It was Paradise Alley so long ago
In the alphabet downtown east
Lived a subterranean in clouds of strong dark tea
By the name of Alene Lee
San Fran or New York City
Names, places changed but ‘tis the same
Heavenly Lane and hipster games
Pillow talk and pushcart walks
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
He was young and drunk and jazzed
She younger and cool and sweet
High cheekbones and velvet slacks
She was brown and blue and black
Nineteen fifties USA
What would mother, sister say?
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
He was sad
She was sad
Angels, seraphs, poets mad
Poor back courts and gray sheet pads
Love was doomed
In urban gloom
Modern, new, small, and thin
A writer writes of soft rose light
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
Of the beautiful Alene Lee
Archives For alene lee
It was Paradise Alley so long ago
“They are hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” The Subterraneans
The great Basie band. . .
one, two, and you know what to do
Thank Chu Berry much
Sassy classy Vaughn
Gerry Mulligan hobo stew
Stan Kenton rues the roux
This jazz is for you, Mardou
red toenails peek from Cleopatra sandals
other gals pale by this woeful tale
Heavenly Lane fast pushcart Trane
Bird as word
. . . it IS the nightingale
and not the lark . . .
measure for measure
Paradise Alley gray sheet feathers
like the lost alleys of Russian sorrow . . . i
Are the stars out tonight or morrow?
Allen Eager Po’ boy blues
cracked weeping shoes
Thelonious the monk and saint of bop ii
Spin the records and the top
“You go out in joy and in sadness you return,” says Thomas à Kempis. iii
i Kerouac, Jack, Big Sur, 1962.
ii Kerouac, Jack, The Subterraneans, 1958.
iii Kerouac, Jack, Big Sur, 1962.
We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures – because this is about as many as we think we can squeeze into a single post. ***in June, 2016, all photos were wiped from our website
The idea is to show that, while the ebook and kindle formats are handy, Beatdom is still fun to have your own personal copy of, like in the old days of the literary journal, when you stuck it in your pocket or bag and pulled it out to read while on the bus, at the doctor’s office or in a crowded movie theater while some delinquent threw JuJubes in your hair.
While we all know you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anybody who is familiar with French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the poem, ‘After The Deluge,’ from his earth-shattering collection ‘Illuminations,’ will spot him right away, That is thanks to the keen handiwork of multi-faceted artist Waylon Bacon, who graced the front cover of this issue with his brilliant dexterity and use of color.
It is a treat to get to see him do something for us in deep rich tones, since he has had to restrain himself to using black and white ever since we changed the format to that of the classic, standard old-style 6×9-inch black and white format, used by most literary journals.
In the following story by Katy Gurin, ‘Grizzly Bear,’ you can see more of Waylon’s work, only in the b/w format. This is still another excellent short story by Katy, about what can happen when people commune a little too closely with nature. This tale showcases her usual splendid imagination and wonderful gift for detail. Stuck in between there, shown on the back cover, since most people look at the front and back before opening it, is the advertisement for the next fiction release from Beatdom Books, ‘Egypt Cemetery,’ a memoir by Editor Michael Hendrick, which will be available soon at the usual outlets.
It is also worth noting that Katy will be publishing a full volume of her short stories with Beatdom Books, later this year. That volume will be illustrated by Waylon, since the two of them make such a great team for two people who have never even met each other. As Katy’s story continues the partygoers dressed as bears start to act more like bears just for the drunken fun of it.
Waylon not only provided the fine images you see here – but also managed to include some of his favorite monsters, like Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, and some weird looking what-cha-ma-callits, that only he sees when he closes his eyes at night.
Bears like to catch fish but fishtank owners are not always appreciative. As you can see, our half-drunk pseudo-bears wander out into the Halloween night and do all the things bears are wont to do, until they are confronted by a real bear. How Katy thinks this stuff up is a mystery to us but we have been lucky enough to have her writing such inventive stories with truly absorbing plots since she was kind enough to provide us with her very first and fabulous yarn, ‘Meat From Craigslist,’ back in Issue Number Nine.
