(Tim Bowden (email@example.com) is the founder of Nerdnosh,
a really cool storytelling community that meets in various places along the side roads of cyberspace. He met
Carolyn Cassady a few years after the death of Carolyn’s husband, the legendary Neal. I asked Tim to put his memories into words, and here’s what he sent me. — Levi Asher)
I go calling on Carolyn Cassady
For a very short time I stepped through the looking glass and came to live with a cast of characters out of my own chosen saga and rollicking tour guide, “On The Road” and sequels. I beheld arrayed before me Camille and Big Ed Dunkel and Henry Morley, the Moriarity children now grown sweet and singular amid solitary outcroppings open to the winds, spoke with Denver Roy Johnson and Inez the inscrutable offstage third wife from New York (who related how she ‘financed “On The Road” and put the phone down to go to the bathroom, and then after the effect of the beer was gone she called Carolyn and wanted payment for the phone bill because I was “interviewing” her, who had her own book or movie idea she called “When the late, late train leaves for Alabam” and informed of various other addled details of a cracked mosaic), all of these present in a magical mystery tour which began suddenly in the middle of 1972 and ended suddener quite early the next year.
A card was enclosed with a shipment from City Lights books: `You might write Carolyn – her address is 18231 Bancroft, Los Gatos…’ I did.
A smalltown bookshop called Modern Times was well-stocked with City Lights titles in 1972. I was the sombre manager and sole clerk, which meant I had much time to myself during the day. As I say, I did write to Carolyn Cassady. Like most major changes in my life, it was an impulse with tremendous repercussions.
She replied, and what followed was a frantic pace of correspondence throughout the summer. The result was over four hundred pages counting both sent and received, and at the end of four months I piled all my possessions in my old VW and set out for California. The sign at Bonham State Bank told me it was just after 4:00 AM when I left.
“You brought along all your possessions,” said someone later, “and could see out all your windows.” She had no way of knowing that.
I drove for 48 hours with very few breaks and of extremely short duration the 1,775 miles to the legendary Cassady homestead ranchito. Perhaps you will remember Kerouac’s first trip to that house in 1960, just after Neal’s release from prison, as recorded in Big Sur; his distress while moving south on Bayshore at the ticking swell of vast neighborhoods all down the Peninsula until the whole of the Bay Area be one bedroom community?
When the Cassady’s moved to Monte Sereno, a quiet and sparse neighborhood in the trees above Los Gatos (itself a sedentary community near, and not yet engulfed by, San Jose), neighbors were workingclass and unassuming and also not much in evidence. The house itself was a middleclass vision of fifties America – a three-bedroom frame of one story with the smallest pool I have ever seen out along a tiny patio. The property was long and narrow, trailing off to weeds where Kerouac slept during his visit and Neal stored his junked autos in later years. All along the floor were those straw petate mats which sprung loose and piled in a corner whenever the weird black hound Goofy was excited, which was most of the time.
(The house is gone, as of this date (October 1997) and a fresh new foundation laid. Barren spruce light the borders of 1/3 acre in a rectangle which reaches back not as far as I thought when I was there and the grasses grew brisk out back. There is a portopotty, a contractor’s shed…
Neal Cassady had washed up down along the tracks in San Miguel over four years before I arrived, but everywhere there were links to him all through the days. Vast pages of letters under the bed, a portrait of the sly old bum they never found, Neal, Sr, in the sunny dining room, old friends come by for talk which sparked on him like static electricity.
Carolyn told me about Neal’s spiritual conversion, resulting from an epiphany at a parking lot where he worked – he discovered Edgar Cayce’s There Was A River on a seat of a customer’s auto and he read it during breaks. He brought it home to Carolyn, and she was thenceforth and forever I suppose committed to metaphysics. I recall like timeless ice floes drifting in the sun from the oceans of the Duluoz legend — items like ancient portraits in my old attic undated, photos and scraps of text; this is my memory of my time the last four months of 1972 but please to remember this was singular history for me and so the snapshots might be more vivid than those there before and after with no reason to reflect on that particular unremarkable time — I hear Carolyn remembers me fondly as “The Redneck” and son John doesn’t recall me at all — here’s the transcribed voice of Neal, softly incessantly spinning his cloudpatterns of phenomena and wonder, and that of Jack, punctuating with rimshots (“Words!”), a deconstructed view of Neal’s bloated monologue as an empty freight wagon over trailless wastes; Kerouac didn’t cotton to no spiritual essence but his own, which put about in storms..
