Interview with Carolyn Cassady in her home in Bracknell, England, July 9, 2011
Polina Mackay: Let’s talk about the Beat Generation.
Carolyn Cassady: There never was any such thing as the Beat Generation. It was invented by the media and Ginsberg. There were a lot of individuals doing their thing, and then the media brought it all together. Kerouac kept saying, ‘I had nothing to do with all that’, which he didn’t and certainly Neal didn’t either.
PM: Do you think the scholarship on the Beats exaggerates the connections between these writers?
CC: Of course. Gerald Nicosia thought he was a Kerouac clone and he knew everything that Jack was thinking and what it meant. I loaned him my original manuscript [of Off the Road] which he has never given back. He had it on a list of stuff he was going to sell to the Lowell archives. So I said, ‘How would you feel if somebody sold one of your manuscripts?’ And he said – these are his very words: ‘I wasn’t going to sell it. I just put it up for sale’. I still haven’t got it back.
PM: What do you think about the fact that the Beats have inspired so many people?
CC: None of them were role models for me! I didn’t like any of them, except Kerouac and Ginsberg. Bill Burroughs, who knew nothing about me, would never speak to me whenever I ran into him, and kept telling everybody what a bitch I was. But he didn’t know me at all. And finally Allen and I, even as I asked Allen to leave the house – I was different then and I didn’t understand any of that and I would behave differently today – he was really nice about it and awfully kind to me afterwards. He invited me to San Francisco to have lunch with his father and stepmother (in fact he invited me to San Francisco a lot after that), until Bill Burroughs finally got to him and he too decided I was a bitch, so every time I’d meet him after that he wouldn’t speak to me. In one New York conference, there was an exhibition of paintings, and I had just left it. He was just arriving in a cab and it was pouring down with rain and he got out and said ‘You may have my cab’, but then he said ‘We won’t be seeing each other again’. We saw each other every day for ten days from then on, and I said ‘How did you like your painting?’, because I’d done a painting of him [of Ginsberg’s vision of Blake] hoping to please him, and he said ‘Oh, you’ve improved’, which was such a put down. I howled over it all the way back to my hotel. I couldn’t believe he could come up with that so fast. Well, I can sell it now because he didn’t want it. It was sad, though, that I lost his friendship because we’d been very close. I knew him since he was twenty and he lived in my apartment for two weeks, until Bill Burroughs got through to him, but I thought well it’s his problem, not mine. I didn’t get too upset about it; I missed him, but there we are.
PM: What made you write Off the Road?
CC: Partially because there were so many myths and misunderstandings about Jack and all of us. In On the Road Jack didn’t really mention me. He mentioned meeting me but that was because he didn’t want to offend Neal. All that time in Denver; we spent a lot of time together alone in Denver. I had agreed to be in this graduate students’ play and every day for at least a week Jack would ride the streetcar with me to the university, which was a long way away, for my rehearsals and then ride the streetcar back. So I saw a lot of him in Denver, and he cut all that out. And then he lived with us in San Jose and he didn’t talk about that in the book, so I had to write my book to clear up some of that. It’s funny he was so afraid. But it was Neal’s idea in the first place, so he wouldn’t have been offended. But Jack was always paranoid and thought he might.
PM: Are you familiar with any of the other memoirs written by other women, Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, for instance?
CC: Of course. Well, Joyce Johnson and I used to be friends. We were always on these conference panels together at the start. Then she came to London to promote her book and took me out to dinner and it was fine and then all of a sudden she got completely hostile. Then she published that book about their letters. She knew him for a couple of hours; I knew him for 22 years. She got really fanatic about being his great love; I felt really sorry for her. I mean big deal!
PM: Do you think it is right to pay so much attention to women Beats?
CC: Yes. I spent days and days with Brenda Knight [author of Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution] and in her introduction she classes me with the fast talking, drug taking women. I could have killed her. I spent days and days with her and she just got it all wrong.
PM: Did you know any of the other women who are classified as women of the Beat Generation?