Next we have a look at the life of William S. Burroughs during his days as a farmer, written by Editor David S. Wills. Burroughs didn’t do so well working the land but Mr. Wills has been farming up quite a bit of information on the pistol-happy author while lurking about the Burroughs Archives at the New York City Public Library lately. Watch for more!
Somehow, archaeologist, activist and Beatdom regular Robin Como managed to find time to write two more of her intoxicatingly exquisite poems for your pleasure and if she doesn’t run away, we hope to have her back with more in our next issue!
Michael Hendrick tracked down Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, on Thanksgiving Day morning last year, forcing him to hold a copy of Beatdom Issue Nine and interviewing him on topics ranging from going to Hell, to how his grandfather wrote one of the first recorded rock songs before rock’n’roll was invented, to the Right to Bear Arms.
Taking time out from his extensive studies, returning writer Rory Feehan penned this account of still another famous sharp-shooter, Hunter S. Thompson and his ventures and misadventures while living a not so quiet existence at perhaps California’s favorite Beat retreat, Big Sur.
While everybody was awaiting the release of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ Mr. Wills tracked down the last remaining live male character depicted in the movie, Al Hinkle, who Kerouac called Ed Dunkel in the book. Mr. Hinkle is delighted to appear here.
Assistant Editor Kat Hollister, who labored intensively to help put this issue together marked her first appearance in Beatdom with the poem you see below; her efforts were rewarded by the dubious distinction of having it placed across from a poem by returning Beat literate Chuck Taylor, on the dodgy subject of his erection. Mr. Taylor dug up the old form of ‘doggerel’ to justify it, along with the fact that we are the only journal who would risk publishing it.
Where have you seen this face before? On the cover, it’s Arthur Rimbaud again, next to an essay by poet Larry Beckett, who takes apart the aforementioned poem, ‘After The Deluge.’ It is an insightful look at one of Rimbaud’s best know works, and also gives us a glimpse at the fantastic style of literary critique to be found in Mr. Beckett’s upcoming offering from Beatdom Books, ‘Beat Poetry.’
Matthew Levi Stevens is a new name to Beatdom readers and here he presents us with a review of the latest collection of letters written by William S. Burroughs when he was still living as an expatriate.
Kat Hollister, following the indignity of having her poem placed facing Mr. Taylor’s doggerel, was happy to find a spot next to this wonderful photograph, ‘wetlands in march no.2,’ by well-known nature photographer, g. thompson higgins.
Artist/Photographer/Musician and Writer, Zeena Schreck returned again this issue, with this touching and enlightening article. She writes of how she and multi-talented husband, Nikolas Schreck, stepped up and acted to save the lives of eighty wolves, diverting their carriage to safe habitat as they were being sent to an otherwise slow and cruel death.
Ann Charters, a name familiar to everybody in the world of Beat Literature and Literary History spoke with Mr. Hendrick, on working with Kerouac, the beginnings of Beat, her meeting with Alene Lee and the importance of John Clellon Holmes to the Beat Generation.
Internationally renowned poet Michael Shorb, a strong voice on environmental issues, was kind enough to grace our pages with this, his first appearance in Beatdom.
Reaching past Rimbaud to William Blake, Mr. Wills weighs in with a quick word on the literary influence of one of the most visionary of voices and his influence on the Beats.
When we think of Beat we think of the road and it is hard to think of a band who pounded the pavement harder than the Ramones. Richie Ramone, the fastest of the fast, spoke with Mr. Hendrick about life on the road, his forays into the Big Band sounds of the Drum Gods and his activism on behalf of pooches in peril in Los Angeles.
As usual, Waylon won’t go back into his cage until he gets one last bite on the hand the doesn’t feed him, so we leave you with him and his now traditional ‘last page, last word.’ This one, Waylon aptly titled ‘Sometimes Eye Gets Crazy!’
One of the great mysteries of the Beat Generation is that of Alene Lee. She is, or rather, was, an enigma. Jack Kerouac wrote about her (as Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans and Irene May in Book of Dreams and Big Sur) but the depictions he gave weren’t particularly accurate.
