For literary types and students of Beat history who intend to invest a few cool million in real estate at the someday gentrified Chelsea Hotel, consider a few things. Yes, this was the home of Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso, and Bill Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac all stayed or passed through here and numerous writers and artists and near writers and near artists and every other type of, as Burroughs might say, “characters” from the world’s stage, and shall we say even those from under the world’s stage, some through windows and through walls, have passed through. The twelve-story hotel, built in 1883-1884, has a history of ghosts and is one of the most haunted buildings in New York City. It truly ranks as a Beat Hotel. Continue Reading…
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In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States of America, whilst the much maligned “King of the Beats”, Jack Kerouac, was trying magic mushrooms for the first time, at 170 East Second Street in the East Village.
It was Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary who were responsible. By this stage Jack Kerouac was soured on the Beats and the following countercultural movements, and had nothing but disdain for the hippies. Leary had turned Ginsberg onto psilocybin the previous year, and now the Harvard professor was recording its influence on creativity, and the pair of them had naturally come to Kerouac to record what influence the drug had upon his spontaneous prose.
The meeting, however, did not go well, and is known mostly for being Leary’s first “bad trip” and another example of Kerouac’s increasing distance from contemporary counterculture.
The scene perhaps wasn’t set for the best of trips. Kerouac was, as usual, drunk when Leary arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. He had been drinking with Lucian Carr at a different address in the city, and turned up already drunk. According to Ginsberg, he mocked the pair of them by asking, “What are you up to Dr Leary, running around with this faggot communist Ginsberg and your bag of pills? Can your drugs absolve the mortal and venial sins, which our beloved savior Jesus Christ, the only son of God, came down and sacrificed his life upon the cross to wash away?”
Ginsberg replied simply: “Why don’t we find out?”
Kerouac continued to act like a drunken fool, screaming at Leary, “I’m king of the beatniks! I’m Francois Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you spiral hot-lick improvisations from my tenor typewriter.”
After taking the psilocybin pills, Kerouac mellowed and he and Leary began to get along better. After realizing that there was snow on the ground, they went outside to play football in the street with an oval-shaped loaf of rye bread.
Dan Wakefield was another witness of Kerouac’s psilocybin trip. He visited Ginsberg to interview him about marijuana (of which Ginsberg was a known public advocate) and found Leary and Kerouac present. Leary informed Wakefield that he was conducting a “scientific experiment” and requested the journalist stay and witness history in the making. Leary seemed to genuinely believe that literary history was being made… that Kerouac’s “bop prosody” would mix with the hallucinogen and result in a true epic poem of some kind, in spite of Kerouac’s obvious drunkenness.
Leary told Wakefield to talk to Kerouac, who was normally hostile to outsiders, because the drug was sure to make him “mellow”. However, Kerouac recalled Wakefield as the author of a mocking article about one of Kerouac’s drunken poetry readings, and “threatened to throw [him] out the window.”
Wakefield wished to leave after the threat, but Leary convinced him to stay. Kerouac was given a pencil and told to write. Everyone watched in anticipation of some new literary triumph, but Kerouac turned away and refused. In the end, he was bribed to produce something with the threat of being deprived of more drugs. The result was dozens of lines drawn haphazardly across the page. Not a word was written, but Leary laughed it off and claimed the creativity would come later.
At some point during the trip, after Ginsberg and Leary again attempted to explain the significance of mushrooms upon the mind, Kerouac looked out the window and famously said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Leary later explained:
Throughout the night Kerouac remained unmovably the Catholic carouser, an old-style bohemian without a hippie bone in his body. Jack Kerouac opened the neural doors to the future, looked ahead, and didn’t see his place in it. Not for him the utopian pluralist optimism of the sixties.
Kerouac continued to smoke and drink, shouting so rudely that it caused Leary to suffer his own bad trip – a first for the pioneer of hallucinogens. In fact, he later claimed that the experience caused him to think intensely about being abandoned by his father as a child. According to Ginsberg, Leary curled up in a fetal position in a dark room, while the poet talked him through the experience.
Kerouac’s bad trip did not end there. After taking the mushrooms, Kerouac at least responded to Leary enough to write him a poem postcard and a “stupid drunken letter”, detailing the experience he’d more or less refused to share at the time.
The letter is a little more of what Leary had wanted. It details the mental and physical impact of the drug on Kerouac:
Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however… Yet there were no evil side effects.
In the letter, Kerouac also claims to have talked to his mother for three days, realizing he loved her more than he thought. He also claims to have awoken one morning convinced that the neighbours thought him “Master of Trust in Heaven.” The world, he felt, was trustful and everyone around him was innocent.
In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff… There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it.
This letter, however, was not shared as Leary wished. When Leary requested that it be published as evidence of the trip, Kerouac refused. In his journey he wrote negatively of the experience: “The psychic clairvoyance lasted till early this morning – I’ve been sleeping it off (too much to live with, in fact too much for Samahdi peace).” Not long after that, he began comparing the hallucinogenic experience to communist brainwashing. Moreover, Kerouac later made the claim that psilocybin had caused irreparable damage to his mind. “I haven’t been right since,” he dubiously claimed.
