Nova express off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg

by Carolyn Cassady
   Though Carolyn Cassady does not consider herself a Beat, this is one of the most important memoirs that was written about the Beat era. Carolyn was commissioned by a publisher to write her memoirs in 1970, but she was unable to receive permission to publish the letters that jack kerouac had sent her. Excerpts of the memoir appeared in magazines. A large excerpt called Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal was published in 1976 by Creative Arts Books in Berkeley, California, and inspired the 1980 Orion Pictures film Heart Beat starring Nick Nolte, John Heard, and Sissy Spacek. The full memoir was finally published by Black Spring Press in England and later the same year by William Morrow in the United States. Carolyn first meets neal cassady in March 1947. She has already heard of his exploits through Neal’s friend Bill Tomson, who is infatuated with Carolyn. Tomson brings Neal to Carolyn’s apartment unannounced, and Neal sweeps in looking for good jazz records to play. She is impressed more by his clothes than by his physical appearance. Still, she is attracted to him and is disappointed when a few hours later she discovers that he is married to a 16-year-old waitress named LuAnne. LuAnne, Neal, Al Hinkle, and Tomson all go back to Carolyn’s apartment for a party. LuAnne gushes about their perfect marriage, but Neal is sullen. Neal later returns to Carolyn’s apartment at 2 a.m., and fearing a scene with her landlord, she sneaks him in. They sleep chastely together in her bed, and this begins their relationship. She values how he listens to her and likes that their relationship is intellectual rather than sexual. However, part of the plot of this memoir is Carolyn’s gradual understanding of how much Neal and his friends lie to her. allen ginsberg, she learned too late, was in love with Neal, and that fall they had had an intense sexual relationship in New York. Ginsberg’s jealousy of Carolyn begins here when Neal begs off on a promised trip to Texas to visit William S. Burroughs because he wants to stay with Carolyn. This love triangle results in an odd scene. With Ginsberg asleep on the couch, Neal chooses to end their chaste relationship and forces sex on Carolyn. Carolyn wants to return to her “former state of bliss” so much that she represses the implications of this act. She believes that their love is “predestined,” but at the same time she feels herself losing her own free will.
   Neal introduces her to the mind-altering effects of Benzedrine, and they lie next to each other in a hotel bed, uninhibitedly talking about their past for hours. Neal makes love to her for the second time, and Carolyn once again feels only pain. In spite of their uninhibited conversation that night, she cannot bring herself to communicate her ideas about pleasurable sex to him. Neal seems not to notice her reaction and asks her to marry him. She replies that he is already married, and the subject does not come up again, although Neal does force LuAnne to file for an annulment. Kerouac arrives from New York about this time, and with him Carolyn feels the kind of warmth that she cannot feel with Neal. He whispers in her ear that it is too bad that Neal saw her first. Carolyn enjoys “playing house” with Neal, but he begins to disappear and does not provide explanations. Neal’s erratic behavior leads to her accepting an invitation from her former boyfriend to go to California, where she can pursue a costume-design career. Neal responds by saying that he will go with Ginsberg to Burroughs’s ranch in Texas.
   In Los Angeles, Carolyn finds herself haunted by thoughts of Neal as she dances with Cyril in the Biltmore Hotel. Cyril leaves for a trip to Mexico, and Carolyn moves to San Francisco where her older sister lives; there she awaits word on a potential job in Hollywood. From New Waverly, Texas, Neal writes her about life on Burroughs’s ranch. He tells her that he and Ginsberg have been unable to have a satisfactory physical relation and that Ginsberg was shipping out for Dakar, Senegal. Neal promises to join her in San Francisco after he drives Burroughs back to New York. They have only been separated five weeks when Neal arrives in San Francisco in October 1947. He still has not gotten the annulment, but as a consolation, he teaches her how to smoke marijuana that night, a drug that she eventually gave up because she did not like the feeling of losing control of her mind. Their first few months in San Francisco are fulfilling. However, on December 1 Lu-Anne arrives, looking very sophisticated. For the next few months, LuAnne teases Neal mercilessly and shows off the clothes and jewelry that another man is buying her. They resume a sexual relationship that Carolyn only finds out about years later through letters and Kerouac’s novels. Neal wrote to Kerouac that he needed to figure out a way to call off his impending marriage to Carolyn. It is too late: Carolyn is pregnant. When Neal finds a doctor who will perform an abortion, Carolyn cannot believe that he did not first discuss it with her. Lack of communication between men and women is a refrain in the book. The various pressures in his life—LuAnne, Carolyn’s pregnancy, Ginsberg’s letters from overseas—lead Neal to try to commit suicide on his birthday, February 8, 1948. Al Hinkle and Carolyn talk him out of it.
