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Jan/Feb 2008 Reviews & Interviews

A Footnote No Longer

You'll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac
by Edie Kerouac-Parker
City Lights Books. 2007. 200 pp.
ISBN 0-87286-464-2

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! In the early morning hours of August 13th, 1944, a young bohemian artist, Lucien Carr, accompanied 33 year old David Kammerer to a secluded section of New York's Riverside Park widely understood to be a popular gay rendezvous. The two brought a bottle of wine. In the events that followed Carr stabbed Kammerer repeatedly, weighted his body with rocks and dumped it into the Hudson River. Agitated and frightened, he went to the apartment of William Burroughs to ask advice as to what he should do next. Both he and Burroughs had known Kammerer from their hometown of St. Louis, where he had been the leader of a Boy Scout troop (some say "youth group") to which the younger man had belonged.

Before arriving at Columbia University, Carr had briefly attended three colleges and been expelled from at least two (perhaps all three). While the details have never been clarified, Kammerer seems to have shown up in the environs of whichever school the young student had transferred to shortly after his arrival. Burroughs may only have joined them when Carr attended the University of Chicago, after which he, too, followed Carr to New York. Kammerer was gay and Burroughs a polymorph perverse experimenter in illicit drugs provided with a generous monthly allowance by his family. Carr was intent on living the amoral code of the poet Rimbaud. There is every indication that he welcomed the older men as boon companions in his quest.

Burroughs advised getting a lawyer and pleading self-defense in order to fend off an attempted homosexual rape. Carr next stopped at the apartment of another friend, named Jack Kerouac and recruited him to help dispose of the knife and the victim's glasses, apparently intent upon getting away with the crime. Only after this did he contact his family's lawyer and agree that he should turn himself in to the authorities.

Kerouac had met Carr and the two older men through his girlfriend, Edie Parker, with whom he'd come to share an apartment (together with Joan Vollmar Adams). The five of them had spent a great deal of time together, often at Burroughs' apartment, which was well stocked with drugs and alcohol, and more often still at the bars around the Columbia University campus. They were part of a larger group that included the teenaged Allen Ginsberg and called their artistic revolution the "New Vision." In time, Kerouac would dub the survivors the first of "the Beats."

It is in this way, then, that Edie Parker became an integral part of early Beat history. With these associations to recommend her, she would later circulate a sprawling 2,200 page manuscript of her memoirs to various publishers during the years before her death, in 1993, frustrated that her name rarely appeared in Beat histories or biographies. Her most promising replies suggested heavy pruning and rewriting, both much against her inclinations. She bequeathed the manuscript to the care of her close personal friend, Tim Moran, who heavily edited it until it became You'll be okay: my life with Jack Kerouac. Some 14 years later, it has been published by City Lights.

Several chapters remain to introduce the author. In the words of Parker:

I was born in Detroit, healthy and almost wealthy...

Her mother, Charlotte Maire, married Walter Milton Parker, a dashing, free spirit who was much more interested in spending money than working for it. His daughter clearly loved her time with him. When she was eight years old mother and father divorced:

At the time of her divorce my mother was running the last of the Ground Gripper shoe stores. My father had almost brought the company to bankruptcy. Mother had inherited twelve or thirteen outlets, but my father had squandered most of the assets until there was only the downtown Detroit store left.

Presumably, her love of the excitement that surrounded him formed her later romantic preference for bohemian men and the lifestyle that went with them. They didn't come more bohemian than Carr, Kammerer and Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, late bloomer though he was, at the time, was rapidly catching up to them.

While Burroughs was guiding his protégés through an extensive reading list of grim reality and mystical possibility Parker served as audience. For her part, she appreciated the nightlife, watching movies and dropping celebrity names:

Burl Ives, the famous folksinger, lived next door with his wife in his own brownstone. He dropped in with his banjo and we sang his "Shoo Fly" number. Jack and I later went to dinner at Ives' house for a small party. Katharine Hepburn lived around the corner on Fifth Avenue. Greenwich at that time was full of celebrities. We would see Humphrey Bogart on the street in the Village, or at our favorite little Italian restaurant called Minetta's on MacDougal Street.

