Jack Kerouac In Northport
by George Wallace

Author 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.

The 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.

During 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 village.

Kerouac 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 lifestyle.

Kerouac 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.

But personal interviews and close examination of the many biographical materials on Jack Kerouac demonstrate that his time in Northport was far from bleak.


"People 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."

Why 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 recalls.

With 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 here.

Kerouac 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."

That 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."

The 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 there."

One 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."


To urbanite 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 village.

No mistake, 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."

There 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.

But 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 people."

It was 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.

The 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."

Unlike 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."

It was 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."

And 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 Neal Cassady.

But 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."


The 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 are legion.

But 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."

"He 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."

Larry 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."

Carol 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."

Depending 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.

Still, 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 fun."


Jimmy 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.

"It 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."

In 1964, 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."

Kerouac 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.

More 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.

"I 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 was good!"

Twardowicz 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 town."

In addition 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 City.

In 1958 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."


The 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."

But 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.

Huntington 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."

Others 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."

And 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."