Lee guarded her privacy and so for many years little has been known about her. A few photographs exist, and there are some references to her in a few books (with nothing in the books specifically regarding the women of the Beat Generation), but not a lot was known until recently.
In Beatdom #4 Steven O’Sullivan wrote a fantastic essay about her, after doing some extensive research. You can read that essay here for free.
After reading the essay, Lee’s daughter contacted Beatdom and offered us some never-before read work: An essay about the life of Alene Lee, some excerpts from the writings of Alene Lee, and an entire short story by Alene Lee.
These were all published in the sixth issue of Beatdom, and comprise the largest published collection of Alene Lee material anywhere in the world.
You can read all of this in the most recent issue of the magazine, available for free here.
by Christina Diamente
There is of course no definitive way of knowing a woman who has been dead for almost two decades. Knowing and understanding her in life was equally complicated. Nineteen years after her death, Alene lives only now in Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans, in the fading memories of the few people, still alive, who knew her, and in the faded, disintegrating letters and journal entries she left behind. Excerpts from a woman, who never stopped writing but who never submitted any of her writings for publication, are what remain.
2:00 am, May 28, Memorial Day 1965
How clear everything is just before waking. The inner voice bridging the abyss told me this morning: ‘Alene, you said you were going to wait until you were past forty, just like Conrad, before you began to write. Write. You have as much chance of making several hundred dollars, or even a thousand, if you do what you want to do. Why do you feel so guilty? Time is runnin’ out. Take hold of life before it is too late.’
But I’m such a coward. I know it is not a question of writing, it is a question of beginning to do what you want to do: not doing ‘your thing’ but taking your best hold on existence.
Although Alene did make a serious effort to write consistently from that point on, she never wrote in what she or Grove Press editor Fred Jordan considered to be a commercially viable form. Stories were started but never finished. Outlines were written but never fleshed out. Mostly she wrote journal entries when she was angry or troubled, in times of stress or great unhappiness. Always haunted by her childhood, Alene seemed always to be attempting to survive that past, which constantly threatened to catch up to her. Alene had been told by her mother that their “people died young” and she always believed that she would as well. For Alene, the proof of this was in the actual deaths of her mother before age fifty and two of her sisters before sixty. Alene believed that she too would die at an early age. So, as she began to unravel the details of her childhood in Staten Island, it was always with the sense of one who felt she was recording the events of the ongoing procession towards death from her childhood on. The narrative was always about what was lost and about the pain of living.
Throughout her life she struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that sometimes manifested itself in delusions, sometimes in manic episodes punctuated by fierce pacing, and sometimes in catatonic and almost schizophrenic fugues. In between these states and sometimes through them Alene wrote, sometimes remembering the past and sometimes struggling to make it through the present. Often she wrote about writing. In the following excerpt, Alene wrote about her writing process on a trip that she took back to her childhood home in Staten Island. She was trying to recapture the Staten Island community of her youth in the 1930s.
“I found a room on a narrow street near the docks, with a family that had recently emigrated from Jamaica. How strange to be here, the original ‘Quarantine’ section of America. Every journey to the island seemed to lead me further back in time, to some original immigrant’s landing place . . . or a place of detention.
I dreamed of these streets of long ago, filled with crowds, colorful costumes of many lands, waiting to gain entrance to America.
My whole life has been one long waiting to gain entrance. I was a first generation northerner, but that had never occurred to me, until a couple of years ago. I had no memory of any other place. North Carolina was a place where my mother, Mamie, was left parentless when she was nine years old. It was a place not of fond memories. Nor was Washington DC, where I was born. My mother had never spoken of these places in any manner that left more than a scent of them.
