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Carolyn Cassady, 1923–2013

The woman who was the Beats’ muse and lover

Had it not been for Carolyn Cassady, the hip aura of the Beat Generation might have adhered to Denver rather than to San Francisco. It was Carolyn’s decision to move to California that prompted her lover, Neal Cassady, to pursue her there, and his famous literary friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg soon followed. Carolyn was more than a muse to the Beats, said Jerry Cimino, founder of San Francisco’s Beat Museum. “In many ways, she was the power behind the throne.”

Carolyn Robinson was born to an academic family in East Lansing, Mich., and educated at Bennington College in Vermont, said The Washington Post. She was studying theater in Denver when she met Cassady, a fast-talking car thief and hustler “with literary ambitions.” She began dating him even though he was married to a 16-year-old, LuAnne Henderson, and she soon fell in with his circle of exuberant, unconventional friends. She didn’t realize that Kerouac was in love with Cassady, however, or that Cassady was in love with Ginsberg—“a fact that came to light when she found Neal, LuAnne, and Ginsberg in bed together.” She broke up with Cassady and moved to San Francisco, but he followed her there and convinced her to marry him in 1948.

“The honeymoon bliss lasted maybe six months,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. Cassady left his wife and infant daughter behind and used their life savings to buy a car to drive to New York City, collect Kerouac, and come back. That epic trip westward later formed the basis of Kerouac’s era-defining 1957 novel On the Road—with Carolyn immortalized as the “whining wife” Camille. In San Francisco, Kerouac moved in with the Cassadys and, at Neal’s urging, began an affair with Carolyn. But her daughter Jami said she objected to being seen as a mere sexual plaything for the two men. “It was pure love,” Jami said.

Cassady was both an “eager participant” in the Beat Generation’s wild adventures and a “dissenting adult,” said The New York Times. But Neal’s imprisonment in the late 1950s for marijuana possession was the last straw; the Cassadys divorced in 1963, and Neal died five years later at the age of 41. Cassady spent her later years in England, where she was often sought out by fans of the Beat writers. In her 1990 memoir, Off the Road, she noted that their short lives were “essentially unhappy.” Everyone assumed the Beat Generation lived in a constant state of manic joy, she said. “But they were weak. They suffered like crazy for what they couldn’t conform to. They just couldn’t get their lives to fit.”

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