Carolyn Cassady: 'Camille' in Kerouac's novel 'On The Road'

 

Carolyn Cassady was the lover of Jack Kerouac and the wife of his friend Neal Cassady, the "Dean Moriarty" of Kerouac's 1957 novel On The Road – which, along with Allen Ginsburg's poem Howl, is the best-known product of the Beat Generation.

The Beats – most notably Kerouac, Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Michael McClure – were a close-knit group of poets and writers in the years following the Second World War known for their experimentation with drugs, sexual freedom, fascination with Eastern religions, rejection of materialism and, above all, the explicit autobiographical writings that put them at odds with the prevailing social order of the 1950s. Cassady, from a conventional, middle-class family, landed in their full-throttle, amphetamine-crazed world and attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a conventional family man out of Kerouac's muse, Neal Cassady.

While studying theatre arts and set design at the University of Denver in 1947, she met Cassady, a working-class man with literary ambitions, and his close friends from the East, the budding writers Kerouac and Ginsberg. She began dating the 20-year-old Cassady, even though he was then married to 16-year-old LuAnne Henderson. She soon discovered that Neal's friend Kerouac was in love with Neal – and later, that Neal was in love with Ginsberg, a fact that came to light when she found Neal, LuAnne and Ginsberg in bed together.

Five weeks after she broke up with Neal, he got an annulment from LuAnne. Neal followed his future wife to San Francisco, where they married in April 1948; she was six months pregnant. The marriage ceremony was detailed in her 1990 memoir Off The Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

When their first child, Cathleen Joanne, was three months old, Neal used their savings of $900 to buy a new 1949 Hudson for a trip to New York City to collect Kerouac. This desertion formed the basis of the road trip that Kerouac later chronicled in On The Road, in which Carolyn was depicted as the character Camille. In last year's film adaptation of the novel, Camille was played by Kirsten Dunst.

Throughout their marriage, Cassady competed with the attentions of several women, including the divorced first wife and a third wife from a bigamous marriage – as well as Ginsberg, with whom Neal had a 20-year on-off affair. She tolerated Neal's ramblings with Kerouac and encouraged him to enter psychotherapy; she also joined him in his study of Edgar Cayce's mixture of mysticism and Christianity, in an effort to keep him at home. After On The Road was published Neal served three years in San Quentin for selling marijuana to an undercover policeman. After he was released in 1963 the Cassadys divorced.

Neal joined the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey's posse of LSD enthusiasts, where he was viewed as something of a sage elder. Three years after his drug-related death in 1968 he belatedly realised his literary ambitions with a posthumous autobiographical novel, The First Third. "It must have been the open sex that shocked everyone," Cassady said of the novel. "It's interesting that it was seen by the critics as such a threat. I don't know why. There have always been bohemians. So what was the big thing about this?"

Carolyn Robinson was born in Michigan in 1923, the youngest of five children; her father was a biochemist, her mother a teacher. When she was eight the family moved to Nashville and at 12 she joined a community theatre group, later receiving a bachelor's degree in drama from Bennington College in Vermont. During the war she served as an Army occupational therapist in California before returning to school in Denver.

In later years, Cassady, who moved to England in the early 1990s, devoted much of her time to, as she put it, "de-mythologising" her ex-husband – and perhaps Kerouac's portrayal of him.

"There are a few more myths that have evolved from Kerouac's 'fiction,' " she wrote. "For instance, Neal would never answer a door 'stark naked'. He could be naked, but his jeans were always nearby, and he held them in front of him. He was very modest personally, not an exhibitionist."

The fascination with the Beats created many chances for myth-making. Cassady was particularly critical of, and amused by, the 1980 biopic Heart Beat, which starred Nick Nolte as Neal, John Heard as Kerouac and Sissy Spacek as Cassady. "Sissy's got me all cleaned up, I'm the most wonderful heroine, I go through everything and come out unscathed," she said during filming. "I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that but it wasn't at all. This is going to be a six-box-of-Kleenex movie. I used up two in that shot alone. I kept thinking, 'Wouldn't it have been nice if it had really been that way?'"

Carolyn Robinson, artist and designer: born Lansing, Michigan 28 April 1923; married 1948 Neal Cassady (marriage dissolved; three children); died Bracknell 20 September 2013.

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