Carolyn & Neal, 1947
Dean merely looked at Camille, pointed at his wrist, made the sign “four”. . .and went out. At three the door was locked to Roy Johnston. At four it was opened to Dean.—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Neal turned back abruptly and, taking a step or two toward me, raised two fingers in an urgent gesture. What could he mean by that? Alone at last. . .As I lowered my hideaway bed, I was startled by a soft knock on the door. My clock read 2:00 a.m. Who on earth? Cautiously I opened the door a few inches and was face to face with Neal, suitcase in hand. I ardently wished I had not lowered that bed.—Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road
It’s been such a pleasure getting to know you, Carolyn. When I told my husband—that first morning I heard from you—whom I was replying to, he said, “Great! She was always my favorite character in On the Road. I thought she was the only one with any sense.”
Well, bless yo husband—though I didn’t think Camille got a look in, really. And what a howl! Sal sees this “white thigh in black lace”! Sorry, I don’t think so!
[laughing] Let’s talk about being the “only one in On The Road with any sense.” You are known as the woman who was “married” to both Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady simultaneously.
And Kerouac didn’t write anything about the time we spent together when he came to Denver. In those days of the late forties and early fifties, it “wasn’t done.” You couldn’t write about fancying your best friend’s girl, and later he couldn’t write about having an affair with his best friend’s wife! Goodness, no! But—when it gets to the sixties and he writes Big Sur, he is quite comfortable telling how Evelyn had two husbands at the same time. How times change!
The San Francisco men I’ve known who idolized Jack and Neal imitated the misogyny they saw in On the Road. And in As Ever, Allen Ginsberg tells Neal: “I call Jack up to tell him come over and meet this here girl, and he says I only fuck girls and learn from men. . .So I starts writing him poison pen postcards (anonymous) saying that’s why your so dumb.”
It is so strange you think Kerouac was misogynist! His remarks—like the one you quoted about girls—were always taken so seriously, yet he never had any set opinions. You ask a question, get an answer. Ask the same question ten minutes later and get a totally different one.
I can’t see misogyny in OTR, either. At any rate, the men I knew of that generation, especially those raised as Catholic, were all very respectful of women—something the feminists abhor. I loved having car doors opened for me and chairs pulled out, et cetera. When you read my book, you will find a letter to me from Ginsberg in which he tells what Jack thought of me. Hardly misogyny.
So, so, so many misunderstandings.
Like the ”Beat Generation.” No such thing. A phenomenon invented by the media and promoted by Ginsberg. But Kerouac kept saying, “I didn’t have anything to do with all that.” He was forced into it and had to play along, but he hated it. Neal, of course, was totally out of it. The big boys, like Burroughs, disliked this “jail kid” “conman” who hadn’t been to University and didn’t write poetry. Of course, he had read far more than any of them and had a photographic memory as well as an over-the-top IQ. And no ego (Catholic miserable worm of a sinner).
Another opinion is that Jack was tied to [his mother] Memere’s apron strings. I see it quite differently. Actually, he was hardly ever with her, was he? I think that because he was so sensitive, so painfully self-conscious, she was the only person he could be with and just let himself go and be totally himself. She drank and swore, so they could carouse together and not worry who cared. Yes, he loved her—like the madonna, but he didn’t want to live with her for long.
I was going to say I was amused on that website where I found you that some guy said it had never been established if Neal and Jack had a sexual relationship. It is so weird to me that everyone these days seems to think if two of the same sex are loving friends, sex has to be involved.
Ginsberg’s sexual interest in Neal is documented in As Ever, as well as Neal’s love for Ginsberg and his ambivalence about having sex with him (“I’m a lazy punk. . .to allow my elusive cherry to escape from you. . .I love all—sex—yes all. . .In despair I cry ‘Allen, Allen, will you let me splatter my come at you?’”). I think people’s curiosity about sex between Neal and Kerouac is based on Neal’s relationship with Ginsberg.
When I grew up every guy—and gal—had a “best buddy.” Both my brothers did. Then, of course, no one I knew had ever heard of homosexuality. Neal and Jack couldn’t have been more hetero. If Jack got too drunk he could be found in a man’s bed (like Gore Vidal—who elaborated his story after Jack’s death, but I know Jack could never have been the aggressor). Neal, however, gave or sold favors, but he didn’t like it. [Carolyn's book shows no homosexual overtones in Neal's relationship with Jack, although they do appear in Neal's relationship with Allen.]
Jack’s and Neal’s and Allen’s writing, in large part, revolves around the search for identity. In the process of exploring their identities, though, they obscured your own behind the myths of Camille, Evelyn, and St. Carolyn by the Sea. If you could say it in a nutshell: who are you really?