 Sources are conflicted on the exact date: Maher claims it was January 12th, while Kerouac states in his letter to Leary that it was Friday the 13th and others claim it was the 20th. From Kerouac’s letter: “The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).”
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.
One famous and pivotal moment in Beat history was the killing David Kammerer by Lucian Carr. It was the end of some things, the start of others, and above all a landmark piece of history that involved some of the most famous writers of the twentieth century.
On 13th August, 1944, Lucian Carr was drinking with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, his two Columbia University buddies, when David Kammerer appeared and joined the group. Kammerer was thirty-three, much older than the young future Beats. Carr was only nineteen years old, but Kammerer had been sexually obsessed with him for at least five years, since first guiding Carr’s Boy Scout group on nature walks.
When Kammerer and Carr left the bar at three in the morning, to walk and talk by the Hudson River, it was the last time anyone would see Kammerer alive. According to Carr, Kammerer tried to sexually assault the younger man, and Carr defended himself by stabbing his attacker twice in the chest with a small Boy Scout knife. In a panic, Carr filled Kammerer’s pockets with stones and throw his body into the Hudson River.
But that was where the story ended between the two parties, as Carr went to seek refuge with Burroughs. Burroughs, a good friend of Kammerer, simply told Carr to get a good lawyer and turn himself in. Indeed, Burroughs’ use of his family’s wealth to hire good lawyers kept him from a life in jail.
Next, Carr went to visit Kerouac, who responded differently, helping Carr to dispose of the murder weapon, and then taking him on a tour of the city to talk about what happened. They went to a museum and watched a movie, The Four Feathers.
But two days later, Carr broke under the strain of guilt and turned himself in to the police. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested. Burroughs used his family’s money to pay the bail, but Kerouac couldn’t, and was bizarrely forced to marry Edie Parker in order for her family to pay his own bail.
Carr was sentenced to a maximum of ten years in jail, a light sentenced based on the defence argument that because Kammerer was homosexual, the murder was an ‘honour killing’ that protected Carr from being raped.
Nonetheless, it changed much. Kerouac was now married, Carr was gone from the circle, and all of the writing of the time centred on the infamous event. Ginsberg wrote The Bloodsong, but was warned by the assistant Dean that Columbia didn’t need any more bad publicity. Kerouac and Burroughs, however, wrote a novel called, strangely, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks.
The novel would prove to be a thorn in the side of Carr, who emerged from prison a reformed man with little interest in his Beatnik past, and instead had the desire to go straight, without anything to remind him or embarrass him for a horrible incident. But now, after Carr’s death, the long awaited literary even has come – the release of the lost Beat Generation novel that predates all others by many years.
In between, there was a description, by Kerouac, in Vanity of Duluoz, but the truth was heavily distorted. Kerouac talked about it with Ann Charters, for his biography. And two years later, excerpts of Hippos appeared in a magazine and Burroughs had to sue to protect Carr, who was trying to work a stable life as a journalist. A short excerpt, too, came in Word Virus, but still there was no great effort made to bring about this near mythical text.
For many years, Burroughs maintained that the title of the novel came from his memory of a radio report about a fire at the St. Louis Zoo, when the announcer burst into fits of laughter when attempting to read the line.
And for years the novel didn’t surface, in spite of attempts by both Kerouac and Burroughs. Burroughs has mentioned that the novel was ‘not a very distinguished work’, but nevertheless it attracted an agent who was willing to push it around and tolerate many, many rejections.
Most of the rejections came, presumably, because of the totally inappropriate subject matter. This was before Kerouac and Burroughs were famous, able to say what they wished, but they still had elements of their future selves hidden in the text. Taking it turn about, chapter-by-chapter, the two friends each wrote from the point of view of a different protagonist. Kerouac’s chapters contained the original elements of Kerouacian prose, and Burroughs had some of the hallmarks of Junky or Queer, but neither author exposed his true brilliance of his truth style.
It seems they limited one another, although not necessarily in a bad way. They could only write what they knew, after all, and they both new different things, both in terms of facts and of style. One can tell when reading portions of the book where something was written by Kerouac or Burroughs. Burroughs’ sections contain strong and mystical descriptions of drug use, gay sex, and hallucinatory violence. Kerouac’s sections ramble on. But neither author goes to the extremes reached in his own books.
The result, we now see, is perhaps not a classic work of literature, but certainly an interesting one, and not the epic failure that Burroughs tried to have us all believe with his dismissive comments in the eighties. Instead, there is now something else for Beat fans to read, to learn a little more about Beat history, now that all the players in the scenario are safely entombed beyond the grave. There are no more hurt feelings, no more treading carefully.
Perhaps Burroughs said it best in a milder moment:
“It wasn’t sensational enough to make it from that point of view, nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it from a purely literary point of view. It sort of fell in-between. It was very much in the Existentialist genre, the prevailing mode of the period, but that hadn’t hit America yet. It just wasn’t a commercially viable property.”
Indeed, And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks has reached a time when it will be loved, and that raises real questions over its literary merit. But then again, who really cares, so long as it’s a fun read? The key is in both authors calling it ‘hard-boiled’. When was hard-boiled ever really out and out literary?