One of Jack Kerouac’s closest friends and literary associates in the 1940s was a fellow aspiring writer, Allan Temko. While the Columbia University classmates initially tried to help each other achieve the success they both craved, their relationship dimmed to the extent that Kerouac lampooned Temko in a pair of novels as a surly snob.
The connection between them has interested me since the 1980s, when I joined the San Francisco Chronicle, where Temko was an influential architectural critic. Although articles about both men have touched on the subject, it has not, to my knowledge, been explored in depth, and I do so to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Temko’s birth on Feb. 4, 2024.
Obituaries of Temko, who died in 2006, reported they became friends at Columbia. In fact, they met before that, at New York’s Horace Mann School in the fall of 1939. Kerouac, a star running back from a public high school in working-class Lowell, Mass., had been sent to the more rigorous private school for a year of academic preparation before he could enroll at Columbia on a football scholarship. Kerouac biographer Ann Charters wrote:
Except for the football team, the students at Horace Mann (as Jack saw them) were Jewish rich kids from New York City and the suburbs…One of Jack’s friends at Horace Mann, Alan Temko, later remembered he was very much the poor country boy at prep school. Jack’s clothes were too small, his big hands hanging from the short sleeves of his blue serge suit.
Kerouac was an exotic figure at the school, his dark French-Canadian good looks sometimes mistaken for Greek. The father of a classmate said he had “the brain of an Athenian and the brawn of a Spartan.”
Kerouac’s father had his printing business ruined during the Depression, and like many working-class Catholics egged on by the radio programs of Father (Charles) Coughlin, blamed Jewish bankers. Jack inherited some of that anti-Semitism, though it never stopped him from making Jewish friends like Temko and Allen Ginsberg.
They graduated in 1940 and enrolled at Columbia in the fall. According to Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson, their friendship blossomed when Temko returned in 1945 after serving as a Naval officer. Kerouac sought out war veterans like Temko, Ed White, and Hal Chase, feeling guilty he had partly evaded WWII service by joining the Merchant Marines after washing out of the Navy for psychological reasons.
Coming back from the war and their intimate acquaintanceship with death, the old young men of Jack’s generation pursued their intellectual development with the same serious with which they partied, drank, and womanized…Drinking problems were common among America’s returned vets, and there were crack-ups and suicides. But in those days no one attributed such things to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kerouac’s first written mention of the Beat Generation came in an unpublished letter dated December 13, 1947, to Temko, who was living in Paris working on a Hemingway-inspired novel. Kerouac referred to the abandoned “cave children of Italy,” whom U.S. soldiers had found during the war. He likened them to beaten-down black beboppers he had met, unacceptable outcasts, and by extension to all those struggling to fit in during a period of stifling postwar conformity.
When Temko returned from Paris in 1949 with a completed novel, Kerouac introduced him to his editor, Robert Giroux. Temko, perhaps returning the favor the next year, reviewed Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, favorably for the Rocky Mountain Herald.
They shared a literary vocabulary to the extent that in an On the Road passage, when Temko’s character imitates an obnoxious Hemingway character and insults another patron in a bar (as in The Killers), Kerouac’s character joins in without prompting, taking the role of the lout’s cooler-headed companion.
Temko and Kerouac took long walks beside the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road in New York. He was present on the fateful night in December 1946 when their Denver friend Chase introduced the “jailkid” Cassady to the Columbia writer’s group, a seminal event of the Beat revolution. The contrast between their points of view — a cultivated aesthetic sense versus a love of spontaneous experience above all — is encapsulated in a passage from the 1951 “scroll” draft of On the Road, which was unrolled, handled as if it had been unearthed from an Egyptian tomb, transcribed, and published in 2007. Many characters, including Temko, appear under their own names. (Kerouac’s lawsuit-fearing publishers forced him to change character names in the famous 1957 edition, in which Temko appears as Roland Major.) A passage shows the two were close enough to share their contrasting visions of the sublime.