   Neal goes to Denver to secure the annulment in late February 1948. Carolyn, alone and pregnant, fears that he will not return. But he does, with the annulment, and with a hair-raising story about crossing the Donner Pass. Neal now settles down to get married and to raise a family. Their wedding day falls on April 1. It is a comedy of errors, and they end up having to use fake silver rings that had been purchased from Woolworth’s as their wedding bands. Al Hinkle helps Neal get a job on the railroad, but to get work, he has to go to Bakersfield. Carolyn is left alone, six months pregnant, the lease on her apartment up, and with only five dollars to last her two weeks. Soon, the work is steadier, and Neal regains his old energies, writing to Kerouac, “God has once again touched my seed—it blooms, I blossom”—perhaps an image that Kerouac incorporated into his description of Dean Moriarty that was based on Neal in On the Road from around this time, that Neal had developed into a “strange flower.” Neal begins some writing (possibly early versions of The first tHird), and Carolyn begins to paint again.
   Cathleen Joanne Cassady is born just after midnight September 7, 1949. Hospital rules forbid Neal witnessing the birth and kept Carolyn confined to the hospital for eight days—eight days that she feared Neal was spending in the company of LuAnne. Neal proves to be a doting father, however, writing enthusiastic letters to Ginsberg and Kerouac about parenthood. Two months after Cathy’s birth, Neal brings Al Hinkle with his new wife, Helen Hinkle. Carolyn is surprised that Al has married a woman whom she has never met and who does not appear to be his type. Her surprise becomes anger when Neal announces that he has bought a new car and will be taking the newlyweds on a honeymoon tour. Helen is rich, and Neal and Al are using her to finance a senseless trip back East to pick up Kerouac. Carolyn is furious with Neal’s irresponsibility and says that she would have broken up with Neal for good at that point were it not for two-month-old Cathy.
   Carolyn finds out that Neal has stopped off in Denver and knows that this means that he has picked up LuAnne (which, in fact, he has). Neal returns in late January 1949 after being on the road for more than two months. Carolyn throws him out. The next morning Neal calls Carolyn and convinces her that he is not seeing LuAnne. He comes home with Kerouac in tow. Kerouac is embarrassed that he is a big part of Carolyn’s problem with Neal. Still, he stays with them for about a week. Neal tries to work as a door-to-door salesman but fails. Carolyn tries to tolerate their antics and ends up letting them go out at night to hear jazz in San Francisco. A phone call from LuAnne ends her tolerance. Neal and Kerouac both swear that LuAnne is a whore, and Carolyn realizes that she actually envies LuAnne’s freedom. She kicks Kerouac out and tells Neal to go with him. Neal calls her a few days later, frantic and hurt: He has broken his hand hitting LuAnne; it is all over between them, he swears. When they go to the hospital, LuAnne is there, and Carolyn and LuAnne leave him there and go back to her house—one of the many scenes where Carolyn actually sides against Neal with his girlfriends. LuAnne tells her side of the trip East, and it turns out that she has conned both Jack and Neal: The only reason that she rides with them is to get a trip back to California where she is to meet her fiancé. Neal now has nowhere to stay, and Carolyn takes him back. With his injured hand, Neal cannot work and stays home with the baby while Carolyn works at a doctor’s office. During this period (March 1949) he is writing The First Third. Neal recovers sufficiently to get a job recapping tires. Word from the East and from Texas is that both Ginsberg and Burroughs have been arrested. They are not to hear from Ginsberg who was institutionalized for almost a year, and it is only through reading john clellon holmes’s novel Go that they learn the story of his arrest. Carolyn learns of her second pregnancy and is almost fired from her job by a male doctor because of her condition, but his partner, a woman general practitioner, starts her own office and takes Carolyn with her. Neal is writing long letters to Kerouac and persuades him to come to San Francisco. Carolyn finds herself having to watch over them as if they are children, but they invite her out one night to see the town with them. Her description of this night reveals the myth of the Beat lifestyle. Most of the night is spent standing around trying to score for marijuana and being entertained by pathetic strippers. Still, Carolyn is upset that her conventional upbringing prevents her from enjoying this scene the way Neal and Kerouac can. Another friend shows up, Henri Cru, and his enthusiasm over Neal’s seemingly perfect domestic life heightens Carolyn’s fury. She throws them all out; the next day, a note from Neal written by Helen Hinkle tells Carolyn that this time he is gone for good. Carolyn is now a single mother with another child on the way and has neither a husband nor reliable friends.
