In early February, Trisha and I went to a house concert in Durham to hear Sara Ghebremichael, one of Lily’s Wesleyan University housemates in 2003 and 2004. Sara has become an accomplished singer and banjo player, as you can hear on this video clip. She’s from Washington DC and greeted the Trump administration with a song protest vigil in Lafayette Park that she documented on Instagram and YouTube, and that was mentioned in a French television report that called Washington “The Most Anti-Trump US City.” (Fast forward, past the Trumpcrap, to about two minutes in this video.)
One of the other musicians on the program was Kate Rhudy, a country style singer from Raleigh. She got my attention with her introduction to her song, “If You Killed a Man,” inspired by things she learned after reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. She was bored by the book, she said, but intrigued by stories that Kerouac, when a college student at Columbia in the 1940s, helped his friend Lucien Carr dispose of the body of a man Carr had killed in Riverside Park, near the Columbia campus. Here’s a video of the song.
After the show, I introduced myself to Kate and told her that in 1965 I’d worked with Lucien Carr at United Press International in New York, where I’d just gotten my first job as a reporter on the Local News Desk. Carr, whom everyone called Lou, was the day news editor. He was a slight man with horn-rimmed glasses, a big mustache, an topcoat that was too small, and loafers that he’d somehow worn so that he’d collapsed (what as near as I can determine shoemakers call) the quarterpanels so that they were almost flat to the floor. Carr worked with his shirt sleeves rolled up, one shirt tail often untucked, chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, continually fiddled with his mustache, and talked in a growl. Every night, when he left the office, he’d advise the night news staff that he was about to descend into “the tunnel of terror,” his simile for the subway. Someone told me he was married to an African American woman. No one told me he’d killed a man. I thought him very cool.
My father, who was a beatnik manqué and from whom I inherited three Kerouac novels, a Kerouac biography, several books by Charles Bukowski and virtually nothing else, at some point told me a little of what he knew about Carr. I’d gone to Columbia in the early ’60s and that helped him make the connection. I think I’d left UPI at that point, so I didn’t have occasion to look at Carr differently. No one at Columbia ever talked about Carr, not to mention Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, another Columbia student and friend. I was often in Riverside Park, which was believed to be conventionally dangerous. but not a notorious crime scene.
Here’s what I’ve come to know about Carr, from Kerouacana, Beat histories, some fictional versions of events, and Carr’s New York Times obituary, which described Carr as “a literary lion who never roared”:
Carr was famously handsome. Here he is with Kerouac (l.) in 1944…
and in an undated photograph perhaps 20 years later, close to when I knew him.
Kerouac, Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, and other Beats were omnisexual. Burroughs introduced a friend of his, David Kammerer, to Carr when Carr was 14. Kammerer followed Carr to a succession of secondary schools and finally to Columbia. In August 1944, after, he said, Kammerer sexually molested him in Riverside Park, Carr stabbed Kammerer to death with a pocket knife and dumped his body in the Hudson River. This Wikipedia biography of Carr goes into more detail, if you’re interested, and mentions the several written and film versions of the event.
The New York Times obituary (above) states unequivocally that Carr gave Kerouac the roll of teletype paper on which Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road. Having handled rolls of teletype paper at UPI and at Reuters and the New York Daily News, my subsequent news business jobs, I’d always been suspicious of that part of the Beat Generation legend. This is the sort of machine in which those rolls were meant to be inserted:
And this is what the rolls looked like, though in my day they were yellow:
A roll these days is 235 feet long and weighs several pounds. Feeding one into a manual typewriter like the Underwood portable Kerouac used would have required dexterity and a certain amount of strength.
And, the 2007 book On the Road: The Original Scroll, an edition of the novel/memoir that displayed the text without page breaks or paragraph indents, as Kerouac wrote it, put the lie, I had thought, to the teletype roll story. In his introductory essay, Howard Cunnell wrote:
The paper Kerouac used was not Teletype paper but thin, long sheets of drawing paper belonging to a friend, Bill Cannastra. Kerouac had inherited the paper when he moved into Cannastra’s loft on West Twentieth Street after Cannastra’s accidental death in the New York subway….
It is clear that the scroll is something consciously made by Kerouac rather than found. He cut the paper into eight pieces of varying length and shaped it to fit the typewriter. The pencil marks and scissor cuts are still visible on the paper. Then he taped the pieces together. It’s not known whether he taped each sheet on as he finished it, or waited until he had finished the whole thing before taping the sheets together.
This 2007 news release from the National Historical Park in Lowell MA, Kerouac’s birthplace, gives a slightly different version of the scroll’s creation. In any case, though Lou Carr may have been, in Allen Ginsberg’s words, “the glue” of the Beat Generation, it seems clear that he didn’t provide the paper on which its most famous novel was written.