Astrid Kirchherr, Photographer, Phenomenon, Friend to the Beatles

She Came in Thru the Bathroom Window

Clad in all black with a pixie haircut and a camera in tow, she was probably the coolest chick ever to walk in to the Kaiserkeller in 1960’s Hamburg. She was a German photographer, the first to do a formal shoot with the Beatles, and largely responsible for what later became their world-wide “image.” She was a practitioner of Sartre’s Existentialism, an art student, and as it turned out, a great cook. She lured Lennon, mesmerized McCartney, hypnotized Harrison, and later became engaged to then-band-member Stuart Sutcliffe.

 Astrid Kirchherr was born on this day, May 20, 1938, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father worked for the German branch of the Ford Motor Company and her mother was a homemaker. Like all European children during World War II, Astrid witnessed its atrocities. During the bombings of Hamburg, her family evacuated to the Baltic Sea, where Astrid remembered seeing dead bodies washed up on the shoreline. It was perhaps this knowledge of the frailty of life that later attracted her to Existentialism.

John Paul Sartre, John Paul & George

The Existential crowd believed in “life defined by one’s experience.” Nowadays this sounds pretty obvious, but up until around the 19th century, people believed more in Plato’s philosophy of “Essentialism”. In brief, Essentialism says that we are given “essence” at birth, a role defined for us — assigned by god, society, or institutions. Existentialism posits that we must “create our own essence”, defined by ourselves and our experiences.

In practice, being an Existentialist meant Astrid was running with the cool kids. Those that dressed in black, smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses at night. John Lennon dubbed them “The Exis”. If America had its Beatniks, Europe had its Exis. (I attribute both groups to the dire consequences of WWII and society’s questioning the meaning of life. )

According to Astrid, they were “trying to be French.” (Germany got a terrible backlash after the War. France was considered a more fashionable place.)

Klaus Voorman, Astrid and Stuart Sutcliffe in 1960

 Astrid studied fashion design and photography at Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung, a school in Hamburg. She later worked as an assistant to photographer Reinhard Wolf.  

Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, John Lennon, also an art student, was gathering his musicians. The very early Beatles consisted of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and John’s friend, fellow art student Stuart Sutcliffe. Although Sutcliffe could not play an instrument, John wanted him in because of the way he looked – a cute boy with great cheekbones who could rock a leather jacket. “He looks good, that’s all that matters,” John would say.

Stuart reportedly had no interest in being in a band, but John convinced him to do it. Astrid would later say, “John Lennon could convince anybody to do anything.”

Astrid’s photo of John. Stuart in the background

When the chance came for the Beatles to play in Hamburg – a city ravaged by war and considered the seediest place in Germany, rampant with drugs and prostitution – the boys jumped at the chance. Paul’s dad and John’s Aunt Mimi were reluctant to let them go. John somehow convinced the adults that the money they would make would surely be worth the risk.

It’s Only Rock & Roll

In Hamburg, Astrid’s then-boyfriend Klaus Voorman, also an artist, was living with the Kirchherr family. The story goes that one night, Astrid and Klaus got in a fight. Klaus stormed out of the house and found himself wandering through the Reeperbahn – the city’s red light district, which was by far the sleaziest section of already sleazy Hamburg. Klaus stepped into a bar called the Kaiserkeller. There, he heard the most amazing music, being played by the most amazing band. Forgetting all about the argument, he couldn’t wait to get home and tell Astrid about his discovery.

It took Klaus three days to convince Astrid to go to the Kaiserkeller. For one thing, she wasn’t eager to mix among the Reeperbahn’s prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers. For another thing, she had never even heard of Rock & Roll music. It was true — the Existentialist crowd that Klaus and Astrid ran with were into jazz and classical. A sedate coffee house would have been more her style than the sweaty, beer drenched Kaiserkeller. Nonetheless, Astrid was finally persuaded.

Astrid said, “When I walked down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed at how beautiful these boys looked… It was a photographer’s dream. And then when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic.”

L to R, John, George, Pete Best, Paul, and Stuart Sutcliffe at Kaiserkeller

Astrid went to see them every night. When she asked – in very broken English – if she could photograph them, the guys eagerly agreed. As a new band, they had never been photographed except for some amateur snapshots. Astrid had the idea to take them to a deserted fair grounds. There she used a lorry truck and open fields as the background. She produced photographs that critics still consider as some of the most sensitive ever taken of the Beatles, showing both their toughness and vulnerability.