Wasn’t it common and the usual complaint that women were not as important as men—to men, anyway? I refer you to the letter Allen sent me telling what Jack said about me. Of course, that didn’t get into his books. Jack couldn’t write about me much for fear of offending Neal. He wrote several books about his other women—not exactly obscuring them.
I was the stable “mother”/lover. All these men I knew wanted a conventional home eventually, and I furnished that meantime. Have you ever read Allen’s description of his wedding, marriage, and family?
Yes, in your book. It’s beautiful. But of course Allen never married.
“To gratify her is simple enuf as it consists of fantasy words” —Neal wrote this to Allen about Diana Hansen, the woman he was bigamously married to while still married to you. In a separate letter to Allen after Jack married Joan, Neal analyzed his own impulses to marry with amazing lucidity. To what extent do you think lying was a guilty compulsion of Neal’s, and to what extent do you think he knew exactly what he was doing and simply felt no remorse?
Neal could always tell people what they wanted to hear, even if he wasn’t sincere.
You must realize Neal had never known a traditional marriage or family life. I had been raised in an extreme Victorian milieu. So many of his actions were simply a lack of conditioning or any understanding of what was expected. Of course, he’d read a lot of books about marriage, but most of those weren’t exactly perfect in a traditional sense. He was the most compassionate man I’ve ever met, so it was ignorance of my expectations and needs, I think.
Do you think now that it’s better to stay in such a marriage or to get out sooner rather than later? Would your opinion be different if you were convinced the lying partner was an exceptional human being, in spite of their severe problems?
My book answers why I stayed in that marriage—[metaphysics advisor] Elsie Sechrist. But now I see it was all for the good. I learned lessons I would never have learned from another. And I believed in vows. I had married for life. One needn’t take vows, but I believe if you do you must stick to them. Of course, Neal had no concept of such a thing. And yes, I had no doubt he was an exceptional human being, but a split personality.
What did his “diagnosis” as sociopathic mean to you as his wife and mother of his children?
That condemnation that he was sociopathic by the ignorant journalist—I knew better, and it hurt him deeply, being so committed to becoming worthy and respectable. He was certainly responsible: never out of a job, would work at anything, supported a family for ten years. Then when that got a bit boring, with his need for adventure and his need to prove he was lovable, he led his double life.
He did not abandon his family. I forced him to, and he never gave us up. I think it is possible he had manic-depressive tendencies or was. His deep depressions seemed to occur when he was away from me, and he would write to Jack about them, but I wasn’t aware of them.
Was Neal the great love of your life?
Yes, Neal was the great and only love of my life—then. When I met him, I knew he was the one. Our karma, as we were to learn. And why we got into metaphysics. I told you Helen Hinkle felt the same, although she wasn’t into metaphysics either and thought it all hogwash.
Do you still miss him?
Yes, I miss him. I am friends with his first wife and his last mistress of eight years, and we all miss him. As do his children.
You’ve also said you were the great love of Jack’s life. How much was friendship—your husband’s best friend—and proximity—he often lived in your house—and simply sexual attraction between healthy young adults? And how much was romance, romantic love?
It began as a survival tactic. Alas, Neal didn’t “make love”—he just used your body to masturbate, actually. He was never into kissing or caressing or foreplay. [Neal's last mistress] Anne Maxwell agreed, but she was turned on inside, so she didn’t mind. I wasn’t.
Tut, tut, tut. I needed affection. I never had any cuddling as a child nor much approval. (Is that an excuse?)
I didn’t consider Jack a good bet as a husband. He had never had to be responsible and had no responsibilities when we knew him. I knew he had to be free in order to write, much as he longed for marriage and a family. So we were his surrogate family. He kept assuming I would marry him, and in that one letter he says, “Carolyn, your life with me would have been awful,” or words to that effect, assuming I wanted a life with him.
It’s a good thing I didn’t go to Mexico and that’s why he suddenly split, knowing he wouldn’t want me to go back to Neal. [Carolyn once agreed to take a vacation from her family to meet Jack in Mexico, but didn't go, and soon heard from Jack that he'd stopped waiting for her and gone home.]
All in Divine Order, see? Crazy karma.
How did your love for Neal and your love for Jack fit together, in your life and in your mind and in your heart?
I learned our hearts are big enough to love more than one, if in different ways.
Jack and Neal, in spite of so much in common, were quite different men. Jack was more sentimental, gentle and romantic. As I said, I was sexually inhibited, but that’s the price I paid for affection and, in Jack’s case, romance. Neal, who loved everyone and never criticized or judged, always wanted to share everything he loved with those he loved.
He could be jealous—and possessive too—at times. Once his, always his. He never gave up [his first wife] LuAnne in his heart. I could understand that when I allowed myself to love Jack, too.