I would love to have heard that tape. I don’t even remember right now where I read it. I heard others. They were recorded on an old console-type reel-to-reel which was still working when I was there in ’72. Most memorable was Neal reading his ‘high-eternity-in-the-afternoon’ Proust in a monotone in the background, somber as a priest, with Kerouac close to the mike whenever Neal pronounced `Gilberte’ with a hard `G’ to stage-whisper `Zjeeel-BER!’, proving he was Ti Jean, after all, fancy prepschool French-Canuck in the room with the Holy Goof from Larimer Street.
If Neal didn’t hear the prompting then, certainly the contrast between the two was not always absent from the equation. Over and over in Neal’s letters, I read variations of ‘Please excuse this pitiful effort scribbled out in the night during two-week holddown in Watsonville after mild toots and blast in the john, three am and not a soul -‘ He was as self-conscious about his words before the educated bohemians as the stately Elizabethan poets only pretended to be in their dedications to patrons.
He became attached to a certain astrologer and San Francisco character, Gavin Arthur (grandson of president Chester A Arthur), who gave lectures at San Quentin while Neal was a prisoner. Gavin Arthur became Carolyn’s mentor as well. In the same manner as Neal’s patented passing of his lovers, including Carolyn, down to Jack, he also handed his spiritual discoveries to Carolyn.
The pattern of the Cassady household by the time I arrived was paranormal in the extreme. Carolyn had quit her job, `walked on water’, some time before, without any firm notion about what would happen next. She trusted, `It’s a natural law,’ that rewards flow back from proper growth essence. She held onto her credit card.
Besides the aforementioned Goofy, the household comprised Jami, the second daughter, a golden vivacious lovely lady, and John, the youngest, an albino-complected musician who drew upon an aura of respect beyond his years. The kids were in their twenties, and they were the proof of all the spiritual rhetoric I was to hear over the next four months. I have never known anyone with a more transcendental behavioral approach to circumstance than those two. I never knew them as hurt, angry, bitter, or caustic. They were presented with large doses of stress in their lives; raised by their mother with limited funds in a neighborhood growing thick with plebes all around them, the absence then death of their father, the variety of ills their station brought to them, and yet they were always bright, cheery, hopeful, delighted. They were delightful.
Let me see, since Neal had died, there were a series of houseguests. One was a mystery writer Carolyn had invited to live with her, apparently to allow her to write. Carolyn insisted she not even bother to do dishes. Later, Carolyn grew resentful the writer took her at her word. That was a pattern I was to see again.
The mystery writer died in a car crash in Mexico.
There was a beautiful 16-year-old, perhaps a runaway, maybe just someone who did not get along with her parents. She did not leave a sense of great warmth behind with Carolyn — I was to hear about her from time to time, and little of it flattering.
Then there was the bandit. A revolutionary of sorts, he was a brief tangent with the Gavin Arthur followers in the City, and Carolyn brought him home. He came armed; Carolyn wrote to me about Goofy picking up stray shells on the floor.
He died in a dramatic shootout with police who had approached him while he was hitching rides back east. They found Carolyn’s phone number among his effects, and Carolyn furnished the investigators with extensive background on the bandit. I can recall Jami reading the long piece in the paper sent to them, maybe from Chicago, I don’t remember, and with some mock exasperation stressing the ‘Mrs. Cassady said..’ after it became redundant. One strong characteristic of Carolyn Cassady was verbal.
At play in the world of publishing
That became a feature of her interplay with Ann Charters. Just before I arrived, Rolling Stone had run a piece on Neal and his death, and Carolyn was prominent as a source. I made trips to San Francisco with her to visit the offices of Rolling Stone on Third Street in the City, just a half block from Kerouac’s fated legendary SP station at Third and Townsend.
We rode the train from San Jose. Met and spoke with those who were with Rolling Stone at the time, including Annie Leibowitz, the now-world famous celebrity photographer. She had come to Los Gatos before to snapshoot for the Cassady issue; on one visit she walked with us to back to the train station. I still remember how impressed I was she turned to me and tried to think of something kind to say. It wasn’t easy; I was a raw Texan without much connection to anything.