   Helen Hinkle emerges as one of the heroes of the book. When Carolyn is at her lowest and starting to use amphetamines, Helen shows up at her doorstep. Carolyn shares her amphetamines with Helen and they talk nonstop for two days, mainly about their grievances against their husbands. Helen and Carolyn decide to be roommates and for Helen to take care of Cathy while Carolyn continues to work until her pregnancy keeps her from doing so.
   In January 1950 Carolyn received a phone call from Diana Hansen, a woman who identified herself as Neal’s New York girlfriend and who was pregnant with his child. Diana wants Carolyn to get a divorce, but Carolyn demands that Neal ask for it himself. Jami is born to Carolyn on January 26, 1950. Later that year, Neal goes to Mexico with Kerouac in part to obtain a divorce from Carolyn to marry Diana, but he evidently never files the papers and lies about it to Diana when they bigamously marry on July 10. Two hours after this marriage, he is back on the road to seek work out West—and to reunite with Carolyn. Neal is called away to a railroad job in San Luis Obispo, and Carolyn writes to him about their relationship. At this time a struggle is going on between Carolyn and Diana for Neal as husband and provider, although Diana is in the weaker position. Diana’s son is born in November 1950. The other news from New York is that Kerouac has married Joan Haverty, the former girlfriend of the recently deceased Bill Cannastra. In December 1950 Carolyn and Neal celebrate their first Christmas together as a family. Carolyn discovers that she is pregnant again. To her relief, Neal is enthusiastic about the situation.
   Neal and Carolyn celebrate their third anniversary in comparative harmony. They go into therapy together to keep their marriage functioning. Neal starts to write long Proust-like letters to Kerouac, including the famous Joan Anderson letter (December 17, 1951). This letter influenced Kerouac’s writing style. Carolyn’s son is born on September 9, and they name him after Kerouac and Ginsberg: John Allen Cassady. Carolyn felt relieved that she had finally given Neal a son, but Neal would be plagued by guilt because of his inadequacy as a role model for John Allen. In January 1952, Kerouac moved in with the Cassadys. He is initially shy around Carolyn. He moves into the attic where Carolyn has made him a desk for writing, and he works as a brakeman during these months. Carolyn’s ability to live with both men is tested when Neal and Kerouac sneak home a prostitute one night. Kerouac later apologizes to her by inscribing a copy of The town and tHe city with a message that says “it will never happen again.” Later they all sit around, drink, and talk into a tape recorder. This conversation might be included in the transcripts from Kerouac’s visions of cody, in which Carolyn makes a brief appearance. Neal draws a two-week stay in San Luis Obispo. Carolyn and Kerouac are nervous about being left alone together, but Neal actually encourages their intimacy. This embarrasses both Carolyn and Kerouac, and Kerouac spends most of the two weeks staying with a friend. When Neal returns, he casually says he is disappointed that Carolyn and Kerouac did not make love. Carolyn is furious and decides to seduce Kerouac.
   Kerouac is initially shy, and Carolyn calculatedly seduces him with wine and jazz. The relationship works: she finally feels included in Neal’s and Kerouac’s lives; even more, she feels central. She speculates that Neal likes the set-up because he feels less tied down when a rival lover is with her. Carolyn finds her self-confidence growing. But Kerouac’s ex-wife Joan Haverty pressures him for child support, and he decides to go to Mexico. Carolyn and Neal move to San Jose in August 1952. Kerouac moves back in with them. Neal has taken a job on the railroad and has to leave that first night, leaving Kerouac and Carolyn alone. He tells Carolyn sentiments that never occur between him and Carolyn in his novels. Kerouac seems to love the children, too. Eventually, Neal resents that Kerouac wishes to spend more time with his wife and children than with him, and they have a falling out. Kerouac retreats to a skid-row hotel in San Francisco but soon rejoins Carolyn and Neal. In December 1952, Kerouac is laid off from the railroad. He plans to go to Mexico and to take Carolyn with him. In spite of Neal’s seeming openness to the affair, he comes up with a counterplan. He takes Kerouac to Mexico himself. In Mexico City, Kerouac writes to Carolyn to join him. Carolyn hesitates, Kerouac grows lonely, and he goes back to his family in North Carolina.
