Joyce Johnson: My turbulent affair with Jack Kerouac

Joyce Johnson says that Jack Kerouac was a 'very odd person' who treated her 'unforgivably'; yet he was also the love of her life. She tells David Usborne why their turbulent affair may soon be big box office
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The images of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, the bible of the 1950s Beat Generation, never seem to disappear. His handsome, moody features were even used in a recent Gap advertisement for khaki trousers. There will be no escaping him next year, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the book's publication. A film version of the novel, from the production house of Francis Ford Coppola, is now in the works too.

For one person, Joyce Johnson - who is an author herself - the continuing Kerouac-mania is both a boon and a cause for mild befuddlement. He has, after all, been dead since 1969, felled by years of alcohol abuse. "Whenever I see his picture," she muses in an interview, "I sort of go, 'Oh yes, I knew him.'"

Johnson, who lives in a small, book-lined apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, needn't be so modest. She was the devoted lover of Kerouac - a man she now affectionately describes as a "very odd person" - for a year and a half, on and off, in the late 1950s. They were together the day On the Road came out in September 1957, dashing out at midnight to pore over the first review in the New York Times. (A review, of course, that instantly declared it a masterpiece of modern American literature.)

It was Allen Ginsberg, another of the Beat alumni and the poet author of Howl, who set them up on a blind date, sending Joyce (in those days just 21 years old and called Joyce Glassman) to meet Kerouac in a Howard Johnson's diner in the West Village. Joyce fell for the man 13 years her senior at once. But the date became much more, in part because of their shared passion for writing. In those days, she was struggling with a first novel and working as an editor in a Manhattan publishing house.

This shared literary interest was serendipitous not only for the two lovers, but for us as well. Johnson held a ringside seat at the very birth of the social revolution that Kerouac spawned in America at that time. Better still, because she was a writer, she would eventually, though many years later, commit what she saw and experienced with Kerouac and his band of friends to paper. In fact, a good portion of her career would be dedicated to recalling in prose those few chaotic, heady months of youth.

By her own admission, her connection with Kerouac and the words she has written about him and the other Beats have largely eclipsed, in the public consciousness, almost everything else she has written, which includes three novels. "In a way it has been a curse," she reveals, "because people cannot see me as a writer apart from my relationship to that material. It has been immensely frustrating."

But the curse is about to revisit her as the British publishing house Methuen prepares to publish this month a new imprint of her one book, Minor Characters, that earned her the widest acclaim as the best chronicler of the private side of Kerouac. On top of that, BBC Radio 4 will air a dramatisation of the book from 13 February. Johnson, who is now 70 with thinning light hair coursed through with grey, says with a bit of a sigh that she will be leaving New York for London shortly to promote the book.

In other words, just as Kerouac himself refuses to fade away, so her burden does not lift either. One goes with the other. That is why the person chosen by Coppola to direct the film of On the Road, Brazilian-born Walter Salles (who made the recent Motorcycle Diaries about a young Che Guevara), was also recently in Johnson's apartment to mine her memories and, perhaps, even to seek her approval. It is also why there is interest from Hollywood now in making a film even of Minor Characters, with a screen adaptation that Johnson herself finished writing last summer.

Maybe she should simply have stayed away from the subject in the first place. But, for one thing, nothing else that Johnson has written has earned her the money that Minor Characters did - and everyone has to eat. Plus, as a writer who (omega) considers memoir as her calling, how could she not write about Kerouac and her love affair with him? "I had the stories and I wanted to tell them," she says simply.

She did take her time about it though. It was in 1981, more than two decades after the relationship, when Kerouac had already died vomiting into a toilet in his mother's house, when she was sent on a business trip by the publishing house where she worked to London. Friends took her to what was then a dingy but happening jazz club, Pizza Express. Jay McShann was playing, already in his seventies.

"I thought, isn't it amazing that here we are and they're alive and other greats like Charlie Parker had died long before their time. And then I began to think about people I'd known like Jack - people who had not survived. Suddenly, I knew I had to write about them. The moment I got back to the United States I just starting writing. I just felt an impetus to somehow tell that story."

Ask Johnson if the book is a tribute or posthumous love letter to Kerouac and she gently shakes her head. If you read it you will understand. For one, it is about many different things. True, Kerouac is a major character and the theme throughout is the release and relief he bought to a whole generation of young Americans, called the Silent Generation at the time, who were aching for someone to show them a way to break loose from convention and boredom in the post-War years. And it's about women too, whose hopes of escaping the fetters of society's expectations and biases were even slimmer in those days than men's.

It is a memoir, so most of all, it's about Johnson herself. The book begins with her growing up in her claustrophobic middle-class Jewish home in the Upper West Side, where the very furniture demanded prim caution. "The piano, the rug, the portrait - are held in uneasy captivity, hostages to aspiration," she wrote. "If the slipcovers ever come off, if the heavy drapes are drawn aside letting in the daylight, everything that has been so carefully preserved will be seen to have become frayed and faded." She breaks free gradually, first at 13 years old by making secret forays to observe the bums and buskers in Washington Square Park and later, when she goes to college, to find sex, love and, eventually, Kerouac.

Moreover, for anyone for whom Kerouac remains a hero, the reading of Johnson's book is likely to be unsettling. She reveals a man of deep contradictions, at once the pied piper of new experiences and risk-taking and also a cautious, even conservative man, unable to open himself up to lovers or friends. (Johnson even suggests that Kerouac, were he still alive, might vote Republican, "though not, I would hope, for this President.") Through long passages, Kerouac is drowning in drink and in self-absorption.

