Jack Kerouac, key player of the Beat Generation, famed for his revolutionary writing style, his bohemian lifestyle, so lauded for works like On the Road, that everything from his original manuscripts to his clothing and personal effects are on display at the Beat Museum in San Francisco. He also served jail time for his role in the disposal of a weapon which had been used by his friend Lucien Carr to kill someone.
Jack Kerouac | Image Via The Daily Beast
The killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr has been described as “the original sin” of the Beat Generation, however the circumstances surrounding the events of the night of August 13th, 1944 in Riverside Park, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, are a lot more complicated than they may at first appear.
Lucien Carr was a writer and a student at Columbia University. He was also the person who introduced Jack Kerouac to Howl author Allen Ginsberg, and both of them to William S. Burroughs, who, though over a decade older than Carrr, was someone he knew from childhood. Of his role in this now-worshipped group of artists, Ginsberg used to say that “Lou was the glue.” Carr was the inspiration for the character of Damion in On the Road, and was known for his wit, his intellect, and his pranks.
I am, of course, a Serious Writer, and as such obviously do not rely on Wikipedia, however, Carr’s Wikipedia page is remarkably well-written, and as the author puts it, Carr was “a prank-loving late-night reveler who haunted the dark pockets of Chelsea and Greenwich Village until dawn, without making a dent in his brilliant performance in the classroom.” His ‘New Vision,’ a thesis based on Emersonian transcendentalism and Paris Bohemianism provided basis for the Beats’ revolutionary writing. The three components of Carr’s ‘New Vision’ were: “naked self-expression is the seed of creativity,” “the artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses,” and “art eludes conventional morality.”
Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs | Image Via The English Yodeller
At the age of twelve, Carr first met David Kammerer, his Boy Scout leader. Kammerer, who was a close friend of William S. Burroughs, developed an infatuation with the then-pre-teen Carr. Kammerer followed Carr, appearing wherever Carr was enrolled in school. Whether or not it was because of Kammerer’s persistence, Carr moved schools multiple times, attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and the University of Chicago.
Carr’s time at the University of Chicago ended with a suicide attempt, which resulted in a short stay in a psychiatric institution, during which time his mother enrolled him at Columbia University so that he could be close to her. Carr’s family believed that the suicide attempt was a result of Kammerer’s pursuit. Kammerer moved to New York shortly after Carr, and was in turn followed by William S. Burroughs.
It was at Columbia that Carr met Allen Ginsberg in the college dorms, and Kerouac, through Kerouac’s then-girlfriend Edie Parker, with whom he was friends in college. He introduced the two young men to Burroughs and, by extension, Kammerer became a fringe member of this group. By all accounts, Kammerer began to deteriorate mentally during this time with Burroughs apparently discovering him attempting to hang Kerouac’s cat.
On the night of August 13th, 1944, Kammerer found out that Carr was in Riverside Park in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and went there. He again made a pass at Carr and some accounts say Kammerer became violent when rejected. Carr, in what he said was desperation and panic, stabbed Kammerer with his Boy Scout knife. He then tied Kammerer’s hands and feet, and disposed of his body in the adjacent Hudson River.
Image Via Murderpedia
Carr first went to Burroughs, and showed him Kammerer’s bloodied pack of cigarettes, which Burroughs flushed down the toilet. He then advised Carr to get a lawyer and turn himself in. Instead, Carr went to Kerouac, who returned with him to the scene of the crime, and buried Kammerer’s eyeglasses and disposed of the knife used to kill him. The pair then went to the cinema and the Museum of Modern Art. Soon after, however, Carr turned himself in. He was kept in custody until Kammerer’s body was recovered.
Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs’ father immediately paid his bail, while Kerouac’s, famously, refused as he was mortified by his son’s involvement in the crime. Kerouac’s bail was posted by his girlfriend Edie Parker’s parents, on the condition that he marry their daughter, which he did, though the marriage did not last.
This case was sensationalized in the press due to the people involved—young, beautiful, Ivy League-educated—and the implication of homosexuality, which was, at the time, the height of scandal. The media feasted on the narrative of a predatory older gay man preying on a young heterosexual and even referred to the incident as an ‘honor killing.’ It was an early instance of the ‘gay panic’ defense, a defense which justifies the killing of a gay person by alleging that advances by a person of the same sex so repulsed the defendant that they were sent into a state of temporary psychosis, during which time they were not responsible for their actions.
Though by many accounts homophobia was not a key factor in Kammerer’s killing, rather it was a response to what his son, The Alienist author Caleb Carr subsequently called “a sustained campaign of criminal child abuse,” the media were only too happy to frame it as such, and as a result, Carr served only two years of his ‘one to twenty-one’ year sentence for the killing, while Kerouac served just days.
Kerouac’s book The Town and the City is a fictionalized version of the events, and Ginsberg began writing a novel called The Bloodsong, but was persuaded by his English professor, who wanted no more negative press for Columbia, not to progress with it.
Michael C. Hall and Dane DeHaan in Kill Your Darlings | Image Via YouTube
Lucien Carr settled down after his release from prison. He married twice, and had three sons, Simon, Caleb, and Ethan, though was allegedly volatile, verbally abusive and often violent, especially with Caleb. Carr had a long career as a news editor with United Press International, and remained friends with Ginsberg and Kerouac, even serving as best man at Kerouac’s wedding to Joan Haverty. However, he distanced himself from the Beat movement, even going so far as to request that his name be removed from the dedication in Howl. He died in 2005.
The case has been sensationalized, fictionalized, and memorialized in so many different ways, from articles and interviews, to books, and films (such as 2013’s Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan) that it is impossible for anyone who was not directly involved to truly assess the dynamics of the group or the circumstances surrounding Kammerer’s death. Friends of Kammerer deny he wanted anything to do with Carr, that he was gay at all, or that he was a fringe member of the friend group. Patricia Healy claimed that Kerouac particularly owed a great deal to Kammerer, who was a central and inspirational member of the group. While others claim that Carr was a victim of child abuse and stalking, who eventually reached the end of his tether and snapped. Caleb Carr, though apparently a victim of extreme abuse at the hands of his father, believes Lucien Carr acted in self-defense and was in many ways Kammerer’s victim.
Whatever the truth, this is a fascinating case, and one not often discussed in conversations about the Beat generation, their creations, relationships, and influence.
Featured Image Via Sony Pictures Gallery