But I did know my Kerouac lore. Ann Charters seemed impressed. In the office of Straight Arrow Books, the publishing arm of the Stone, Carolyn was interviewed informally by Ms Charters for her upcoming biography of Kerouac. Particularly, of course, Carolyn could help with junctures where she was directly involved; Neal’s drug bust, Jack’s attempt to move to the West coast from Long Island with his mother. On the latter score, I was aware of Jack’s hopes that Neal could find his mother a job in a shoe shop (Carolyn had boxes of letters under her bed, photocopied from the University of Texas, and including years of correspondence from all the Beat icons to one another and to her.) – and Ann Charters remarked, `You do know your Kerouac!’
[Actually, it was just a matter of a scrap of data under a bed springing to mind; Carolyn always thought I was more of an expert in the times than I can truly claim. This perception was aided once when John Montgomery was curious about the phrase ‘bookmovie’, and I was able to show him the section in Dr. Sax. By such incidental relations are reps made…]
She was less pleased about a question I had about the famous Ginsberg bust. I don’t know where I had seen it, but Ann Charters produced a version of the circumstances of the auto wreck, police raid on Huncke’s apartment, and Ginsburg’s subsequent trip to Bellevue to avoid jail which was closer to possibly a then-current sanitized newspaper account than the accepted chronology in common use today. Charters seemed a bit defensive, said she had gone with the `best evidence’.
Carolyn looked at me apprehensively while the interview was happening. See, Carolyn cannot suppress the urge to express, although she had her own book already accepted by Doubleday. (In fact, some two hundred pages were coming back from her editor, someone named Luther (better known in publishing circles than to me) every week or two — yet Carolyn never worked on her own book while I was there.)
Ann Charters made an appointment to come down to Los Gatos on the weekend. She was practically licking her chops over the prospect. ‘I know just where this will go,’ she said. I think both Carolyn and I wondered why she was consulted so late in the project.
Ann Charters showed up with a friend, and without Annie Liebowitz, who had been penciled in for the occasion. Ann said she tried to call Annie, only reached an answering machine. I had my doubts about this at the time.
The friend was a nurse, but bridled under that identifier. ‘It doesn’t define you,’ said Ann, which was succinct enough for her friend, who engaged Carolyn in a discussion in the dining room about astrology and the rare arts while Ann Charters, a social smile pasted on her face, sat on the sofa in the living room, copying furiously from Carolyn’s manuscript.
The impression left by that Sunday began to sour with aging – not long after, Carolyn and I hopped the train again, returned to Straight Arrow, sat in that same office and split the galleys of the Charters bio between us and combed it for items gleaned from Carolyn and her manuscript. The editor, whose name I cannot recall, was very gracious and accommodating, only wondering briefly why Carolyn had engaged in so thorough a set of interviews if she didn’t want the results used.
There was no explanation; Carolyn was hyper-verbal, as I say, and regretted it later.
John Montgomery comes to call
He had been led to believe by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that Carolyn might be available, so his trips to Los Gatos were a sort of courtship. He is somebody who stepped right out of his character in Dharma Bums — the vague and surrealistic Henry Morley muttering inanities all down the lonesome trail. Just like in Bums, he would show up with gifts pilfered from around the Goodwill drops in the night.
Once he came with a Siamese. Did you remember about Goofy? John didn’t. His arm was shredded, and he wailed `Would you grab that dog, PLEASE?’ while he went to retrieve his cat from the back of the house. John left with the siamese, arm bleeding, and never mentioned it again.
John was making the rounds of friends with typewriters. He had an idea for a manuscript which was enhanced by Carolyn’s connection with Rolling Stone and Straight Arrow. He wondered if she might interest them in his work. She offered no enthusiasm.
In the days before multiple fonts and word processors, John intended finding different type styles from the various typewriters he could locate. The idea was some sort of a dialogue, and I can only remember a scrap he read to me. One line referenced a literary lion, and the next column explained those sort were not often invited to the same lunch as those at the zoo. It was sort of a cracked wordplay game, near as I could figure.
Of all the brokendown heroes I encountered that year, John was the most critical of Kerouac. He never could forgive his image as the doddering klutz on Matterhorn in Dharma Bums. I can remember tossing a softball (‘Jack was quite a woodsman, ey?’) and John slapping it away with a snarl, ‘No, he wasn’t!’.
Big Al came by, and Carolyn invited him in, mostly because she knew I’d like to meet him. Carolyn regarded Al as – ah, considerably dull, I’m afraid, and would not have welcomed a visit otherwise, I expect. But I was glad to hear him talk.