L to R, Pete Best, George, John, Paul, Stuart

Astrid was not only their photographer, she became a great friend, too. She often brought the guys to her mother’s house and cooked for them, thus relieving them from their Kaiserkeller diet of beer and amphetamines.

He Got Hair

Down

to His Knees…

Of course, no one really had hair down to his knees, but in an age of buzz-cuts and conservative short hair, the Beatles few extra inches were considered an outrage. Astrid was partly responsible.

Having studied fashion design, Astrid was hip to innovative trends. She is credited with changing the band’s clothing and hairstyles. Leather jackets were swapped for turtlenecks and Nehru collars. Brylcream and ducktails were replaced with the mop top.

Astrid is famously attributed with styling the band’s hair. It was actually Klaus Voorman’s hair she styled first. According to Astrid, “Klaus was the most beautiful boy the world had ever seen, but he had these big, sticking out ears. I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did, and it looked absolutely beautiful.”

Klaus Voornan with Astrid’s haircut

Stuart saw the haircut, liked it, and asked Astrid to do his hair the same way. Months later, George followed suit. John and Paul stubbornly kept their rockabilly ‘doos, but then on a trip to Paris they were convinced to try longer hair. Tellingly, Pete Best never got the haircut. He left the band soon after. Enter new drummer Ringo, who was game. By the time they hit the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, all four Beatles were wearing the mop top as if they had invented it themselves.

You might be wondering what happened to Stuart Sutcliffe. His story is the most tragic of all.

Would You Believe in a Love at First Sight?

In a 2010 interview, Astrid said, “Maybe it sounds sentimental, but when I saw Stuart for the first time, I knew: That was my man. He was then, and still is, the love of my life.”

Astrid and Stuart

Stuart felt the same about her. He wrote of their first meeting “I could hardly take my eyes off her.” Stuart claimed he tried to talk to her during the break but much to his dismay, she had already left. Luckily, she came back the next night.

Klaus Voorman, realizing you can’t stop true love and overactive hormones, graciously backed out of his relationship with Astrid. There was apparently no jealousy. Klaus and Astrid remained good friends all the way till her death in 2020. (Klaus, a talented artist, maintained his relationship with the Beatles. He did a lot of artwork for them including the Revolver album cover, which was a masterpiece.)

After the gigs at Kaiserkeller were finished, Stuart quit the Beatles, moved in with Astrid, got engaged to her and pursued his painting. They should have lived happily ever after, a perfect couple in a perfect world.

Sadly, that was not to be.

“I Know What It’s Like To Be Dead”

Stuart began to suffer severe headaches and weakness in early 1962. In February he collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. Astrid’s mother had German doctors come to examine him, but they were unable to determine the cause of his illness. The condition got worse and Stuart’s health deteriorated. On April 10, 1962, Stuart collapsed in the Kirchherr’s kitchen. Astrid’s mother, in a panic, phoned Astrid at work and called an ambulance. Astrid hurried home, arriving in time to ride in the ambulance with Stuart. He died in her arms on the way to the hospital.  He was only twenty-two years old. The cause of his death was most likely a brain tumor.

Astrid went on to work as a freelance photographer. In 1964, she and her colleague Max Scheler took “behind the scenes” photographs of the Beatles during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night as an assignment for the German magazine Stern. She published numerous collections of work, including a volume of the Beatles called Hamburg Days and another called Liverpool Days and her last, When We Was Fab, published in 2007.

George, John and Stuart and Hamburg Fairgrounds

Astrid never got over Stuart. She married twice, divorced twice, and never had any children. She once said, “Many people say their prayers at night, praying to god. I say my prayers too, but I pray to Stuart.”

Spoken like a true Existentialist.

Astrid Kirchherr died of “a short but severe illness” in 2020 at age eighty-one.

I like to think she has finally been reunited with Stuart.

Happy Birthday Charles Perrault!

He was called the “French father of fairy tales”, a politician turned story-teller who is largely responsible for the popularity of fantasies such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Over one hundred years before the Brothers Grimm cemented German culture and language in their chilling and horrific retellings, Charles Perrault introduced what came to be known in 17th century book circles as “a new literary genre” — the Fairy Tale.

Primed For Politics

Charles Perrault was born on this day, January 12, 1628. Ironically, he was the seventh child (sometimes considered to be clairvoyants) born into a wealthy Parisian family. His father and brothers before him had been government employees, and young Charles was groomed from birth to follow in their footsteps.

