Oyster #96: Carolyn Cassady
An interview with Neal Cassady's wife and Jack Kerouac's lover.
In Oyster #96, we interviewed Carolyn Cassady who urges us to read her book:
As someone who gets excited about corresponding with famous people, seeing an email from Carolyn Cassady in my inbox has got to be one of the high-water marks of my career. Carolyn Cassady was Neal Cassady's wife and Jack Kerouac's lover, she was an integral part of what we now know as the Beat Generation and, in many ways, she helped inspire the post-war liberalism that you and I take for granted today. A famously reclusive woman, Carolyn would only agree to an interview via email -which was fine, because despite her being the same age as my grandmother (84), she's as sharp as a tack. I'm actually relieved I didn't have to go toe-to-toe with her on the phone: she would've eaten me for breakfast.
Jason Crombie: Carolyn, what did you have for breakfast today?
Carolyn Cassady: The same thing as every day, two soft-boiled eggs and coffee. Who cares?
Do you wake up in the morning and think, "Oh my God. I'm Carolyn Cassady! I was involved in the most significant cultural revolution of all time!"
What do you think when you wake up in the morning?
Another day. Which one is it?
Neal's exploits were important to the success of On The Road, although you must have been pretty mad at him when he abandoned you and the baby to drive across the country to pick up Jack. Or did you have an inkling that it was going to be an important thing?
My feelings about that are in my book [Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg]. NO, we never had any idea it would become the circus it has.
What else did Neal do that drove you nuts?
Read my book.
What did he do that made you happy?
Read my book.
You've said in other interviews that the Beats and the Beat Generation are myths created by the media and perpetuated by the writers. But at the time you must have had the feeling something remarkable was transpiring... Or was it just everyday life to you?
Everyday life; see question one.
You married Neal Cassady, but you were also in a relationship with Jack Kerouac. Who was a better kisser?
Jack. Neal didn't kiss on the mouth much. I asked Ann Maxwell [Neal's mistress], and she agreed.
Were you happy with the way you were depicted in On The Road and, if you could rewrite your character in that book, what would she be like?
I had a very small part in On The Road. I have written what really happened in MY BOOK. Jack was afraid of offending Neal if he wrote about fancying his girlfriend, but he and I were together alone often in Denver. Later, Neal (who had promoted our affair) accepted it, but both had periods of jealousy.
How do you feel about being played by Kirsten Dunst in the upcoming movie adaptation of On The Road?
I have never seen Kirsten Dunst, so I don't know.
You didn't meet Kirsten?
I did not meet her from her choice. She was in London when [director] Walter Salles was visiting me, but she didn't come as requested.
How do you feel about the movie?
How can I answer how I feel about the movie when I haven't seen it? I know Walter Salles very well and like his work. I know how dedicated he was to getting the story authentic. He even added a scene in the film from my book.
Do you think there's ever been an accurate film or play adaption of On The Road, or anything from that period, really?
No, so far there has never been any film that was true to the truth about us.
What, in your mind, are the biggest misconceptions about Neal, Jack and Allen?
Read my book.
Do you think Neal is a good role model for today's young men?
No, not as Neal has been depicted in popular fiction or otherwise. Read MY book.
What's wrong with the kids today?
Kids today are not interested in learning about the world or history; only about pleasure. I think their misunderstanding of Kerouac (and why he killed himself) is a great shame.. ah well, I watch [British quiz show] University Challenge, and evidently there are SOME kids into learning; a great thing.
What's right with them?
I don't know many 'kids' today. I do know one musician who is 27, and he is a model person. But educated, brilliant and aware. And a fan.
The Beats inspired the social change that led to what came to be known as the 'counter- culture'. Do you feel that the hippies/counter- culture hijacked the spirit of the Beats?
The 'Beats' is a myth. The 'counter-culture' happened after the horrors of WWII. I haven't time to elaborate. Read J C Holmes' intro to Jay Landesman's collected autobiography. It's all there. And yes, the hippies got it all wrong.
What changes during the sixties were you most amazed by, and what changes do you think we take for granted today?
Sorry, I can't answer that question - too loaded and too long.
Did you drop acid and, if so, how was it?
I did not drop acid and do not believe in mind-altering drugs.
Were you envious of Neal's adventures?
Envious of Neal's adventures!? I have travelled and spent weeks all over Europe and Russia as well as the US. HE should envy me!
What's the best part of being Carolyn Cassady?
The best part is when I have been rarely appreciated as an artist, a stage designer and a writer for 76 years. Also the kind fans that write me with compliments, understanding and compassion. Bless them. AND those who bother to read my book, never promoted by the media.
What's the worst part of being Carolyn Cassady?
The worst part is to have been largely ignored on that score as well as WHY those men were attracted to me in the first place. See above.
Last question: what advice can you offer the young women of today?
Hmm... get a good education (not easy today), be yourself, be honest, compassionate, non- judgmental, and aspire to spiritual advancement. That means: learn the laws of nature and the universe; abhor violence, evil and war. Punishment is an Old Testament concept. Love and compassion are the only cures for those who feel badly treated by society. Prisons are schools of crime. How can you expect a prisoner to want to be a good citizen when society condemns them and hurts them? LOVE is the only cure. OK, I know I sound like an evangelist, but it is true. Punishment is just revenge ... Nobody is perfect.
Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg is published by Black Spring Press.
Words: Jason Crombie
Photographs courtesy of Carolyn Cassady