DU Alumni

The last living member of the Beat inner circle, alumna Carolyn Cassady has her own tale to tell.

It is both a legacy and a burden to be at the epicenter of a social movement.

Alumna Carolyn Cassady, a DU theatre and fine arts master’s student in 1946–47, is the last surviving member of the original Beat clan. She has spent a lifetime recounting the colorful life and times of the posse that challenged the restrictive social mores of the 1950s and paved the way for the hippies a generation later.

Their stories are now legendary. Carolyn’s husband of 15 tumultuous years, Neal Cassady, was best friends with poet Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, author of the seminal 1957 novel On the Road. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn had an affair with Kerouac, who wrote part of On the Road on her college typewriter and included her and Neal as characters in his book. Carolyn endured Neal’s constant wanderlust and indiscriminate philandering, even catching him in bed with Ginsberg.

The group’s sexual exploits, spontaneous writing style and restless, carpe diem antics captured the imagination of young people questioning the rigidity of the day’s societal conventions and artistic expression. Neal’s free-flowing speech and letters to Kerouac influenced the conversational prose of On the Road, which chronicles their spirited adventures hitchhiking cross-country in the 1940s.

While Kerouac and Ginsberg went on to illustrious writing careers, Neal rode his charming, tortured, anti-hero reputation. He spent two years in jail for selling marijuana before joining the infamous Merry Pranksters, the traveling LSD-laced bus tour organized by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Neal Cassady’s unfinished autobiography, The First Third, was published after his death in 1968.

By association, Carolyn, who is now 80 and lives near London, has achieved her own cultural icon status—a mantle she holds with varying degrees of resignation, frustration and bemusement. Soft-spoken and slight, she is a curious mixture of fierce independence and traditionalist. She defied familial expectations to forge a career in costume design, only to supplant that with a husband whose constant road trips and infidelities left her to raise their three children alone. Enough questions about “the boys,” as Carolyn calls them, prompted her 1990 memoir Off the Road, which she hoped would be the definitive explanation of her complex relationship with them. But when Ginsberg died in 1997, Carolyn became the remaining spokesperson of the Beat’s inner circle and in even greater demand for lectures and interviews.

While compelled to dispel the more glamorous myths of the group, she is weary with her own life and accomplishments taking a back seat to “the boys.”

“I never had the chance to tell who I am, because everyone only wants to hear [about the years] from Denver on,” she sighs. “This is my big problem. What’s lacking in all of this is who I am and where I came from. That is an important background in my relationship with Neal.”

Carolyn’s viewpoint represents a sobering take on the romanticized version of the Beats. “The cross-country road trips that Jack and Neal made in the late 1940s, which inspired much of Jack’s writing, were just not possible for the women they loved, married and impregnated,” says DU sociology Assist. Prof. Audrey Sprenger, who teaches a course—Off the Road: Jack Kerouac in Denver—that examines the impact Denver and Kerouac had on each other. “That’s why the writings and ideas of someone like Carolyn Cassady are so important. They remind us how one person’s freedom is another’s burden—that many people don’t have the privilege of defying social expectations by making the open road their home. Jack and Neal may have been very adventurous, but their adventure always had a place to return to, and often that place was wherever Carolyn was.”

Carolyn Cassady grew up Carolyn Robinson in East Lansing, Mich., and Nashville, Tenn. She was the youngest of five children in a well-to-do family that revered education. On the surface, it was a Norman Rockwellian childhood. Her mother was a former high school English teacher and her father, a chemistry professor with what is now Michigan State University and later, Vanderbilt University. Cassady attended a private girls’ school, displaying enough artistic talent to land a writing and painting scholarship to Bennington College in Vermont. There, she majored in theatre and spent winter semesters in New York apprenticing in costume design houses.

But beneath the surface was a different story—one of repression and abuse that explains the allure of roguish men like Neal Cassady and Kerouac.

“My family was so Victorian that after you were a baby, there was no cuddling. I didn’t get any affection or approval,” Carolyn says.

Then, when she was 10, Carolyn was sexually abused by two family members. “I sort of blocked it, but it made me frozen, paralyzed. I felt absolutely, utterly worthless. I became so pathologically self-conscious and so shy of men, I couldn’t look one in the eye or have a normal conversation with them until I was 20. When I was an adult, I wondered if that contributed to my problems with sex. By the time I’d met Neal, I’d had sex with others—all with no response from me. I sold it for the signs of affection and approval that I had lacked in my childhood. If we could only have talked about sex in those times, I’m sure Neal would have been compassionate and changed his ways. Alas, that was impossible then.”

Carolyn’s father thwarted a costume-design job offer after her 1944 graduation by demanding she become a teacher. He enrolled her in an agency that found her a teaching assistant position at the University of Denver.