Ah, sex. Testosterone rules the world. All these married women who turn off after they have kids don’t understand a man’s needs, apparently. Most of my lovers were married.
The writer Jane Bowles fielded a phone call in Tangier from Allen (she called him “a boy”) when he arrived there to visit Bill Burroughs. He was looking for her husband, Paul Bowles, and during the call asked Jane whether she knew “about twenty-five men” whom she didn’t know. She responded to each query with increasing levels of, “Oy weh!” until he finally asked her whether or not she believed in God. She called them the “Zen Buddhist-Bebop-Jesus Christ-Peyote group.”
I knew of the Bowleses, but I was—and am—so opposed to drug use, I never got with them. I think I have a documentary somewhere showing him reading.
But, you see, I keep getting classed with these people, because I knew Jack intimately for twenty-two years, Neal for twenty-one, and Ginsberg for fifty. But I had been raised so sheltered by strict Victorian parents, I was totally ignorant of any street wisdom. Of course, in time I learned that’s why Neal married me—a status symbol for his lifelong quest to become worthy and “respectable.” I didn’t figure that out for many, many years, however.
Jack didn’t drink much when he lived with us. He’d have a half-bottle “poor boy” he drank before he slept or when alone, but Neal couldn’t drink anything but a beer or two. He was not alcoholic, as reported. Hard liquor made him deathly ill, and wine reminded him of his Dad.
So I keep learning how other women my age—like Joyce Johnson and Helen Weaver—were living and am gobsmacked! ( I love that English expression!) All three of these guys I knew really longed for the conventional home I provided, knowing no other, and were always happy in it. (Until I banished Ginsberg—we all make mistakes.)
I am old-fashioned in all my ways and tastes.
You say in your book that Jack was very close to your children. What about his own daughter, Jan? She wrote three books and then died in her forties of hard living, just like her father. What do you make of him denying she was his the way he did?
Yes, Jan Kerouac died many years ago. I have to keep battling the opinions people assume about Jack, never having known him. I know exactly why he dismissed Jan. Jack had these devout opinions on how to raise kids (I often got hints). He intended to have a family when he could support them properly through his writing. When Jan came along, he couldn’t, and there was no way he could give up his freedom and take care of her. He had to be free! It was such a very painful decision for him, but he just couldn’t face being tied down, so he pretended she wasn’t his.
She was very friendly to me, wrote to me, visited me, wrote a poem to me, all before she became so ill. Poor dislocated girl. I knew Edie, his first wife, very well—a real weirdo.
You don’t mention much in your book about Jack’s wives, simply that Joan was his second and Stella his third. (“Jacky! Jacky! Stop. . .”)
Edie was a nut case. I have letters from her that are incredible—they begin with no greeting, so you wonder if it’s the first page, and they are pretty hysterical. When she was at the Boulder festival she rented a room she filled with paintings—obviously by a well-trained painter and signed even. Edie insisted they were by Jack. (She didn’t sell any.) She also had one of his letters copied in the hundreds, because it began with “my only wife.” The last night of the seminar she passed them out to everyone in the amphitheater. She went to his funeral as his “wife.” Funny lady.
I never met Joan. Jan tried to get us together, but Joan said, “I don’t want to know that blonde who stole my husband.”
I also never met Stella, but we corresponded while I was writing the book, and she was very friendly until she read in Ann Charters’ biography that I had said [Jack's sister] Nin killed herself. So she got furious and even sent me a copy of the death certificate. I tried to tell her I never said that, Jack did, and I’d told him I didn’t believe him. Stella said, “Ask Allen.” I did, and Allen said Jack had told him that, too. But Stella believed Ann and not me, so she refused to allow me to publish Jack’s letters. Thanks, Ann.
That’s what put my book on the shelf for twenty years. No one suggested paraphrasing then. The Doubleday office in San Francisco closed, and I lost my great editor there. (He had originally asked me to write the book after Jack died because the journalists were so ignorant of him. Luther Nichols had had a talk show and interviewed Jack, Allen, and Neal, and so knew them.)
Jack did so want a family and a wife, but he was so impractical and when drunk so romantic. Or that’s where Joan came in. Edie he married to get out of jail, and Stella to take care of Memere. He kept proposing to me, but I knew Jack wasn’t husband material yet. He had to be free, and he was no provider, which he knew. Neal was a good provider and loved his kids. We made him “respectable.”
Jack really loved all the women he loved—he, like Neal, loved everyone and always so lonely and horny—well, what the hey.
You say, “knowing Jack’s convictions toward women” when you discuss his sudden marriage to Joan. What specific convictions were you talking about?
I thought I was writing about Jack’s convictions about bringing up children, not women—that’s confused.
