend of Neal’s. He had clear blue eyes, emphasized by his black hair and eyelashes. His complexion was darker than Neal’s, whose skin was fair and extremely sensitive. We got along well in our roles of mutual friends of Neal, both equally programmed for monogamy and fidelity when it was a matter of matrimony. Jack came several times to the [Denver University] campus theater to watch rehearsals of the two plays some madness had possessed me to act in. I had discouraged Neal’s attendance: his opinion mattered too much, and I had no confidence in my ability as an actress, feeling only that the experience would be valuable in rounding out my career. Jack was complimentary and interested in the plays, and I was envied for the attention of this handsome stranger from New York. We were both shy and kept our conversation to general subjects, comparing tastes in playwrights, authors and movies and our impressions of New York and New England. When we rode home together on the streetcar, he would intrigue me by his astute observations of the people and places in the passing streets. He’d often jot down these impressions in a little five-cent notebook which, he told me, he carried with him at all times to capture details for his books. (Denver, 1947)
John Clellon Holmes - On his way
I surveyed the people moving in and out of the sleazy little grocery up ahead (dark, good-looking men in sport shirts, most of them, with bags full of beer), but saw no one I would have identified as the author of a novel, weighing twenty pounds in the hand, that was being seriously touted to publishers by people I respected.
But Kerouac was one of those men — the one who looked like the serious, tee-shirted younger brother of the others; the brother they were proud of because he played the violin as well as he played basketball; the young John Garfield back in the neighborhood after college, absolutely at ease there, but just as absolutely separated from it now by some weaning knowledge he could not communicate. He was making the run for more beer, he said with a hesitant smile, and, while [Alan] Harrington bought a contribution of big, brown quarts, he and I talked a little there on the sidewalk.
I don’t remember anything we said. It was probably no more than that gauging, neutral chat beneath which young men take each other’s measure, but I do remember my first impression. Under the boyish forelock, his strangely tender eyes noted me as we spoke, but all the time I felt that he was more keenly attuned to the tangled life of that street than to anything we were saying. It seemed to distract and stir him; he was at once excited and somehow emptied by it. Though he was just as straightforward, personable, buoyant, and attractive as I had been led to expect, there was a curious shyness under his exuberance; there was the touch of a moody thought around his mouth (like the reveler’s sudden foretaste of the ashen dawn to come), and, above all, there was that quietly impressive intensity of consciousness. All of which made me understand his friends’ enthusiasm in a flash: he was so evidently on his way toward some accomplishment, or some fate, that it was impossible not to warm to him immediately.
We became friends more quickly than I have ever become friends with anyone else. Everything about him was engaging in those days. He was open-hearted, impulsive, candid and very handsome. He didn’t seem like any other writer that I knew. He wasn’t wary, opinionated, cynical or competitive, and if I hadn’t already known him by reputation, I would have pegged him as a poetic lumberjack, or a sailor with Shakespeare in his sea locker. Melville, armed with the manuscript of Typee, must have struck the Boston Brahmins in much the same way. Stocky, medium-tall, Kerouac had the tendoned forearms, heavily muscled thighs, and broad neck of a man who exults in his physical life. His face was black-browed and firm-nosed, with the expressive curve of lip and the dark, somehow tender eyes that move you so in a loyal, sensitive animal. But it was the purity in that face, scowl or smile, that struck you first. You realized that the emotions surfaced on it unimpeded. Mothers warmed to him immediately: they thought him nice, respectful, even shy. Girls inspected him, their gazes snagged by those bony, Breton good looks, that ingathered aura of dense, somehow buried maleness. (New York, 1948)
Herbert Huncke - Leery of the needle
The first time I met Kerouac was on a day not long after I had first met Bill [Burroughs]. I was hanging out in Washington Square Park when Bill and Jack walked by. Bill introduced me, and then told me he’d picked up something in the way of a narcotic and asked me if I knew anything about it. I can’t recall what the drug was but I had not heard of it. I didn’t think it was something I wanted to fool with, simply because I did not know what it was.
I remember thinking Jack was green, but he was taking everything in and making little comments to Bill — mostly about the scene in general. Kerouac was a typical clean-cut American type. He looked to me like the Arrow-collar man. They always had these clean-cut young progressive American businessmen in their ads with their hair cut neatly and a twinkle in the eye. That was Jack.
