Monday, August 03, 2009

Beat Generation: 10 years later

Special to the Times Union
Sunday, October 25, 1998

Cultural icon Jack Kerouac referred to the month of October as the time of year when everything returns to the earth. It's also the month in 1969 that the celebrated literary figure died. Since his passing, his work, along with the contributions of contemporaries William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg, is recognized every October in communities around the country with concerts and readings from their work.

Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg form the cornerstone of the ``Beat Generation,'' a literary movement that reached its zenith in America in the 1950s.

The Beats would influence the counterculture's seismic influence of the 1960s and '70s. Today, their legacy can be felt with a new generation that has reinvented the poetry reading and the coffee bar.

Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg also have their own histories with the Capital Region.

Delmar connection

Jack Kerouac's second wife, Joan Haverty, was born in Queens in 1931 and later relocated upstate with her family to 7 Bothwick Ave. in Delmar. Haverty and her brother grew up in a single-parent home, supported by their mother, Violet, who worked as assistant floor manager at a men's clothing store in downtown Albany.

As a teen, Joan befriended Schenectady resident William Cannastra, one of two sons born to a wealthy, aristocratic mother and a machinist-by-trade father who had emigrated from Italy. The Cannastras lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, a tree-lined street in the shadows of the Mount Pleasant ballfields.

Young Bill, who had the yearnings of a career in the art world, instead placated his parents by studying at Harvard Law School. In the summer of 1949, when he moved to New York City to further pursue his studies, Haverty went with him.

The pair shared an apartment in New York's Chelsea District, where serious daytime studies were said to alternate with wild and raucous post-midnight parties with other young friends that included Kerouac and Ginsberg.

Wild night

After one particularly wild night of drunkenness in October 1950 that included Kerouac and Lucien Carr, Cannastra's horseplay in the wee hours at the Bleeker Street subway station resulted in his death. Dangling precariously outside the window of a moving subway car, he was unable to get back inside as the train rumbled into the tunnel. He was struck by a girder and killed instantly.

Cannastra was later immortalized in a number of works by those who knew him, including a poem by Allen Ginsberg titled ``In Memorium: William Cannastra, 1922-1950''; in his legendary ``Howl''; and by Kerouac, who identified him as ``Finistra'' in ``Visions of Cody.''

Shortly after Cannastra's death, Kerouac moved in with Haverty, and the two soon wed on Nov. 17, 1950. For Thanksgiving, they hitchhiked from Manhattan to Delmar to share the happy news of their coupling with Haverty's mother.

Upon his return to Manhattan, Kerouac resumed working on the story of his road travel journeys with friend Neal Casady. During an especially frenetic three-week creative spell fueled by benzedrine, Kerouac sat at his typewriter in February 1951, and banged out his epic novel ``On The Road.'' He did so at the couple's West 20th Street apartment on a 120-foot roll of Cannastra's old tracing paper that he had scotch-taped together, piece-by-piece so as to be unencumbered with the mind-dragging thought of changing paper.

Kerouac and Haverty's marriage dissolved months later, and in late 1951, the 21-year-old Haverty, pregnant with Kerouac's child (one that he would always publicly deny was his), returned to her mother's Delmar apartment.

``A baby girl born in Albany, New York, says `Mommy' for the first time,'' recalled Jan Kerouac in her 1981 novel, ``Trainsong.''

Father and daughter met only twice, briefly. Jack died in 1969 at age 47. Jan died in 1996 in New Mexico, succumbing to recurring health problems. Joan died in 1990.

Burroughs and Loudonville

Burrough's wife, Joan Vollmer, grew up at 21 North Loudon Heights, just off Route 9 in Loudonville. Vollmer's was a privileged existence, growing up among English Tudor-styled homes and rose-manicured lawns. She attended St. Agnes school in Albany, and left home in 1942 to attend Barnard College in New York City.

Vollmer roomed with Edie Parker, who would become Kerouac's first wife. She met and quickly married a law student, Paul Adams. After he was drafted into the service, she had an affair with a Columbia student that resulted in a child, Julie, born in 1943.

Vollmer convinced Adams the child was his, and after spending the summer in Loudonville, Vollmer moved back to New York and resumed rooming with Parker.

