Kerouac In Northport
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a man who celebrated and lamented
the sweet, mad jazz and mystery of post World War II America.
Dubbed the founder of the 1950s "Beat" movement
- an appellation which he initially embraced but increasingly
over time disdained - he was a central figure int he cadre
of artists and intellectuals whose young adult experiences
gave rise to that movement. He rose to fame after publication
of the novel On The Road in 1958, which celebrated the attitudes
and lifestyle of alternative culture in America. But after
this initial burst of celebrity, he lived in increasing
isolation and marginalization by the critics of mainstream
American culture, until his death at the age of 47.
author of numerous novels and a seminal figure in the pantheon
of the Beat Generation, Kerouac reigns today as an archetypal
and quasi-mythical figure in popular American society, a
touchstone to diverse and sometimes divergent interests.
the course of his life, Kerouac lived and traveled widely
- and such communities as Lowell Massachusetts (his hometown)
and San Francisco Ca (where he and many of his cohorts had
a number of early adventures) have prominently celebrated
his association. In recent years too, Orlando Florida -
a frequent destination for Kerouac and MaMere - has joined
the constellation of communities which has explored and
brought to public attention Kerouac's presence. In recent
years, the village of Northport, Long Island - situated
an hour east of New York City and an island amid the sprawl
of suburban megalopolis - has begun to join that constellation.
While for a decade of more a small cadre of the literary
cognescenti have celebrated Kerouac with an evening of reading
at Gunthers, one of the author's favored haunts during the
1950s, it was in 2000 and 2001, that the community emerged
as a significant star in the Kerouac constellation of communities.
In 2000, the local historical society hosted a confab of
Kerouac associates as part of an exhibition of the man's
time in the little village - including a panel that included
the likes of musician David Amram, Kerouac agent Sterling
Lord, artist Stanley Twardowicz, and photographer Larry
Smith. And in 2001, Northport was the originating point
and lead community in the massive four-city marathon reading
of Big Sur, a Kerouac work written during his time in the
lived in Northport off and on during the years 1958-1964,
shortly after making his name as a literary celebrity. An
increasingly conservative, apolitical figure whose life
was suffused with battles with alcohol consumption, it was
here that he first purchased a home for himself and his
mother. During his years in Northport, Kerouac attempted
to maintain a quiet homestead close enough to New York,
to keep his links with the artistic and publishing community,
yet far enough away to avoid the excesses of a high-profile
was unfortunately unsuccessful in that effort, and he left
Northport in 1964, troubled by alcohol consumption, oncoming
middle age, and a decline in his creative output. Alienation
from the creative community of his early adulthood, and
the strain caused by the demands of his relationship with
his mother proved further drains on his talents. He lived
in Massachusetts and Florida for the last five years of
his life, and died at the age of 47 in 1969.
personal interviews and close examination of the many biographical
materials on Jack Kerouac demonstrate that his time in Northport
was far from bleak.
LOOKS LIKE NEW ENGLAND
think he just got drunk out here," says Kerouac contemporary
Amram. "They don't realize how excited Jack was to
live here, to have a home for his mother, their first home."
did Kerouac come to Northport? Among the reasons advanced
by biographers and people who knew him during the era, four
major factors emerge. First, it was closer enough to the
hustling artistic and publishing activity of New York City
to keep Jack involved, yet far enough away to help keep
him and mischief at arm's length. A second reason was his
lifelong commitment to care for his mother. "When Jack
told me he was going to Northport, he was so excited he
could finally buy a home for his mother - he was always
close and felt a responsibility for his mother," Amram
its small-town, working class atmosphere in the fifties,
and located an hour or so from a major metropolitan area,
Northport bore a certain resemblance to Lowell, Jack's hometown
- at least according to his friends, who suggested he move
may have been introduced to the village through associations
with the family of Peter Orlovsky, one of the inner circle
in the Beat movement. The Orlovsky family was living in
Northport in the mid-1950s when Jack's star began to rise
- and visits to the family by Jack's friends seem to have
paved the way for his decision to move in. In her book Minor
Characters, biographer Joyce Johnson remembers writing to
Jack, then living in Florida, about Northport. Kerouac wanted
to return to New York and Johnson, who was romantically
involved with the author at the time, had visited the Orlovsky's
in November 1957. She remembers thinking the village would
suit him well. "On the way back (we) drove around Northport
looking for a place to get hamburgers," writes Johnson.
