Alan Wilkinson goes off-road to track down the wife of Kerouac's 'Muse'
A shaft of afternoon sunlight filters through the trees, illuminating a thin film of dust on the coffee-table. My host tuts. "I wasn't raised to do cleaning. We were southern belles. If ever there was a mess it was always, 'Where's that piccaninny?'"
In fact Carolyn Cassady's mobile home is tidy and elegantly furnished, a tranquil retreat hidden away in Windsor Great Park amid the remnants of the oak wood that used to echo to the sound of the royal hunt. It has been a long road from her Tennessee home and a Bennington College education; further still from 1950s Long Beach, or 40s Denver - "that dumb little cow-town" where she fell head-over-heels for Neal Cassady, otherwise known as Dean Moriarty, the side-burned hero of the snowy West whose exploits illuminate the pages of Jack Kerouac's On The Road .
To visit Carolyn, you do precisely what she tells you in her e-mail: "Now lissen to me." Two visitors were dumped by baffled cab-drivers on the outskirts of the woodland and left to walk.
But still the visitors find her. They come to talk because they're working on a dissertation, a book, a film. And she welcomes them, even though sometimes she gets weary of being treated "like a commodity to take off the shelf when someone wants to use me". Tomorrow, a crew is coming to shoot an interview for the DVD of a film that hasn't been made yet: Walter ( Motorcycle Diaries ) Salles's On The Road . And thank God, she adds with a shudder, thank God they haven't got Johnny Depp.
But there is no weariness in her voice as she warms to familiar themes: that there was no "Beat Movement", that she loathes the "Beat industry", that Neal was "brighter than any of them". She was overwhelmed by Neal - and he was charmed by her. To the reform-school boy, raised around Denver's Skid Row, she had class. And that is something, she says, that people overlook. Neal ached to be respectable. What? The drug-taking, yea-saying king of the road; the car-thief, jailbird and court jester to Ken Kesey (writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest ) and his Merry Pranksters?
Yes, she says. Look at the years he spent as a youth hanging out in Denver Public Library reading the classics. Hal Chase, his buddy who went to Columbia, introduced him to Allen Ginsberg not as a delinquent hero but as a writer - of extraordinarily expressive letters.
Carolyn has mixed feelings about some of Neal's letters. He was "a genius at expressing love" but did those expressions come from his heart or from some deep creative wellspring? She doesn't hesitate: they were creative.
While he wrote daily love letters from his "hold-downs" as a Southern Pacific freight train guard, he was writing passionate sex letters to his New York girlfriend Diana Hansen.
Neal was a world-class writer on sex as far as Kerouac was concerned. It was his "great sex letter", describing a passionate fling with a "chick" he met on a Greyhound bus, that turned Kerouac on to a new style: spontaneous, breathless, confessional.
So, Neal was Kerouac's Muse? "Yes. And Ginsberg's." But there was still no Beat Movement? "No, they were individuals - Jack, Allen and Burroughs.
Kerouac hated this whole 'Beat Generation' thing. It was all promoted by Ginsberg and the media."
It was helped by people such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet and bookstore owner who published so many Beat writers and worked with Carolyn on Neal's autobiographical piece The First Third . Even so, Ferlinghetti "didn't like the Beats' writing; he just published them. He told me, 'I'm squarer than you are, Carolyn.'"
Carolyn is not square; but she deprecates herself, laughingly, as "old, nasty and ruthless" for insisting on a decent payment from a biographer who wants to use Neal's letters in print; and of course she was not hip to On The Road . "I loved Kerouac's imagination, the colour - and he had Neal's voice down perfectly; but I didn't like the subject matter. He never really got beyond himself in his writing."
Neal, too, disliked On The Road . "He wanted to be a respectable writer, and here were all the parts of himself that he hated, exposed." It is odd that he should be an icon of revolt, she adds. "People forget: he was a family man; he held down a job on the S.P [Southern Pacific]; he was a homeowner, we had a pool. He was a deep thinker. When he and I got talking philosophy or spirituality, nobody could get a word in. Kerouac sulked. Even Gregory Corso couldn't interrupt us."
Neal was a man of action, she stresses, and that was why he failed as a writer. He couldn't sit still, and when he did he would agonise over the right word. Compared with Neal, Kerouac was "a klutz, a sluggard. But I loved the guy. Still do".
Carolyn questions a number of conventional views of the Beats. "People say Kerouac was a Momma's boy. Sure he went home to her, but that was where he lived. He could relax there. He was so self-conscious, even with Neal and Allen and me: never totally natural. With Memere he could get drunk and swear and let it all hang out. She swore worse than he did."
Ginsberg was unabashed. "Yes, and it's a shame he became so antagonistic towards me at the end. We were so close. We lay on my floor, naked, looking at the moon, totally innocent, as Allen read poems. We went to town together and watched movies, like we were on a date. We went to cafes and drank Coke. Then after I found out he (Ginsberg) had been blowing Neal, I kicked him out. Drove him to Berkeley, apologising all the way. 'No,' he kept saying, 'I understand.'"
Neal, of course, would take any sexual opportunity that arose - and in the end that destroyed their marriage. "But now I see it," Carolyn says. "It was just testosterone. I understand about men now. It wasn't really that important..." Losing Carolyn, and later losing his job after two FBI agents set him up for a drugs bust, well, "there went the two pillars in his life". He was dead within five years.
Since those days Carolyn has painted, raised her family, moved to England and part-written her autobiography. She remains "awed" by the world around her. She spent £30,000 building a garden of trees, shrubs and water around her mobile home and curses the encroaching developers. Right now she is trying to rework Off The Road , her out-of-print version of the Beat years. The Kerouac estate, worth $20 million-plus, is in the hands of his third wife's brother, who refuses to allow Carolyn to quote from Kerouac's letters. "They're busy selling bobble-dolls of Jack Kerouac, they made his grave a tourist attraction, and I can't use letters he wrote me."
Carolyn never wearies of talking about the old days. She sees herself as an important part of what happened in the Ginsberg-Cassady-Kerouac triangle.
She believes she is the last authentic source. "I'm really the only one who knew all three - intimately, domestically, through their thoughts, their actions, their letters. I knew them close up. No academic ever gets near all that - they rely on each other, and Jack's books. And in a few years that's all they'll have left."
Alan Wilkinson is a freelance writer. Last year he was Jack Kerouac writer-in-residence at the house in Orlando, Florida, where Kerouac lived when On The Road was published.