The 1940s and 50s were difficult years to be non-conformist, and that was doubly true if you were a woman. The writers of the Beat Generation, as well as their friends and families, who lived bohemian lifestyles in a buttoned-up era, found that their very existence could be dangerous in those days. Whether they were driven to genuine mental illness by the shackles of a repressive society or deemed unfit for society because of their individualist life choices, many of those who fell under the Beat label ended up in the “nuthouse.” For some of them it was just a temporary stay that gave them inspiration for their art, but for others it was a deeply traumatic experience that irrevocably damaged their life. Continue Reading…
Archives For elise cowen
Joyce Johnson is best-known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, which focuses on the years 1957-58, and concerns the role of the marginalized woman in the Beat sphere. It is ironic, then, that she is often written off as Kerouac’s girlfriend and the woman who wrote about being Kerouac’s girlfriend. Indeed, Johnson is an accomplished novelist in her own right, and an important figure in Beat studies beyond being merely one of the “minor characters.” Her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, is proof of that.
In 1962, Johnson published her first novel, Come and Join the Dance. She began writing the book a year before meeting Kerouac, and it is considered the first Beat novel written by a woman. Set in 1955, it details the life of a young college graduate in whom Johnson instills the sort of values people thought only the Beat men possessed – a wanderlust, yearning for freedom, sex, and adventure. She said:
“I wanted to write the real way that the girls I knew were living. And it was at a time that there was all this incredible anxiety about having sex, that was the great breakthrough and adventure for a girl – if you could dare to have sex outside your marriage. And so it was about a girl who was in her last week in college and feels that nothing real has ever happened to her, and she decides to lose her virginity. In the 1950s, young women did not write those books.”
Even readers of the Beat Generation may be slightly shocked and surprised, as they are more accustomed to reading about the female participants of the movement as being more reserved in the eyes of their male counterparts. But Johnson’s contributions to Beat studies and, as evidenced in her novels, to the Beat movement itself, have demonstrated that these people were no mere “minor characters,” and were instead sidelined by the history books. Perhaps most recognizable to the Beat enthusiast will be the character Kay, who is based upon the tragic figure of Elise Cowen.
Johnson’s next two novels, Bad Connections (1978) and In the Night Café (1987), are set in the bohemian culture of the 1960s and, like Come and Join the Dance, are located in her native New York City. Written in a crisp, fast-paced prose that exhibits the sort of liberating exuberance that Beat writing was known for, her novels are also tinged with a sadness that is more palpable even than in Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s writing. Her characters face greater obstacles in their lives and as such are even more beat than their male counterparts, and certainly lack the optimism and hope that existed for the men.
Although these are all fine works of fiction, Johnson has come to be known for her work in non-fiction, and particularly her work in the Beat field. Additionally, her first novel was released only in a run of 1,000 copies. As such, they have previously been hard to come by. Fortunately, Open Road Media has obtained and released these three novels in digital format, with a view to doing “a small paper edition” of Come and Join the Dance. These books are wonderful examples of Beat writing that Beatdom highly recommends. See www.openroadmedia.com for more information.
By Karen Baddeley
The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border
I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.
She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.
Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.
Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.
Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).
Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.
Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).
Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.
It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:
Fear making guilt making shame
making fantasy & logic & game &
elegance of covering splendor
emptying memory of event
She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.
While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.
She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.
Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).
Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:
Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
I love you
Oh I wish you body here
With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)
She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.
She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.
Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.
Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.
She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.
Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.
It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:
Twenty-seven years is enough
Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry
Daddy – What happened?
Allen – I’m sorry
Peter – Holy Rose Youth
Betty – Such womanly bravery
Keith – Thank you
Joyce – So girl beautiful
Howard – Baby take care
Leo – Open the windows and Shalom
Carol – Let it happen
Let me out now please –
Please let me in (Knight 165)
It’s been a long wait, folks, but it’s finally here… Beatdom’s SEX issue. That’s right. An issue of your favourite Beat magazine devoted to the most stimulating of subjects: sex.
In this titillating Beat outing we bring you:
A guide to Jack Kerouac’s sex life
Bob Dylan: Romance & the Rolling Stone
An interview with Carolyn Cassady
An exploration of male and female Beat poetry
The life of Elise Cowen
Plus poetry, art and fiction from some of the best writers of today
and much, much, much more.
Find this issue on Amazon.
Please help Beatdom to reach a wider audience by passing these links to your friends on Facebook and Twitter.
Firstly, I would like to say “Merry Christmas!” (or Happy Holidays) to our readers and to those of you who’ve just stumbled upon the website. Beatdom is neither Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. But we love Christmas. We are capitalist swine and we love gifts and food.
I would like to also take this chance to say “Thank you!” (the capitalization and exclamation point are necessary) for visiting Beatdom.com and for reading the magazine. These past few months have seen tremendous growth across all of our online endeavours, as well as in sales. The new website seems very popular, and as we iron out all the little bugs we appreciate the links from other sites that seem to be popping up across the web.
Lastly, I’d like to make a few announcements about the long awaited (yup, it’s been around six months) eighth issue of Beatdom. This will be the sex issue. Submissions are now closed and you can expect to see a few more notices popping up over the coming weeks about developments in editing and whatnot. For the moment, we have a list of tentative inclusions that we’d like to share:
We have essays on: Bob Dylan as a romantic
Jack Kerouac and sex
Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima and the male/female poetic divide
Female Beat writers and the second-wave feminist movement
Allen Ginsberg’s sexuality
Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski and waitresses
An oral biography of Gregory Corso
An interview with Carolyn Cassady
And here’s a sneak peak at the cover…
by Hannah Withrow
I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women. My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica. Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,
Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”
That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell. What did such a woman have to say? Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor. Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day. She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends. But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself. Hot, hot, hot! A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.
Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator? He can’t possibly understand. It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.
Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.
This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that? And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”
Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.
This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.
How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.
Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife. But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion. Do you see race in this? Have you forgotten? It would get worse.” Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is. And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.
Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art. Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.
I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.
By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.
Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.
While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.
I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic. Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.
What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.
Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able. She writes,
The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means. But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from. The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.
I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,
And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’ He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience. Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?
It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.
Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.
Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence. At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.
Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.
I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters. I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.
Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:
She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals. Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.
Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.
When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.
Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.
The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.
In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,
He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.
Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:
Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues. He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty. I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day. Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.
I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.
In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.
Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.
She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.
It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,
From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.
It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.
Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?
Death I’m coming
Wait for me
I know you’ll be
At the subway station
Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka
And your single simple answer
To every meaning
I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.
But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.
These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.
Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.” Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.
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