"In the dark the town had a romantic look...the main
street led right down to the waters of the bay, which lapped
and shined against a pier where a few boats of summer were
still tied up. There was a park down there too, with an
old fashioned bandstand; some teenagers were necking on
its steps...it was so achingly all-American that it made
me feel awfully lonely for Jack."
week she wrote Kerouac saying that Northport "seemed
like a place where you could be someday. And you could still
come to New York whenever you wanted and see the people
at Viking and all your friends."
next spring she was sending him real estate sections from
The New York Times, and Johnson says "remembering my
description of Northport, he was looking for a house out
of the precipitating events for the move seems to have occurred
in April 1958 when Kerouac and poet Gregory Corso stepped
into trouble at the Kettle of Fish, a NYC bar, "popular
at the time with a crowd of hard, belligerent drinkers who
made their living moving furniture," says Johnson.
Someone took offense at a comment Jack made, and when the
two friends left, they were surrounded. "The man threw
Jack to the sidewalk and began pounding his head against
the curb, while Gregory looked on befuddled and appalled,
yelling 'Stop! Stop'" Soon after, Kerouac made up his
mind to buy a house and drove out to Northport with photographer
Robert Frank. "Neither of us could have talked Jack
out of it," writes Johnson. "He could only feel
safe again in a house ruled by his mother." She recalls
visiting a real estate office and meeting a woman with "strawberry
blond tinted hair...she had the perfect house for him...she
held up a photo of a shingled house with a small porch and
a steep roof. Jack became excited...it looked like the houses
he'd known in Lowell." When they got back to the car
after visiting the house, Johnson reports, Jack refused
to even look at anything else. "It was the fastest
sale she'd ever made."
THEN AND NOW
Joyce Johnson Northport looked like a middle class town,
but to residents it was, despite enclaves of wealthy residents
and celebrities outside of town, clearly a working class
it was a friendly town. Village trustee and sweetshop owner
Pete Panarites recalls, "Residents in the community
knew each other - you walked down the street, it was 'Hi,
Mr. So and So,' 'How are you, Mrs. So and So.' Today it
might take twenty people before I know one. There were banks
and groceries. Hills. Bohacks. At the deli was an A&P."
was also a significant artistic presence in the community
as well - Antoine de St Exupery and Rachmaninoff had called
the area home in the WWII era, and in the fifties, Manhattan
based television personalities and political figures lived
outside of town - and artists such as Jules Olitski, Marcel
Vertes and Stanley Twardowicz were residents. Summer stock
brought name Broadway personalities to the area, who might
be seen before a performance getting a bite to eat at the
local diner or having a drink at a bar.
it was also working class. Detective Gene Roehmer grew up
in the village in the 1950s and was on the Northport beat
in the early 1960's, and to him the difference between Northport
today and in the fifties is "like night and day. Those
were much tougher times, there were a lot of empty storefronts.
The area was heavy duty fishermen, lobstermen, clammers.
The bars and restaurants catered to a different class of
routine to see fights in almost all the bars. "Northport
harbor, just outside the 5 mph line, was covered with clamboats,
hundreds of them, you could walk across the harbor on them,"
Roehmer recalls. "They would fight out their for their
turf." Those turf battles frequently spilled over into
Friday night encounters in the local bars. Most who remember
the era believe Gunthers, one of Kerouac's favored hangouts
in town, as the more upscale bar on Main Street. When it
came to a rough crowd, it was Murphy's, says Roehmer, which
had them all beat.
working class nature of Northport was not confined to baymen.