Temko liked good wines, just like Hemingway. He reminisced about his recent trip to France. “Ah Jack, if you could sit with me high in the Basque country with a cool bottle of Poignon dix-neuf, then you’d know there are other things besides boxcars.” “I know that, it’s just that I love boxcars and I love to read the names on them like Missouri Pacific, Great Northern, Rock Island Line..By Gad, Temko, if I could tell you everything that happened to me hitching here.”
Kerouac was delighted when the group reunited in Denver in the spring of 1947. “…and even Allan Temko my old college writing buddy was there. I looked forward to all of them with joy and anticipation.” But it was also in Denver that the first signs of the rift emerged.
The word was that Ed White had an apartment waiting for me up Colfax avenue, that Allan Temko was already living in it and was waiting for me to join him. I sensed some kind of conspiracy in the air and this conspiracy lined up two groups in the gang: it was Hal Chase and Ed White and Allan Temko, together with the Burfords, generally agreeing to ignore Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. There were social overtones too that I’ll explain. First, I must set the stage about Neal: he was the son of a wino…
Temko’s dismissal of Cassady wounded Kerouac.
Temko never dreamed Neal in a few years would become such a great writer or even that anyone would ever write his story as I am. He talked to Neal like this — “Cassady, what’s this I hear about you screwing three girls at the same time…” I felt sheepish rushing off with Neal — Temko insisted he was a moron and a fool. Of course he wasn’t and I wanted to prove it to everybody somehow.
The divisions may have been about sexuality as well as social class and morality. Ginsberg, whose beat poem “Howl” would make a sensation and result in a landmark ruling against censorship for obscenity, was having sex with the primarily heterosexual Cassady, a near-satyr who had been hustling gay men since childhood.
In an interview with travel writer A.E. Sadler, Temko said Kerouac was a closeted bisexual and had a French Catholic guilt about it that contributed to the alcoholism that led to his death at age 47.
One night, Temko refused entry to Kerouac and several of his drunken companions, which the fictional Kerouac character attributes to a refusal to associate with them. Temko, however, told Sadler that the reason was that he had a woman in the apartment and, acting as a gentleman, did not want her identity revealed.
In On the Road, Kerouac paints his friend as a foppish, ill-tempered woman-charmer:
We each had a bedroom, food in the icebox, kitchenette and a huge livingroom where Temko sat in his silk dressinggown idly composing his latest Hemingwayan short story — a colic, red-faced, pudgy hater of everything who could turn on the warmest and most charming smile in the world when real life confronted him sweetly in the night.
He also recounts an incident in which Temko acts badly toward Kerouac’s friend who had lived in France, Henri Cru, but could only find blue-collar work:
And now the worst thing ever. Who should be sitting at the bar in Alfred’s than my old friend Allan Temko! — he had just arrived from Denver and got a job on the Sanfran Chronicle. He was crocked. He wasn’t even shaved. He rushed over and slapped me on the back as I lifted a hiball to my lips….Temko began chatting in the Monsieur’s ear. “How do you like teaching High School French?” he yelled. “Pardon me, but I don’t teach High School French. “Oh, I thought you taught High School French.” He was being deliberately rude…
In Kerouac’s subsequent novel Desolation Angels, Temko appears as Irwin Minko, a homophobe. Referring to a friend named Simon, Kerouac writes:
You can see why Mal the Namer called him the Mad Russian — but always doing innocent dangerous things, too, like suddenly running up to a perfect stranger (surly Irwin Minko) and saying “‘”You don’t know how close you just came to death.”
A criticism of both Kerouac and Cassady that resonates today is their mistreatment of women. Temko sharpens this with his hypersensitivity to social class. He is quoted in “Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography.”
Those guys hated women — all of them. Either they maltreated women or took women who were at a hopeless social disadvantage. They were at a loss with educated women.
The postwar male-dominated culture became evident to me when I joined the Chronicle in 1983. The newsroom was filled with World War II and Korea-era veterans, some missing fingers or eyes, who at lunchtime imbibed martinis served in steel shakers at the nearby M&M Tavern.
