Dave Sambrook, 2005
Dave Sambrook is a freelance journalist based in London, England. At the time of this interview in 2005, he was preparing a series of articles on the Beat Generation in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the historic poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. He had recently interviewed Carolyn Cassady and David Amram, and it was David who gave him my email address and suggested he speak with me.
Dave Sambrook: The Beats are often portrayed as misogynistic. Knowing Kerouac and Ginsberg as well as you did, do you believe that’s an accurate representation or was it more an indication of the times you were living in?
Helen Weaver: Well, both. If you go by the dictionary definition of misogyny–“hatred of women”–that would be going too far. It wasn’t so much a case of being part of the reigning zeitgeist, for in many ways they were swimming against the stream. Jack loved women, beginning with his mother, who was the great love of his life–after his writing, which he regarded as his mission on Earth. And although Allen was “gay” (that word always sounds funny applied to people who lived before the word came out of the closet), he had many female friends whom he respected and admired. But the Beats were totally wrapped up in their work, and in those days, women didn’t have as much freedom to be writers and artists as they have today, so by definition their colleagues and their support team were mostly male.
Dave Sambrook: You met Jack at a time when his life was about to transform. Whilst the success of On the Road was obviously something he had always wanted, do you believe that it was the reaction against it, or the inability to live up to the image he’d created of himself, which led him to depression, alcohol and ultimately an early grave?
Helen Weaver: The overnight success he got when On The Road was published was not, as Joyce Johnson and others have pointed out, the kind of success he wanted. He wanted the respect of his literary peers; with a few exceptions, he got notoriety and ridicule. And of course he became identified with the hero of the book, the wild, supposedly free spirit, Neal Cassady, and Jack wasn’t like that at all. He was shy and private, and no, he couldn’t live up to the image the media created for him. As for his success leading him to depression and alcohol–it may have exacerbated his drinking, but Jack’s addiction to alcohol predated his fame. I knew him before On The Road was published, and it was all too clear to me that he was headed for an early grave.
I’m not sure “depression” is the right term for his condition. When I knew him, in his mid-thirties, he drank to dull his senses, because he took everything in and remembered everything that happened to him. He drank to reduce sensory overload. It may have been different later on.
Dave Sambrook: Was Jack a conservative at heart or were the views he expressed in support of the Vietnam War a reaction against the counter-culture who he believed had hijacked his book?
Helen Weaver: I don’t see him as either conservative or liberal, I see him as an artist. He was a compassionate person who suffered alcohol-induced personality changes toward the end. I do think he was a Catholic at heart, and the pleasure-loving ethos of the sixties was simply not his thing. Thus even though the Beats paved the way for the hippies (“We Didn’t Start The Fire”), Jack’s denial of his paternity was simply a matter of taste–or distaste.
Dave Sambrook: Why did you end your relationship with Jack? Were you concerned of being dragged down with him? Did you ever regret ending the relationship afterwards?
Helen Weaver: I asked Jack to leave because. . .I wasn’t getting enough sleep! Seriously, though, his drinking really bothered me. I hoped that we would end up being friends, and that’s what happened. No, I didn’t regret my decision. But I did regret that I never really appreciated him as a writer until after he died–which was true of the rest of America.
Dave Sambrook: You sold Jack’s love letters to you to finance the publication of your book. Have those letters been published, and what’s the reaction been to The Daisy Sutra?
Helen Weaver: A couple of Jack’s letters to me appear in the second volume of the Selected Letters Ann Charters edited for Viking. The Daisy Sutra: Conversations with my Dog got great reviews but hasn’t made me rich! I felt good about using the money I got from selling Jack’s letters to pay my production costs on the book, because Jack was a great lover of animals. I felt he would have approved.
Dave Sambrook: Do you have any plans for further books?
Helen Weaver: Thought you’d never ask! I’ve been working on a memoir of Jack and the fifties for lo, these many years. I’m coming down the home stretch, and I hope to finish it this year. Stay tuned!