By Lionel Rolfe
I met up with my old friend Gerald Nicosia the other day at Beyond Baroque in Venice where they were holding forth about Jack Kerouac on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
Nicosia, whose book Memory Babe has remained the major biography of the man, was joined by Harry E. Northrup and Aram Saroyan and lots of other beat poets in a moving celebration. There was talk of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth. There was a religious fervor to the moment, even if Gerald was obviously tired. He’d been traveling to promote his new book One And Only: The Untold Story Of On The Road. But when a special moment from Kerouac was mentioned, his face lit up and the tiredness vanished and he burned with an intensity that belied his aches and pains.
People who tend to write off Bohemians as politically left miss the fact that Kerouac’s friendship with William F. Buckley was based on two pillars they shared: Catholicism and conservative politics. Kerouac even had real anti-Semitic animosity to Ginsberg.
But that day at Beyond Baroque, these were people speaking from a deep part of them–Kerouac had affected them all to the core of their beings, and they had a conviction akin to those who claim Jesus as their savior. I was awed at the devotion. Kerouac was their liberator.
For myself, I’m a bit more ambivalent about the beats. Part of me loves them, but other parts of me are very uncomfortable with them.
I know that Kerouac’s On The Road was inspired by Jack London’s The Road as well, and he had no religious impulse. And it is true that Kerouac’s “Road” is a more transcendent than London’s, who had no truck for organized religion. His religion was revolution and socialism.
For me, though, the fact that Kerouac was moved by London, obviously in the way I and others were moved by him, made Kerouac one of the chosen. He was a bohemian at heart, but he was also transcendent and religious. As a good atheist, I could accept that.
Nicosia, in point, read a part of On The Road that could really be Dante or Blake. In it, the angels literally danced. Kerouac profoundly believed in angels. The scene, which Kerouac regarded as the best in the book, has moments of Dante and Blake–it is surrealistic and visionary in that same way.
As a lover of the original California bohemians–Mark Twain, Jack London, and so forth–I also knew that Kerouac remained one of the anointed, despite any transgressions. One of my favorite Kerouac works was a book about “Big Sur.” I think that was its title. So as people talked and read, images of the night I had spent there, sleeping for a night on a beach at Big Sur, rushed back on me. And I’m sure for almost everyone at Beyond Baroque that night, they all were harboring highly evocative and intimate moments. They all tried to speak to the mystery of why Kerouac and Cassady had changed so many lives.
Out on the steps of Beyond Baroque, my journalist-photographer friend Susan McRae took a photo of the two of us, showing in my view, two very tired old men. She also captured him reading from Kerouac’s favorite scene in “On The Road.”
This was the first time we had met since I wrote about Nicosia’s role in the upcoming film version of On The Road. He told me my article had gone viral on the Internet, but his book was being ignored by most American media. He noted though that he had just been interviewed on French radio by a show claiming 10 million or more listeners, and he smiled. Perhaps that’s because the movie is due to be premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival.
There is a “back story,” as they like to call it nowadays. Ever since Nicosia took Jan Kerouac’s side, she being Jack’s daughter, against the Sampas family of Lowell, Mass., in the matter of Kerouac’s estate, there’s been a desperate battle. Toward the end of his life, Jack had a wife named Stella Sampas he was married to for a short time, whose family Nicosia regards as being mobsters. Even though a final ruling late last year said the will that gave them control was clearly a forgery, the matter is still in limbo because of peculiarities of probate law in Florida. Jan, who filed the case, has, in the meanwhile died, and now the proceeds theoretically go to her heirs, yet the Sampas family still controls the $30 million dollar estate.
“The Sampases always hated my book,” Nicosia told me, “because I was the first biographer to reveal that Jack was trying to divorce Stella when he died, and also that he had disinherited Stella and left everything to his mother.”
Nicosia says that in Memory Babe. He also revealed the fact that Stella’s father had murdered a man in a Greek dice game and went to prison for 30 years.” He mentioned that Stella’s brother Tony, now deceased, ran the bookie operations in Lowell and in other ways the family was tied up in most of the vice in Lowell.
“A real nice Greek family. Ha ha. Anyway, they were gunning for my book even before Jan filed her lawsuit in 1994. In 1991, the Sampas brothers and sisters voted John Sampas to be the literary executor, and in 1992 he made a six-book deal for published and unpublished Kerouac books with Viking Penguin.
“A week later, I was notified by my editor, David Stanford, that Penguin was terminating my book. This made no sense at all. In 1987, Penguin had done a green paperback of Memory Babe (with a Robert Frank photo on the front) after Grove had put it out of print.
“In 1991, as the Kerouac boom grew, Stanford had told me they were preparing to do a new, large format edition of Memory Babe. Then a few months later, as Penguin becomes the official publisher of all future Kerouac books, they kicked Memory Babe out.
“Stanford denied that Sampas had anything to do with it, but I was later told by insiders that Sampas had made termination ofMemory Babe one of his conditions for the six-book Kerouac deal. Once I sided with Jan’s lawsuit in 1994, of course, the war was full on, and Sampas has used every sort of pressure on Viking Penguin, including demanding that they remove my name, and Memory Babe’s name, from all books on Kerouac, and bibliographies inside Kerouac books. I don’t exist for them, though many of the books they list in their bibliographies actually cite Memory Babe in their own bibliographies!”