I would like to write about New York, about Staten Island in the 30s and 40s… and the wilderness that once existed there. The Dutch Huguenot section where we used to fish and wander. The people on Ely Street. The Lorillard snuff my mother used to indulge in. The longshoremen and the fighting and the screaming. The Irish I knew, with their children with long curls. The organ grinder man and the monkey who picked your lucky number for a nickel. The large mansions and the dissimilarity of the homes on the island–Italian white stucco homes, and grapevines across from ramshackle broken down tenements. And Polish sullenness, and the West Indians who were the first blacks to own their homes, and the hatred between them and the southern Negroes. The pier where one could fish before it became a Naval base. And long rides down Holland Blvd., where they finally removed the orange lights after 30 years, because they said it caused accidents.
The steep hills… there are very few flat straight roads in Staten Island. Snug Harbor, the old men and the animals and lover’s lane. Miss Mary, who stabbed and killed a couple of people and who was only exiled from Staten Island as punishment. My friend, Veronica, who was shot, and her husband who only served one year in jail. And that nasty old sea captain with his fat blowsy, purpled-legged, false eyelashed yet extremely beautiful ex-showgirl wife, who went once a week to the store for liquor. And who still lives there and goes to the A&P once a month. He has long since died. She set the house on fire—the roof is gone but she still lives there like a queen. And, most of all, I want to tell the story of my sisters.”
Alene did finally write about her sisters in a short story, recovered here, with all of her sister’s real names. In the autobiographical story, Alene recalls her formative childhood experiences in Staten Island of the 1930s. Alene dedicated the story to her mother and sisters of whom she said,
I see even today, walking along 14th Street, or in Harlem, on a subway stair, reflected in expressions of dejection, fear, bitterness, sometimes secret exultation, the faces of Maimie, Catherine, Ressie, Ethel, and myself and know them well. For they are truly the faces of my mother and my sisters and I feel their secret hurts as my own. I feel for you but I just can’t reach you. This is my attempt.
by Christina Diamente
No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering
And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell
And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her
The Subterraneans, p.50
Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.
However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half. The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.
Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.
Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s. However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.
As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.
While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.
It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.
Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.” He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.
Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.
In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.
Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more. In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.
To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.
One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.
But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that period.
This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.
by Steven O’Sullivan
Alene Lee is the real name of The Subterraneans’ Mardou Fox, and of Irene May from Big Sur and Book of Dreams. Little is known about her, as she fell from the unwanted spotlight. She isn’t even acknowledged in books devoted to the women of the Beat Generation.
We have seen photos of her, and we know part of her racial heritage – black & Cherokee. We know Kerouac met her as she typed manuscripts for Burroughs and Ginsberg in New York. But her words are lost. Her memory exists only in the macho boasts of Kerouac…
More than likely you’re wondering, “Who the hell is Alene Lee?” And that, my friends, is exactly the point. We can look at pictures of Ms. Lee and see that she was dark, beautiful, unsure, and volatile. Yet this is only scratching the surface, presumably more lies beneath the surface. . . Right?
Granted, the above-mentioned are fantastic descriptors that I’m sure any woman would settle for, but Lee had to be more than that. Through one tabloid-esque fictionalization of her spontaneous relationship with Mr. Kerouac in the Beat classic The Subterraneans as the maddening Mardou Fox, Lee became the looming question mark of the Beat generation. By all accounts, an enchanting but volatile whirlwind of a woman.
Easily, The Subterraneans is a re-telling of the tumultuous thunder of Jack and Alene (Leo and Mardou respectively). Lee maintained however that upon reading the book she was stunned. Jack, she said, was so excited to show it to her and then, in her eyes, the manuscript turned out to be a harsh and unforgiving account that was maybe just a little too revealing of the personal side of their respective egos.
Apparently there’s a problem on our hands now. Jack writes a best-selling book that Alene claims is an absolute sham. So, who’s got it straight? Did things really go down like Jack said or is he just another classic male bullshit artist? A slave of the ego. These questions can probably best be answered by first determining who she really was…
By all published accounts (the few that there are), Lee’s essence was that of the queen of cool. A high priestess in the realm of that crowd Jack tagged infamously as the Subterraneans. She hit the trippiest drugs, drank the stiffest drinks, knew about and listened to the hardest bop, and did it all with a collected, smoky exterior. Men fell at her feet muttering drunken praises. Cup of wine in hand at Dante’s. espousing the virtue of the nouveau cool.
