Conjuring the Beat Generation: Gerd Stern and the Cassady Kin

One of the exciting things about the Beat Museum’s Beatnik Shindig which is happening next weekend in San Francisco is the activity it’s stirring up. The photo above, which has never been published before, shows a gang of unknown beatniks on a now-legendary Sausalito barge that became a group home for a wide variety of writers and artists (including, at one point, young Maya Angelou, as she describes in her memoir The Heart of a Woman) in “Howl”-era 1950s San Francisco. Only two faces can be positively identified today, and they are the ones wearing glasses: Gerd Stern and Allen Ginsberg.

I spent a delightful evening with Gerd Stern — still wearing glasses! — and his partner Judith recently to prepare for my onstage interview with Gerd at the Beatnik Shindig. Here’s my new friend in 2015, along with one of his cool artworks:

Here’s the listing for our event. I’m very happy to have been chosen to conduct this onstage interview, because Gerd Stern’s career as a Beat and post-Beat poet and artist connects with so many of my own literary interests: psychology, the intersection of insanity and creativity, multimedia, communal living, underground publishing, pop art of the 1960s, popular political and spiritual cultural movements of the 1960s. Like many of the discussions and experiments and poetry jams that will go down during next weekend’s San Francisco gathering, I think this Sunday afternoon event will be something truly special.

From The Madhouse to The Summer of Love: A Talk With Gerd Stern

Discussion, Storytelling and Conversation
Gerd Stern with Levi Asher

Meet Gerd Stern, O.H. (Original Hipster), who became a part of the Beat scene when he befriended two confused young men named Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon in a mental hospital in New York City, who discovered the art of performance poetry with Maya Angelou while living with her on a Sausalito barge, and who then joined the thriving 1960’s activist modern art scene at the height of the hippie explosion. In an interview with Literary Kicks blogger Levi Asher, Gerd will talk about his personal encounters with Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, Stewart Brand, Timothy Leary, Robert Creeley, Nam June Paik, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton, about his own unique and deeply moving life’s journey, and about what it all means today.

Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Sunday, June 28 2:00-3:15 – $10

But, that’s not even the biggest panel discussion I’m going to be moderating at this truly crazy Shindig. The day before, I will have the honor of moderating a panel discussion of the literary and personal legacy of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Carolyn Cassady with all three of Neal and Carolyn’s wonderful and talkative (now adult) children: Cathy Cassady, Jami Cassady and John Allen Cassady. Here’s Jami, John, Neal and Cathy taken way back when. The photo also shows their dog Cayce — named after the modern-day religious prophet Edgar Cayce, whose teachings in conscious living helped to ground Neal and Carolyn during the turbulent years after their friend Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road suddenly blasted the Cassady family with an unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) measure of fame.

I’m not going to give away the introductory remarks I have planned for this exciting panel, but I know I will mention one fact that emphasizes the positive side of Neal Cassady’s complex legacy. For all of “Dean Moriarty’s” epic flaws (which were so well-documented in On The Road), it’s a stunning truth that Neal Cassady was unique among the members of the original 1950s Beat Generation circle for creating a close multi-generational extended family that continues to thrive and grow and love each other to this day. In 2015, there are more Cassadys in California than anyone I know has been able to count! I’m so very excited to be interviewing Cathy, Jami and John onstage next Saturday.

And the Cassady children are not the end of it. We will also be joined by Al Hinkle, the real-life model for the character of Dean Moriarty’s easygoing traveling buddy Ed Dunkel in On The Road. Neal Cassady died in 1968, but Al Hinkle is still carrying some of Neal and Ed’s (and Jack’s) stories around, and it’ll be my job to find the right questions to ask Al to bring his best stories out. Here’s an old snapshot of Al Hinkle (wearing a spiffy hat) with Jack Kerouac, probably taken during one of the journeys that became the basis for the Great American Novel.

