Joyce Johnson, 2008
Joyce (then Glassman) was a friend of my roommate, Helen Elliott, and for a brief period in 1957 she was my rival for the affections of Jack Kerouac. A little over a week after I asked Jack to leave, Joyce took him in, and for a while there was no love lost between us. But we soon discovered that we really liked each other, and have since become good friends.
Joyce Johnson: While I’d very much appreciate having a capsule account of your relationship with Jack, what would interest me especially are your thoughts upon the whole subject of Jack and women. I’m looking for patterns of behavior. In the late forties, he definitely had the most conventional ideas about what a mate for him should be–i.e. a pretty, cheerful, little housewife, not overly bright. And in his journals, he expressed reluctance to become involved with a bright woman. (As a result he became involved with women who didn’t understand him at all, especially Joan Haverty, judging by her memoir.) But perhaps by the late 1950s he had evolved somewhat. In my own case, for example, he encouraged my writing and urged me to take it more seriously, and he expressed gratitude for any small household thing I did for him. Did you have a similar experience with him? To what extent do you think his attitudes toward women were typical of the 1950s? In what ways were they different?
Helen Weaver: Capsule account of my relationship with Jack!
OK, I met him in 1956 when he, Allen, Peter, and Peter’s brother Lafcadio landed on my doorstep, when I was living with Helen Elliott in the Village. Helen had met Jack and Allen when she was at Barnard and they were at Columbia and had kept up with them. They arrived in the city having hitchhiked nonstop from Mexico and rang our buzzer early one Sunday morning.
Jack and I fell in love on sight and he moved in that night. He lived with us (except for Christmas and New Years, which he spent with his mother and sister in Orlando) until some time in January, when I asked him to leave–not because my analyst told me to (a story that Jack started that you now get a chance to correct!–that son of a bitch never opened his mouth!) but because I was a nervous wreck, trying to hold down a nine to five job in the midst of a non-stop party. I expected us to keep on seeing each other, but Jack was crushed and didn’t speak to me for a while; and of course I was devastated when he moved in with you, because I still loved him!
But as you know, Jack and I forgave each other and remained friends, although we saw very little of each other. That color photo they have in the Berg collection was taken on a Thanksgiving day some time in the sixties at an Italian restaurant in the Village. They say 1962 but I think it must have been a little later than that judging by my teased hair style. Jack sometimes called me in the middle of the night and I always asked him to call me back the next day, but he never did.
Although we only lived together for a short time–maybe six or seven weeks at the most–he had a profound influence on my life. He was, as we both know, an extraordinary person, and there was no doubt in my mind from the day I met him that he would be famous. But for me, anyway, he was impossible to live with. As Frieda Lawrence wrote her friend Mabel Dodge, “Try it then yourself, living with a genius, see what it is like and how easy it is.”
Jack and women! Well, the conventional ideas were still there, marriage and children, but in our case anyway, that was a fantasy that we both had –I mean, after all, it was the fifties, and that was the romantic happy ending to any love affair; but the reality for both of us was altogether different. I think he did want me to be submissive, but I never felt that he was threatened by my intelligence. He loved it that I could speak French and understood his French-Canadian patois; he thought it was great that I wanted to be a writer; and I think he truly enjoyed my educated brain. And on some level he understood why I asked him to leave, but he had a phobia about psychoanalysis, so it was easier to blame my analyst and to pretend I was just doing what he told me to do. Jack was a mass of contradictions: I never knew when or if he was going to show up for dinner; yet when he was there he was sensitive and thoughtful in many ways, except when he was very drunk, when he wasn’t really there at all.
As for his attitudes toward women–well, what did I know? Women’s lib was unheard of, and I wouldn’t have known the word “sexist” if it bit me in the ass. But what I think now is, that the only thing he was really interested in was his writing, and since at that time there were relatively few women writers, it followed that his most important relationships (with the single and outstanding exception of his mother) were with his male friends. When he was out drinking with Allen or Gregory or especially with Lucien, I didn’t exist. I knew that, and it was painful. But this would alternate with times when he was totally “there” for me.