At least, this is how he paints her in the beginning. As the novel progresses we see her devolving into an emotional train wreck. She’s all ups and downs and binges into dark depression and hopeless emotional attachment to Jack. Things are much darker when you step behind the circus doors. Exteriors of shimmering cool are most often built on foundations of volatile instability.
Was this why Lee felt such a cold-water stun at reading the manuscript? Having one’s soul bared open and critiqued is a moment of pain and vulnerability. Within the context of the novel she seemed aware of her emotional traumas and tendencies towards madness, yet that was a personal side of an experience she shared with Jack. Their moments together were shared in bed, with the lights off, amidst wine and dark-eyed companionship. They were shared in trust. To then have the contents of this trust betrayed into daylight for a public audience to view at will… that is a low-blow. Right into the gut. The kind of blow that gives you those cheese grater guts, and really, what are you supposed to do? It’s like drinking bitter wine… a cold emotional slap. The relationship thrown back at her. There… Did it taste as good as you thought it might?
Of course, let’s try to take this objectively. We’ll presuppose Jack’s painting of Lee is accurate. Lee really was just a fuming mass of unpredictable feminine wiles. Does he have the right to put these details in a book? We might immediately jump to a decisive no. It was a personal experience between two lovers that should have remained private. Well, sure that’s all well and good, but what the hell is the whole basis of literature? Experience. Life. The muse. Inspiration comes from somewhere. Stories rot out from something. Let’s not write this off as something to be vaulted and set aside. Propriety is an illusion.
Run right along, alone little dog.
Maybe the Beach Boys were right. Wouldn’t it be nice if this were a completely different scenario? What if Jack was getting played? What if we were all getting played… The whole thing a mocking dirty sham. Lee’s a brilliant scholar working on a sociological grant from Berkley to conduct a study on Frisco’s underbelly. Roaring youth counterculture class mash. She’s playing it up. The queen. The butterfly. Move in for the kill. Jack’s the prey. Isn’t it great? That tortured artist that he felt so strongly about embodying. Splitting time between home, mother, writing, work productivity. . . then booze, women, madness, dark, night, evil. Teetotalling between Catholicism and Alocholism in a hail of madness. And Lee’s just soaking it up. Loving it. Provoking him, creating him, watching and waiting and wrenching. Page after page of theory work being sent back to the school. The professor is laughing, tenure at his doorstep. A brilliant social statement. Capturing the essence of the solitary rebel. After all, there were those countless thru-the-night-into-dawn times she’d sit alone reading thru anthologies and classics and theory and again and again.
Of course, life is not quite so fortunate in its doling out, no matter how much you might read. Lee wasn’t a shiny scholar from Berkley. She wasn’t a scholar of anywhere. Lee was just a cold-water flat girl off Heavenly Lane. Running around in rags and raggedy windblown hair. Sure, the goddess of cool. Smoked out withdrawals and all.
They were both mad. Her and Jack. Mad for each other, for the kicks, for that salty coastal air that chaps your lips and spark jumps your heart full of shutter-closed closeness and disaster.
We’re starving here.
Where are we going now?
Let’s remember Lee’s own words:
These were not the times as I knew them. . .
So why had Kerouac seen them as such? Perhaps his egocentric mindset blocked him from emotional connection. Sexual experience served only to stimulate his creative mind. Of course that would mean reducing all interaction with Lee to solely a sexual endeavor of experiential function. He had just read Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm which sparked and nurtured this fleeting idealism about relations. Release of sexual energy and tension frees the creative mind. To run right out the door straight home to the typer for day upon day of firing off inkspot ammunition onto page after page into a cup of literary excellence. The forthcoming novel to end all novels. Bound up sexual tension constricts the wellspring. Alene Lee was a jungle-gym. Mark Twain’s laughing all over again.
But let’s not make her out to be a saint just yet. Granted, we can logically assume that, given Jack’s egocentric stance combined with a slight tendency towards chauvinism, he may have blown some events out of proportion. Maybe even made up a few of them. It was a book, after all, so let’s cut him at least a length of slack for a minute.
