Gobsmacked! the Carolyn Cassady interview, Part 2

Carolyn & Neal, 1947

Carolyn & Neal, 1947

In July of 2009, I posted Part 1 of my interview with writer and literary figure, Carolyn Cassady. I’m very pleased now to be posting Gobsmacked! Part 2.

Carolyn, according to popular legend Jack Kerouac taped a bunch of sheets of paper together (in some versions it’s a roll of paper) and stuck them in his typewriter and sat down and typed out On the Road. However, in your book you mention him having found the paper already taped together (in Bill Cannastra’s apartment?). You also remember him discussing how to end On the Road after that particular manuscript was done, working on scenes for On the Road in your and Neal’s attic in San Francisco, and then spending weeks editing the manuscript with his Viking Press editor Malcolm Cowley. And you’ve read the transcribed version of the ‘scroll’ manuscript. How much of On the Road really was written on that single scroll, and how much did Jack work over that original material before he got the final manuscript?

I didn’t know anything about the paper taped together, since Jack did that when he returned to New York. (There is definite identification of the kind of paper—I can’t tell you, ’cause I don’t care. I have seen that scroll three times.) The published version probably tells the true type. Do you want me to look it up? The editor sent me two copies; he was my editor, too.

When Jack was writing it at our house, he just used ordinary typing paper—hence his decision later to paste pages together. I really knew only what Jack wrote in his letters to us, and I wasn’t that into it. There are myriad changes in the published book from what he wrote in the scroll.

You were educated in drama and the art of costume and once went to Hollywood for a job that you eventually turned down because you had Cathy. And then there you were in Hollywood years later, when you were involved in Heart Beat, the movie version of a published excerpt from your book. Your son John has said that he fell in love with Sissy Spacek, who tried her best to salvage that movie. Can you tell us stories about that time?

Ah, the film Heart Beat.

When I lived in Los Gatos, there was a monthly PBS television show called TVTV. It was just an hour, but they were the most wonderful shows I’ve ever seen. So this guy came to see me, saying he was a member of that bunch. I don’t know how he learned I was such a fan. I learned later he’d only been a technician for them. Being ignorant, I was sure they’d do a good job. I learned afterward that this guy’s whole purpose was to “get into the majors,” and he used me to do it. I was ripped off over and over—the lawyer they paid—so many big contracts and all broken, since they knew I wasn’t able to sue Warner Brothers. Actually, it was Orion’s very first film.

And I read in Newsweek a year later that TVTV had disbanded a year before, so in spite of the contract, stationery, sign over the office door, there was no such company.

I had seen Sissy Spacek only once in a PBS series of one-hour dramas. I was so impressed with her, I looked at the credits to find her name. Sissy had read my entire 1143-page manuscript, as it was then. Her husband said she’d cry and want to call me, she loved it so much. So when she asked them to let her play the part, they asked me what I thought of her. I told them I’d love it if she would.

Well, to skip a bit. They hired this guy, John Byrum, to write the script and later to direct, even though he never had before and Lazlo Kovacs did most of it. The script was absolutely horrible and the opposite of how we were or did. Byrum had just seen Jules and Jim and was going to do his own. (They even considered making T-shirts with “Jules and Jim go to Northbeach,” but didn’t. Big joke.) But to the producer here was Byrum, a guy with a “foot in the door” of the majors, and he could ride on him. So he did. He produced later, thanks to me, A Fish Called Wanda, and I don’t know what else. His name was Michael Shamberg.

I met John Byrum, and he was so charming and funny—he snowed everyone he met, including Orion. He had produced a number of films with top actors, all of which were always voted the worst of the year. This he’d tell us as a funny joke. Don’t ask me to explain Hollywood.

As I say, the script was infantile. I wrote poison pen letters all summer trying to get changes, without success. I told them Allen would hate it; they said he’d love it. He told them to erase his name and every mention of him, the script was so terrible. They wanted LuAnne’s address, but she was written as just meat, so I refused. The actress who played her even said she wouldn’t have said some of the lines written for the part.

