Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Last One Standing: Carolyn Cassady Interviewed
Once every so often something genuinely worthwhile graces these pages, and this is one of them.
Around two-and-a-half years ago I was sent a press release by publishers Black Spring Press, announcing that Carolyn Cassady was re-surfacing from rural Berkshire to promote the new edition of her memoirs, Off The Road: Twenty Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. I asked for an interview, got it, then could find no publications willing to take the feature, for lots of different reasons. In my chaotic life back then I subsequently seemed to lose the confounded interview transcript, only for it to turn up again recently. Here below, therefore, is an edited presentation of the interview.
Neal Cassady, of course, enjoyed a deeply profound friendship with Jack Kerouac, the latter basing the character of Dean Moriarty on him in On The Road. Carolyn married Neal in 1948 and the book is her account of their life together, up until 1963 when she filed for divorce, sick of his gallivanting, philandering, drug-taking and general self-destruction.
Subjective though it might be, Off The Road is arguably the truest glimpse of the intimate lives of Kerouac and Cassady yet to be published. Cassady writes candidly of her own long-term affair with Kerouac (one approved of by Neal), and the extra-marital activities of her husband, such as walking in on him and Allen Ginsberg in, shall we say, a state or pre-coital exploration in the marital bedroom. Still adhering at least in part to her traditional upbringing, Carolyn promptly kicked Ginsberg out of their house.
Carolyn was fictionalised herself, as 'Camille' in On The Road, though she refused to read the book out of fear of what she might discover about her husband's insatiable mores.
She was encouraged to write Off The Road in the early seventies by publishers keen to cash in on the recent death of Kerouac, yet the book wasn't published until 1990. Tell the story of the beats it certainly does, but Cassady also devotes much of the book to her and Neal's experimenting with spirituality, leading to her eventually being a founding member of the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine in the seventies. At times, her passion for advocating her 'answer to life' philosophy unbalances the book, but Cassady is never one to shirk from speaking her mind. For decades she has been a critic of the way Kerouac's estate and legacy has been mishandled, along with, if you'll forgive the pun, the misguided near-beatification of the trio of writers who are the subject of her book.
In turn, modern feminists have taken aim at Cassady, accusing her of perpetuating the myth of 'masculine artistic hero' and fulfilling stereotypical domestic roles. Her apparent kowtowing is perhaps made more unsettling when one considers that Carolyn was arguably the intellectual superior to both Jack and Neal.
Cassady refutes all this though, as we can see. She ended up staying in touch with the other women in Neal's life, and at the age of 86, lives near Bracknell having moved to the UK when she was 60.
She is a woman with a lot of stories to tell.
Was the book originally something to set the record straight about these men, who had become more mythical than human?
Yes, it was from the request by the editor at Doubleday that I wrote my memories, since when Kerouac died [in 1969] the media didn’t seem to know him. Just assumptions and myths.
What was you and Neal's initial reaction to the exalted character of his alter-ego, Dean Moriarty?
We thought the character of Dean Moriarty was too limited a portrait of Neal. He disliked having the side of him promoted he was trying to overcome.
The duality of Kerouac's nature is well known, but in your experience which side of him dominated, the sentimental romantic or the testosterone-driven braggart?
Well, both. His self-portraits are pretty true: there is a lot that is typical Kerouac;. I do flinch when I can tell when he’s being bombastic, playing to the gallery or just plain silly.
The photograph on the cover to your book is striking. What were the circumstances surrounding it?
I tell about the photos in my book. It was the day after they brought home the prostitute, and because I didn’t throw them out as before, Jack was so happy he said we had to go outside and take pictures. I used a whole role of film in my Brownie box camera.
How did you feel about the way Jack depicted you in On The Road and other books?
What little Jack wrote about me was fine. He didn’t tell of the times we were together in Denver, and he didn’t write about our affair. In the early books, written in the late forties and early fifties it 'wasn't done' to write about fancying your best friend’s fiance and later having an affair with his wife. But come the sixties, in Big Sur he was quite comfortable telling how Evelyn had two husbands at the same time.
Watching him at close quarters, how did Neal deal with his frustrated literary ambitions?
Neal was extremely restless.Then he said he had so many words bombard his brain, to choose le mot juste was agonising. He was aware this was to be 'literature'. He wrote hundreds of letters, however, without those problems.
How sympathetic were you to the political and social agenda of the sixties counter-culture, for whom Neal was such a hero?
I suppose the counter-culture is a cyclical thing. When societies become so smug, so hypocritical, so static, something comes along to shake it all up and bring in new ideas. I haven’t liked very many of them so far, but I hope the pendulum will swing again.
What about The Grateful Dead [who Cassady famously drove around in Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters' tour bus] ?
I liked the men in The Grateful Dead, I just don’t like amplified music nor that without a structure I understand.
How do you think Jack would feel about his fame and legacy as it stands today?
