In this month’s column, John Cross ’76 follows the life and times of Lucien Carr and finds a connection between Bowdoin and the Beat generation.
For many of us summer means vacation and a chance to indulge in the guilty pleasures of reading stories of adventure, romance, notoriety, and mystery. Often the most compelling stories occupy the ambiguous ground between fiction and fact, and between myth and reality. This is one such tale.
In the summer of 1942 Bowdoin College was on a wartime footing, and offered accelerated academic programs for students who would become eligible for the draft at age 20. Two summer sessions were added as part of a trimester program; by taking two classes for five days a week in each session, a student could get a semester’s worth of credit. Lucien Carr from St. Louis enrolled in the first summer session in 1942 as a member of the Class of 1946. By the end of the first week he had run afoul of rules governing conduct for freshmen that were imposed – and enforced – by upperclassmen. As outlined in the Bowdoin Handbook for 1942-43, freshmen must wear “the regulation freshman hat at all times” and give the “Bowdoin Hello” to upperclassmen before being spoken to. They were not allowed to walk on the grass, smoke on the street, “date local ladies,” or wear bow ties. For his transgressions, Carr was sentenced to a bad haircut; two weeks later he faced additional penalties for a new set of infractions.
Rather than subject himself to further punishment, Carr left the campus in the middle of the night on July 15. In a telegram to Lucien’s mother, President Sills expressed regret at the social discipline administered by students, and admitted that he had no idea where Lucien was – only that he had left with an older man named Kammerer. As it turns out, David Kammerer had an obsession with Carr that dated back to his St. Louis days, where he had led Carr’s Boy Scout troop. He had pursued Carr to Phillips Academy in Andover and then to Bowdoin.
A few weeks later, Lucien wrote to Sills stating that he was looking for an education that emphasized academic rigor without the “social drama” that he had encountered at Bowdoin. After a brief time at the University of Chicago, Carr ended up at Columbia University. There he ran into William S. Burroughs, an acquaintance from St. Louis. A woman that Carr had met in a class introduced him to her boyfriend, a former merchant mariner named John Kerouac. Carr encouraged the impressionable kid down the hall (Alan Ginsberg) to read the works of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and others in the Decadent movement. He also brought aspiring writer Neal Cassady and novelist John Clellon Holmes into his intellectual circle at Columbia. Ginsberg described Carr as “the glue” that bound together the most important figures of what would become the Beat generation.
Ginsberg described Carr as “the glue” that bound together the most important figures of what would become the Beat generation.
David Kammerer remained a persistent presence in Carr’s life in New York, sometimes fitting in with the group and sometimes not. On August 14, 1944, after a night of drinking at the West End Bar (now Havana Central, 2911 Broadway), the 19-year old Carr and the 33-year old Kammerer ended up on Riverside Drive at 3:00 in the morning. Carr would later claim that Kammerer had made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances. In the ensuing scuffle, Carr stabbed Kammerer twice in the heart with his Boy Scout knife, killing him. He filled Kammerer’s pockets with rocks and then pushed the body out into the Hudson River.
Carr then went to Burroughs’s apartment, where he told his story and offered Burroughs “Kammerer’s last cigarette” from a bloodstained pack. Horrified, Burroughs told Carr to go to the police. Instead, he went to the movies with Kerouac and his girlfriend, Edie Parker, and later got Kerouac to stand watch while he buried Kammerer’s glasses in Morningside Park and disposed of the knife down a storm drain. Then, accompanied by a lawyer, Carr went to the district attorney’s office, where he confessed to the killing. Authorities didn’t know what to make of the story until Kammerer’s body was found floating in the Hudson.
The New York papers covered the legal proceedings quite thoroughly. Despite the fact that Carr was a Columbia student and had been at Bowdoin two years earlier for all of three weeks (not meeting the definition of an alumnus, since he did not complete at least one semester), the headlines in a Portland paper read “Former Bowdoin Student Admits Slaying.” Carr maintained a calm demeanor throughout the trial, reading a book of Yeats’s poetry during courtroom breaks. His claim that he had been defending his honor against an assault led to reduced charges of manslaughter and an 18-month sentence at a reformatory in Elmira, New York.
Burroughs and Kerouac were held as material witnesses in the case. Burroughs’s parents paid his bail and brought him back to St. Louis. Kerouac’s parents refused to bail him out. Edie Parker had access to money, but only if she was married. The two exchanged vows while Kerouac was still in custody; their marriage was annulled a year later. Kerouac and Burroughs took turns writing chapters of a thinly fictionalized version of the killing of Kammerer, entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a reference to a news story of a fire in a zoo that Burroughs had heard on the radio. It was the first book that either had written, and although it was written in 1946, it was not published until 2008, three years after Carr’s death. Kerouac retold versions of the story in The Town and the City (1950) and in Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 (1968), the last book published before his death in 1969.
Upon his release from Elmira, Carr began working for United Press International as a news editor and manager, a distinguished career that would span 47 years. He married, had three children, and maintained a low profile. Although he maintained personal friendships with Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg and gave them editorial and literary advice over the years, Carr had backed away from a Rimbaud-like lifestyle of decadence. Ginsberg dedicated the first edition of his 1956 landmark collection of poetry, “Howl and Other Poems,” to Carr, although he acceded to Carr’s request to remove the dedication in subsequent editions. After Carr’s death in 2005 as the last surviving member of the group, a colleague at UPI described him as “a literary lion who never roared,” a reference to his great talent in provoking and promoting the creativity of his contemporaries.
Given a renewed interest in the Beat Generation by scholars and popular media alike, the self-conscious and semi-autobiographical narratives of the Beats make for ambiguous histories and for the perpetuation of myths. Lucien Carr’s role in the creation of the 120-foot-long scroll manuscript of Kerouac’s On the Road (which sold at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million) is a case in point. The scroll consists of strips of paper measuring 9 inches wide and 20 feet long, taped together. Carr and Kerouac maintained that it was teletype paper that Carr had taken from the UPI office, although analysis of the paper itself suggests that it was architect’s tracing paper. In a 2001 Newsweek interview, Carr stated that Kerouac wrote the manuscript over a three-week period in Carr’s 21st Street loft (not in the 20th Street apartment that Kerouac shared with his second wife, Joan Haverty, as others had claimed). There is abundant evidence that Kerouac wrote sections of On the Road over several years, and that the scroll was typed in a marathon session in the spring of 1951 to create the sense of a “train-of-thought” narrative. The end of the manuscript is torn and frayed, with a note in Kerouac’s hand: “DOG ATE [Potchky-a dog].” Carr confirmed that his dog, Potschky (“a smooth-haired terrier affair”) had chewed the concluding portion of the manuscript. Skeptics point to a note from Ginsberg that indicated that Kerouac was having difficulty finding a way to end On the Road, and that the missing ending may have been part of a clever marketing plan for a manuscript that was as spectacular in its form as it was remarkable in its content. The edited version of the book first appeared in 1957. It remains to be seen if the October 2013 release of a new film about Lucien Carr and his circle of friends, Kill Your Darlings, will debunk some myths, entrench others, or create new ones.
There can be no greater understatement than the admission that I am out of my depth in assessing the literary merit and the historical accuracy of the accounts by Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg (and a host of biographers). I’m quite certain that Carr encountered far more “social drama” at Columbia in 1944 than he ever would have found as an undergraduate at Bowdoin. Finally, I am left to ponder a “what if” – if Lucien Carr had not been subjected to harassment by upperclassmen in the summer of 1942 and had stayed at Bowdoin for four years, what would have been the trajectories of the individual and interconnected careers of the Beats?
With best wishes for what remains of the summer,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations