Kevin Ring, 2003
Kevin Ring is editor of Beat Scene, a magazine dedicated to the Beat Generation that has been published since 1988.
Kevin Ring: How did it feel to read about yourself [in Desolation Angels], was it really you?
Helen Weaver: I’m a funny combination of a shy person who is also something of an exhibitionist. So on the one hand I like reading about myself but on the other hand it can feel weird when somebody else tells my story in their words. When Nicosia interviewed me back in the eighties I knew I was going to write my own book some day. He agreed to let me see what he wrote before the book went to press, and I ended up doing a fairly deep edit. So I had some control there.
I spoke with Ellis Amburn very briefly over the phone. I think he was out to prove that Kerouac was gay, and when I told him that Jack was a wonderful lover, he seemed to lose interest in me. When Amburn’s book came out I was astounded to read that Jack “in front of Joyce [Johnson]. . .started making out with Helen” in 1958, when I wasn’t seeing Jack, much less making out with him. He even wrote that Joyce and I got into a fistfight over Jack in the White Horse, which needless to say never happened, and made Joyce and me howl our heads off.
Of the three books about Jack that I’m in–Nicosia’s Memory Babe, Amburn’s Subterranean Kerouac, and Joyce’s Minor Characters, Joyce’s is my personal favorite, and I say that even though she caricatured me. We had been rivals back in the fifties, and she wrote that book before we became friends. As for Jack’s portrait of me in the great Desolation Angels, it’s extremely flattering, as is Dan Wakefield’s chapter on me in his wonderful book New York in the Fifties. I have no problem with either of those!
Kevin Ring: Do you have good recollections of those times? We are talking nearly fifty years ago. Did you keep any diaries, journals that might help you?
Helen Weaver: Joyce says somewhere that when one tells the same story over and over ultimately one is left with “memories of memories.” I have very vivid memories of some events–for example, the day I met Jack is indelibly etched in my mind. And I did keep a “Kerouac Journal” for a while. But unfortunately I didn’t start writing until things began to go downhill between us–probably as a form of therapy, because living with him was not easy. Frieda Lawrence wrote to her friend Mabel Dodge, “Try it then yourself, living with a genius, see what it is like and how easy it is!”
So for the honeymoon phase, I have had to rely on my memory. In the forty-seven years that have passed since my time with Jack I have made several false starts at a memoir, and thanks to these I have some details that would otherwise have been lost. In one sense, this wealth of material has been an embarrassment of riches: My feelings about Jack have changed over the years, so pulling all these different versions of the story together has not been easy.
Kevin Ring: You say you remember the day you met Jack. What was it about the day that sticks in your mind?
Helen Weaver: Absolutely everything! Well, not everything of course, but it’s still amazingly fresh in my mind, in almost Kerouackian detail. It was like a movie (and sooner or later they’re going to have to make a movie of his life) and I was aware from the moment I laid eyes on him that something extraordinary was happening.
I guess the thing that was most remarkable at the time was that within five minutes of meeting each other, Jack and I were sitting on the floor of my apartment–I was in my pajamas, he was grubby and unshaven from a nonstop drive from Mexico–and talking like old friends, arguing like an old married couple, or like people who had known each other all their lives. We were both shy people, but there was an immediate sense of connection, almost of recognition.
This may sound wacko to some, but a psychic once told me that Jack and I are “entity mates,” meaning that our essences were flung forth from the Tao at the same moment to start their cycle of lives on planet Earth. We also (you guessed it!) had several past lives together, one in France where I was his male patron, and one in 11th century Denmark where we were happily married.
And as an astrologer, I have always been struck by the many close connections between Jack’s and my charts. (This is even more true of Jack’s and Allen’s–did you know that Allen was born the day after Jack’s biological brother Gerard died?) If you’re a believer (which obviously, I am), then all of this is one way of explaining that instant recognition, that profound sense of familiarity, that almost brother-and-sister feeling that was there from the beginning, and underlay the more superficial sexual attraction.
Jack definitely believed in reincarnation–there are many references to past lives in his books, from Dharma Bums to Big Sur and Visions of Duluoz. And his mother believed in astrology: she and Blanche were discussing astrology as the three of them walked across the bridge on the night the man with the watermelon died, as Jack describes it in Doctor Sax.
Kevin Ring: You talk of Frieda Lawrence and her note to Mabel Dodge about living with genius. Genius is a big word. Would you call Jack a genius?
Helen Weaver: Yes, I would. Genius takes many forms. Just because he didn’t write the kind of novels that Tolstoy or Flaubert or Austen wrote doesn’t mean his writing is, as Capote sneered, merely “typing.” He had extraordinary gifts and energy and a unique point of view–the gifts and view of a poet and philosopher, perhaps, more than a novelist, for he saw everything that happened through the lens of death–sub specie aeternitatis, from the viewpoint of eternity. Like Proust, that other great rememberer, he was obsessed with time and memory. I believe he is the American Proust.
Kevin Ring: You say your feelings have fluctuated about Jack over the years. Could you elaborate?
Helen Weaver: I was twenty-six! And although I was wild enough to live in Greenwich Village, to hang out with Jack and Allen and Gregory, and to love rock’n’roll (which back then was looked down on as music for teenagers), I was also an uptight girl from Scarsdale (one of the wealthiest towns in America) who liked her creature comforts and had a low threshold for disorder. I wasn’t really cut out to be a beatnik. I had majored in English literature at Oberlin and considered myself something of an intellectual. I preferred Henry James to Thomas Wolfe–my very first conversation with Jack was an argument about their respective merits.
Our differences did not stop us from falling in love on first sight, but they did keep me from appreciating Jack as a writer for years. But the main obstacle to my understanding his work was emotional. Let’s face it, Jack was not God’s gift to women. The great love of his life was his mother, and next in line, I think, were the male writers whose work was closest to his own: Allen and Burroughs and Neal Cassady and John Clellon Holmes. And the main purpose of his life, his divine mission as he saw it, was to write. There was very little room left over for a relationship with a woman.
And then there was his drinking! When he was out with his friends Jack would lose all track of time and show up four hours late for dinner, or not at all. No matter what time we got to bed I had to get up and go to work in the morning. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Long story short, it didn’t work out, and with a heavy heart, I had to ask him to leave.
Jack and I became friends, but even so, for years my disappointment in him as a potential life partner–believe it or not, we actually had fantasies about marriage–blinded and deafened me to his genius as a writer. I had to read On The Road three times and I had to get a whole lot older before I could see past the Neal character’s lousy treatment of women to the mesmerizing power of Jack’s language. I now agree with Ann Charters that On The Road belongs on the same shelf with Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and Huckleberry Finn. It really wasn’t until I read Doctor Sax in the early 1990s that I got what Jack was all about, and that I began to understand that he is a poet, that his work has to be read aloud. And as for Mexico City Blues–! I agree with Michael McClure, I think it was, who said it was perhaps the greatest religious poem in the English language.
So my respect for Kerouac as a writer was a long time coming, and in this sense I feel my own journey is a microcosm of America’s. I have a vast archive containing almost all the reviews of his books over the years and it’s fascinating to watch the gradual change in tone from ridicule to respect, the changing image of Jack from enfant terrible to American icon. In a very real sense my memoir of Jack is by way of an apology, an atonement, even, for my multiple rejections of him both as a man and as a writer.
Kevin Ring: I should ask you about your flatmate Helen. Tell us a little about her and how her life developed?
Helen Weaver: Helen was a very striking girl (in those pre-women’s lib days we were still “girls” at twenty-five) from Omaha, Nebraska with a great sense of humor and a voice like Judy Garland. We met at a luncheonette on Fifth Avenue across from where I worked, and soon became fast friends. Our biggest bond was our love of rock’n’roll, which almost all of our contemporaries looked down on as music for teenagers.
Our heroes were James Dean, Marlon Brando, and of course Elvis. Helen was very proud that Brando was from Omaha, too. We talked hip talk and wore dark glasses at night and thought we were very cool. Helen had met Kerouac and Ginsberg when she was at Barnard College and they were at Columbia, and had kept up with them. I probably would never have met Jack if it hadn’t been for her. She’s a fascinating person, and you really ought to interview her about her life!
Kevin Ring: Also a little about your going with Jack to John Clellon Holmes’ Old Saybrook place? What was that like?
Helen Weaver: I never went to Old Saybrook, alas. I would love to have met John Clellon Holmes, who was one of the best friends Jack ever had and certainly one of the most articulate. A glance at their correspondence puts an end to the notion, prevalent among the literary establishment, that Jack was some kind of illiterate barbarian.