Wills, D., ‘Gregory Corso’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)
The life of Gregory Corso reads like a cheap and trashy tragic made-for-TV movie. It was one of heartbreak and irony…
Corso was born Nunzio Corso on March 26th 1930, to a sixteen-year-old mother. Michelina Corso had just married Sam Corso before giving birth to Nunzio, and a year later she abandoned him into the care of Catholic charities, his father quickly remarrying and feeding him stories about his mother.
Corso selected the name ‘Gregory’ as his confirmation name, and while known to his Italian American community as Nunzio, he dealt with everyone else as ‘Gregory.’
He spent eleven years in five different fosters homes, coming to appreciate the Catholic church’s efforts in helping orphaned and abandoned children through the depression, despite his own depressing isolation.
To avoid being drafted for WWII, Corso’s largely absent and uncaring father brought his son home in 1941. Nevertheless, Sam Corso was drafted and Gregory Corso became homeless, now without any family, foster or otherwise.
He tried fruitlessly to find his mother over the years, despite the stories his father told him: that she was a disgraced prostitute, cared little for Corso, and had returned to Italy in shame.
Alone, Corso took to the streets, sleeping in the subway and on the roofs, running errands for food from street vendors. He became a street child of Little Italy, continuing his education while denying his homelessness to the authorities.
When only thirteen years old, Corso stole a toaster, sold it, and used the money to buy a tie and see a movie. The movie was The Song of Bernadette, about the appearance of the Virgin Mary. Corso claimed he thought seeing the movie would bring about a miracle wherein he would be reunited with his mother. But upon leaving the theatre, he was arrested for theft and sent to New York’s infamous prison, the Tombs. With no one to pay his $50 bail, Corso was incarcerated with criminally insane murderers for several months.
In 1944, during a blizzard, Corso broke into his tutor’s office and spent the night in the relative warmth. When he woke he was immediately arrested and sent back to the Tombs. He became so traumatised by the brutality of the other inmates that he was sent to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. (He was not the only Beat writer locked up in a mental hospital.)
At seventeen, Corso was sent to Clinton prison, a maximum security facility near the Canadian border, for stealing a suit, and without being given legal representation to defend himself. This was the prison where most electric chair death sentences were carried out.
Clinton was kinder to Corso than the Tombs had been. Here, the youngest inmate in the facility was protected by the Mafia and sent to the cell occupied by Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, who had donated his library to the prison and had his own reading light by his bed. Corso spent his nights reading the classics, and upon leaving Clinton, his Mafia friends got him a job in the city.
After three years, ending 1950, Corso was back in New York City, writing and reading poetry, and becoming friends with Allen Ginsberg. They met in a lesbian bar, The Pony Stable, and Ginsberg became attracted to Corso and his poetry. Corso showed Ginsberg a poem he’d written about a woman he’d watched lie naked on her windowsill, and it turned out she was a friend of Ginsberg. Ginsberg set the two up, but Corso got scared and literally ran away.
Through Ginsberg Corso met Burroughs, Kerouac, and many of New York’s writers and artists. Corso and Kerouac met in 1950, but didn’t become close friends until 1953. In The Subterraneans, Kerouac recalls an incident in which Corso stole a pushcart and caused a fallout between Kerouac and Ginsberg. Corso came to resent his depiction in the book as he believed Kerouac had no right to speak so harshly of him in the early days of their relationship, which had not yet come to be considered even friendship.
When Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Burroughs were in Tangiers, Corso came and visited them, and then persuaded them to come live in Paris, and introduced them to a place later to be known as the Beat Hotel. Here, Corso and Ginsberg helped Burroughs edit together The Naked Lunch, and the two poets produced some of the finest work.
In 1957, Corso returned to New York. He was the youngest member of the ‘inner circle’ of Beats – that small social group that is the only one that can be accurately and honestly considered the Beat Generation. Yet, despite being the youngster of the group, Corso was the first published Beat, having his collection of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, published in 1952.
It was for the publication of Gasoline that he returned, and this coincided with the publication of On the Road and the explosion of the Beat Generation as a cultural phenomenon. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso stuck around, posed for photos, answered questions for reporters, and took a constant and ignorant barrage of abuse. Corso played the bad boy of the group, talking up his prison time and unkempt appearance.
He began to tour the poetry circuit with Ginsberg, and despite the Beat movement for the most part being considered a fad for dumb kids, playing on the rebellious streak of a few over-popular criminals, Corso began to draw a lot of positive attention for his poetry. Namely, the attention came for Marriage, his long musing on the peculiarities of the institution.
Marriage evokes the music and rhythm within Corso, instead of adhering to the structures and conventions of traditional poetry. His idol was Shelley, English Romanticist, yet in Paris Corso hit upon the notion of simply letting sound come from the mean – what he naturally felt inclined to say. The result was a long and witty poem poking fun at conformity, digging the Beat spirit of rejecting tradition that gripped the group and would become satirised itself in years to come.
Later in his life, Corso, like so many associated with the Beat Generation, came to resent his label and public perception as a Beatnik, and shunned the limelight they’d all at one stage or another occupied.
However, he allowed Gustave Reininger to film Corso – The Last Beat, which showed Corso in Italy lamenting never having known his mother. Reininger secretly launched a search for Michellina Corso, and amazingly found her living in Trenton, New Jersey, and not in Italy, as Corso had always been told by his father.
Corso and his mother were reunited on camera, and the truth came out that she had been beaten almost to death by Sam Corso, and had no choice but to leave him and hand her child over to the church. When she’d later been in a position to support a child, she was unable to find Corso.
Despite feeling ‘healed’ by finding his mother, Corso was soon diagnosed with prostate cancer and died in January, 2001. He was buried next to Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.