Though the Steers sandmining operation was in its waning
days, many of the laborers had families living in the village.
Davis Aircraft was making bullet proof vests, as well as
seatbelts for aircraft. "The village was full of working
class people," said Roehmer. "When it was warm
in the summer, it was like hot time in the city, three days
out of five you were involved in physical contact. The middle
class residents went elsewhere."
most other well known people, Kerouac set up shop with Memere
right in town - his first home being at 34 Gilbert Street,
which he purchased from radio scriptwriter Mona Kent; and
later at 49 Earl Court and 7 JudyAnn Court. The interiors
of the homes were decorated in simple, early American style
with religious artifacts hung on the walls. "Judyann
Court," he wrote in one letter to a friend, found in
Ann Charters' edited book of Selected Letters, was "a
great pad. I can't believe it and just sit in a more or
less drunk stupor staring at it...the best house I ever
had with a big backyard with thirty-two trees all around
and a six-foot wood fence." He found himself pacing
in the yard, sometimes at 4 a.m., he reported, "under
the cold stars and bare branches, thinking of my new book
and how to write it."
a home of watering cans and sawhorses, American flags and
a piano, and plastic ropes in the basement to hang the wash
on. "Memere," he noted, fed the "black and
white shiny starlings - they come by the dozens every morning...to
thrash in the birdbath."
world-traveling visitors came to visit as well. One resident
recalls coming home from college and drinking with Jack
at Gunthers, and "this guy writing poems on coasters
- that was Allen Ginsberg. Others who visited? Writers Gregory
Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, photographer Robert Frank;
agent Sterling Lord; and traveling companion/beat inspiration
it was while living in Northport that Kerouac grew estranged
from many of his more politically radical friends, an estrangement
fueled by differences over such issues as the Vietnam War,
and the use of hallucinogenic drugs. "A peaceful sorrow
at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world,"
he wrote in a letter selected by Charters. "And so
I told my Desolation Angels goodbye."
stories of Jack Kerouac's days in Northport usually revolve
around his heavy drinking, his sometimes boisterous behavior,
and his days hanging out and playing pool at Gunthers. Pete
Gunther likes to recall how Kerouac would come in with a
little money, but somehow end up very drunk after a while.
He apparently managed the feat, said Gunther, by sneaking
a bottle of booze into the establishment in a valise and
secretly drinking it in the bathroom. Twardowicz, who maintained
an art studio in a second floor loft overlooking Main Street
for many years, was a close acquaintance of Kerouac's during
the period, and his stories about Kerouac's drinking exploits
Twardowicz was well aware of Kerouac's artistic side. "There
were two Jack Kerouacs," says Stanley. "Jack got
to be rambunctious sometimes, he was persona non grata in
some bars. But he was kind of searching to find himself."
Jack, who explored painting and poetry with Twardowicz in
the artist's studio, had a keen intelligence, says Stanley.
"His knowledge of things was incredible, he would pull
things out of hi head. He talked like one of the regular
guys. But he told me once he wrote Shakespeare sonnets when
he was fifteen, then he proceeded to rattle off one sonnet
after another - for fifteen minutes."
was a very sweet guy, he had a sensitive personality, very
gentle," agrees Northport resident Bill Shotwell, who
was a drinking and softball pal of Kerouac's. "Not
at all a tough guy careening around."
Smith, an architect still living in Northport, was among
Kerouac's regular acquaintances in 1963-64. He loved to
hear Jack "ramble on about some aspect of his life.
He had this marvelous gift to be spontaneous. When the crowd
got big, he would get louder, more boisterous. There were
times when I would say to myself, I don't care if I see
this SOB again. But then again there was the charming, winsome,
creative, appealing Jack. He could call up things in an
amazing way, quote from Shakespeare, the Bible, from literature."