Indeed, 'Minor Characters' is a tale of sadness and mostly unrequited devotion. Each attempt made by the then young Joyce to draw Kerouac closer, to protect him from drink and other demons, is thwarted. As she prepares at one juncture to fulfil her greatest wish - to join him on the road, in this case in a hotel he has fled to in Mexico City - again she is let down as he abruptly returns to the US. Nor was he ever able really to express satisfactorily what he felt for her, although he did finally speak of, "perhaps the best love affair I have ever had", evoking Joyce in Desolation Angels, published four years before his death.

"Jack was a man with so many different mood changes," she says, seated in a sofa beneath a large window looking on to West 72nd Street, a sleety drizzle falling outside. "He wouldn't be the same from one hour to the next. He would love someone one hour and not want anything to do with them the next. He decided he had to be in Mexico and then that he had to be in New York. Everything was in constant flux with him."

Johnson has been married twice since her Kerouac days. Her first husband - the man she describes as probably the big love of her life - was an artist who was killed in a motorcycle accident on Canal Street a year after they were married. With her second husband, she had a son, Daniel, a writer who now lives in the East Village of Manhattan. But didn't she yearn at one point to marry Kerouac?

"Well, yes," she replies. "On the other hand, I have no regrets about never becoming Mrs Kerouac. Obviously, it would have been a disaster and would never have lasted." Why, you ask? "Because of the way Jack was - the attachment to his mother, the drinking, the womanising. Jack was really a very odd person." In reflecting further, she notes that if it wasn't the drink that got in her way, it was above all his mother, Gabrielle. Throughout adulthood, Kerouac repeatedly found himself drawn back to her.

"He was very hung up about relationships with women," Johnson adds, "which I think had an awful lot to do with his relationship with his mother. They were too involved with each other and it didn't leave much room for other women in his life. He remained faithful to her, but taking up with one woman after another." You wonder how Johnson tolerated this treatment for so long. "You put up with a lot when you're young. And it was a funny thing, but he could do the most unforgivable things and yet you had to forgive him. There was some innocence about him, some lack of guile. It was very touching."

Perhaps most revealing in the book is the damage that was inflicted on Kerouac by the overnight sensation of On the Road. Johnson describes a man quite unequipped to deal with the sudden attention. Nor was he ready for the torrents of often cruel criticism from conservatives in the literary establishment, who were frightened (omega) by his million-word-a-minute style. One passage of the book describes Kerouac attempting to fulfill a commitment to give nightly readings of the book at a small theatre in the West Village. Most nights, he turned up so drunk even his fans left disillusioned.

"The way he became famous was immensely disturbing to him and destructive," Johnson explains. "He did not become famous in the way he really wanted to be - to be hailed as a greatly gifted writer, that somehow he had done extraordinary things with prose. Instead he became notorious. He was this sort of cultural hero in which people invested a lot of fantasies and that was never what he wanted. He used to talk early on about the crowds of imitators and he didn't want that. And once he achieved that kind of fame, which very few writers ever achieve, it kind of cut him off from life and from his sources. It was ironic." Johnson notes that she has thought it unfortunate that Ginsberg was living in Paris at the time On the Road came out. He, more than anyone else, might have helped Kerouac navigate the rapids of new fame.

As for all the brickbats that also came Kerouac's way, Johnson says he was "very, very wounded". She adds: "He was a shy person, a very unworldly person in many ways. At 21, I felt more worldly than Jack, although he had been to many more places than I ever had. If he sat down with someone who came to interview him, he really believed he could communicate with this person and make a friend. And when whatever they wrote would come out in print, he would be stunned and ask, 'How could this happen?' "

That the flame of Kerouac still burns so strongly is no surprise to Johnson. "The only time it flagged was in the late 1960s, when he fell badly out of fashion. But there is something in those books that really appeals to people. The whole sort of openness to experience, the lack of materialism, the kind of spirituality he expressed, still touches people." Even the imitators have not gone away, she notes. "Still today, I will go and give a reading somewhere and some middle-aged fellow will come up to me and say, 'I'm just like Jack Kerouac.' And he will be unfortunately an obvious loser. And I will say, 'Oh yes?'"

And what would Kerouac himself make of all the renewed fuss? "I don't think he would be surprised," answers Johnson, even suggesting that the prospect of a film of On the Road finally coming out - Coppola has held the rights for more than 20 years - would tickle him. "It was his dream. And what he wanted was Marlon Brando playing Dean Moriarty (the thinly disguised rendering of his real-life friend and fellow Beat, Neal Cassady). For a very short period back then, it looked as though Brando was interested. Jack had this whole idea in his mind that he would go to Hollywood himself and meet up with Frank Sinatra, who was another of his heroes, and they would sit in bars and sing to each other."

Neither of them is around any more. But, who knows, if a studio picks up Minor Characters soon, it might be Johnson who ends up in Hollywood. Who, I ask, would play her, the feisty 21-year-old Jewish girl, way out of her depth with a suddenly famous, hopelessly unreliable, seriously handsome boyfriend she can never hope to handle. "I think Scarlett Johansson. She's very intelligent, you know."

'Minor Characters' by Joyce Johnson is published on 9 February by Methuen, £7.99; a five-part dramatisation will be broadcast on Radio 4 (at 10.45am and 7.45pm) from 13-17 February