Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Carolyn Cassady, Toronto, Oct., 1990

CAROLYN CASSADY HAD NO ILLUSIONS ABOUT HER CLAIM TO POSTERITY.  "That's the only reason anyone is interested in me, is because I was married to Neal Cassady and the lover of Jack Kerouac," she sternly instructed the directors of Love Always, Carolyn, a 2011 documentary about her, in the film's first shot.

"That's all the interest is in me. No one has cared about anything else. Even you."

I photographed Carolyn Cassady at the Toronto Festival of Authors in 1990, fourteen years after the publication of Heart Beat, her first memoir about her menage with Cassady and Kerouac, and six years before Off The Road, her second book about living in the centre of the Beat storm. She was at the festival to try to tell what she considered the real story of those two men as separate from the myths that had grown up around them. Two decades later Love Always, Carolyn captured her still at it, the myth as strong as ever despite her efforts.

Carolyn Cassady, Toronto, Oct., 1990

This was the same author's festival where I shot Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins, in the same hotel rooms using whatever available light I could find. I knew almost nothing about Carolyn Cassady beyond the barest of biographical details, but found myself training my Nikon on an elegant older lady, with impeccable clothes and manners and that frank, confident bearing unique to aging women who were once great beauties.

Cassady has been played by Sissy Spacek, Radha Mitchell and Kirsten Dunst in three different movies (so far,) but she always struggled for money despite her unwelcome fame. There's a tense scene in Love Always, Carolyn where she stops by the book table at a British literary festival and notes a new Penguin edition of On The Road with her photo of Jack and Neal on the cover.

It's a famous snapshot, taken by Carolyn, and featured in her New York Times obituary. She crossly notes to the hapless young woman manning the table that it's been reprinted without her permission, uncredited and unpaid. Later, she admits that royalties for its use had been a major part of her income since the deaths of the two men in the photo.

Carolyn Cassady, Toronto, Oct., 1990

The documentary captures an awkward family Christmas dinner where Carolyn shrinks in embarrassment as her children discuss putting out a Cassady jug wine with her famous picture on the label. She seems similarly chagrined at a Beat festival in Denver, where she's surrounded by Kerouacolytes who listen raptly but ignore completely her pleas to discard the myth of the happy-go-lucky Beats, and especially that of her own husband as their manic, wild man muse, a myth tended lovingly by Allen Ginsberg until it took on an apparently indestructible life of its own.

Cassady insisted till the end that her husband was much happier as paterfamilias, working and paying off the mortgage on their suburban home and raising his children. His tragedy was that his chaotic upbringing left him unable to manage that apparently banal task without lurching off for months or years, eventually turning into a "trained bear" performing his Dean Moriarty act for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, a role that predictably destroyed him. Her tragedy was that she set her mind on making him the man in her life, a poor decision that ended in regret, alone in his shadow for decades after he flamed out.

Carolyn Cassady died in Bracknell, Berkshire on September 20, 2013.

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