Through Parker and Kerouac, Vollmer met Burroughs, whom she became immediately involved with and would settle into a common-law marriage. They had a son, Billy Jr. They also shared a literary bond and a penchant for addictive drugs.

William was addicted to heroin, Joan to benzedrine. In September 1951, while living in Mexico City, the couple indulged in a dangerous game. Sitting on a couch with gun in hand, William attempted to shoot a champagne glass off of Joan's head. The gun misfired and she was killed instantly.

Two days later, the Times Union headline read ``Ex-Loudonville Girl Shot To Death at Mexico City Party; Husband Accused.'' The article featured an innocent looking Joan, draped in an old St. Agnes graduation cap and gown. A sinister looking Burroughs appeared in a separate photo in a dark suit.

Burroughs was detained in Mexico City for a year by authorities but never confined to jail. Two years after the incident, Vollmer's death was ruled accidental. The children were split up. Julie went back to Loudonville, where she was raised by her maternal grandparents, and Billy went to St. Louis to live with his father's parents.

Billy, whose life would be plagued by alcohol and substance abuse throughout, penned two novels ``Speed'' and ``Kentucky Ham'' in the 1970s. He died in 1981. Julie was raised in the Capital Region, and her whereabouts are unknown.

As for William Burroughs, who died in 1997 at age 83, the death of his common-law wife was a determining factor in his career: ``I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death,'' he said, ``(it) brought me in contact with the Invader, the Ugly Spirit, in which I have no choice except to write myself out.''

Ginsberg in Albany
``Albany throwned in snow. It's winter, Poe, upstate New York scythed,'' begins Ginsberg's 1969 poem ``To Poe: over the Planet, Albany-Baltimore.'' He spent a considerable time journeying through the Capital Region en route to his four-bedroom farmhouse outside Cherry Valley, 80 miles west of Albany.

While on his way to Kerouac's funeral in 1969, as the entourage passed by Colonie's Memory's Garden Cemetery, Ginsberg scribbled: “Cemetery near Albany Airport glimpsed on way to Jack Kerouac's funeral in Lowell,'' which appeared in a farewell poem, ``Memory Garden.''

Sunday, August 02, 2009

She Remembers

When Dorothy McChesney remembers that October morning, the images come flooding back in a fractured jumble of colors.
The 4-year-old girl who lives inside the 86-year-old Moriah woman recalls the excitement, the pageantry and that there were thousands and thousands of people around her.

"It was beautiful, very colorful. Something of that size, it certainly was an important event," said McChesney, who was the oldest of three sisters, a standing that earned her the right to go to the event.

"I remember we drove there. There was mother and dad, an uncle who was a few years older than me and two ladies who were friends of the family," she recalled of the trip that took the group of six from their native Troy to Saratoga.
"In those days, you could sit on someone’s lap," she said.

It was Saturday, Oct. 8, 1927 — the weekend Al Jolson first appeared on theater screens as "The Jazz Singer," an early movie with sound that signaled the end of the silent film era.
It was the day Babe Ruth hit a two-run homer in front of 58,000 fans at a then-young Yankee Stadium to complete a four-game sweep of the World Series and secure the 1927 championship for the team nicknamed "Murderer’s Row."

In Saratoga, 170 miles away, McChesney sat in a crowd of 160,000 people who had gathered to listen to speeches by the governors of the states of New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont and New York.Adolph S. Ochs — the publisher of The New York Times — had the job of introducing the "distinguished visitors" in attendance who represented foreign nations.
Dancers from Skidmore College performed an interpretive dance depicting the passing of time, from the Ice Age to the Battle of Saratoga.McChesney sat on bleachers in the once bloodied fields that resulted from the battle that took place there exactly 150 years before that October day.

Beneath rows of red, white and blue flags, everyone, it seemed, wore a hat. They are forever captured in the images and home movies preserved in the museum collection at the Saratoga National Historical Park.
The pageantry of 1927 marked the official opening of the battlefield and boasted 6,000 participants who took part in the events. Preparations for the ceremony took an entire year.
Today, more than 60 original paintings created by 28 regional artists depicting the area in and around the historical park will go on display at the Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway in Saratoga Springs. The exhibit, titled Views from the Battlefield, will run from Aug. 1 to Sept. 26.

The Post-Star, July 31, 2009
By Saratoga Bureau writer Thomas Dimopoulos.