CC: There was a tour called Fast Talkin’ Women with people like McClure’s wife whom I knew very well, Joanna, and Janine Pommy Vega. The thing that amused me was that we were all known because we had been married to famous men. We did these two university trips in San Francisco and there was this stage we all appeared. Anne Waldman was there. She was always on these things too. Anne did her thing – her wild thing. It was kind of fun, us talking women.
PM: Ginsberg once described the Beats as a ‘boy gang’. How do you feel about that?
CC: I suppose it was because they were the productive ones and their writings are far better now. Then the feminists come along. I’m not a feminist. I don’t believe in that because they don’t understand this: women are to be and men are to do. But now feminists have turned that around and it’s too bad. I’m certainly not a feminist. I like men. I’m the woman behind the man.
PM: What was it that first attracted you to Neal?
CC: He knew exactly where I was coming from and behaved exactly as I would have liked. That man’s brain was just incredible! I see evidence of it even now. Every single person he met he could instantly psyche out exactly who they were and come on in the same fashion. When I would take him to social functions he was always the star of the show because he had that amazing genius mind. So, of course, he knew what to do with me.
PM: Why do you think he didn’t write very much?
CC: He wrote all the time, hundreds of letters. He wrote every day. But the idea of formal writing didn’t appeal to him because he hadn’t gone to university. But his mind was brighter than anybody’s. He read more than even Jack or Allen. In prison he did nothing but read. He had this photographic memory. As a kid he spent most of his time in the library, so he was just brilliant. What a sad ending.
PM: There are conflicting accounts of Neal’s death. You write in Off the Road that you never found out exactly what happened. Is this still the case?
CC: I have the coroner’s report, so we know exactly what killed him. Well, not exactly because he said he couldn’t tell. He was a coroner and there were drugs involved so he wouldn’t give the exact diagnosis, but there are all kinds of myths that have come up since. I have the death certificate. I don’t think he had any alcohol. The myth is that he stopped at this wedding and drank wine. He loathed wine. He wouldn’t touch it. To be polite, he might take a sip on Jack’s request but that was it; he didn’t have any more. He drank a lot of beer, but not wine. So that wedding story can’t be true. So it wasn’t the combination of drugs and alcohol. He did take the drugs but he wouldn’t have drunk anything. It could have been anything, renal failure or anything. It’s a terrible thing. Poor guy.
PM: How did you feel when you found out about his death?
CC: As I said in the book, thank God. He was out of his misery. He was so miserable. He loathed himself so much. I was so glad he was relieved because there was no way he was going to come back. When he would write from Mexico I kept saying ‘Get well and then come back’. But there was no way he could reverse it. Jack, on the other hand, was paranoid and supersensitive. He vowed he would drink himself to death. Both of them committed suicide. But they never believed in suicide, so they couldn’t just take pills. But they did it the long way. He said ‘I’m going to kill myself with alcohol’. And he did because he was so misunderstood. The kids got all the wrong messages. It just tore him apart. He just gave so much of himself and then to have them miss the boat altogether, it was more than he could handle. He was not advocating getting out of school or leaving home or doing your own selfish thing or drugs or any of that. They forget that he didn’t have any responsibilities, so he could be free to travel around and to write his books. Just because he wasn’t responsible to anybody, they all felt they had to be like that. All these kids banging on his door just drove him nuts. He couldn’t get away from all that.
PM: Why do you think Neal and Jack bonded so much, or is that a myth too?
CC: They were so much alike in so many ways. They both loved sports; they both loved literature and books. Neal was very agile and quick-footed and Jack was clumsy. Of course Neal was always mentioning that. So that was opposites that attracted, but the similarities were exceptional. They were both very compassionate; I never heard either one of them, ever, criticize anybody, except the Narcs. It’s really amazing that they didn’t. They were so loving, both of them. It’s rare in such macho men to have that soft centre.
PM: In the book you talk about the evenings the three of you spent together chatting about literature or philosophy.