The messy rows of desks littered with papers and files toward the back of the main newsroom were called Section Eight, after the wartime category of discharge from the United States military, used for a service member judged mentally unfit for service. It had desks with papers and boxes piled all around and archaic but substantial round pillars with pictures and bumper stickers stapled on them.
Among the most colorful denizens was architectural critic Temko, who matched Kerouac’s description as pudgy and red-faced more than forty years later
Temko seemed to revel in his snobbish image. Within days of my joining the newsroom, hard-boiled reporter Robert Bartlett gleefully told me the story of how Temko told his fellow Section Eight denizens “I am a thoroughbred,” leaving Bartlett with the implication he and the others were “mere dray horses.”
Temko took an avuncular interest in me and would chide me good-naturedly in his tony mid-Atlantic accent. He saw me wearing a dark shirt with a light tie and opined I was not dressing like a “Stanford man.” He called the tin of smokeless tobacco in my shirt pocket “a disgusting lower-middle class habit.” (I soon gave that up).
He liked Kerouac’s old sport of college football, bragged that Columbia had beaten my alma mater Stanford in the 1934 Rose Bowl, and thought it was all right that Stanford had a “lower class coach” (Jack Elway) because Ivy League schools sometimes hired the same.
As a Kerouac admirer, I asked Temko about those long-ago events during a lunch lubricated by wine. He replied coldly that Cassady was a “common criminal.”
Unfortunately, I did not have to courage to ask the follow-up question: “Do you think Kerouac betrayed your friendship?” In researching the literature recently, however, I was able to find a partial answer.
In the interview with Sadler, Temko says On the Road is a “trip is not only a trip in space but it’s also a drop through American society till you hit bottom and you find Neal Cassady and people like that.”
With a measure of self-honesty, Temko seems to excuse Kerouac for the negative portrayal:
Allan: In On the Road he doesn’t treat me very kindly. I’m the character Roland Major. He sees the snootier side of me. There’s some truth in that, because I didn’t like his friends. Some of them. But he was my friend.
Sadler: “You didn’t like the other friends, you didn’t like Neal Cassady because you thought he was immoral?
Allan: Yes, and a rat. And a pain in the ass. He was a bad type. Bad news. You didn’t want him anywheres around. I never felt that about Ginsberg. I’ve remained very friendly with Ginsberg. I thought Cassady was a conman.
Sadler: That seems to be the general —
Allan: Well, no! Young people still think he’s a saint of sorts. They respect, they enjoy the fact that he was a conman.
Temko outlived Kerouac and Cassady by more than three decades. When he died in 2006 at 81, he was eulogized as the winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism and the conscience of Bay Area urban planning.
If he is remembered today, it is most likely because of two of his famous putdowns: nicknaming San Francisco’s 39-story Marriott hotel the “jukebox” and likening the Vaillancourt Fountain on the Embarcadero Plaza to something “deposited by a concrete dog with square intestines.” (The enduring “jukebox” nickname is sometimes wrongly attributed to the Chronicle’s legendary columnist Herb Caen, who coined the disparaging term “beatnik.”)
In the end, Kerouac’s vision of an anti-elite American culture largely has triumphed over Temko’s sense of social order and good taste. The notion that entry into a high social class requires a standard of dress and behavior seems almost quaint.
Even after the sixties’ hippie movement was largely discredited, more young Americans take to the road and experiment with illegal drugs to lap up mad experience than can tell the differences among Champagne vintages.
Temko, however, also left a legacy. He led the way for the Bay Area to become perhaps the nation’s first metropolitan area to reject the brutal postwar efficiency-minded mindset. He led successful campaigns to stop San Francisco from extending the Central Freeway to the Golden Gate Bridge and to keep Berkeley’s Ashby Street BART station underground so the tracks did not break up the downtown.
Time erodes the smaller mountains and leaves standing only the highest peaks, like Kerouac and Caen. Temko’s name also deserves to endure.