The one-time lover of Jack Kerouac on why she’ll avoid the new film of the book that made his name
By Peter Stanford
Carolyn Cassady will not be watching On the Road, Francis Ford Coppola’s eagerly awaited screen version of Jack Kerouac’s legendary novel, which opens on Friday. This is curious, as Cassady is the model for Camille, one of the main characters, while Dean Moriarty, star turn in the profoundly autobiographical book, is based on her late husband, Neal. And to add to her role in the drink, drug and sex-fuelled inner circle of the beatniks, Kerouac was once her lover.
In part, explains the 89-year-old, she won’t be watching because she is not well enough for a trip to the cinema. Her leg is heavily bandaged after an operation to remove a cancerous growth. As we talk, she’s waiting in her nightie for a nurse to come and change the dressing. Kerouac once described her as “my darling blonde, aristocratic Carolyn”, and her fine bones and patrician manner remain, even with her white hair piled on the back of her head.
Thirty years ago, she settled in Britain – “for the culture” and because “there is nothing I like about America”. So this sole survivor of the hedonistic Beat Generation now lives somewhat incongruously in a park of static mobile homes in suburban Berkshire.
Her reservations about the new film are deep-rooted. For a start, while she has been consulted by the filmmakers, she doesn’t like the casting. “Jack was a big, athletic man, and Neal was very muscular. But the actors they’ve chosen to play them are such wimps.”
Garrett Hedlund, as the hard-drinking, pill-popping, womanising Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, has talked to her on two occasions, and did not impress. “I think he was the most boring person I have ever met,” she recalls. “He didn’t ask me a single question about Neal, but instead told me how his turkeys in Minnesota bobbed their heads to Johnny Cash music. And then he came here, chauffeur-driven car waiting outside, sat in the chair where you are now, and read to me from his diary for what felt like four hours.”
I can’t decide whether Carolyn Cassady has reached the age where she doesn’t mind any more whom she offends, or whether she was always this outspoken. Perhaps Hedlund saw her as a great literary muse, and his diary-reading was a way of paying homage? “No,” she says with a stuff-and-nonsense firmness, “he was totally self-absorbed, so unlike Neal.”
Kerouac described Neal Cassady on their first meeting as “a side-burned hero of the snowy West”. In many ways, the two couldn’t have been more different. “They each had what the other wanted,” says Carolyn. “It made them admire each other more.”
In the original manuscript of On the Road, currently on show in the British Library, Kerouac uses Cassady’s name. Only later does the character become Dean Moriarty in this fictionalised version of the series of road trips the two took in the late 1940s, complete with beer, grass, jazz, poetry and sex. Cassady’s first wife, LuAnne, would often accompany them, as did the poet Allen Ginsberg (who was Neal Cassady’s lover), leaving Carolyn behind, looking after the couple’s three small children.
“I didn’t want to read On the Road when it came out in 1957 because I didn’t want to know what Neal was doing with Jack when he left me,” she reflects. “And, anyway, it was not my type of literature. I prefer Dickens, Shakespeare and the classics,” she adds, gesturing around the book-lined walls.
“I don’t think Neal ever read it either.” It emphasises the gap between the myth and the reality that she alone remains alive to highlight.
Curiously for someone so enduringly associated with counter-culture, Carolyn has almost nothing of the ageing hippie about her. “I’m such a traditional person,” she agrees. “I was brought up so strictly. I was still hanging on to those principles all the time I was with Neal. That was the problem.”
It sounds as if she is blaming herself for his serial infidelities. “It took me 50 years to understand how much my upbringing affected me.”
The memories – though regularly shared in the 45 years since Neal’s death, not least in two volumes of autobiography – clearly carry with them some pain. “Someone once wrote me and asked if eventually I had stopped crying, and I hadn’t.” She lights up another cigarette.
‘Neal was such a genius. He could psych out who a person was, and fit himself in with where they were. He only showed that side of his personality that fitted with them. That’s what he did to me. It was marvellous.” She pauses. “Before it went haywire.”
Carolyn Robinson was 23 when she first met Cassady. The couple’s backgrounds were worlds apart. She had grown up in a world of privilege, with a comfortable home and private schooling, and was studying for an MA in fine arts. Cassady’s Denver childhood was chaotic. His mother died when he was 10, his father was an alcoholic and they lived in the red light district. He was a hustler from an early age, but also a voracious reader of Proust, Spinoza and Schopenhauer, with dreams of being a writer and intellectual.
They married in 1948 – after he had divorced LuAnne – and spent 20 years together. Carolyn divorced him after 15, but says he hung around her “like a shadow” until he died in 1968. His body was found next to a railway track in Mexico, with high levels of drugs and drink in his blood. His ashes were returned to Carolyn by the woman who had been with him.
She tried, she says, to tame him. “Neal had a lot of responsibilities [to their three children, Cathleen, Jami and John Allen], and he worked hard to support us. He’d take any job – on the railroads, tyre retreads. He always had a job, but then he was gone for two years in prison.”
With the publication of On the Road, Cassady suddenly became well known. He was caught with drugs by two undercover FBI men in San Francisco and jailed. “That whole Beat Generation thing didn’t really happen until later,” says Carolyn. “It was Ginsberg who started it. Jack always said he wanted nothing to do with it. Neal was the same. Jack was crushed by feeling responsible for all these youngsters dropping out of school, running round the country, wanting freedom. He’d been to university. He wrote.”
Far from being carefree, her husband was, she remembers, tormented and torn. On the one hand, there was the stable, domestic world at home in California that she provided – though it was unconventional enough that Neal gave his blessing to Carolyn’s affair with Kerouac.
“We were always very discreet,” she insists. And then there were the times he would go off for long periods and live the beatnik life. Neal always wanted to write, she recalls, “but he could never sit still long enough and find the mot juste”. A single slim volume, The First Third, appeared after his death.
Carolyn wrote her books as a corrective to what she sees as the Beat Generation myth – which will only be encouraged, she feels, by the new film. “I’ve tried to share my memories,” she says. “But people just don’t seem to want to hear. They prefer to believe the other version.”
It feels as though this literary widow has finally bowed to the inevitable. Fighting the legend that has swallowed up her life is beyond her now dwindling powers. And anyway she needs what energy she has left for her ongoing battle with the UK Border Agency over its refusal to allow her 60-year-old son, John Allen (“named after Jack and Allen Ginsberg”), to visit her. He was turned back at Heathrow earlier this year because he had a one-way ticket, though he’d been here many times before.
“I’m getting old and I need his help. I can’t even get to the shops for groceries. So I told him to leave his return open. Now he’s been sent back, and they are treating him as if he is a terrorist.” Next to such a practical dilemma, whether or not to watch a certain film must seem irrelevant.
What’s her son’s attitude to On the Road, I wonder. “Oh,” says Carolyn casually, “he hasn’t read it either”…