You'll be okay looks back at the New York fling of a young woman who made friends easily, and had fun more easily still, and it is from that perspective that she describes Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, et alii.

From Edie Parker's memoir we learn the smell and feel of Jack Kerouac:

Both Jack and I were very bashful. We slept together for nearly eight months before we ever saw each other naked. He wore boxer shorts and I kept a sheet wrapped around me during our most intimate moments. If he heard a sound in the apartment he would quickly jump into his pants, which were always beside the bed. His skin was salty, his body odorless. When we made love, I'd get prickly heat from his wiry chest hair.

Such details don't often make their way into biographies or even personal accounts. It is the strength of You'll be okay, giving it a unique niche among the hundreds of books that have been written about the author of On the Road.

Her observations of the others in the group can be equally interesting. Lucien Carr introduced she and Jack to the young Allen Ginsberg:

He was very naïve in many ways and also looked undernourished or underdeveloped. He had small, wiry legs and arms, too long for his body. Allen was always moving, and his large Charlie Chaplin ears stuck out from his head. He reminded me of an Arab with his oily hair and watery eyes, and he had a habit of pushing his dark-framed, horn-rimmed glasses back onto his nose.

Again, it is rare to get a plain and simple, utterly normal glimpse of a well-known author during his or her formative years: Ginsberg before he was Ginsberg, as it were. The impression he generally left on others is as important a fact of biography as most.

Upon surrendering after the murder, Carr told of the activities for which he had recruited Kerouac. Parker learned that something was seriously amiss when the police arrived at the apartment and took Jack away in handcuffs. It is not clear whether he was initially arrested as an accessory after the fact or a simple material witness. His bail set at the then enormous sum of $5,000 suggests the former. Parker and most other Kerouac biographers suggest the latter.

Soon Kerouac's bail was reduced to $2,500 (his status apparently having been reduced to "material witness") and Edie called her own family lawyer to try to arrange payment for the bond. According to her version of events, she could only raise the funds by drawing it from a modest bequest she expected soon to receive from her late grandfather's estate. The money, she was informed, would not be released unless Jack would agree to become her legal spouse. It was an attractive alternative to months in jail. The two were married on the 22nd of August 1944.

There are often differing versions of the salient events of Beat history. According to Parker, she and Kerouac were very much in love at that point and had already taken blood tests in preparation for purchasing a marriage license after Jack, a merchant marine, would return from one more cruise with sufficient money to rent their own place. There are others who portray Jack as seeking a position on a ship in order to avoid marriage, a condition which at the time held no attraction for him. There is more than a little evidence that Edie had seen her opportunity and later developed a convenient memory.

Shortly after Jack was out of jail he and Edie moved to her hometown, Grosse Point, Michigan, where a job was available at a production plant. Jack stayed long enough to reimburse the family in full for the bail bond before returning alone to New York City. He made it clear to Edie that he considered that they were separated and he was free to live as a bachelor once more.

After some months, Edie returned to New York and the two tried sharing the apartment again. In the meantime, Joan Vollmar, needing help to pay the rent, had begun living with William Burroughs. Edie soon returned home, feeling that Jack and his friends only kept her on as a source of ready money. The marriage was annulled in 1946. Whenever Jack and his traveling companions were in the Detroit area, however, they would stop by to ask for money and a place to lay their heads.

Whether by choice of the editor or author, or both, the accounts of the separation and the annulment of Edie Parker's marriage to Jack Kerouac are almost entirely lacking in detail. To call the single brief chapter on the subject "impressionistic" would be understating the matter considerably. It is a common failing of memoirs to gloss over the less complimentary aspects of the memoirist's life, and reminds the reader that, for all the charm and authenticity of the first person, a good many things are likely to have seemed "unworthy of mention" which she or he might call "evasion" or worse.

With considerable editing from Tim Moran, Edie Kerouac-Parker's You'll be okay: my life with Jack Kerouac is, in all other regards, simply written and consistently interesting. Moran's various introductory and epilogical pieces are solid and lovingly portray an aging eccentric who collected stray cats and artists and who chaffed at being reduced to an historical footnote. She is a footnote no longer.

 

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