   Neal seriously injures his foot while working in April 1953. They invite Kerouac to stay with them while he recovers. However, the three-way relationship no longer works. Kerouac moves in with a student named Al Sublette and returns to New York. Depressed by his injury and prolonged legal battles, Neal’s personality goes blank. In 1954 Neal and Carolyn jointly and powerfully embrace Edgar Cayce’s philosophy. In sum, Cayce says that self-condemnation or guilt only keeps one on the same path that led to these feelings. Cayce teaches substituting a positive attitude about life—expect the best, not the worst. Cayce also believed in reincarnation as an evolutionary path, a concept that the Cassadys embraced as well. For Neal, his self-destructive acts revealed the guilt that he felt from his actions in previous lives. For Carolyn, Cayce taught her to let go of her anger over Neal’s actions. In an odd synchronicity, Kerouac arrives in January 1954 ready to share his newfound spiritual enthusiasm, Buddhism. However, Kerouac cannot make Buddhism compatible with Cayce, and the “magic circle” of 1952 breaks down. In March 1954 the railroad settled with Neal for a sum amounting to $16,000 after lawyer fees. Ginsberg finally arrives, fresh from his adventures in Mexico. Carolyn has not seen him for seven years since the scene in her Denver apartment, and she is nervous, but he puts her at ease by being the perfect guest. She assumes that his passion for Neal is over. She is wrong and walks in on them for the second time. This time, she is sorry to see Ginsberg go. With the insurance settlement, they buy a house in Los Gatos in August 1954. In retrospect, Carolyn realizes that there is no room for Kerouac in this house, and indeed Kerouac never feels comfortable in the house. Carolyn says that their first year in the house was among her best with Neal. Unfortunately, Neal’s job gives him more and more opportunities for extended visits to San Francisco. He falls in love with Natalie Jackson after falling in love with a portrait of her by Robert LaVigne (just as Ginsberg had fallen in love with LaVigne’s portrait of Peter Orlovsky before meeting him). In spite of Carolyn’s attempts to be tolerant, Neal moves to San Francisco to share an apartment with Ginsberg and Orlovsky.
   Kerouac returns to San Francisco, and Neal brings him to Carolyn’s for a visit. A scene develops on which Kerouac’s play The Beat Generation and the film Pull My Daisy are based. Neal leaves Kerouac alone with Carolyn that night, and they resume their intimacy. The next day, they all go to the racetrack, and Neal explains his sure-fire betting scheme: Always bet the third-choice horse. Carolyn is soon to find out that Neal has been raiding their savings account to finance his gambling habit. He has manipulated Natalie into posing as Carolyn and forging her signature on withdrawal slips. Neal hits bottom soon. Natalie commits suicide while eluding a police officer who is trying to help her down from a fire escape.
   Soon after, Ginsberg and Kerouac become famous (or infamous) with the publications of Howl and otHer poems and on tHe road respectively. Neal, on the other hand, continues to battle his demons and tries to expiate his guilt over Natalie’s death by making a fortune at the racetrack. Of course, he loses. Neal actually attends the famous “Howl” censorship trial during layovers in San Francisco. No one knows that he is the famous “secret hero” of the poem. When the reviews of On the Road come out, Neal and Carolyn are shocked by the viciousness of many of the critics. Neal is upset by their psychoanalysis of Dean Moriarty as a “madman.” In February 1958 Neal is arrested for possession of two marijuana cigarettes and is accused of being involved in a drug-smuggling ring on the railroad. Neal’s celebrity as the model for Dean Moriarty was seen by him and Carolyn as a factor in the arrest. Carolyn watches in horror as Neal is handcuffed in the living room of their house and taken off to jail. In the next few chapters, she writes an indictment of America’s police and legal system. Neal is released from prison—but only briefly. The feds obtain a new warrant, and Neal goes back to jail. He becomes desperate. To obtain a separate trial, he needs to be released on bail, but bail is set exorbitantly high. To raise bail, Carolyn would have to take out a mortgage on the house. She refuses, in spite of Neal’s pleas. This decision, which results in Neal unnecessarily receiving a lengthy prison sentence, she regrets. He is sentenced for five years to life and will actually serve about two and a half years.