I never met Helen, who was not well disposed towards the household while I was there. As some sort of a favor to Carolyn, the mortgage for the Bancroft house had been taken over by the Hinkles. This meant that when Carolyn fluttered away from work, the bill came due, but to the Hinkles. I still remember Carolyn very passively taking the call from Helen after another month’s mortgage was billed. Carolyn was like a faith healer, holding on past proofs of real earnest hardscrabble earthly deaths of her gods…
Al was a union rep with the railroad now. His son was working as a scab projectionist at one of the local Century multiscreens where the union had thrown up pickets. Al was laughing about how many times junior crossed picket lines in the night serving a multitude of projectors in the complex. `Why shouldn’t he be able to work where he wants?’ asked this railroad union official.
You remember the beginning of Part II of Road where Cody, Ed Dunkel, and Marylou show up in Testament, VA, in the ’49 Hudson? That trip from the West Coast, Al told me, was more memorable than any of them, yet it was left out of the Road because Kerouac wasn’t with them.
Ice on the windshield, defroster out, Neal had to navigate through the high pass with his frozen beak in the wind, jamming his head out the window. Luanne would take their frozen hands and place them in her pants to warm them.
‘I might be distracted by that..’ I said. I was merely trying to spark some comment on the obvious – Luanne as a free spirit and the pictures I have seen of her are beautiful – she looked just like a more sparkling Debbie Reynolds, and this was in the ’70s.
Al looked back at me.
‘I was more responsible than that,’ he said.
Now, I’ve thought of that exchange over the years, and I invite you to do the same. You remember the events of this particular journey, I’m sure. Neal, in traditional manic depressive style, a working family man with a railroader’s nestegg in the bank and a second daughter just born, passes a showroom spotlighting a new ’49 Hudson, whereupon he rushes to the bank, draws out all his savings, and buys the buggy. He prepares for his trip across the country, conning his wife (Carolyn) the while with gibberish by way of explanation about the absolute need to retrieve Kerouac from the east. Next, Al is seeing Helen, who Neal figures is good for the price of a trip across the country. Somehow (the suspicion is that Neal forged the alliance — Helen stoutly denies it), Al andHelen are married, and the three of them set out.
It became obvious Helen was slowing the junket (and blowing her finances) by insisting they stop and sleep in motels, so (again, this is debated — K in Road says the two cads just dumped her in Tucson when her money ran out; Carolyn told me there was an agreement that Helen would meet them later in New Orleans at the Burroughs farm) they separated, with Neal and Al detouring up to Denver and Neal’s first wife, Luanne.
‘I was more responsible than that,’ he said.
Al had come to deliver another message. Both Luanne and Neal’s last major sweetie, Anne Murphy, resented Carolyn’s statements in the Rolling Stone article about how they somehow relished the frequent beatings at the hands of Neal.
Carolyn told me Neal had hit her only once, and he seemed immediately overcome by guilt because she was holding John and the impact had bounced her head into his. Neal continued to provoke her, seemed to offer his face out before her until she accepted the challenge and slapped him. She remembered catching him across the snout, his nose bled, and he seemed perfectly satisfied he had somehow atoned.
Unquestionably Neal hit his other women. I was curious about a related incident from Visions of Cody.
Kerouac claimed to believe Neal’s imprisonment on the pot rap was karma for the time when he had thrown his eldest child, Cathie, across the room. Carolyn knew nothing about that, and neither did Cathie when I asked her. I am suspecting the `karma’ equation might’ve been worked out in the mind of Kerouac to assuage guilt for in effect abandoning Neal to his fate during his trial and two years in the slammer.
We go up to the City to visit Anne Murphy
She was a voluptuous little creature, with surgically-perfect breasts and the legs of a dancer, which she was, around the strip joints of North Beach. Her voice was the sweetest you ever heard, and her history was plagued by the ugliest harshest scrapes you could imagine.
I was forever encountering roses amid the squalorous ruins…
She came down to street level to let us in, telling us not to look because she wasn’t dressed, while she ran back upstairs. We both looked.
Her little apartment was clean and glossy in red light from contact paper over the kitchen windows. She sat down with Carolyn and very expertly cut me right out of the conference. She wanted to talk about Neal in terms I would never understand. She took an instant dislike to me. I wafted away into the front room to see what there was to read.
Anne was one whose every thought was set by the stars. Someone picked her up and carried her to bed because he was an aquarian amid grim picsean dusktime Sagittarius sortings. Another fought with her because Mars was ascendant in his telltale moons. Nothing walked along on the earth of its own accord.
