When I was in high school, my friends - like millions of other adolescents - discovered "On the Road" and the Beatniks. One day two of them were at our house talking about what a 'God' Kerouac was, whereupon my mother interjected: "I didn't think much of him!"
This was my first inkling that my mother - whom I knew to be unconventional but otherwise pretty much regarded as most boys regard their mothers - had known several people connected with the Beatniks, notably William Burroughs (whom she liked) and Jack Kerouac (whom she didn't). Largely, I later learned, because she had been at Barnard about the same time some of the key figures were at Columbia (in the early 40's). Her account of Kerouac then and subsequently was that, while everybody else was having complex, stimulating conversations, he would sit there saying nothing. Simply listening.
Even at the age of 15, it seemed to me that this was not so bad a thing for a writer to do.
Though she'd been close to David Kammerer, who knew both Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, she never met Ginsberg during that period. But when they met years later, they had a number of shared memories, as recounted below.
If she kept diaries in her twenties, I have never found them. So all the accounts which follow are from the Sixties and Seventies, and reflect that sense of looking back.
My mother spoke very fondly of Bill Burroughs, whom she regarded above all as a gentleman. Though they may have met at Columbia, I presume they frequented each other most in the Village, where she went to live while still at Barnard, having married the Irish writer Thomas Healy.
She told me one anecdote which she also fictionalized somewhere. One night, at a 'hip' gathering in the Village, some of the guests disappeared into the neighboring gardens only to return shortly after triumphantly bearing two plastic statues of pink flamingoes. While everybody else was mocking the taste of the Philistines who'd owned such objects, my mother protested that these may have been precious to the owners, souvenirs of some special trip. Everybody else derided her concern for these unknowns - everybody, that is, except Bill Burroughs, who through gallantry or sympathy defended her point of view.
One night in the Sixties, she and my step-father went to the Metro, a trendy bar where among other things poetry readings were held on certain nights. In the crowd, she spotted her old friend. However, by now he was well known, and they hadn't met for years.
January 5, 1965
The Metro crowded, a pack of unwashed, unshaven kids, with Charles II haircuts, or hair uncuts, down to their shoulders. No seats then saw Marguerite Harris at a table to the left. Found a seat there, R. standing against the wall opposite.
Allanís here, M. said during the intermission. And Bill Burroughs is in the back room. He looks just like a business man.
- He always did.
- You know him? She looked very impressed.
- I used to. Havenít seen him in 20 years,. But Iíve never met Allen. Heard about him but nvr met him.
..I got up afterwords to go to the ladiesí room, coming back by way of the back room in the hope of seeing Bill, + didnít until I got back to my seat, when I spotted him 20 feet away, directly opposite me and beyond the readers. I put my dark glasses on so that I cld watch him; not too different, white-haired now, + as well as I cld see, the sixth finger gone, otherwise very similar to Samuel Beckett in a salt + pepper overcoat, reserved as an Irishman, long-faced + still the listener.
With the sets over, he got up to leave, followed by the boy with him (his son?) + I turned half-away, only to see that he had stopped at the stairs, to turn + smile at me. Surprised, I leaned forward and smiled back, lifting my hands in one of those little waves that people can disavow if they want to. We smiled sappily at each other + he went out.
March 17, 1967
Willi Bleimeister brot Naked Lunch + I skimmed it while waiting for R. I cannot reconcile the portrait Bill gives of himself, unwashed + starving, with the immaculate, puritanical Bill I knew. And the scatology of it somehow escapes me, like a clinical report, bcs it is so remote from my own exprc both in description + vocabulary.
It's strange that Allen Ginsberg was the one of this famous three that my mother never met, until (as recounted below) he gave a reading at Vassar. She was after all at Barnard and he at Columbia. She'd been very good friends with David Kammerer, whose place in Beat history centers around his killing by Lucian Carr (father of the novelist Caleb Carr, whose comments about this whole milieu are less than flattering.) It's strange then that she identified herself to Ginsberg as a friend of both - in fact, she had some bitter remarks to make about the man who had stabbed her friend and thrown his body in the river (supposedly to defend himself from a homosexual assault - ironic, given the milieu he was associated with.) Notably in the letter reproduced here, which she wrote to New York Magazine (where it was published on June 7, 1976):
Who really gave birth to the Beats?