This was Orion’s first film, and Byrum snowed them, too. They were going to open it at Christmas with the publicity they gave Superman, and Sissy would win the Academy Award, for sure.

Okay, so I failed to get any changes made. So I said, “Well, now that you’ve ruined my life, the least you can do is let me follow you around—I’ll tape my mouth shut—and watch a movie being made.” They agreed, and that’s how I got to know Sissy so well. We were together for six weeks, as well as Annie Liebovitz, who was also onboard. Annie even spent the afternoon and night with my family in Los Gatos while shooting me. She had already done that for an article in the Rolling Stone years before. She has tons of photos of me, but she’s never shown any. Boof. I’m not that famous. We all loved her dearly, however.

When Sissy read the script, she, too, was horrified and did her best, as did Jack Fisk, her husband and production designer. He filmed every inch of my home, thinking it would be shot there. No. But he did his damndest to reproduce it for the film.

In the script we only had one child. I told Byrum everyone knew we had three. He said, “Oh, but the cost!” I said, “You don’t have to show them all!” Well, Sissy was having none of it. She interviewed over 200 kids and chose two little girls who looked almost exactly like my two at those ages. And they got a baby for John.

Annie had told me that everyone on the set (they shot some in Hollywood before I joined them) and all the crew were so excited to do this film. Ha. Not the one they had to do in the end—but it was a super crew. Lazlo the cinematographer, Jack Nietzche did the score, and we had the best of others. Alas.

Anyway, I had a great time traveling from San Jose to Hollywood to San Francisco all those weeks, staying in the best hotels. (I sneaked [my daughter] Jami into the Japanese one in San Francisco [with a Japanese bath]—the only way to bathe.) The last two weeks in Hollywood they let the kids come for a couple of weeks and entertained them, too. I lived in an apartment in a building that young actors used just above Hollywood Boulevard and even drove to Culver City every day—avoiding the freeways. We all did Halloween on Hollywood Boulevard. Fantastic.

Nick Nolte played Neal, and he came right to me when we met, saying he knew he wasn’t as light on his feet or as speedy as Neal, but he’d try to convey that energy otherwise. He was born on Neal’s birthday, and they had much in common—very kind and compassionate. He had already researched Neal some for his role in Who’ll Stop the Rain/Dog Soldiers which has a character based partly on Neal. He helped John Heard [who played Jack Kerouac], a New York actor who felt awkward in Los Angeles and avoided me for two weeks until Nick convinced him I wouldn’t bite. Then we got along fine. He was a lot more like Jack in real life than on the screen. Another story.

I did have a good time. One time, though, only Sissy and I were at a location in Golden Gate Park (where the three of us had never gone together). She had just done a scene in which she and Jack are kanoodling on a bench and Neal is playing with the children. When she got in the station wagon, I said, “Sissy, I know I promised not to say anything, but that scene was really hard for me to watch. You see, Jack and I both loved Neal and never would we have behaved like that in front of him.” She said, “Oh, my God!” and burst into tears. Then we went to another location, and she had to do it all over again.

I think Sissy had the only temper tantrums in her career on that movie, and they were doozies. On the evening they were to film the publication party of On the Road, they had two long library tables in the hallway outside the party with two rows on each of champagne glasses—filled. Sissy threw over both of them. They set them up again, and she did it again. Next morning she said she had to give up; it was hopeless.

Okay, I think that’s the high spots. After the wrap party (Sissy and Jack only stayed a few minutes), she invited me and the kids to their mountain-top home for brunch the next day, which we did. (I have a plastic mold of her face I want to get cast but don’t know how.)

While Sissy was making this film, she was approached to do Coal Miner’s Daughter. She hesitated, because it would mean her playing the fifth live woman in a row. Still, we know she accepted.

