Tilting at Windmills

September/October 2012 More Ginsberg memories

By Charles Peters

Now, to more memories of Allen Ginsberg. In some ways, Allen was a bad influence during that first year I knew him, in 1946-47. In teaching me how to be hip, he made me look down on those who weren’t. (You mean you haven’t read Rimbaud or Baudelaire!) But we also often just had fun. He liked jazz, and so did I. I can remember one morning I skipped class so that we could get the bargain rate—it was either 55 or 95 cents if you got there before 11:30 a.m.—at the Strand Theater, where the great tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was performing with Lionel Hampton’s band. We also frequented the Three Deuces, one of the many jazz clubs that lined Fifty-second Street. It featured another tenor saxophone player, Flip Phillips. Late one night, we went to Carnegie Hall to attend a concert in the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series that featured both Jacquet and Phillips. I was still so un-hip that Allen had to explain to me that the strong aroma in the hall was from marijuana.

Herbert Huncke was the only friend of Allen’s I met that first year (by the way, Herbert later wrote a very accurately titled autobiography, Guilty of Everything). Allen was away most of the next, serving in the Merchant Marine, but during the 1948-49 school year he introduced me to Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lucien Carr, Vicki Russell, and Allen’s father, Louis. Carr seemed guarded and hard to know, but Kerouac and Cassady not only were open and affable, they could be downright exuberant. I would never have guessed the undercurrent of torment that was part of both men. Vicki was a hooker who wanted to use my apartment as a pad where she could entertain her johns, for which I would be rewarded with a commission. Thank goodness I wasn’t quite hip enough to accept that proposal.

Allen made a special effort for me to meet his father, and I think the reason was that Allen saw me as a “respectable” friend and there was part of him that, until at least 1954, had wanted to keep one foot in the respectable world. He often talked about how T. S. Eliot, as a bank official, Wallace Stevens, as an insurance company executive, and William Carlos Williams, as a family doctor, had combined lives in poetry with regular careers. The last time I saw him before I left New York to go to law school, he was wearing a suit and told me he was working for a market research firm.

Allen got arrested in 1949. I was on the subway one Saturday morning in March when, looking over another rider’s shoulder, I saw a photograph in either the Daily Mirror or the Daily News of Allen, Herbert, Vicki, and a new friend of theirs, “Little Jack” Melody, peering out of a paddy wagon. Little Jack, it turned out, was in the same line of work as Herbert, namely larceny, and was understandably apprehensive about contact with officers of the law. When a policeman
attempted to stop the gang as they drove around Queens, Little Jack immediately stepped on the gas. The result was that, in the subsequent chase, his car turned over. Though the occupants fled, some of Allen’s papers were left behind. They contained Allen’s address on York Avenue, which ultimately led to the arrest of Allen and his friends, and the discovery of either stolen goods or illegal substances at his apartment.The next day I got a call from Allen, who saidhe was in a Manhattan jail and wanted meto ask Mark Van Doren, a Columbia professorwe both admired, to help get him out.

I went to Van Doren, who did not immediately respond—I think his attitude was that Allen needed to be taught a lesson. But after I received several more desperate calls from Allen and paid more visits to Van Doren, the professor finally agreed to ask his friend, the civil rights attorney Morris Ernst, to help. But by the time I was able to tell Allen the good news, he was out of jail; his brother Eugene, who was a lawyer, had made a deal for Allen’s freedom in return for his committing himself to the Payne-Whitney psychiatric clinic at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

Years later at a Washington party Allen and I were attending, I started to tell this story, but Allen quickly interrupted. I later realized he preferred a version of the story in which the Columbia faculty had actually come to his rescue. This wasn’t really that far from the truth—but it wasn’t the truth. I came to understand that Allen was an active participant in creating his own myth and the myth of the Beats. From the time I first met him, he wove wonderful tapestries of the group that made me eager to meet them in spite of some of the outrageous things they had done. But I don’t think this in any way diminishes works like either Howl or On the Road. Most of the famous people I have known have not been above gilding their own image.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

Comments

  • Matt Patton on September 06, 2012 9:48 AM:

    Frankly, Ginsberg sounds like a thoroughgoing jerk. (He later allowed Richard Avedon to take very cruel photos of several of his relatives--after all, they were just squares).

    As for his status as a poet? The only thing that diminishes HOWL is the thing itself.