Were his attitudes toward women typical of the fifties? I guess in some way they were; but then again, nothing about Jack was typical of the age he lived in. He was a species unto himself. He did what he had to do in order to survive with his unique gift/burden of total recall. If you remembered everything that ever happened to you starting with birth, you’d drink, too. What he really needed in a woman was someone to take care of him, which is why I think he ultimately married a nurse.
Joyce Johnson: I was very excited to get your generous and eloquent response to my initial questions because you corroborate so many of my own feelings about Jack. Most of the biographies portray him as an unloving and unlovable person, a kind of monstre sacré–not the man we both knew. He could behave unforgivably and yet you would forgive him because of the core of tenderness you always felt was there.
Helen Weaver: Yes, some of the biographies are amazingly inaccurate. I remember speaking briefly over the phone with Ellis Amburn. When I told him Jack was a wonderful lover, he seemed to lose interest in me. And when his 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 you and I got into a fistfight over Jack in the White Horse–can you believe it?<
Joyce Johnson: I don’t think we even talked about Jack in those days! We were very polite.
You say that Jack was a great influence upon you. I wonder whether you could elaborate a bit upon this.
Helen Weaver: Well, it was his greatness, his aura. I had a famous (or anyway, very distinguished–famous in his field of science) father, who was the great love of my life (which Jack understood, by the way–in spite of his fear of psychoanalysis, he instinctively knew what Freud knew!). So I recognized greatness when I was in its presence, and was moved and inspired by it. The sheer depth of his focus. The seriousness. The lack of irony. The commitment to his art. For years, I fell in love with artists, because I wanted to be an artist myself. I think I thought it would rub off, or maybe that it would work living through them. Well, of course, it didn’t work. I had to finally take up my own pen and write.
And I think I knew from the day I met him almost, that I would one day be writing about him. I saved everything he ever gave or wrote me, even tiny little notes, scribbled drawings, and of course every letter. I knew they were precious. And I’ve always felt that it was my duty, my responsibility, to write a book about Jack. Why it took me so long–over fifty years!–to finish it was because it had to be my very best work, and I haven’t written that much. I knew it would be published even if it wasn’t any good, so writing it felt like a public performance. (I didn’t know it would take so long to get it published!)
Then I fell in love with Lenny Bruce, and actually had Quality Time with him and I thought–Jeez, how come I have these famous lovers? And again, that sense of responsibility to share my little slice of history. So Jack has had a lot to do with my becoming a writer, even though it took forever.
Joyce Johnson: I’m also struck by your sentence, “If you remembered everything that ever happened to you starting with birth, you’d drink, too.” At the 1982 Beat Conference, I heard John Clellon Holmes make this point almost in the same words: “Anyone who remembered everything would have to drink.” I wonder whether Jack ever talked to you about the burden of memory.
Helen Weaver: I’m not at all sure that he did. I may very well have gotten that idea from John Clellon Holmes. I’ve always felt that he understood Jack better than almost anyone else who knew him. Their correspondence is truly remarkable, and puts paid to the establishment view of Jack as some sort of illiterate barbarian. The idea that Jack drank because he needed insulation because of taking everything in, may have been Holmes’ insight but it is very much confirmed by my reading of his astrological chart.
Joyce Johnson: I also find it very significant that your ability to speak French was such a bond between you. It’s my view, after much study and thought, these past months, that Jack was French Canadian through and through–even in his writing, and that he looked at America with the passion of an outsider. I see Memere as the respository of his French Canadianness, so when he returned to her for good (not that he ever really separated from her) in his last years, it marked a full retreat back into that culture, which was both suffocating and nurturing for him.
Helen Weaver: I think his French Canadianness is key.
Joyce Johnson: I’m glad I have two years to write this book–I’ll need every bit of them, and sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to have taken on so much work.
Helen Weaver: My dear, you have to be crazy to be a writer, haven’t you noticed? But please keep going–your book is very important.