CC: Oh, yes. The trouble is we had this tape recorder that was never turned off, but since we were broke we just kept using the same tapes. What I have left is a fragment of one of those tapes. Now it belongs to the British Library, but I have it on my computer. Neal is reading Proust and Jack is correcting his pronunciation of GILBERTE which didn’t have any effect. Neal reads Proust and they talk about him and then he has a prophecy about Bill Burroughs and then Jack reads Dr Sax and the last ten minutes Jack scat sings which he did all the time. But the two minutes of them talking was when they were in their prime in ’52. All the recordings we made later Jack was always drunk, but this is when he wasn’t drinking. The authentic voice of theirs was when they were sober. The tape is one of my most precious possessions. I send copies of it to anybody who wants it. You wouldn’t believe the voices. Jack said Neal had a western drawl. Neal was very careful and particular about how he spoke, but to a New Englander Neal sounded western. I try to send the tape to anybody who wants it. To hear how he spoke so clearly and correctly. Just to hear Neal’s voice. Jack reads from Dr Sax so he was so self-conscious. He uses a WC Fields voice. When he is with it he does his own voice. In all these later things he wasn’t sober. He was so self-conscious, he had to get looped to perform and then he certainly overdid it – poor thing.
PM: Which of Jack Kerouac’s works is your favourite?
CC: Actually I don’t think I ever would have read him if I hadn’t known him because it’s not my kind of literature or indeed subject matter. I think Dr Sax. Tristessa is very touching too. Of course I couldn’t read On the Road for a long time because I didn’t want to know what they did in that. But a lot of it is just more of the same as in other books. But I had a big surprise when somebody sent me a book – I can’t remember which one – and all of a sudden I came across this sentence and it’s like a voice from the grave came back. Jack was writing about some meeting that he missed and he said, ‘But that’s alright, I get to see my sweet Carolyn again’. And reading this after all these years, I went ‘Eek!’ That was kind of fun. His letters are always so lovely. Neal sold those letters to Texas way too soon. We could be millionaires now, if I still had those letters. At least I have copies.
PM: You say in Off the Road that Jack Kerouac once said to you Big Sur is about your relationship.
CC: Yes, but in the ’50s he is not mentioning fancying his best friend’s girl. When he lived with us in San Jose – when the affair started – he wasn’t ready about having an affair with his best friend’s wife. By 1960s, no problem. I had two husbands at the same time. But Neal liked to share everything he loved with everybody he loved, so he shared everybody and everything.
PM: How involved were you with the making of Walter Salles’ On the Road?
CC: Walter Salles used to bring me his laptop with all those screen tests. And I thought all those Hollywood girls are just pretty girls; they all look alike, it’s all the same girl, whereas movie stars in my day were unmistakably different. Betty Davies, Catherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford were all different characters. These girls are just pretty girls and the men are all wimps. Is there anybody with any muscles in Hollywood? Guys like Jude Law? He’d make a great Kerouac! He is probably too expensive, so actually it’s a miracle that film even got made. I had to go to a wrap party in San Francisco, which was a disaster, but Garrett Hedlund [who plays Neal in the film] stayed over the next day in San Francisco just to meet me. So after Walter sat him on the table next to me Walter split and Garrett just started telling me the story of his childhood in Minnesota. I thought he might want to talk to me about the film. I was so dumbfounded. He had this pack of cigarettes and I should have said let’s go outside and have a cigarette – that’s where everybody was. Garrett came to see me just a couple of weeks ago and the same thing happened: he started reading to me from his diaries. He is drop dead handsome, though! He didn’t look that handsome in San Francisco or in his pictures. Of course Neal wasn’t like that. I told him ‘I don’t know whether you’ll be leaving the wrap party’. He said ‘Let’s go to Vesuvius’ and I said ‘I don’t want to go to Vesuvius’ because it’s so changed, it’s not anything like it was. I was there in ‘47 with Jack and Neal and Vesuvius was there before City Lights. Anyway, we had to go to Vesuvius. Just as we were walking out of the restaurant Garrett noticed that the sole of my boot was flattening, so like a shot he took off his shoe and sock and put his sock over my boot. But he is totally self-absorbed. I don’t know what kind of an actor he is because I’ve never seen anything with him in it. I can’t wait to see Walter. Show him the sock. Because Walter left early; poor guy, he was exhausted. But he had insisted on a private lunch with me the next day and that was nice. I emailed him again later because I watched him walk away and I was sure I’d never see him again – I thought I’d just be an episode in his past – and he wrote right back and said ‘no-no-no’. So he came with his wife, who hadn’t been here before, when she was pregnant with their little girl. He came back about a month ago, after he’d gone to Paris. He went back to Rio to be with his kids because he said while he was making the film he couldn’t see them often and when he went back they didn’t know who he was. He is so emotional and so affectionate; it must have been really hard. He is a sweetheart. He was trained in UCLA – I have a thing about Hollywood movies because I like the British ones so much better.