Even still, despite what he may or may not have whipped out of thin air. . . where does that leave us with the ending? What do we do about that? There’s Lee’s downfall. Sleeping with Yuri. The final turn of the screw in Jack’s madness. One step over the line and such.
I’ll tell you where it leaves us: It leaves us at the end of a story. And I’ll tell you where it leaves Alene Lee: At the end of a story.
It seems that the “Lee Problem” is one of perception. It is quite and commonly possible for two people to be involved with each other and for each of them to be taking completely different elements out of the situation. To be seeing things under totally different lens. The two might agree the sex last night was great but they might have polar opposite reasons for thinking such. Come on, what’s more vague than the term “great sex?” In fact, even more than that, they are probably coming from completely different foundations for judging such situations. The night’s events might have been great for the lady because she finally felt fulfilled and appreciated while the experience was great for the guy just because the lady was such a physical maelstrom; which could of course play a hand into why she felt fulfilled: He’s operating on a pulsating level of intensity due to being so aroused by her physical attributes; this intensity translates in turn to an overwhelming work of sensory reception for the woman. Thus, it becomes the most cataclysmic event of her sensual and emotional life. The question is… where are we drawing the line? Is he just in for the kicks? Is she just in for the kicks? Was it a great big overwhelming kick for the both of them, or was it something more for her, something more for him?
This is, of course, a microcosmic example of problems involving perception. Yet it can still be applied to the Lee situation as a whole. Maybe they were just worlds apart. On completely different planes of thinking and experiencing life. But everything’s got to intersect at some point. Some vector of divination juxtaposing two separate identities for a brief while. Suspending starvation and stability for a half-cocked shot at tranquility.
More death. This is getting swept away. Not under the rug, but out the door. It’s been exposed to the elements too long. I’m losing it.
Where are we left now? Back to a dark and beautiful shade. The high priestess of hip looking down from wherever it is the hipsters go to die and reign eternally in those cyclical cultural waves. We’re in a maze or a whirlpool and I’m getting less and less sure of what it is.
Maybe Jack, for all his allegations and insecurities, had Lee figured out. He had at least figured out a way to preserve her, you can argue in what light and reference, but she’s there still. Locked in the amber of Jack’s mind… page 42… gazing at Lee on the bed…
“. . .so Mardou seen in this light, is a little brown body in a gray bed sheet in the slums of Telegraph Hill, huge figure in the history of the night yes but only one among many. . .”
The Beat Generation may have been only one roaring night in the scheme of literature, and Lee was just the screaming distraction between drink six and drink seven. You know there was something there. You just can’t pin it down exactly.
That’s the way it goes with nights like that. Nights like Alene Lee. And so she’ll slip even further into the murky waters of literature’s muses. Obscured by time.
And now, a closing word from our sponsor. . .
Letter from Ginsberg to Snyder. Dated January 1, 1991. Contains following excerpt:
Spent a day with old love black lady Alene Lee hospital bed dying of cancer, near expiration, the room space seemed calm, grounded — extremely peaceful — perhaps her mind in that state so open and gentle i sense it — felt very good — carried me for days. . .
There isn’t a lot of additional reading available out there on the subject of Alene Lee. People are happy to write her out of history and move on. They don’t need more than a fictional character in a book to be satisfied.
But here at Beatdom we always want to know more, and thanks to the following clues from Dave Moore (the Kerouac expert who brought you two articles in this issue), here is a list of places you can go to find out more:
Kerouac, Jack, Book of Dreams
Kerouac, Jack, Big Sur
Kerouac, Jack, The Subterraneans,
Knight, Arthur, The Beat Journey (p. 172)
Knight, Arthur, The Beat Vision (p. 208)
Morgan, Bill, The Beat Generation in New York (p. 125)
Sandison, David, Jack Kerouac: An Illustrated Biography (p. 106)
Saroyan, Aran, The Street
Turner, Steven, Angelheaded Hipster (p. 142)