   Carolyn supports the family by doing make-up and costumes for a Wild West show and by working for the drama club at the University of Santa Cruz. She admits to feeling an odd security while Neal is in prison because she always knows where he is. Kerouac offers to help with money, but none materializes. In prison Neal meets Gavin Arthur, a friend of gary snyder. Through Arthur, both Snyder and Ginsberg give prison readings. Kerouac is invited to read but drinks too much the night before and is unable to keep the date.
   Neal is released on June 3, 1960. Kerouac visits in July 1960 in the company of lew welch. Neal breaks his parole on day trips to Big Sur with Kerouac, Welch, lawrence ferlinghetti, and philip whalen. Carolyn, Neal, and the children drive up to Big Sur one day and surprise Kerouac, his girlfriend, michael mcclure, and his wife Joanna. Kerouac openly flirts with Carolyn. Unfortunately, this would be the last time that she would ever see him. Carolyn eventually reads Kerouac’s portrait of her in BiG sur and is once again upset that he never portrays his love for her honestly. Neal’s parole lasts three years. The last straw for Carolyn comes in fall 1962 when she is encouraged by Neal to take the children to a Cayce conference. Left at home, Neal brings home a woman (later identified as Anne Murphy, Neal’s girlfriend from 1961 to his death) and her disturbed child, who tears up the house. Carolyn tells Neal that it is time for a divorce. Kerouac advises them against it, believing that the root of their problems is simply financial. Divorced and no longer on parole in summer 1963, Neal quite naturally embarks on a road trip, this time with a group called The Merry Pranksters whose leader is ken kesey. Neal becomes a famous counterculture figure with the Pranksters, and Carolyn struggles to raise teenagers who idolize Neal for his irreverent behavior. Carolyn and Helen Hinkle are invited to the final “acid test” by the Pranksters, who are now fugitives from the law, which is depicted as quite dull. Carolyn struggles to keep Neal’s influence on his teenage children to a minimum, but he is irresistible. She decides that the best way to break the spell cast by his fame is to throw a birthday party for him and to invite all of the famous people whom her children and their friends want to meet. This party, held in spring 1966, draws Ginsberg, Kesey, members of the Grateful Dead, and other heroes of the counterculture. Already tending toward psychosis and under the influence of drugs, Neal degenerates mentally. Carolyn last sees him at a New Year’s Eve dinner party in 1967. Neal is disoriented and barely recognizes her. Soon thereafter, he moves to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to escape the law. On February 4, 1968, Carolyn receives a call that Neal is dead.
   Carolyn does not want Ginsberg and Kerouac to find out about Neal’s death through the newspapers and tells them personally by phone. Ginsberg is subdued by the news. Kerouac is drunk. Carolyn asks that Neal’s body be cremated. After four months of confusing negotiations, the ashes arrive in an urn. The eulogies for Neal in the official press are brief, but in the underground press they are fervent. Kerouac calls Carolyn and tells her that he will be joining Neal soon; he does, in fact, seven months later. The eulogies for Kerouac are lengthier but mixed. The final section of the book returns to Carolyn’s feud with Diana Hansen. She tries to get Carolyn to split Neal’s ashes with her. Carolyn is furious, and only after many phone calls does she relent and give her a spoonful. Diane then surprises her with the sensible suggestion that she will have Neal’s ashes sprinkled on Kerouac’s grave. The book ends on this note of resolution to the decades-long quarrel between the two women. For those interested in hearing a woman’s perspective regarding the Beat scene, Carolyn Cassady’s book is particularly insightful. It is also a memoir that sheds some light on the events not depicted by the Beat writers. Maybe most importantly it also shows to some extent how the Beats fictionalized and romanticized their lives in their works.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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