“The only reason I was in Denver was because of daddy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be a costume designer for the movies. I did have a wonderful art history teacher, whose name I can’t remember. He didn’t have a college degree but had been a working curator. I admired DU for hiring someone who knew his craft, despite his not being an academic.”

Her talent shined at DU, perhaps a little too brightly. Carolyn structured a costume design curriculum and started a theatre design department for the Denver Art Museum. She claims that the head of the costume design department took credit for her curriculum work and that the head of her master’s program tried to keep her on at the museum by inventing additional requirements for her degree, despite her completing the necessary credits. (The University can neither confirm nor deny Carolyn’s story, as records from the time were destroyed when the theatre department closed in 19___.)

Incensed, she left for Los Angeles to pursue a job lead. “I say I have an MA, all the same, because I earned it,” she says.

Carolyn’s move to Denver facilitated her life-altering encounter with Neal in March of 1947. She was drawn by his magnetic personality, intelligence and striking looks. Carolyn and Neal dated that summer then parted ways when she went to Hollywood and he took off with his buddies. While awaiting a job opening, Carolyn moved to San Francisco to be with one of her sisters. But soon afterward, Neal re-entered her life. By the time a Hollywood job materialized, Carolyn found herself pregnant with their first child. She put her career on hold and they married in 1948. Neal’s roguish charm was an antidote to Carolyn’s restrictive background; Carolyn’s beauty and upbringing gave Neal the respectability he craved after growing up with an alcoholic father in skid row hotels. He lavished her with attention and appealed to her intelligence.

“You can’t put it into words,” she says of their relationship. “Our connection was of the soul. He and Jack were two of the most compassionate men I’d ever met.”

“He didn’t really have a traditional family,” Carolyn adds. “He was attracted to me because he didn’t meet middle class women. His main drive in life was to become respectable. That’s why he read so many books and perfected his speech. He knew exactly who I was and how to approach me. And that’s the way it was with everybody he met. I was still a victim of my conventional, traditional attitudes. He wasn’t. He was much wiser, psychologically. So he could adjust his behavior to please me.

“I was a traditional wife and kept responding to him in a traditional way,” she adds. “Eventually I learned that nobody and nothing can hurt you. It’s your response that hurts you. You have a choice.”

Throughout the tumult, Carolyn kept up her art. She painted portraits and designed costumes for five Puccini operas for the San Jose Opera Company. In 1976, she published the now out-of-print Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (Creative Arts), about her pre-On the Road relationship with Kerouac and Neal when they lived together in San Francisco. The book was made into a 1980 film starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn, Nick Nolte as Neal and John Heard as Jack. Although Carolyn despised the film, “It’s one of the few versions of Carolyn’s story where she isn’t left behind, where Jack and Neal enter her life not only as lovers, but domestic partners,” Sprenger says.

In 1984, Carolyn moved to London, and then settled in a suburb near Windsor. “My ancestors were from England and I grew up in a family of Anglophiles,” she says. “The first time I went to England, I felt like I was going home.”

She still paints and writes, living off of social security and royalties from Neal’s book. She also lectures at universities around Europe and the United States. In 1999, Carolyn and co-author David Sandison published Jack Kerouac, An Illustrated Biography—a photo collection of Carolyn’s Beat days. Occasionally, the odd documentary filmmaker or Beat biographer shows up at her door, and Hollywood perpetually hovers. Carolyn was a consultant on the 1997 film The Last Time I Committed Suicide, based on one of Neal’s letters, that starred Keanu Reeves and Adrien Brody, and appeared as herself in the documentaries Kerouac, The Movie (1985), Drug Taking and the Arts (1994) and The Beat Generation: An American Dream (1997). Francis Ford Coppola has long owned the rights for a film version of On the Road.

Meanwhile, Carolyn remains close to her three children (now in their 50s), three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, who live in Northern California. The only thing missing is a steady beau. Then again, Neal’s larger-than-life presence is a hard act to follow.

“The women who get divorced and remarried several times…” she says, shaking her head. “I just never meet a man where it seemed possible. I’m mad about it, because I like sharing. Although I do like my solitude, I never thought I’d end up alone.”

What has not withered with time is her free spirited pragmatism and amused awe that such an eccentric collection of minds could so accidentally influence American culture.

“We never felt like we were changing anything,” Carolyn says. “We were all just individual artists who had similar interests and got to know each other, so to be put in a drawer and labeled irritates me. The Beat Generation was a term made up by the media and promoted by Ginsberg. Jack and Neal were not like that. Ginsberg kept calling Jack in, and Jack would say, ‘I don’t want any part of that.’”

She stops to take a long puff from her cigarette. “I only wish I could have known,” she says with a sly smile. “Especially since I tossed all these things we could be living on, like the typewriter Jack wrote on, and his letters. We sold 500 pages of his letters for peanuts. Now, every letter is worth $165,000.”


–Susan Karlin




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