I want to emphasize that Saturday’s panel will celebrate not only Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady but also Carolyn Cassady, the real-life model for the noble, cultured and wise Camille Moriarty in On The Road. Carolyn is just as central a Beat Generation figure as Neal, and in fact while Neal struggled his whole life to write and publish a book that could capture the size of his imagination, it turned out to be Carolyn Cassady who succeeded in this task with Off the Road, a widely-loved and subtly insightful memoir that has become a permanent part of the Beat Generation canon.

Carolyn died in 2013, and Litkicks ran a loving remembrance from her friend Brian Hassett, who had stayed at Carolyn’s home often during her last years. Brian will also be at the Beatnik Shindig next weekend — he’ll be promoting his new book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac — and he will also be joining Cathy, Jami, John and Al Hinkle and I onstage for our Kerouac/Cassady event. Here’s Brian with Carolyn a few years before she died.

And here’s the listing for our Saturday panel.

Remembering Neal & Allen & Carolyn & Jack

Discussion, Conversation, Storytelling and Q&A
Cathy Cassady, Jami Cassady, John Allen Cassady, Al Hinkle, Brian Hassett with Levi Asher

To the world at large they were The Beat Generation. To the children of Neal and Carolyn Cassady they were Uncle Jack, Uncle Allen and Mom and Dad. Cathy, Jami and John Cassady will be joined in discussion by family friends Al Hinkle (Big Ed Dunkel from “On The Road”) and Brian Hassett who lived with Carolyn for three months at her home in England in 2013. Moderated by Levi Asher, publisher of Literary Kicks.

Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Sunday, June 28 4:00-5:15 – $15

15 Responses

  1. this ia amazing Levi, if i
    this ia amazing Levi, if i wasnt in the middle of building an art museum i’d be there for sure…..keep the Beat alive amigo:)

  2. wow~ can’t wait to hear
    wow~ can’t wait to hear reports or actual tapes!
    [+ any hot poop on the status of the JA Letter, please]

  3. What encouraged you to use
    What encouraged you to use the “spontaneous” style of On the Road?
    “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names in his case however (being letters). I remembered also Goethe’s admonition, well Goethe’s prophecy that the future literature of the West would be confessional in nature; also Dostoevsky prophesied as much and might have started in on that if he’d lived long enough to do his projected master-work, The Great Sinner. Cassady also began his early youthful writing with attempts at slow, painstaking and-all-that crap craft business, but got sick of it. The letter was 40,000 words long, mind you, a whole short novel. It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, spin in their graves. Allen Ginsberg asked me to lend him this vast letter so he could read it. He read it, then loaned it to a guy called Gerd Stern who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito California, in 1955, and this fellow lost the letter: overboard I presume. Neal and I called it, for convenience, the Joan Anderson Letter … all about a Christmas weekend in the pool halls, hotel rooms and jails of Denver, with hilarious events throughout and tragic too.” -SAFE IN HEAVEN DEAD
    [[But we know the story has miraculously Dickensianly changed and Gerd emerges the maligned hero]]