In some ways Jack would be gratified, in others not with everyone wanting to get in on his act for personal gain. He would be pleased he is now considered a great writer, but he would be bitter it came too late for him to benefit himself. And what the Sampas family have done would appall him [the family of Kerouac's third wife Stella, for information see here], beginning with the funeral and the grave. The memorial monument he would love.
All these characters are often depicted in fiction as wild-living libertines on the fringes of society, yet your book suggests a part of them all yearned for the structure of the conventional family at one stage or another.
Yes, Jack, Neal and even Allen all aspired to a traditional family life. I think that’s why they liked our home. In Jack’s case it was lack of sufficient income from his writing. Neal had it for 10 years, but he craved adventure and challenges as well, so it wasn’t enough for his nature. He never wanted to leave it as long as he had some freedom, too. I made the mistake of divorcing him, in the erroneous thinking he would prefer his other life. He wanted both, alas.
Has the rise of the Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady myth and brand been something you've watched with bitterness?
No one gave Neal any more adoration than I did. I was always glad if anyone admired or respected him for the right reasons. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case.
What made you leave America and come and live in Britain at the age of 60?
I became thoroughly disgusted with the establishment and corruption I witnessed. I was raised with the ideas that those institutions could do no wrong. My father even told me banks never make mistakes. I don’t see how anyone could have been more naïve and un-streetwise than I. I left that country.
Do you keep up with what's going on back in the States?
I don’t get involved in politics. I don’t believe any politician’s words. I am pleased with Obama’s victory - so far. I hope he can achieve his desires, like a decent health system and so on.
You deal with all of Neal's transgressions with other women and with Allen with admirable restraint. Do you ever regret your passivity?
Neal taught me a great many valuable lessons. One of them was jealousy is counterproductive. I am still close friends with his first wife and long-time mistress. We do have him in common. I knew nothing about homosexuality until much later. Now I would not have asked Allen to leave.
The Beat Generation writers are often criticised for their lack of respect towards the women in the lives, especially their creative endeavours. Was that something you experienced?
In my experience the men I knew respected women. They were always perfect gentlemen with me and in mixed company. They were very appreciative of me. I gather women who tried to compete in writing were overlooked, but I had no personal experience with that phenomenon. All my art and theatre work was successful and praised.
What do you say to feminists who criticise the beats' treatment of women?
I don’t agree with feminists; I don’t think they understand male and female functions. Yang and Yin. The Yin is far more powerful when not in active roles. Well... deep subject not appropriate here. I have written about it in Van Gogh’s Ear.
To what extent is it true, as hinted at in your book, that Neal was not the sexual superman he is often remembered as, but a little clumsy and awkward?
Neal was interested in any woman sexually, but he didn’t 'make love' or understand a woman’s needs, except highly sexually sensitive ones. I had been abused by both my elder brothers as a child, so I needed a different sort of approach than Neal’s. Jack’s was better, but I was handicapped. One of my deep regrets is that in those days we couldn’t talk about sex. I’m sure Neal would have understood and been compassionate, but I never told him.
Have you held to the spiritual teachings you detail in your book since then?
I still live by the spiritual principals I learned from studying so much metaphysics and ancient scriptures, because I think they are true and make sense - and they work. I test new ideas.
Did Jack's not accepting your new beliefs hinder your relationship with him?
Of course, we were disappointed that our best friend couldn’t understand what we felt to be the answer to life. But as time went on, we could appreciate the other’s beliefs. We felt his Buddhism was a step toward our faith in Jesus; we had studied it deeply. Still, we also understood we had logical minds and Jack did not. He was far more of a visionary, a dreamer, impressionable and so on. It didn’t harm our friendship with one another.
How do you feel about reports of a film version of On The Road, directed by Walter Salles and produced by Francis Ford Coppola?
So far any films that weren’t careful documentaries in regard to us were all dreadful. I have been consulting with Walter Salles often on the On The Road film. Also in the past, Francis Coppola consulted me and gave me copies of all the screenplays so far written. His son, Roman, and I wrote one together at his request which I still like. Every word in it is Jack’s. I’ve not seen the new script... Walter says he never follows the script exactly, or he enhances it as he goes along, so the written word is not what the film will be. I think if Walter had been allowed by financiers to follow his and Coppola’s original ideas, this film would be very good. Alas, for some reason they insist on Hollywood stars, Technicolor, all the usual stuff. No insights. No vision, no understanding this film will make millions whether it is good, bad or indifferent. So why not let him do it right?
And you didn't actually read On The Road until this time?
I didn’t want to know what Neal was doing on his road trip with Jack and LuAnne. I didn’t read the book thoroughly and objectively until working with Roman Coppola.
What makes up your life today?
Now I just read, watch DVDs and TV and listen to classical music. I have arranged my funeral and try not to be impatient. I get to see great friends from time to time - I have made so many from knowing these men in the past. I have occasional visitors from afar and answer a lot of emails.