Having been a fan of the Beat generation for years, I’ve read and explored and reread and revisited their writing. I started of course, with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I slowly made my way through all of his books. I read William Burroughs. I read some Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. I backtracked to Kerouac. And then I wondered about the women in their lives. What did they do? How did they deal with these men?
I remember reading On the Road and being so excited. The language was energetic and inspiring. I wanted to drive across country. I wanted to hang out with artists. I wanted to write. I wanted to be a Beat. But I couldn’t find any writing by women. I searched and searched. I discovered Jan Kerouac’s books. She was the daughter of Jack Kerouac. I also read Carolyn Cassady’s memoir, Off the Road. And then last year, One and Only: the Untold Story of On the Road was published. Both authors were going to be at the Booksmith on Haight Street: Gerard Nicosia had interviewed Lu Anne Henderson, (Neal Cassady’s first wife) and Anne Marie Santos, Lu Anne’s only daughter.
Lu Anne met Neal when she was 15. Neal walked into a soda shop with his current girlfriend and saw Lu Anne. His girlfriend knew Lu Anne and he asked for an introduction under the auspice that he would set up his friend with Lu Anne. However, that was not the case, and Neal, while living with his girlfriend, pursued and married Lu Anne within three weeks. Sadly there are a few hints as to why Lu Anne eagerly accepted his proposal. There is a photograph of Lu Anne dressed as a pin up girl with the photo credit going to her stepfather. Firstly, she’s too young to be taking pin up photos and secondly, it’s incredibly creepy that her stepfather took the photo. Her mother wanted to Lu Anne to move out because her stepfather was making advances on her daughter. Neal was 19 when they met, old enough to feel like a protector, but young enough that he was still a kid.
Neal had been arrested numerous times for stealing cars; he later boasted of stealing over 500 cars in his teens. By the time Carolyn Cassady had given birth to Cathleen Joanne Cassady, Neal told Jack that “she was his fifth child, but only the first one that he would acually keep and raise” (84). Neal didn’t take responsibility for his actions in any useful way. He married Caroline because she was pregnant. He then divorced her and married Diane Hansen because she was pregnant with his child. One time when he tried to punch Lu Anne, he missed and broke his thumb instead. He said that’s what he deserved for trying to hit her. But then Lu Ann said that “most of the time [Neal] didn’t get mad enough to use physical violence–except with me. And when Neal would hit me, that was simply emotion. I mean, that’s the way it was with us. It was either loving or fighting, one of the two, with us–especially at that age.” (87) Neal was definitely the guy to party with but not the guy to devote your life to. Lu Anne wanted to believe in him and their life together.
Neal met an admissions advisor to Columbia University who set up oral exams for Neal (a high school dropout) with the promise of matriculation if he passed. Of course, Neal missed the exams, but he still went to New York to visit his new friends at Columbia. Through them he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Neal and Jack did not initially like each other. Lu Anne got along well with Jack and acted as a buffer between the two young men. Eventually Neal and Jack became extremely close.
One and Only attempts to shed life on the relationship between Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. It feels like a bit of a literary gossip rag, who slept with who. And yes, I’ll guiltily admit, that part is fun. But the heartbreaking thing is when you step back and see a 15 year old girl running away from a creepy (probably pedophilic) stepfather. She marries Neal and then works to rent an apartment for the two of them while he runs around. He divorces her so he can give his child his name but then constantly returns to Lu Anne. She is engaged to another man who is at sea and runs off with Neal. She constantly makes poor decisions. But she’s still a teenager. Neal is mentally and physically abusive, but not enough for her to leave him. Later, she leaves two other men for being abusive.
“Lu Anne brought Neal and Jack close enough for the nuclear fusion to finally occur–and with it, the explosion that changed America forever . . . there can be no doubt that the overall impact of two such very different men joining forces, and joining consciousness . . . created at least one of the viable starting points for all the seismic social and cultural shifts of the sixties and later decades. The beatniks were born; the hippies were born on their heels; and after the short stutter step of the early seventies, the punks were born. All owed a huge debt to the coming together of Kerouac and Cassady, the confluence of those two very different energies. And the coming together of Kerouac and Cassady owed a great debt to Lu Anne Henderson. Who says one person can’t profoundly change the human universe?” (173)
And while I want to think that one person can make a difference, I cannot agree with this train of thought. So if Lu Anne wasn’t around, Neal and Jack wouldn’t have become so close? Which means, that without Lu Anne, we wouldn’t have the Beats, or hippies, or punk, or if you follow Nicosia’s line, grunge, and then indie. I want there to be a female presence in the Beat generation, and yes, Lu Anne definitely made Neal’s life easier, and yes, Lu Anne made it into Kerouac’s novel, but it is hard for me to think she was the silent partner. Lu Anne wasn’t Vera Nabokov, reading and editing Vladimir Nabokov’s writing, nor was she Nora Barnacle, the stable partner and muse for James Joyce. Lu Anne was a young girl who went on some car trips, and provided emotional and some financial support. Coming to this realization makes me sad. I really wanted to believe that there was more to her role in the Beat Generation. But reading this biography just makes me sad. She had a tough past and some fun with the Beats, but let’s be honest, would you really want to be married to Neal Cassady? She had many chapters in her life, and while the Beat chapter is the most dog-eared, she kept moving. Trying to make a better life for herself and her daughter.