He studied Law at prestigious universities and had a reputation for his quick mind and wit. He served in the court of King Louis XIV and in 1663 he was appointed as a secretary to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, a society devoted to Humanities. He was later appointed to the Académie Française, a council which oversaw all matters regarding French language and literature. He persuaded the King to bring his brother Claude into court, where Claude famously became a designer for the Louvre.

Perrault was well aware of how to use clout and wield influence. His connections to people in high places helped cement his family’s place in elite society. Interestingly, years later, Perrault would write Puss in Boots — a tale of a determined cat who uses wit and charm to elevate his lowly owner to a high position.

Perrault’s writing talents were obvious. In 1668, he wrote La Peinture (Painting) to honor the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun. In 1670 he wrote Courses de tetes et de bague (Head and Ring Races), to commemorate celebrations staged by King Louis in honor of his mistress, Louise Francoise, Duchess de La Valliere.

Perrault also had a hand in designing the layout of the gardens of Versailles. In 1669 he advised King Louis to include thirty-nine fountains. Each fountain represented one of Aesop’s Fables. Water jets spouted from the animals’ mouths, intended to give the impression the creatures were talking to one another.

Years later, Perrault would write of more talking animals — seductive wolves, slick cats, birds and rabbits who could be commanded to do a human’s will.

Dangerous Liaisons

In the 1670’s an intellectual dispute began in the Académie Française between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns”. This was known, quite famously, as Le Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. It caused sharp divisions and much debate, not to mention bruised egos and political manipulation. The central argument was over which was to be valued more — “modern” art, created by contemporaries, or the “ancient” tried and true classics.

Perrault sided with the Moderns, taking the position that civilization, literature, art and culture must evolve together. He wrote a poem,  Le Siècle de Louis le Grand  (“The Age of Louis the Great”) which honored modern writers such as Moliere and Francois de Malherbe. Perrault saw these writers as greater than those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perrault’s stand was a landmark in the eventually successful revolt against the confines and restrictions of traditions. Interestingly, the French Revolution, overthrowing the “old monarchy” in favor of the “new rule” of liberty, would also take place in Perrault’s lifetime.

Father of Fairy Tales

Tensions at court between Perrault and his boss, the finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, eventually drove Perrault from court. He retired early, in 1682 at age fifty-six. It was then that he began to devote more time to his children. (Perrault had married late in life, at age forty-four. His bride, just nineteen years old, sadly died a few years later, leaving him with three young children.).

Perrault enjoyed telling the children folk tales which had been passed on by oral tradition. These stories were told in salons and had become very popular in France. Although Perrault is credited for introducing the “fairy tale” as a new literary genre, the term was actually coined by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel, Baroness d’Aulnov, who was writing stories of this nature as early as 1690.

Eventually, Perrault published his own versions of the oral traditions in his collection Tales of Mother Goose.

Interestingly, Mother Goose has never been identified as a real person, but several goddesses have been associated with her. The Alpine goddess Berchta, who is said to have one goose foot, is often thought to personify her.

Perrault’s stories, particularly his versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Blue Beard, emphasize the dark side of human nature. They offer the lesson that success can be achieved if one can maintain virtue — even though the world is full of cruelty, trickery, chicanery and decrepit morals. Some scholars have suggested that Perrault used his fairy tale “spin” to reflect the evil nature of human beings, as he had experienced in his long career in politics.

Wolves, Beauties, Castles and Cats

One of Perrault’s most beloved tales is Little Red Riding Hood. It was written as a warning to readers about men preying on young girls walking through the forest. For anyone who has forgotten — Little Red goes out into the dangerous woods to deliver some goodies to her sick Grandma. She gets sidetracked by a conniving wolf. The wolf sneaks away and arrives at Granny’s house before Red, then actually poses as Granny, luring Red into more trouble. (It doesn’t end well.)

Perrault ends his tale with a moral, cautioning women and young girls about the dangers of trusting men. He states, “Watch out if you haven’t learned that tame wolves/ Are the most dangerous of all… I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are, of all such creatures, the most dangerous!”

In Perrault’s version, Little Red even goes so far as to get in bed with the Bad Wolf. This results in her being eaten alive. (Disney it is NOT!)  

Perrault remained true to his principles of favoring the “modern” over the “ancient.” He updated the ancient folk tales to fit his current audience (albeit the 17th century.) He used images and characters taken from everyday life. For example, his palace for Sleeping Beauty was modeled after the Chateau Usse, a French castle that would have been recognizable to his readers.

