By Spencer Kansa
In 1951, Jack Kerouac began work on a roman-à-clef whose breathless prose would help define an era and seduce generations to come, On the Road. Based on his road trip adventures from the previous decade, Kerouac drew upon his battered notebooks and unique recall to get it all down. Typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper, his stream-of-consciousness narrative spilled out in one long inspired flow and soon a soulful vision of America arose from its pages.
Reflecting a romantic flipside of American society, its story is told through the impassioned narration of Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a spiritual quest across America, searching for the divine and finding it in the places he haunts, jazz music he eulogises, and people he touches souls with. A post-War gathering of malcontents lusting for life, mystical illumination, love and meaning amidst the crass materialism, sterile conformity and atom bombs.
Feted on its release six years later, the book’s success created a literary legend out of Kerouac and immortalised his best buddy Neal Cassady, the dynamic inspiration behind the novel’s freewheeling hero, Dean Moriarty.
In 1990, Cassady’s widow Carolyn set down her own inside take on the Kerouac and Cassady mythos in her highly acclaimed autobiography Off the Road. In her role as a defender of their legacy, she has railed for years against what she sees as the inaccurate and shoddy mistreatment of Kerouac and Cassady’s lives by unscrupulous Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters, whom she charges have too often reduced them to little more than glorified juvenile delinquents.
Excerpted from a series of interviews that were conducted at her apartment in Belsize Park, London, between February and May of 1998, the following segment focuses on Carolyn’s romances with the two charismatic soul brothers and lifts the veil on their complex sexual psyches.
You can read more about Cassady and the other women of the Beat Generation here.
So let me get this straight, you weren’t physically attracted to Neal but you were to Jack. You loved them both but you weren’t in love romantically is that right?
Well there were times with Jack that I was, but I knew there was no point because there was Neal but yes. I don’t know what was going on with Jack ha ha. Neal could be romantic when it suited him but it wasn’t much for me except when he was trying to get back into my good graces ha ha then he could turn it on ha ha ha. That’s what got all the other girls.
But it seems incomprehensible that you and Neal got married and yet you weren’t physically attracted.
No, but as I said the reason I thought he was the one, aside from the karmic thing, was because he didn’t make passes. He was the only man I’d run into who didn’t have one thing in mind. So I thought this must be serious ha ha. That and he acknowledged that I had a mind. Course he knew what he was doing, he’d psyched me out immediately. He knew that wasn’t the way to come on.
You wouldn’t have had any truck with that.
No, he could tell I must have gone through that and so he made a different approach and it worked ha ha, and then he was sorry ha ha ha. It worked too well ha ha. Whereas Jack would make passes at you and he wouldn’t mean to actually, the chemistry was there but there wasn’t any chemistry with Neal.
Well you seduced Jack the first time didn’t you?
Not really, I just let it happen that’s all. We avoided each other like crazy because we had felt it in Denver and he said ‘too bad’ and it was discouraged because we were principled and nothing more was done about it. In those days we didn’t carry on. Now its ‘go ahead and seduce her’ ha ha, ‘why bother stopping it?’ But in those days we had principles so nothing was done. So eventually, what with the scene with Neal, I just thought ‘might as well let it happen.’
That’s quite a delicious feeling anyway isn’t it, having that sexual frisson in the air and not acting upon it?
Oh well yeah it’s nice to be admired and wanted sort of, but I’d rather not ha ha ha. You can’t go on with it, you can’t do anything about it, but it did make us closer. I think I said in the book in those days the man had to make the first move and I also knew that Neal would get over it ha ha ha. But had it been anyone but Neal we wouldn’t have resisted. But the things Neal wrote in those letters about what I did with Jack aren’t true, they’re from jealousy. Yet the whole world’s gonna think they are. It’s one of those things you have to put up with. It’s difficult to read those letters. In some ways it’s my word against his.
You particularly weren’t happy with the way the director John Byrum depicted the love triangle between you Neal and Jack in the film Heart Beat were you?