He notes that despite the effort to expunge his work, even the London Times Literary Supplement called Memory Babe the “definitive biography” of Kerouac.
Nicosia did not have to prove to me the importance of his work. Sampas couldn’t rewrite history for us because we all knew that Memory Babe was the major work on Kerouac.
I got a taste of the passions involved when shortly after I wrote about Nicosia’s involvement with the “On The Road” movie, Carolyn Cassady wrote me a letter from Berkshire, England, home of Windsor Castle as well as Cassady, to the west of London.
“I’m afraid you consider Gerald Nicosia as sane and reliable,” she wrote.
“I knew Gerald very well; I helped him write his book; he moved into my home for weeks and followed me to Hollywood. I had thought his book would be the definitive biography … Alas, it is NOT.”
I think Carolyn hates Nicosia’s new book because there he makes the case that Neal Cassady’s first wife, Lu Anne, was a lot bigger influence on Cassady and Kerouac than Carolyn ever was.
The new movie focuses more on Lu Anne’s relationship with the two protagonists of “On The Road,” whereas up until now, most of what people know about Cassady and Kerouac comes from Carolyn Cassady, Cassady’s second wife. Her memoirs shaped the 1980 film “Heart Beat,” starring Nick Nolte as Cassady and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn.
Nicosia reminded me we have known each other for now than three decades now. I met him at a book convention in 1982, and we became friends.
I gave him the first edition of my “Literary L.A.,”
the one published by Chronicle Books then. He was there for something to do with Memory Babe.
“I have a strong visual image of the two of us walking down a long corridor coming out of the ABA,” he said. He said he liked me because physically I had reminded him of his best friend, an Albanian poet friend who committed suicide at 27.
He said that his friend was “the brightest man I’d ever met, and you were clearly bright too. And we had a lot of shared literary interests, like Kerouac, as well as a lot of shared compassionate values about helping the poor and needy in society instead of making wars. I liked your writing as soon as I read some of it—and I still do.”
He also complimented my writing highly, saying “Your ability to combine the very personal with the very political, and at the same time an astute historical overview of society and the times, is nothing short of marvelous–and of course you are eminently readable at the same time.”
I guess Nicosia and I were a powerful mutual admiration society.
We talked about our current writing. We talked about my piece on Oscar Zeta Acosta, for example.
“I had read of Acosta years ago, when I learned that he was the other main character, besides Thompson, in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I still think that may be Thompson’s greatest book, for exposing the core insanity, sheer madness, greed, sex- drug- and pleasure-hunger at the core of American life.
“I never learned a lot about Acosta the real man, till I read your piece. You make him eminently sympathetic, even tragic—someone I would like to have known, though I don’t run in the heavy booze or drug circles he clearly did, and am doing my best to stay alive, against a lot of serious health problems, rather than trying to kill myself, as Acosta and Thompson apparently were.
“Your insights about drugs and sex being used as countercultural weapons were I think quite brilliant, right on—no one that I know of has attempted to explain people like Thompson and Acosta in quite that manner. It’s a rich vein yet to be explored,” he said.
I do not know all that is at work here–a couple of old farts who tell each other how great they are. If so, what’s so terrible about that? A very well known and respected writer thinks my writing is good, and I’m damn sure his is good, what’s to complain? So of course I like Gerald Nicosia.
Looking back, I now can see that Gerald had more of an influence in my life than I had first realized–and perhaps I in his.
I once spent a couple of days living in Ron Kovic’s surprisingly modest apartment. I was hanging there with, among others, Linda Bukowski. Kovic’s was the Vietnam paraplegic who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, which became a celebrated Oliver Stone movie by the same name. There was a lot of good conversation.
I realized later I was there because of Nicosia, for Kovic was a friend of Nicosia’s, who had besides literature and stuff, written an important book on veterans, Home To War. In his case, he was writing about Vietnam veterans, despised by those they fought against and those who had sent them to war in the first place. Their presence was no great testament to that war.
I’m sure what gave that war such immediacy to my generation was a simple fact. The draft was still around. It’s been suggested had the draft been around for Bush junior, there would have been no war in Iraq either.
Our lives had been deeply affected by that war in so many ways.
No less than Oliver Stone, who directed the film version of Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July in 1989, declared that “Gerald Nicosia has an uncommon understanding of the struggle of veterans to give meaning to their war and a struggle, too, to redeem themselves. Home to War is a powerful history of our times.”
I don’t know if I was excited to talk to Linda in part because I wanted to interview her husband, who was giving me no help. He wrote me in one letter to “make it up and say I said it,” which obviously bugged the solid journalist part of me. Finally I spent a night getting drunk with Bukowski and I guess it went OK, but that’s another story.
That’s the advantage of being an old fart. You have lots of stories in you. And with two old farts, the number of stories undoubtedly go up exponentially.
Maybe that’s why I like Gerald Nicosia.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made. Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.