Joyce Johnson: Tell me about your circumstances at the time you met Jack, and your state of mind. Was it difficult to have a love affair with him while living with Helen? Can you remember an incident during your time with Jack that epitomized the kind of relationship you had? Did you have an awareness that Memere constituted a problem–or did that come later? (I had no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary until Jack announced to me in the summer of 1957 that he planned to get a house in California and live with her.) What was the last time you saw Jack? What were your impressions of him then?
Helen Weaver: My circumstances in November 1956? I was twenty-five, had married right out of college and had divorced three years later (no kids). I always felt my life began the year I was divorced. It wasn’t a horrible marriage, more a non-marriage: I’d been in school all my life and had no idea what to do after I graduated, so I married Jim. (Poor Jim!) He was drafted a few weeks after the wedding (Korea) but spent his two-year stint as a mail clerk at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I got a job at the Campbell Soup Company. While we were living in New Jersey I fell in love with a woman, and a year later (back at Oberlin), with another man.
I was divorced the summer of 1955, the same year “Rock Around the Clock” was released, launching the birth of rock’n’roll. After getting my Ohio divorce I went back east, took a secretarial course, and got an apartment in the Village and eventually, a job at Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. I met Helen at Dale’s luncheonette on lower Fifth Avenue and we moved in to the apartment at 307 West 11th Street some time that fall. We were both crazy about rock’n’roll, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis. We wore our hair cut short, dark glasses (we called them “shades”), Timex watches, men’s shirts and pants, but we weren’t gay (but we liked it when people thought we were lovers).
My state of mind? I was excited to be in New York City and free at last from my overprotective parents, my miserable adolescence in Scarsdale, and my non-marriage. Publishing seemed like the only choice for an English Literature major who didn’t want to teach. I had always wanted to be a writer, but I knew I had no gift for fiction, and until I met Jack, I had nothing worth writing about. I kept a journal on and off and wrote some fairly bad poetry but it was five years before I began translating books from the French and another fourteen before I began writing in earnest.
I had my first orgasm at the age of thirty-four! So I was rebellious, but repressed.
Yes, it was very difficult having a love affair with Jack while living with Helen. Neither of them was working, so they could sleep late and have a leisurely breakfast before Jack buckled down to work in my “Hawthornian” room; but I had to drag myself to the office, no matter how late we had stayed up the night before. Jack’s unpredictability bugged me: I never knew when (or if) he was going to show up for dinner. I had been raised by super-punctual parents; Helen’s father was an alcoholic and her mother was a bitch who left Helen one dollar in her will (Helen framed it). Helen had no problem with the crazy hours, and was less bothered by his drinking, which alarmed and depressed me. She once admitted to me that she was judging me harshly because when I chewed Jack out it reminded her of the way her mother treated her father.
Well, the last straw was one night when Jack went out drinking with Lucien–I think he was celebrating the imminent signing of the contract with Viking for On The Road. They burst in in the middle of the night (Helen was out on a late date) and started playing My Fair Lady at top volume on the record player and singing along with “Just A Little Bit Of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.” I charged out of my room and started beating on Jack; apparently I tore out a chunk of his hair (he always claimed it was the beginning of the end of his looks). I finally got them to leave, but they took Treff, Helen’s German shepherd (I’m sure you remember him!) with them and it was a miracle the dog survived with the two drunks in the city. Jack fell off Lucien’s fire escape when they were sneaking out behind Cessa’s back to get more booze. This was the sort of thing that drove me crazy and why I eventually asked him to leave.
I had no contact at all with Memere and it was only later that I became aware of her influence on his life.
I think that Thanksgiving dinner in the color photo may have been the last time we were together. I do remember being in an audience somewhere with him up on stage after he had become famous (or notorious), and his saying he was now able to pay back the people who had supported him when he was poor and wanting to wave my hand in the air and yell “I’m here!” but not doing it. And I remember seeing him on TV on Buckley’s Firing Line and just hurting for him. Here’s how I handle that in my memoir:
My last sight of him was a disastrous TV appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, just a year before he died. Jack was set up: he wasn’t told that other guests would be there to challenge his ideas. He had prepared a statement on the Beat Generation which he was given no opportunity to present. Jack wasn’t a debater who could defend his life and ideas in public before a hostile audience. Hopelessly drunk, he rambled on about hoodlums, commies, and hippies jumping on the Beat bandwagon.