No, and I told him ‘you’ve ruined my life, all you seem to do is let me hang around and watch you make a movie and tape my mouth shut’ and I did except for one time, and he did this three times in three scenes, where Jack and I are canoodling and Neal is out playing ball with the kids or something. Three times this scene. So after the first one Sissy Spacek and I were at the station wagon going to the next location and I said to her ‘y’know I promised not to say anything, but that was the hardest scene I have had to watch y’know, Jack and I loved Neal, we would never have done anything like that in front of him. The lack of humanity, as well as the showing off’ and she said ‘oh my God’ and burst into tears, and she had to do it two more times and it was that kind of thing, ‘whose turn is it tonight fellas?’ Because we didn’t admit it to ourselves much less anybody else, we were ashamed of it. So Jack and I never looked at each other when Neal was in the house because we cared for him. But the consciousness of people today is ’well it was a three-way…’
A ménage à trois!
Which it was! But it was certainly not acknowledged or discussed at all.
No, it wasn’t like a Jules et Jim scenario.
Of course not ha ha. Actually Byrum had just seen Jules et Jim actually and this was what he wanted to do, in fact they almost made the T-shirts ‘Jules and Jim go to North Beach’ ha ha ha. I said ‘look it’s been done and it’s been done well, you can’t possibly do that, why not do my book?’
Speaking of movies, I always thought the person who should’ve played Neal years ago was Paul Newman – whenever I watch him playing Fast Eddie in The Hustler I always think of Neal.
Yeah, I think that’s more like Neal than anybody else. Newman’s handsomer but it’s the right blue eyes and the smile that would have been nice back then.
But also in Visions of Cody, that Denver pool scene always reminds me of that film.
Well I think they had thought of it as well ha ha, so I hear.
There’s a picture in your book where Neal’s tossing the hammer, and in profile he really looks like Paul Newman.
Yeah, well of course he had this broken nose but he had those bright blue eyes, that’s what’s so accurate. And Jack too had bright blue eyes.
But that rarely comes across because most of the photographs of him are in black and white. To have blue eyes with black hair, that’s a great combination.
Oh my, a fatal combination ha ha ha. In fact there are few actors that have that combination. But Jack was swarthier and more handsome, more like a Clark Gable, he was fleshier is what I mean, had those fleshier cheeks. And he was a little ruddier than Neal who was quite pale.
Jack and Neal look very contemporary looking don’t they, in the way that James Dean still does?
Well they never grew their hair ha ha ha. The one thing they did is have their hair cut, which is contemporary now. Now that men have started cutting their hair again and pulling their ponytails back. But the most popular picture of Jack is the one where he’s just come out of the shower, where his hair’s all messed up and that’s the one they used over and over. After that of course he just got drunker and drunker, but when I knew him he never had a hair out of place. He always had a comb. Boy he was always so finicky about his hair ha ha ha.
Well it was his crowning glory.
Right. It’s a shame because I like long hair and beards but Neal abhorred them. I’ve got a picture of him where he shaved his head. He came back from New York and got stoned and shaved it all off. I know about the beards because he had very sensitive skin and wouldn’t shave. Jack would be unshaven of course if he was drinking or they were working on the railroads. But I don’t think Jack ever grew a beard or a moustache or anything, he wasn’t very vain really. But it was an awfully quiet period for men in terms of being colourful. It was still very muscle-bound. Jack was more sort of agile but his muscle had turned to flab by the time I knew him. He wasn’t doing any exercise ha ha.
Jack is also often accused of suffering from a Madonna/Whore complex.
Mmm.. that turns out to assess him ha ha. Well I saw a lot of examples of that in Tristessa, because she’s a whore. But the thing that seriously impressed me reading it over was how vividly he describes his surroundings, no matter how miserable he is, every puddle, every crummy everything he gets down. It just makes such a vivid impression on his mind so you’re drawn into that horrible, creepy place but he doesn’t judge either his surroundings or these dreadful people that’s he’s involved with. Absolutely no judgment at all. But you see that he has loved this woman and he respected all women because of the Madonna thing. Also I was thinking about the tenderness, he was such a sensitive, tender-hearted person and the compassion he felt for her is amazing, and he never says anything that isn’t admiring. He gives you clues that she must’ve been ghastly, but to him she’s the Madonna thing. Course they never did sleep together but his attitude towards whores was – and I think that’s why the only time he enjoyed sex – if at all – may have been because he rationalised the fact that they wanted it and they were asking for it and they were earning a living.
So he was helping them ha ha ha.
Justifying it yes. So he was just doing them a favour ha ha. So that way I think he could probably relax more.
