I met up with my old friend Gerry 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
Gerry 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
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
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
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, Nicosia and I, 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.
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.
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 of 'Memory 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 Gerry
Nicosia as sane and reliable,” she wrote. “I knew Gerry 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.
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 drug 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.
“Clearly my own current biographical
subject, Ntozake Shange, also used drugs and alcohol to fly
in the face of a society she hated (for its racism, sexism,
and war making, among other things), and you’ve given me a
new way to look at what others have called her
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 Gerry Nicosia.
Looking back, I now can see that
Gerry had more of an influence in my life than I had first
realized-- and perhaps I in his.
once spent a couple of days living in Ron Kovic’s
surprisingly modest apartment. I was hanging there with,
among others, Linda Bukowski. Kovic 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
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 “Gerry 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
Maybe that’s why I like Gerry
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.