She brought me coffee, which I refused. Anne apologized for monopolizing, but said she and Carolyn would be talking…
Philip Lamantia, the upstairs poet, comes down to visit. I liked him. You remember Philip? One of the poets during the famous Gallery 6 reading which may be said to have launched the San Francisco fifties Renaissance. He was learned in tone and studied in delivery.
Anne: Do you think Ferlinghetti believes himself a poet?
Philip: Of course he does; his royalties announce it to him!
I enthused about the rhythm and rapture of Ginsberg, or something, and was pleased when Philip Lamantia picked up the effect in a reply as a given. Us poets, him from the San Francisco Renaissance and me from Chico’s back den in Bonham…
There is Anne, dancing with that slow arm-swinging prance before her full length mirror, probably her professional moves, sensual yet aesthetically pleasing, rhythm and svelte gliding like hawks in the breeze. Now she is sitting on the floor, brushing her hair, and she smiles sweetly to me, the only time. It’s bedtime. I thought then and I do now she wanted to be in bed with us, and not for my sake. I considered it with great excitement but more restraint, because I was not sure how the move would play with Carolyn. Everything depended on Carolyn, so we were at a standstill.
Of course, I may’ve been fantasizing, as the boys will on such occasions.
In the night Anne drifted by in her luminous red teddy, like a spectral vision in shadows, worried the noise of the waterbed might disturb the neighbors. There was a loose slat banging against the floor. Does this never happen? Guests usually are not so vigorous, she said. I still remember how precisely she spoke, did lovely Anne Murphy who cared for me not a whit, a dopey Texan with no stars in his getalong…
In the morning Carolyn jumped from bed to go to the bathroom. Anne was at the stove over eggs. “You have a beautiful body,” she said to Carolyn.
Carolyn and I begin to fall out
She was dark golden blonde and wore her hair every day in a slightly wavy ponytail. She herself referred to an early shot of her and Neal on the streets of San Francisco to the copy editor of Rolling Stone as the Marilyn Monroe shot. She was precisely to the day twenty years older than me, and I was 29. She was loving and kind then cutting and caustic. I believe the difference was in how I was then.
I represented the gap between her presentation and her performance. I was there to point out how her criticisms might very well apply to her. She was free of earthly passionate anger and resentment? Then why did she kick her dog? We began to broil over points of doctrine and then every aspect of behavior. She was a mystical christian as long as there were miracles to be had; I was nothing but an escaped baptist.
A cult was left by the death of Gavin Arthur. There were several seances and memorial services for him. I attended one where we cruised on a barge around San Francisco Bay while Alan Watts read from Arthur’s own funeral service and they gathered handfuls of the clammy gray mass of his ashes to toss at the very sea.
Watts was puffy, redfaced, and bleary, spoke with a limping lisp, carried a jug of dirty red (screwtop burgundy) aboard the barge. There were power struggles and backstabbings among the disciples in the little boat – accusations and whispered plots and strident hauling of ancient boxes of old astrology charts from dusty closets.
I believe the strongest sense of pride for Carolyn at that time was her involvement with the legacy of Gavin Arthur. That was when she was the most exalted, and the most resentful when she turned to me.
The first break was the derisive comment, `Paul Newman is Paul Newman.’ We were coming back from babysitting for cousins, discussing the film we expected would be based eventually on Neal’s First Third or her own works. I was just running over resemblances to Neal in the stars — we had been over this ground before. This time, she snapped at me, and that began a whole different interaction. It was time for me to go, but I had nowhere really to go. And so we spent too long arguing late into the night, her criticizing and me defending and noting her own standing in her own lights.
After a particularly gratifying visit with an esteemed member of the Gavin Arthur foundation, she turned on me. I was sleeping on the couch by that time, and she began slowly and quietly and kept on and kept on, lining out my own foibles as seen from the particular vantage of her virtues.
She threw me out at 2:00 AM on the 2nd of January 1973 in a reprise of a scene from Road. When I rose to pack, I never spoke to her again. She made various comments, attempting to normalize, moderate, pretend she was only doing what was rational and necessary. I gathered my gear and left without a word.
I saw her on two occasions over the years since. Spoke to her neither time.
I hear she scored $70,000 for the ghastly film made from her stitching of letters into something called Heart Beat, and there has been another book printed (Off The Road), so maybe her natural laws of economic forces worked for her after all. I wish her well.