Poetry News

Beat Writer Carolyn Cassady Dies at 90

By Harriet Staff

carolyn cassady

The New York Times reports that Carolyn Cassady has passed away at home in England--the Beat generation writer and wife of Neal Cassady was 90 years old. Writer John Leland reminds us that "[s]he was the inspiration for the character Camille, the second wife of Dean Moriarty, the 'wild yea-saying overburst of American joy' who makes the novel go go go," and that "[f]or a woman in the 1940s and ’50s, this was not an easy role." More:

While her male peers, including her husband, celebrated the freedoms of sex, drugs, literature and the open road, Ms. Cassady was by turns an eager participant and a dissenting adult, the one who kept the utilities on, raised the children and watched with dismay as the next generation of young men emulated the self-destructive impulses of the last.

Her two books, “Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal” (1976), which was made into a 1980 film, and “Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg” (1990), provided a sobering corrective to what she considered misconceptions about the essentially unhappy lives of these men, the poet Allen Ginsberg among them, even while excusing the worst of her husband’s transgressions.

“I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she told the novelist Gina Berriault in 1972. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”

Ms. Cassady was born Carolyn Robinson on April 23, 1923, in East Lansing, Mich., the youngest of five siblings in a household that prized Victorian values and books — more than 2,500 of them. Her father was a biochemist and her mother a former English teacher.

The family moved to Nashville when Carolyn was 8. After attending an elite prep school and Bennington College in Vermont, she was studying painting and theater design in a graduate program at the University of Denver in March 1947 when her life took a wild turn — as several lives did in those days — in the person of Neal Cassady.

As Ms. Cassady described their meeting in “Off the Road,” she was pretty and demure and owned some jazz records; he was charming and sexually voracious and married. In quick succession Mr. Cassady divorced his first wife, LuAnne Henderson, and married Ms. Robinson. She was pregnant, out of school and beginning the adventure of a lifetime.

Neal Cassady, who died in 1968, was an intoxicating literary protagonist, but as a husband he was a piece of work. Much of their marriage, until their divorce in 1963, involved his running off with other women or with his male friends. During their courtship Ms. Cassady once found him in bed with his first wife and Ginsberg; later, she acceded to his request that she have an affair with Kerouac.

Kerouac portrayed Mr. Cassady as the “holy goof,” an instinctual genius who elicited so much of God’s love because he gave him so much to forgive. Ms. Cassady was often the first line of forgiveness.

Yet in her writing she stressed his efforts to be a different man: to excel at work on the railroad, to be the paterfamilias for a family that grew to include three children.

“She saw him as the family man trying to provide for the children,” Mr. Cimino of the Beat Museum said. “She knew about the guy who had girlfriends, but the way she put it was, ‘I married Neal for better or worse, and I was hoping he’d be the man I wanted him to be.’ As much as she hated it, that’s who she was, the widow of Neal Cassady.”

Read the full reflection here.

Originally Published: September 26th, 2013