Watson was fifteen in the late 1950s, and living downstairs
from the Orlovsky's on Woodbine Avenue when Kerouac and
others would drop by her mother's kitchen for cookies. The
Jack Kerouac she remembers was highly erudite and an inspirational
figure. "He was enamored of current twentieth century
philosophy," recalls Watson, who retired to Maine after
a career in teaching. "He also was enamored of literary
figures - Beckett, Ionesco, Camus. He opened my eyes to
them - when I started studying them in college, I was more
aware of them. He was probably the first philosophy teacher
I had. Jack Kerouac made me a thinking person."
on which reference you read, Jack Kerouac was either appalled
at or delighted by the attention paid to him by local teenagers
and college students during his days in Northport. "He
would complain about it," says Smith, but I guess in
retrospect it was kind of a compliment." The escapades
Jack got involved in with young people ranged form mild
to wild - including late night visits to abandoned Gold
Coast mansions. One such incident, said a student who later
went on to become an artist, wound up with the police chasing
Kerouac and a group of young boys out of the state - and
Kerouac falling asleep, drunk, in the woods.
the mystique of Kerouac gave such encounters a special air.
"I had started reading him, and one night I walked
across Main Street, Northport, and there he was in Gunther's,"
said James Watson, who later became a musician. "He
was at the far end of the bar, staring at the surface of
a glass, in a deep trance. I was trying to relate to him,
but I was terrified, he was an idol of mine. I went up to
speak with him - and he went into high gear, holding forth,
pontificating, gesturing. He was blissful, beat, spontaneous
AND UNDERGROUND FILM
Farabaugh, a football star at Northport High School in the
days when Kerouac lived on Gilbert Street and hung over
the fence watching practices, was one of those whose friendship
with the former college athlete centered on sports. Twardowicz,
Smith, Shotwell and others - including long time Newsday
columnist Mike McGrady - could be regularly found on a Sunday
afternoon at Ocean Avenue School, around the corner from
JudyAnn Court, playing softball with Jack.
was interesting to get him out on the ballfield," said
Smith. "We would drag him out of bed Sundays, 11 or
11:30, to play ball. He'd be in the outfield, trying to
call back the athleticism of his past, which wasn't there.
He'd go after a ball, miss it. Then he would do a caricature
of himself missing the ball, like somersaulting. "I
pitched to Jack, and he was a good hitter, he hit hard,"
said Twardowicz. "He was all muscle. One time we were
playing football. I said, 'Jack, I'm going to run right
through you.' He picked me up and spun me around."
when Kerouac was supposed to have gone into significant
decline, a visiting reporter observed that he could do headstands
like a champion gymnast and was working out "rigorously,
and could be seen to have rippling stomach muscles...bulging
biceps...and a belly hard as a butcher's block."
became noted for minor eccentricities, like walking around
town in his slippers and wearing overalls around the garden,
like he did when he was a boy, while tending a garden of
American Beauty roses.
than one might realize, Kerouac also tended the garden of
his literary career while in Northport. Many biographers
suggested he declined in productivity in the early 1960s,
and certainly many of his major works had been written a
decade earlier, but Big Sur was a major product of the era,
and his tome Lonesome Traveler - and the author was productive
when it came to articles, poems and paintings.
went to a party at Twardowicz' place, Kerouac was there,
he was sitting in a corner," recalls Shirley Geller.
"He had some notebooks, (and) he asked me if I wanted
to look at them. I said to myself, 'Well, these are nothing.'
Next think it was an article in Esquire Magazine, and it
recalls that when Kerouac was working on a writing project,
he would disappear into his studio for days, only coming
out to walk into town for groceries - with his head down,
looking neither right nor left. When it came to researching
character, Roehmer believes that Kerouac was an avid student
of local people. "One day you might see him talking
with a clammer - and the next, with a big time lawyer in
to other activities, Jack made public appearances and gave
interviews, including the Steve Allen Show in 1959. Moreover,
he was deeply engaged in overseeing the publication of books
he had written earlier. Between 1958-1964, he published
The Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues,
Maggy Cassidy, Tristessa, Lonesome Traveler, Big Sur and
Visions of Gerard. During that time period, he also wrote
a major section of Desolation Angels on a trip to Mexico
Kerouac met with filmmaker Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie
in Northport, a meeting which resulted in the concept for
the film Pull My Daisy, which he narrated in 1959. Based
on his play the Beat Generation, this film - which included
appearances by friends Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, artist
Larry Rivers and musician/composer David Amram, was not
a commercial success, but has remained a classic in alternative
filmmaking. "The film pioneered what came to be known
as the New American Cinema," noted one biographer.