Maybe because he figured that they were bad girls and so he could do bad things with a bad girl.
Well something like that, although I don’t think he ever thought anyone was bad. Even though he tells you about these men’s lives and things, he never judges or condemns them. Of course all the time I’m reading it and he describes this rooftop room I’m thinking ‘my God that’s where he wanted me to come!’ I mean he was trying to persuade me to join him. Oh I’m glad I didn’t go ha ha. But as Luanne (Henderson, Neal’s first wife) said ‘you never felt as though Jack was completely participating in the (sex) act’ ha ha. Part of that was he was always the observer no matter where he was, even when he was involved he wasn’t ever totally involved, he never surrendered. He couldn’t because he was just totally wrapped up in himself and in writing, that’s all he did. And in one letter he wrote to me he said “no woman owns me – not even you who should” and I always knew that of course. There was no way that he could ever be a husband, and I had to let him be completely free. I mean he lived in his head all the time. Yet he always wanted a home and a family. It was still a dream that he never lost, but it was all in his head!
There is a difference between loving somebody and being in love isn’t there?
Yes I certainly know and with Neal I loved him but I wasn’t in love.
But the way you describe him, he is physically attractive.
Yes, but see I was a sexual cripple in that department too so that made a difference, but the chemistry wasn’t there with Neal, but I admired him artistically and aesthetically.
Like you would in an art class.
Right. I’m really sensitive to physical things but there’s been chemistry without that, it has nothing to do with aesthetics, there’s some sort of strange attraction we can’t explain and we call it chemistry.
But with Jack you were in love?
Yeah, he knew and I knew. I loved him lots and lots. But that didn’t diminish my love for Neal, he knew I loved Neal, as he did, and that was important for him. That’s why he felt so safe too and why he could be more himself with me and Neal cause for one thing we weren’t asking him for anything. He knew I was safe and wasn’t gonna make demands or ask to marry him or anything. So the best thing you could do was listen to him and that was fun. I loved hearing him talk and figure things out, and of course we exchanged ideas, but he didn’t have to approve of my opinion. But I don’t think he could ever surrender which is what you sort of have to do if you’re going to mate with someone. So we were very close and compatible, but I always felt that he was a separate entity, that I’d always be an outsider, an appendage. But also Jack talked about sex a lot and wanted Neal to write him about sex and he puts a lot in his books and I’m sure he thought about it a lot, but actually it probably was that sin thing at the back of his mind that he couldn’t really enjoy it or participate in it.
That’s what I meant about being with the prostitutes, it’s easier for him because for these women – sin is their business.
Yes, it’s easier, right. He could rationalise that, whereas with respectable women, I don’t know how he did it ha ha ha. But it wasn’t on his mind all the time either as it was with Neal. I think Jack mentioned sex so much because it was such a problem, such a dilemma and a guilt thing. He was always asking God ‘why did you create us just to die’ ha ha ha. Y’know that was his problem. His God was not a loving father but the horrible judge.
The fire and brimstone type.
Yes. That you were born a miserable rotten worm and were never gonna get any better.
So that’s why he embraced Buddhism.
Yes, but see that is a snare, a delusion, because of course he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m sure that he loved all the imagery and whatnot, but the thing that caught him was that all this was nothing ha ha ha. So all his sensory stimulus, that he was so guilty of, the Buddhists said ‘it’s empty, it’s nothing’ so that became his reassurance. ‘It doesn’t even matter anyway and then we’re all gonna die’ but he never got that quite together because Buddha doesn’t believe in death so that for a Catholic was strange. But it gave him this out. This ‘oh well it doesn’t matter.’ Of course he didn’t follow anything else in the Buddhist tradition but that load of old escapism was very appealing to him. He certainly wouldn’t say he was a Buddhist at all, but he and Ginsberg were good at pronouncing all the names and getting the concepts ha ha.
They read the books ha ha.
Yes, ha ha. They read the books but didn’t quite get the message.
Spencer Kansa has written for a variety of publications including Hustler, Mojo, Erotic Review, and The NME. His interviews with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Herbert Huncke feature in Joe Ambrose’s book Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan (Headpress). He is the author of Wormwood Star, a biography of the American artist and occult icon, Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake of Oxford). His novel, Zoning, was published by Beatdom Books. For more info: www.spencerkansa.com