For me, Aaron Lathamís piece in this magazine on the death of David Kammerer ["The Columbia Murder That Gave Birth to the Beats," April 19] was an outrage. Revere Lucien Carr? Poppycock. Mr. Latham should have cast a much sharper eye on his own internal evidence, and fished up the truth that it was not little Lucien who inspired the Beats, but that "professor" working "as a janitor," David Kammerer.
In the first place, David didnít look at all like Swinburne. He looked like Roger Livesey in his prime, and to this day I canít bear to see Stairway to Heaven again, because thereís the image of David Ė robust, red-bearded and hellishly alive. In the second, no one who ever heard one of Davidís brilliant, plangent monologues could imagine him saying "ya" for the second person. (Or allowing anyone to call him "Dave".) It may, in this age of the grunt and the mutter, seem strange to recall that people once spoke English, and possibly the most significant American talker of his generation was David Kammerer. The richness and complexity of his English, accurately reflecting the richness and complexity of his mind, are unforgettable. Trying to describe Davidís talk would be like trying to describe the scent of Toujours Moi on your motherís old mink, redolent of grace past but misting away.
Certainly it is not at all difficult for anyone who knew both Lucien and David to see why Lucien Carr never achieved the promiseĖwho?Ėexpected of him.
Now it is not my intention in this protest to traduce Lucien. I simply think it is time to set the record straight. Certainly Kerouac, that self-serving mythomaniac, never did. When I groused to David about my dislike of Kerouac, he would patiently say, "You donít have to like him. But you can learn to appreciate him. He is beginning to do some damned good writing." In return for these gestures of faith in a yet unpublished writer, Kerouac never had the grace or the gratitude to dedicate one word to David. On the contrary, in one of his books he vilified him. At the least, it was a breach of hospitality, because he never minded sponging off David. At the most, it was a crass and gratuitous betrayal of a man who had befriended him.
Itís almost true, as Mr. Latham says, that Lucien was a catalyst. The only trouble was that once he had introduced you to David, you quickly became weary of his épater-le-bourgeois-ism and preferred, as I and others did, to see David instead. I canít say my first meeting with David was very promising. Lucien needed a term paper in a hurry, and took me to Morton Street, where he intended to drop off his notes at Davidís. He thrust through the door David was trying to bar against him as David roared, "Stay out of here, I told you never to come here." Intrepid, Lucien barged on in. David socked him. As Lucien fell, the screen concealing the corner sink fell down beneath him. He lay spread-eagled on it, looking up with wonder and saying, "You never hit me before." David threw him out, locked the door, then turned to me and said, "Youíre welcome to stay. And come any time you want to, but donít ever bring that little bastard around here again. I donít want him around."Ö. ..Then he laughed and commented, rather grimly, "I suppose he wants me to write a term paper for him."
It was quite a place, that little white room on Morton Street,, rent-free to David in exchange for his services as a janitor. (He had been balckballed from teaching because of the Lucien situation, and was not, as Mr. Latham says, working as a janitor just to be near Lucien. The last thing David wanted was to be near Lucien: he wanted the hell away from Lucien. Still, his future was precarious. He was lucky to work as a janitor.) Without betraying long-ago but far from forgotten, confidence, I can only say that the facts of the situation are wholly dissimilar to those subsequently reported. For one example, if David was completely that scoutmaster who loved little boys, then why did he spend one zestful New Year's Eve trying to make our luscious hostess at a party? She was a kept woman, with a pretty rounded experience of men, and she didn't take him for anything but heterosexual.
Just let it suffice to say that whoever is fabricating the Lucien myth left out some essential details in providing Mr. Latham with sensational material. He also left out any descriptions of those long evenings on Morton Street when David, cross-legged on the floor or leaning on his desk by the window, would talk extemporaneously and uninterruptedly to the seven or eight people crowding in (no Lucien there) on whatever was preoccupying his extraordinary , discursive mind. One evening I remember well (and with good reason, in the light of later developments among the Beats), he launched into a two-hour meditation on the various facets of Buddhism. As an Anglican mystic, David had explored other varieties of mystical experience, coming at the last to the most classic, that beatitude is an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Being a professor or a janitor is immaterial. Being is essential.