The premier of Heart Beat was shown in Denver, and I stayed at the same hotel where I met Neal. After the show, the Orion guys drove me there in their limo. It was like a hearse. One of them asked me if I liked it. I said, “Do I have to answer that?” So they, too, had been snowed by Byrum. They pulled all the publicity, postponed the opening until 1980, the next year, and it opened in a few obscure towns.

Coal Miner’s Daughter was done as mine should have been. Sissy did win the Academy Award for that. I guess Loretta had more clout than I. We had the same lawyer, although I never met her. But Sissy would call me up from Nashville, knowing I’d lived there, and ask me about my time there. Then she’d call and say, “Loretta an’ I were jus’ talkin’ bout you.” because we all believed in astrology and such like. She was such a sweetie. Invited me to their ranch in West Virginia, but I never made it.

I met Byrum years later in New York and asked how he was doing. He said, “Well, I did three TV pilots, all of which flopped, but Paramount has just given me two million and a studio.”

Can anyone understand H’wood? Don’t know what he’s done since. Hopeless.

What a story, Carolyn! Good grief. No wonder you eventually left California. You gave up the house in Monte Sereno, where you had lived first with Neal and Jack and later without either of them for many years, and moved to England in the early 1980s. Why England?

London is the greatest city in the world for K.U.L.T.C.H.U.R.—of which California is devoid now. Europe so close. In my sixties and seventies I traveled all over—Spain a lot, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden many times, Russia four times. Now, alas, the body has let me down.

How I envy you for building your house—one of my lifelong frustrated dreams. Ah, yes. Although I know northern California a bit—I lived in and then near San Francisco from 1947 to 1983—I ran away from home when I was sixty.

What is it about travel that draws you?

I had read so much and had geography and European history in school, so I was always interested in Europe and England.

Jack and Neal traveled only on this continent, becoming icons of American rather than international travel. Were they drawn to travel for the same reasons that you are?

Neal wasn’t interested in travel—just driving.

Did you ever accompany them on their road trips?

The only trip I accompanied them on was the one when we went to Tennessee and dropped Jack off in Nogales. I had kids, y’know. So I didn’t get to do any until they were grown. I had lived all over the USA, though. When I was 11-12 my Dad took me, Mom, and my sisters on a tour of the US, going the southern route and returning on the northern. Boy, how different things were then, and I’ll always be grateful.

Let’s talk about what you know about dealing with tragedy. Your life in the limelight has, in large parts, been tragic. As a young woman, you lived through WWII. The two men you loved most when you were young died in their forties.

The worst time of my life was during the war when I was an Occupational Therapist at an Army hospital in Palm Springs. I became a victim/slave to a psychotic officer who ran the place. No one would believe me when I tried to tell them about him. I even wrote it all up as fiction, but anyone who read it didn’t believe it, either. My parents visited me, and he charmed them so much my Mom didn’t believe what I tried to tell her, and they wouldn’t save me. Later when he came home with me after the war they learned he was nuts. I could have been killed then, and they knew it, but I escaped. So Dad felt bad and let me stay home the next year to recover. Also my partner gal in OT was in love with me and tried to kill me one night.

So to me that was real tragedy. Nothing that bad at all with Neal.

What do you know, as a human who’s lived through the things you have, about life and tragedy that might help others?

When Ginsberg decided to resent me the last 10 years of his life, it made me sad, because he had been so kind for so long, but I figured it was his problem, and I refused to take it on. (One of his last poems is, “Why do I still resent Carolyn?” I wish he’d thought of that earlier. But that was that.)

Tragedy is how you look at things. I believed the metaphysics we studied, so nothing was ‘tragic’ after that. Karma. I must say I wish some psychic could tell me why I went through that and what for! We are here to learn from our mistakes, and we never get any more than we can handle. But one needs to believe that and know how to combat it.

It took me a long time, but I’m grateful I learned from Neal that no one and nothing can hurt you if you don’t accept it. It is our response that hurts us, and we always have a choice as to that.

That was the most valuable thing I learned then.

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.

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