Archives For irene may

Alene Lee

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.

Walking With the Barefoot Beat: Alene Lee

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.

Alene Lee – Subterranean Muse

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. . .

 

 

End transcript.

 

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)