Kerouac was there that night, listening intently. Maybe Chandler Broussard, who lived just overhead in an equally small but chicly green and white room. Maybe Bill Burroughs. But Bill, who had been at Harvard and had a validated brain of his own, didn't need a guru. The others-and there were many others, piling into the little room night after night to hear David-did need a guru, in the sense that an incubus needs a host. For, long before the word guru became part of American subculture cant, David, exiled from conventional teaching, was serving as a guru to a whole nucleus of people. This is one aspect of David Mr. Latham might have explored. What is the function of a born teacher with no forum to teach in?
Consider the pain of it: David, that rarest of rare creatures, a teacher of genius, confined to teaching a chance collection of people from the streets of the Village in a seven-by-nine ground floor room. Genius. Yes, indeed. Of genius. The mere fact that the Beats have been promulgating his ideas - very profitably and without attribution - for almost 30 years is proof of that.
Imagine, if you can, a man quite unlike the decadent old queen of the Lucien myth. A man who talked somberly of Meredith and Hardy and Bennett, then floored you with laughter with his rueful description of his first abortive day as a window-washer.: losing his balance and diving into a ribbon manufacturer's office, only to become involved like a fallen archangel in a diabolical coil of ribbons. Listening, you saw the episode as a Blakeian image. This David was a much more complex and provocative man than Mr. Latham's fictional 'Dave'. An estranged and strange man, a mystic and a ralist, sensitive and brutal, saintly and sensual, loving and loathing. More often, the loathing , where Lucien was concerned, superseded the loving. And the mystery still remains, after all these years: how had David been persuaded to go with Lucien that last night?
Above all, David loathed the ersatz and the pretentious. His gargantuan sense of fun would give him rich and ironic amusement out of the propagation of a Lucien-as-only-sole-begetter-of-the-Beats myth. "Just another pretty face. Damn all inside, " I can almost hear him saying in some Anglican-Buddhist heaven, sitting cross-legged on a rug before an indoor picnic of wine (for him) and cake (for me).
I still think of that 88-degree night in August when my husband, the late Irish writer T. F. Healy, came unexpectedly to meet me after my lobster shift at a printing plant. "I didn't want you to see it in the papers."
"David's dead." And then Tom bestowed on David the best epitaph of all, there in the heat and the mist and the brownout, on 45th street at two o'clock of a wartime morning. "I know how you loved that man. But I did too. I really loved that man." Then Tom gave David an Irishman's greatest tribute: "He spoke the language. He really spoke the language."
That kind and endearing man, that David Kammerer who so prodigally and generously squandered his intellectual reserves on the Kerouacs and Carrs of this world, deserves a memory of love, not falsification. If only because he really spoke the language, with truth and wit and precision, and there aren't many left who do.
My mother's defense of David Kammerer appears to be unusual, though perhaps only because history is written by the victors. Certainly, in "Vanity of Duluoz" (especially the 12th chapter), Kerouac gives an unflattering portrait of "Franz Mueller", David's stand-in (whom he also frequently refers to as "Swinburne".) On the other hand, he also refers to Lucien ("Claude") as a "fallen angel" and tells his own story of "Claude" getting him to write a term paper.|
With that background, here is her account of her one brief but evocative meeting with Ginsberg:
February 9, 1968
..Afterwards, there was a recptn for Ginsburg at the Aula, + I managed to get thru the crowd + say to him, I have just missed meeting you for 20 yrs - Iím an old friend of Lucian Carrís + David Kammererís.
He stared at me open-mouthed, like a tropical fish.
- And I used to hear them say, all the time, Letís go up to Columbia + see Allen.
- Oh, were you the girl upstairs? On Morton St?
- No, that was the girl who married the Dutch banker. [Remembered after he was Swiss.]
- Oh, then youíre the one from Bedford St.
- Yes. I remember now. Jack has just written a book about that period.
- Yes, I saw the reviews. But, on the whole, I like Billís work better. Bill Burroughs.
- You mean the cut-ups? Yes. Kerouac got that from him. Heís had a great influence on me.
- Oh? I thought the ideas were Davidís.
- Well, it took a while after that for Jack to form his own. After all, David - was what? Ten? Fifteen? Years older. Jack didnít begin to publish until the late Forties, after David was dead. Do you ever go back there, to Morton St.? Spectres. Full of spectres!
- No, Iíve never gone down that street again. Never.
We stared at each other for a moment, with what must hv bn mutual expressions of horror, then he murmured, I still see Lucian sometimes. He has 3 children. He works for -?
- Yes. U.P. He has changed not the least bit except for a little moustache.
- How unforgivable.