In Puss in Boots, the Marquis de Carabas was modeled after Claude Gouffier, the real-life Marquis of Caravaz. Perrault’s stories are full of quips, details, asides, and subtexts. Many of these are drawn from the contemporary world of fashion. (Very important to 17th c French Society,)

Happily Ever After

Charles Perrault died in 1703 at age seventy-five. This was just eight years after his first fairy tales were published. His works continue to be popular to this day, best known for their easy-to read style, creativity and deep cutting moral lessons. The Mother Goose collection was translated into English by Robert Samber in 1729.

Happy Birthday Charles! Thanks for the forbidden forests, spectacular spells and magnificent magic!

Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

agatha-christie-young

She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac!

 

Kerouac quote 2

He was a wide spirit, a dazzling voice that revealed a landscape of metaphor, a believer in humanity, a dreamer, a doer and an explorer of metaphysical consciousness. He was also a recluse, socially awkward, a drug abuser, an alcoholic and a man who became so overwhelmed with his own fame it ultimately destroyed him.

There are two types of people in this world; those that ‘get’ Kerouac, and those that do not. I am in the first category, of course 🙂

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac (aka Jack) was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell Massachusetts to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec.  Little Jack spoke French as a child and reportedly did not learn English until he was six years old. Yet he went on to become one of the most prolific and controversial American  writers of the 20th century.

Kerouac’s childhood was a mix of working class sensibilities and Catholic spirituality. When Jack was just four years old, he lost his older brother Gerard to rheumatic fever. He never quite recovered from the loss and believed Gerard followed him around as a guardian angel. After meeting  Neal Cassady in the late 1940’s, the two developed a close bond and Jack always felt that Neal was possibly the reincarnation of Gerard.

Jack played football and earned a scholarship to Columbia University. It was there he met fellow writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Jack-Kerouac (1)

Jack broke his leg playing football, lost his scholarship and dropped out of school but nevertheless he, Ginsberg and Burroughs became known as the founders of Beat Literature. Jack went on to serve in the Merchant Marine and the Navy, later taking a series of odd jobs. All the while he was writing, writing and writing more. Some of his early books were not published until after his death.

Ironically, when people think of the word Beat, they associate it with Beatniks — those cool-cat-hip beret-wearing bongo players who eventually took over the poetry cafe scene. This idea was, however, not what Kerouac & company intended. The true meaning of Beat, Kerouac insisted, was the feeling his generation had after being ‘beat down’ by World War 2. It also referred to beatific, as in the Beatitudes of the Bible. The Beats were a marginalized segment of American society; leftover hobos, shell shocked veterans, ramshackle misfits — the exact types of characters Jack met during his cross country adventures. They shared a longing for the Divine.

His masterpiece novel ‘On The Road’ was published in 1957.  It brought him almost instant fame and success. That success was, in reality, hard earned, as Kerouac had spent most of his life as a poor drifter and outcast bum. Fame and fortune overwhelmed and eventually devastated him.

A restless heart, often accused of misogyny, Kerouac was married three times and had one daughter. His life followed a nomadic pattern that he could never quite resolve.  He made his home in various places around the country, never truly settling down. On The Road is a thinly disguised memoir of his trips between the East and West coasts. He often traveled with best friend Neal Cassady.

The Beat movement represented a certain type of freedom, patriotism and love for the land. Apple pie diners, Colorado cowboys, Frisco jazz clubs, purple mountains, red rock deserts and the tranquility of nature.  Jack began to study Buddhism in his quest for spirituality.  In later years, the peace loving Hippies of Haight Ashbury would pay tribute to  the Beats.

Jack may have had a guardian angel, but his demons never left him.

Jack-Kerouac

After he achieved literary success, his privacy became a thing of the past. He was now a celebrated author, the spotlight forced upon him.  Still socially awkward, Jack took to heavy drinking. He once told his friend and fellow poet Fran Landesman that he would have liked to commit suicide, but because his Catholic faith prevented him from doing so, he had decided to simply drink himself to death.

It worked. Jack Kerouac died on October 21, 1969 at the young age of 47.  The official cause of his death was internal bleeding due to alcohol abuse. Jack had once said he wrote his novels because “we’re all gonna die.”  Luckily for us, his words live on.

Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs wrote this musical tribute ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’:

This short documentary (30 minutes) captures some of the most important parts of Kerouac’s life. Hope you enjoy it!