We were dumbfounded that he married Joan so impulsively, but he was always lonely and kept hoping to find a mate. And by then the drink was increasing. He was never practical, anyway, but a creature of dreams. Pisces. Neal and I had logical minds and were “from Missouri.” If it didn’t work to improve things—never mind. We needed help! Jack was more mystical and completely illogical or unrealistic, believing in visions and impulses.
You’ve talked about how Catholicism gave Neal the sense of being a “miserable worm of a sinner” and Jack a “madonna/whore” complex (so that you thought he really enjoyed sex best with prostitutes). Do you think they’d have lived different lives if they hadn’t been raised in the Catholic Church?
Yes, I’m afraid the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for through the ages. It isn’t Christ-ianity, it’s Church-ianity. Has no relation whatsoever to Jesus’ life or teachings, yet they still call Him their Lord. Well, don’t get me started. Everyone I know, including [her son] John’s first wife, who were raised Catholic have been so conditioned by their evil teaching, they never get over being guilty and unworthy.
Jesus said,”Ye are Gods! Anything I can do you can,” or words to that effect, since we all have the same Spirit within. “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” Well. Enough.
But yes, I’m sure their lives would have been different without all that guilt—which they never got over. The Church gets them so young, and with all that glitter, candles, colorful costumes, they get brain-washed and indoctrinated before they can even think. So the more they enjoyed sex, et cetera, the guiltier they felt. There’s the constant dichotomy and struggle against human desires and so-called spiritual guilt. Although both Neal and Jack learned to disbelieve and turned to other religions, that guilt stuck.
Neal was ecstatic about finding Jesus again through our metaphysical studies. And we studied Jesus’ earlier lives and his long training to become the perfect man and show us how (the Wayshower). Which the Catholics destroyed. Enough!
You refused to mortgage your house in order to post Neal’s bail when he went to San Quentin, in spite of his intense pressure. Was it paranoia on your part? Or do you think you were correct in suspecting if you bailed him out, he’d disappear, and you and the children would become homeless?
Yes, I think that’s clear in my book. After all, he had twice thrown away our savings. The first time it was the money being saved for the ranch—nine hundred dollars. And the second time it was the investments.
Neal had no experience or interest in money—that is, no idea of planning for future security. I did all the taxes, insurance, mortgage (we always had a mortgage), since he hadn’t a clue. I had to learn, too, because I’d had no knowledge or experience with any finances as I grew up. So, all that money sitting in a bank haunted him. Money to him was to spend! A real novelty for him. And, of course, he always had the best of intentions and had figured it all out carefully so that he satisfied himself he would pay it all back. The road to hell. And, yes, I think he never did forgive me, really.
You have said you found Jack’s work difficult to read because you could tell when he was being false. I certainly have that experience when reading the work of writers I know well and love. Can you pinpoint specific examples?
Honey lamb—now that the archivists have taken away his books I had, I can’t possibly re-read them to give examples of what I accuse him of. Sorry. Seems to me it would be obvious to most people. Maybe not if one is so enamored of him and his writing.
Philip Hensher in the Telegraph, UK mentioned recently how pleased he was when he “rudely” denigrated Allen Ginsberg’s work in a review and received a long, furious letter from Allen in return. People sometimes feel free to treat celebrities like zoo animals, poking them just to get a reaction. You were quite a young woman during your years with Neal and Jack and have lived with their legacy nearly all your life. How has their fame affected you?
Some of the notice I’ve received from being involved with these guys has been very rewarding, and I’ve met a lot of interesting people because of it. As the years go on, however, I do get very tired of having to go over the same ground again and again.
Was Jack’s fame what killed him—did he he really drink himself to death because he couldn’t take the pressure?
Jack had extreme sensitivity, self-consciousness, paranoia—and complete disillusion to have not been considered a literary star, like Hemingway, just a hedonist. The cruelty of the journalists, the total misunderstanding by the young. . .He did vow to drink himself to death—he wasn’t your ordinary alcoholic.
Neal and I learned the purpose of life together; Jack never did. “We’re all gonna die.”
You never married again after Neal died. Why?
Hard as it is for me to comprehend, I never, ever after Neal met any man remotely suitable, unless he was married or gay. But then, I doubt another husband would like to live with a wife who was constantly forced to talk about her first one. Still, I never thought I’d end up alone.
If you could go back and live your life differently, would you? Or is this the life you’d have chosen for yourself?
I believe we choose the life we need, so I must have chosen this one. I regret quite a lot, but if I didn’t learn a lesson offered, I’ll get another chance—some other way.
Well, you asked.
Gobsmacked! Carolyn Cassady interview, Part 2
Carolyn Cassady is the widow of Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty, and Cody Pomeroy, and author of Off the Road: Twenty Years with Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsberg, The Overlook Press, USA, 2008; Black Springs Press Ltd., UK, 2007. She can be reached through her website.