  4. Gerd called Neal a “conman”.
    Gerd called Neal a “conman”. What did Neal think of Gerd?

  5. Dear Literary Kicks,
    I wish to set the record straight regarding the 1st photo above, taken by Gordon Onslow Ford in 1956. In it is my family and their good friends, Gerd Stern and the usual suspects, including Ginsberg, of course recognizable and ultimately proven mendacious (Gerd had in fact given him the infamous letter with a view to Allen’s publishing it via City Lights). We THINK that’s Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet standing in the doorway; at left the bearded smiling man is Vernon Bennett, my father and the original house pianist at the hungry i nightclub; to his left is Gerd’s first wife whose name I believe was Ann; at center is Gerd; directly below him, with her head on her knees so as not to block these luminaries is my mother, Madge Simpson Bennett, herself a notable Zen painter who was studying at SFO’s Zen Temple under Master Hodo Tobase, the first enlightened Buddhist to bring Zen to the West (contrary to revisionist history, this feat was NOT done by D.T. Suzuki, Tobase’s successor); and on the bed, if you look closely, is a baby on its back—that’s me, April Friday (née Bennett) Reed. I don’t know who the seated woman in the doorway is, but Gerd will. We spent many happy hours on Gerd’s wonderful Sausalito houseboat, and it was me who gave the original of this photograph to him, a couple of decades ago, never dreaming that it would become iconic but without due credits given. My parents were extremely charismatic people whose friends, besides the perennially magical Gerd, included the MJQ, who’d decamp after the i’s closing hour to our Divisadero apartment for martinis, weed, and laughter; Maya Angelou, who at the time was performing as straight from the Carib and singing in a heavy patois (á la Belafonte) and who, according to some eyewitnesses, after a few drinks would lapse into phony Swahili; and brilliant political satirist/activist/comedian Dick Gregory, now mostly forgotten, alas. There were absolutely no color boundaries among our ilk; in fact my father spent his life passing for white. I am proud of my history, and rue that all of it has been diminished to the dismissive clause, “a gang of unknown beatnicks…” Madge and Vern would be appalled, as—with very few exceptions—they had nothing but contempt for the Beats, whom they considered lazy and self-absorbed. (My father Vern’s day job was dressing the windows at Macy’s. My mother Madge spent decades honing her craft, and her paintings are testimonials of her bedazzling, disciplined talent. They led me to believe the very term “Beat” was short for “deadbeat.”) If pressed, they would’ve called themselves Bohemians, making the point that there was and remains a marked difference. I suppose this was out of envy for the Beats’ success, as much as anything else; in 1996 Vern died a mere local hero for his musical direction of community seniors, and Madge exited a decade later, still a completely undiscovered genius. I curated a reprospective of her works, with Gerd and Raymon Ginghofer and George Abend (courtesy of his widow) as co-exhibitors, a few years back at the Robert Blitzer Gallery in Santa Cruz, CA. For whatever reasons, the press felt it warranted little or no coverage. Gerd remains a dear, dear friend, and I owe him greatly for his magnanimous support of Madge’s show, as well as a letter. Perhaps this will be it.
    April Friday Reed, 9/15/21

  6. Hello April Friday Reed – what a wonderful note, thank you for filling us all in on who was there! I agree with you that Gerd is perennially magical. How I wish I could visit back in time and hang out with all of you (and Maya Angelou and everyone else) on that legendary Sausalito houseboat.

  7. Dear Marc,
    Thank you for publishing my letter. I have for too long been too discreet about who did what to whom and how things really were. One does not, for example, throw stones at icons such as Ms. Angelou. However. One of the great joys of growing old is outliving the naysayers, the protesters, and the confabulators, as Gerd did with Allen. When “The Letter” (which, according to Ginsberg, Gerd had dropped over the side of his barge) was found in the attic of an Oakland home some years back, Gerd’s most acerbic published comment, notable for its graceful schadenfreude, was, “Jack’s dead. Neal’s dead. Allen’s dead. I’m still here.” Not a word of Allen-lied-and-I-told-ya-so retribution; just the facts. Gerd is nothing if not a Gentleman and an Artist. He’s also been a very dear friend in the wings for—and I cannot get my head around this—65 years. If it’s stories you’d like, a time-travel back via memoir, I’ve got them for you. But first I have to compose 45 museum labels—by tomorrow—for a major O’Keeffe exhibit about which I’m sworn to secrecy.
    Write to me. We’ll have fun.

  8. Dear April Thanks for keeping and reminding me of all those past adventures
    and happenings. i don’t have the digital ability to mamage all those remembrances
    but I like seeing them appear from time to time. Thinking of you often as I approach 93 in October here in Chelsea, New York City the present alterntive. Trust you are well and stay
    in touch whenever the spirit moves love and affection gerd

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!