"It was the first underground film."
BEAT GOES ON
fame of Kerouac and the Beat movement which grew up around
him turned to legend in the years after his death. In her
biography, Joyce Johnson states "as of 1982 there is
the Jack Kerouac Society for Disembodied Poetics...proliferation
of pamphlets, theses, articles, chapters in books...a journal
published annually celebrating the beats...it is a hagiography
in the making." That was nearly two decades ago. That
list has been expanded to include dozens of Internet websites,
festivals, motion pictures, videos, biographies, memoirs,
postage stamps, and commemorative activities dedicated to
Jack Kerouac. His hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, has a
massive three day Kerouac festival each year in October,
and another for Kerouac's birthday in March. In Orlando,
a writers in residence program has been established in a
modest home once occupied by Jack and Memere. Ozone Park
NY put a plaque on a home occupied by Kerouac. NYU, Columbia
and other institutions have organized major Kerouac festivals.
Northport officially declared July 9 Jack Kerouac day, and
in 2001 joined Lowell, Orlando and San Francisco in a massive
four-city marathon reading of Big Sur. A search of Internet
websites and personal profiles turns up thousands who identify
themselves in some way with Kerouac. As one pundit put it,
"the Byte generation has met the Beat Generation."
the enduring influence of Jack Kerouac may also be found
in the lives of Northport residents, too. One need look
no further than to those who knew him then - or who have
chosen to adopt his memory in their role as artists living
and working in the area.
artist Lilian Dodson says meeting Kerouac helped her and
others "break out of their own boxed in worlds, and
take risks and to achieve growth within themselves."
Charlie Pellegrino, a Northport resident and construction
worker who was exposed to the author in the tenth grade
by a teacher, says he has been inspired by Kerouac's "free-wheeling
innocence." B.J. Cassidy, organizer of an annual Kerouac
reading at Gunthers, says she became aware that the author
was living in Northport in the 1960s. "I knew he hung
out at Gunthers, dispensing his poetry and angst, in equal
measure," says Cassidy. She said Kerouac had provoked
her own creativity. "He wrote about everything and
wasn't afraid to confront anything. Kerouac had a way of
looking at the moment." How does Kerouac's political
conservatism play in the post-modern 21st century? "He
was very accepting of other people, racially, sexually,
but then he could also be very conservative," she acknowledges.
"But like many people, he had contradictions. You can't
judge his work by that."
who knew Kerouac when he lived in Northport and whose lives
were influenced by him included George Trent and James Turner
- who met him in the early 1960s when they were teens. Laurie
Trent Trentacosta says that her husband George was one of
those whose lives were shaped by Kerouac after he was befriended
by the author. A jazz musician, artist and poet, Trent was
"a contractor in New Haven" who "talked about
Kerouac fondly," says Laurie. "In 1965 George
left his family and took a barge across the sea, he went
to Morocco and stayed there two years. George was an oil
painter and a writer too. He wrote poetry all along. he
said to me at one point that Jack had said to him that a
poem he had written was as good a poem as he ever read."
James Turner, who was pursuing a music career in Sag Harbor
at the time of this writing, declared that he associates
"tremendously with Kerouac. I utilize a form of improvisation,
that I call spontaneous prose/poetry, a word flow, that
I attribute to him and to read his work. I've honed it to
the point that it is a core of my creative motor, improvising
monologues, and poetry, to music. I don't know if it would
have happened without having met Jack Kerouac."