His response to an impossible situation was not without comic élan: At one point he jumped up, put on journalist James Wechsler’s hat, and on a surrealist impulse that almost saved the scene, started singing “Flat Foot Floogie with a Floy Floy.”
I found his humiliation unbearable. I excused myself from his passion, from the stations of his cross. When he died I was glad that his suffering was over and his soul was free, that he no longer had to live in the shadow of his death.
(During a telephone conversation Joyce said she had the impression that Jack might have been “wilder” when he was with me.)
Amused to think that Jack was “wilder with me”–I wonder whether he tried to put a lid on it with you because he didn’t want to get thrown out again!!!!!!! That he actually learned something from me! Somehow I doubt it. Maybe he just felt safer with you.
Joyce Johnson: Thinking about the question of why Jack was less wild with me: One reason might have been that my apartment was uptown on 114th Street, rather than in the Village where all his pals were easily accessible. There was no one left for him to hang out with in the Columbia neighborhood. But he did seem to value the quiet times we had together. When I went to my job, he’d stay home and work, and I’d find him waiting when I came home for dinner. Then we’d go downtown–usually to see Lucien. Those nights just seemed interminable, but I liked hanging out with Lucien’s wife. I had a better time when we saw Allen, Peter and Elise. (He didn’t need to drink so much when he was with Allen.) I can’t remember Jack bringing people home to my Columbia apartment. When On the Road came out, he was living with me on West 68th St. in an apartment I had sublet from a friend’s mother. Then all hell started to break loose. Parties of strangers, including girls brazenly on the make for Jack, would end up at my place. I remember getting furious once and kicking out all the “guests”–“Get out of here! This is my apartment. You can’t act like this here.” Jack always seemed impressed when I got mad.
One question I’ve just thought of: I’ve always been curious about what happened the night Jack came to see you while he was living with me (in Feb. 1957), when I telephoned him from the White Horse and gave him an ultimatum.
Helen Weaver: Well, here’s the short version of my side of the Night of the Ultimatum:
Jack called me from the White Horse and said he wanted to pick up his copy of The Town and The City which he had lent me (a copy that Lucien’s dog Potchky had chewed).
Helen left us alone for a while and we talked. He confessed that he had tried to make love to Helen one time when he was drunk but that he couldn’t go through with it.
He talked about you. He said that you had something that I didn’t have: kindness. This cut me to the quick because I knew that on some level it was true.
I knew that I must be a selfish person. Helen was always telling me so, not to mention my parents, but I also knew that I’d been good to Jack, as good as I could be, and although I finally refused to take care of him, I did care for him. I felt he was the one who had let me down.
I had a date with a friend who lived on 13th Street, so I had to leave Jack in the apartment watching TV with Helen. When I came home I found a note on the door. Jack was in the White Horse and wanted to see me, so I went to pick him up.
He came back up and we sat in my room and talked. He still smarted from my beating him and from the time he saw me kissing Al (a hoodlum I had been seeing before I met Jack). He claimed that when I tore out that chunk of his hair it was the beginning of the end of his looks. He said the hair had never grown back and that he had to wear a cap to cover the empty spot.
Although I was calm on the surface, I still loved him and it was painful for me to be with him.
At around midnight he called you to report why he had not shown up when he said he would. Half an hour later you called back–I remember hearing your voice on the phone and marveling at your courage–and gave him your ultimatum. You said you would pick him up at the White Horse in half an hour, and if he wasn’t there when you got there, that was the end, you were through with him. You took a cab from where you lived on the upper west side down to the Village at 1 AM, and you had to work the next day, too. This was more than I would do and I thought, I guess she really loves him.
I always admired you for being tougher than me. I still do!