Originally published at ABC Arts Online, October 2013
In June 1954, Neal Cassady's wife, the late Carolyn Cassady, walked in on her husband in flagrante with Allen Ginsberg while the latter was staying at the couple's San Francisco home.
The incident inflamed Carolyn's "puritan hackles", as she puts it in her book Off The Road: Twenty Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, about sex. Ginsberg was promptly asked to leave. "How could you? Right here in our home?" she admonished her husband.
Not too long before then she was holding down multiple jobs (a radiologist's assistant and 'camera girl' in night clubs being a couple of them) and throughout the Fifties was bringing up a young family.
Carolyn Cassady's life then, which came to an end on September 20 at the age of 90, was not exactly one of hedonism and a pursuit of freedom informed by sensory pleasure and spiritual experimentation, or any other typical Beat Generation values. Her reputation is not that of a sexual goddess, as with the buxom Luanne Henderson (Mary Lou in Jack Kerouac's On The Road), the alluring Terry from the same novel (whose real-life inspiration, incidentally, also died recently).
Yet she remains one of the most vital and influential women associated with the Beat Generation – in spite of and perhaps because of the distance this intelligent, sensitive woman put between herself and the coterie of writers and poets who, love them or loathe them, left an indelible imprint on American literature and culture that has impacted on each generation that has followed.
Cassady was a muse to Neal and Jack Kerouac (with whom she had a tender affair, with Neal's blessing) in a way that was not exactly Calliope-like, yet was profound for both men. To them, she represented a domestic ideal: the family. She was their tie to tradition and the cosy security of companionship. Kerouac's adventuring across America was punctuated by long stints brooding at his mother's house on the East Coast, while Cassady too was forever split between his marauding and establishing a life as a husband and father. Carolyn Cassady's warmth and benevolence was key to the streak of sentimentality in the artistry of both men: particularly Kerouac, for whom childhood and nostalgia were just as vital in his writing as jazz, drugs and travel.
In an interview conducted in 2009, from her home in Bracknell, England, Cassady told me, "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 a lack of sufficient income. Neal had it for 10 years, but he craved adventure 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."
Cassady, born into respectability in Michigan in 1923, met Cassady in 1947 while studying fine arts and theatre in Denver, and they married the following year. In the late Forties, Cassady and Kerouac were deeply enthralled with each other, and Carolyn's proximity to them resulted in her appearance as Camille in On The Road and Evelyn in later Kerouac novels Big Sur (where she had two husbands) and The Dharma Bums. After various separations, the couple divorced in 1963 – when it seemed the wild Neal of the road had ultimately won out over domesticity.
It was a battle within himself that, Carolyn Cassady said in 2009, was not helped by the publication of On The Road in 1957.
"We thought the character of Dean Moriarty was too limited a portrait of Neal," she said. "He disliked having the side of him promoted he was trying to overcome."
To her immense credit, Carolyn Cassady held herself resolutely separate to the Beats, in terms of any sort of social set in their Fifties heyday (and after) as well as ideologically. Up until her death, she never bought into the mythologizing of these men and commercialisation of what has, let's face it, become a brand. And she hated the 2012 film of On The Road.
"In some ways Jack would be gratified," she said when asked how Kerouac would feel about his legacy and fame today, "in others not with everyone trying 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 to benefit himself."
Carolyn Cassady's most crucial role in literary history may end up being as a lens through which the Beats are reduced to human beings. As fallible, limited, small figures affected by insecurities, doubt and pettiness, as opposed to heroic mystics pushing back the frontiers of art and consciousness.
In Off The Road, Cassady writes of squabbles between Neal and Jack over the latter's apparent freeloading at the Cassady home, along with a falling out over the divvying up of marijuana.
As well, Carolyn's accounts of Neal as a lover hardly paint him as the sex god he seemed to be in fiction and in letters. A man for whom, as described by Kerouac in On The Road, "sex was the one and only holy and important thing in his life". For his former wife, however, he was no sexual hero.
"Neal was interested in any woman sexually," she said, "but he didn’t 'make love' or understand a woman's needs. 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."
As for the episode with Ginsberg, her exposure to these men and their progressive ideas about love, relationships and sexuality did have an effect on her after all, proving perhaps that the distance she kept between her and the Beats was ultimately not so great.
"Neal taught me a great many valuable lessons. One of them was that 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."