Obituary: Lucien Carr

Last original member of the Beats
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LUCIEN CARR was the last survivor of the original members of the Beat generation. Although Carr was not a writer himself, he had a strong influence on the novelist Jack Kerouac, and on the poet Allen Ginsberg when they were students together at Columbia University in New York. During a seminal and tumultuous year in the mid-1940s Carr seemed to embody the elements that the Beats took on as their abiding literary aesthetic: a fascination with criminal low-life, and a kind of visionary poetic Romanticism.

Ginsberg tells of meeting Carr in 1943 after hearing the music of Brahms pouring from his college dormitory. He was "the most angelic kid I ever saw". Kerouac, who became friends with both men around the same time, described Carr, with characteristic exuberance, as a man "with complete intelligence, language pouring out of him, Shakespeare reborn almost, golden hair with a halo around it". It was Carr who introduced Kerouac to the mystical literary theories of William Butler Yeats, from whom Kerouac borrowed the idea of "automatic writing" that he would use in his 1957 novel On the Road.

Carr grew up in St Louis, where he was raised by his wealthy mother in an atmosphere of upper-class privilege. He never knew his father, who walked out on the family when Lucien was two. Through Carr William Burroughs, also from a well-to-do St Louis family, met the other Beat writers.

A persistent legacy of the Beats is the romantic idea of the artist as social outlaw. Carr passed on to his writer friends his infatuation with Rimbaud, who exemplified this idea. A few months into his friendship with Carr, Ginsberg wrote in his journal:

Know these words and you speak the Carr language: fruit, phallus, clitoris, cacoethes, feces, foetus, womb, Rimbaud.

The gem in this lexicon, as the cultural historian James Campbell points out, is " `cacoethes', an uncontrollable urge, especially for something harmful".

In August 1944, Carr became something of a cause celebre when he murdered David Kammerer, an older admirer who had been sexually obsessed with Carr since he was 12 years old. Kammerer followed Carr to New York where Carr stabbed him to death with a boy-scout knife in Riverside Park. He then rolled the body into the Hudson River.

Carr confessed the crime to Burroughs and to Kerouac, who helped him to dispose of the knife. As a result, both writers were arrested as accessories to murder. Carr claimed self-defence. He was convicted of manslaughter and served two years in prison.

After his release, Carr took pains to distance himself from the Beat scene. To the dismay of his old friends, he became a conventional newspaperman at United Press International. Carr was included in the dedication of the first edition of Ginsberg's famous poem Howl, but insisted that his name be removed from subsequent printings. He is often cited as having given Kerouac the scroll on which Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road - apparently the novel was written on teletype paper taken from a shelf at the UPI offices.

As the legend of the Beats grew, Carr asked his friends to refrain from mentioning him as part of the group. However, characters based on Carr appeared in Kerouac's fiction. In his novel Vanity of Duluoz (1968), Kerouac recounts some of Carr's youthful antics, such as the time Carr rolled Kerouac down Broadway in a beer keg.

His private relationships with the three central Beat writers, however, remained close to the end of their lives. He was a confidant, and an early reader of their work.

Ginsberg once wrote down a song that Lucien Carr liked to sing: "Violate me / in violent times / the vilest way that you know. / Ruin me / ravage me / on me no mercy bestow."

Lucien Carr, journalist: born St Louis, Missouri 1 March 1925; staff, United Press International 1946-93; twice married (three sons); died Washington, DC 28 January 2005.