Bill invited us up to his room over the Waverly where we decided this drug was something that should be shot intramuscularly. We did shoot it that way, and nothing happened. Bill tried to talk Jack into shooting up, but Jack said no, he would pass on it, though he was obviously curious about it. And that time Jack would smoke a little pot, but he was leery of the needle. (New York, mid-1940s)
Jay Landesman - On a beer run
We all trooped uptown on a hot, muggy New York night. People were sitting on brownstone steps in their undershirts, drinking beer and fanning themselves — it was like a scene out of some low-budget gangster movie. [Alan] Harrington recognized one of the guests, dressed appropriately in a T-shirt and jeans, coming out of the tenement. He was on his way to replenish the beer, but stopped long enough for introductions. His name was Kerouac, a name I didn’t recognize, but he knew mine the minute [John Clellon] Holmes mentioned Neurotica. It felt good not being anonymous in Spanish Harlem. After he left, Harrington mentioned that he was one of the writers he wanted Holmes to meet. He evidently thought a lot of him, having heard from friends that Kerouac was one of the few good writers around, although he’d never been published. (New York, 1948)
Norman Podhoretz - Handsome and clean-shaven
The call, which was placed not by [Allen] Ginsberg himself but by Kerouac’s girlfriend, I at first thought must be a practical joke ("I’m here with Allen and Jack who would like you to come see them tonight"). But when Ginsberg got on the line, and the minute I recognized his voice and realized that this was no joke, practical or otherwise, I caught myself desperately fishing for some graceful way to avoid what was sure to be a very unpleasant encounter. [Podhoretz had attacked the Beats as "know-nothing Bohemians" in print.]
Ginsberg’s apartment turned out to be much as I would have imagined it: a walk-up in an aging building, sparsely furnished, and badly in need of a paint job. [...]
Kerouac was even handsomer in the flesh than in the pictures of him that had been appearing for months in such mass magazines as Life and Time. Unlike the others, all three of whom (especially [Peter] Orlovsky) were predictably and ostentatiously scruffy, his clothes, though casual, were neat and clean. Abnormally conscious as I was at that moment of the issue of personal appearance, and accustomed to the photographs in which he had always had a two-or-three-day growth of beard, I was also amazed to find him clean-shaven. Had he perversely cleaned himself up for this meeting, just as I had done? (New York, 1958)
James Salter - Gridiron thug
I recall Kerouac in shoulder pads and cleats, stocky and hard-running ... In football uniform, short-legged, he seemed a kind of thug. He would drop back to handle punts and, catching them, go like the wind.
The school, Horace Mann, was in Riverdale, the northern suburbs of the city. [...]
Kerouac was one of the post-graduate students, "ringers," brought in very year to man the school teams. (...) Kerouac astonished us by submitting stories to the literary magazine, for a ringer an utterly unconventional art. He never came to the magazine’s offices, however. That would have been too out of character. (New York, 1939)
Dan Wakefield - More lumberjack than literary man
Romero’s wasn’t known as a literary bar, yet that first time I went there Sam [Astrachan] spotted a writer he knew at a table in the back and took me over to meet him. [...]
Wearing a red-and-black checked flannel shirt, with mussy hair and a day’s growth of beard, Kerouac seemed more lumberjack than literary man as he quickly offered to buy us a drink. He was celebrating an advance he had gotten for another novel. We sat down at a table with Kerouac and several of his friends, and Jack talked in the rather grumpy, desultory way he had, evidently his customary manner with people he’d just met. I took him to be a heavily serious sort of person, one who seemed more weighted down than elated about the sale of his novel to Viking Press, a prestigious publisher of fiction.
What most impressed me about Kerouac, though, was that he paid for our drinks by pulling a wad of bills from a money belt he wore around his waist that contained some of the cash from his $1,000 advance from the publisher. (New York, 1957)
Bowles, Paul. Without Stopping. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. p. 342.
Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road. New York: William Morrow, 1990. pp 28-29.
(Ginsberg) Gifford, Barry and Lee, Lawrence. Jack’s Book. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. pp. 34-35.
Hamill, Pete. A Drinking Life: A Memoir. Boston: Little Brown, 1994. p. 210.
Holmes, John Clellon. Representative Men: The Biographical Essays. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 1988. pp. 77, 116.
Huncke, Herbert. Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke. New York: Paragaon House, 1990. p. 72.
Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. pp. 126-7.
Landesman, Jay. Rebel Without Applause. New York: Paragaon House, 1987. p. 63.
Leary, Timothy. Flashbacks: An Autobiography. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983. pp. 63-65.
Podhoretz, Norman. "My War With Allen Ginsberg". Commentary, Vol. 104 August, 1997, No. 2. p. 27.
Rorem, Ned. The Paris and New York Diaries: 1951-1961. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. p. 363.
Salter, James. Burning the Days: Recollection. New York: Random House, 1997. pp. 25-26.
Vidal, Gore. Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995. pp. 217
Vonnegut, Kurt. Palm Sunday. New York: Delacorte Press, 1981. p. 250.
Wakefield, Dan. New York in the 50s. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. pp. 160-61.
(Compiled by Dana Cook, a collector of Literary Encounters.)
(c) 1998 by Dana Cook and DHARMA beat #11 & 12