PM: Let’s talk about your paintings.
CC: Every painting in this house I painted.
PM: Do you still paint?
CC: No, not now.
PM: How did Neal feel about your artwork?
CC: Well, he claimed he loved it. I tried to do him a couple of times and I never did finish the one he writes to Jack about. It’s so weird because I’m thinking of him as a body in a suit and tie but this isn’t Neal. At that point I thought it was and he put that forward. Actually his favourite picture is the one of him at Easter morning in his suit and the kids all dressed up for church. That’s his proudest picture. But I never finished them and we never did do one that I like. Only a couple of drawings. The drawing of him on the typewriter is more like him than anything. I never did much of Neal and Jack together because they have to pose for three hours every day at the same time and you can’t pin them down. Then of course I’d done that nude of Neal that Allen insisted on. I said in the book that I found it on Neal’s closet floor all torn up because Allen and LouAnne have been fighting over it. So now I don’t have any drawings of them. I did a painting of Neal’s railroad stuff for an illustration course where you had to paint a picture of an occupation, and I had to do it in the style of that particular picture which was entirely in post covers. I couldn’t go out on the street with three kids. I thought, ‘I have an occupation right here’. So I did one of Neal’s gear which we all lost when his car was stolen, so I’m glad I have a picture of it although I didn’t get one of his passenger stuff.
PM: What are all these photos?
CC: This is my wall of fame. That guy over there is Mr Sweden. His name is Ulf Lundell. He was using my picture of Neal and Jack behind his band, and I wrote him a letter and he wrote me a cheque for £15,000. Then they also told me he made a lot of prints of it he was selling in galleries for £200. Before he gave me that cheque he said ‘I’ll get another 150 prints made and you and I will both sign them incognito and as they get sold they’ll be yours’. I wrote back and said ‘well, that would take quite a while. I’ll tell you what, you give me the 15,000 and you collect for years’. Then he sent me his schedule for the summer and I saw he was going to be in Stockholm for four days, so I said ‘Would that be a good time to come over and sign the things?’ He said ‘Yes’. So he invited me to his home. So we signed all those things. Now my Swedish friends can never go see him because he’s sold out for years at a time and it costs too much and 25,000 people stand up in this huge arena. So I said ‘I really like to hear you play’. He said: ‘Are you sure? It’s awfully loud’. Then he said ‘Fine’, and I said ‘Can I bring some friends?’ He said ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Is eight too many?’ And he said ‘No’. So eight Swedish friends came along and at the box office we picked up our envelope and there were nine tickets and nine pairs of earplugs! It was a great show; he is absolutely fantastic. After the show he came out again, without his guitar, and he told this story about how he was this poor little kid in Stockholm and how he wished to be a writer because he read a lot. But he knew he can never go to university because he was so poor. Then he read On the Road, and he said ‘I can do that’. And then he took up the guitar. He says he owes all of his success to Neal and Jack and that’s why he has that picture behind his band, and they are in a lot of his lyrics. They changed his life, and made him the millionaire he is now. Then he said: ‘We are honoured today to have with us Carolyn Cassady’. He pointed me out and 25,000 heads snapped to look at me. And then he said ‘Now we’ll all sing Open Landscapes for Carolyn’. So the next day I said to him ‘Wow, what a wonderful thing you did, you didn’t have to do that’. And he said ‘Somebody told me it was like a religious experience’. And I said, ‘If that’s what they felt, how do you think I felt?!’ His art director ran up to me and said ‘He’s never done that, all the 20 years I’ve known him he’s never talked to the audience!’ We kept corresponding for a while. I have all his posters signed to me and he kept sending me CDs of his performances all signed to me.