Jack Kerouac based his muse/lover “Mardou Fox” in The Subterraneans on Alene Lee, a mixed race (Black/Cherokee) bohemian writer and intellectual who was a part of the NYC Beat circle of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lucien Carr. Despite her intimate connection to these writers, the real Alene Lee is nowhere to be found in most accounts and biographies—partly due to her own reticence to speak. Erika Blair did some digging and presents a more rounded portrait of this fascinating woman.
Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1958) follows an unruly crew of visionary Beatniks in San Francisco 1953, based closely on Kerouac’s group of similar colleagues situated in Greenwich Village. [The depictions were so close, in fact, that the publisher insisted Kerouac move the setting to San Francisco, to avoid possible lawsuits]. The story’s narrator, Leo Percepied, frequents lively jazz clubs and dark, tucked away bars—a beat flâneur recording the style, conversations, and habits of these angel-headed-hipsters with a frenzied prose reminiscent of a bebop solo. There are clear fictional stand-ins for William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Gore Vidal.
But there is also one unclaimed persona that has impressed itself upon my memory since first reading this book over 18 years ago. Three short syllables that pierce through all traditional conventions of femininity and staunch 1950s morality like a stiletto—Mardou Fox.
The name Mardou Fox instantly conjures imagery of power, freedom, wild-eyed brilliance, and sex—a beautiful Black woman with a violent red-lipsticked mouth, stylish cropped hair, a womanly frame draped in androgynous menswear, raw youth—the prowess of her character as she leans against bar booths and discusses independence and dreams with the cool confidence of a high priestess.
I loved the mythos surrounding Mardou Fox…never fully grasping who she may have represented in Kerouac’s real life until discovering she was Jack Kerouac’s lover, Alene Lee. Alene’s vital role as an intellectual, aspiring writer, lover, muse, mother, and influence on beatnik fashion is often overlooked by historians and biographers, even those focused on the key women involved in the scene. PKM has compiled the few sources publicly available to celebrate this iconic woman, and inspire other beat aficionados to recognize her influence on the movement’s history.
Alene Lee (née Alene Garris) was born in 1931 and spent her childhood in Staten Island with a foster mother, and was eventually sent to live with her biological mother and two sisters at the age of six. In a biographical essay titled, “Sisters” (first published by Beatdom Magazine# 6 and made available by Alene’s daughter, Christina Diamente) Alene recounts a troubled childhood rife with poverty—her mother was constantly troubled by debt-collectors visiting the run-down apartment)—loneliness, and racism—Lee was of Black and Cherokee descent.
Lee writes, “I began reading a great deal. I had never belonged to any group, I had no friends, my family was my enemy, and the neighbors with their incessant fighting during the summer nights made morning light become shame. I began to withdraw from the intimacy and familiarity of neighbors, and became more conscious of the world around me. I began comparing. And, I always came out second best. I envied everyone.” Of the racist hostility faced by her and her sisters, Alene writes, “One of the places I would take her [Ethel] to was a nice clean playground in a different neighborhood. One day we went to the playground and sang together. I suddenly realized that all those people were white and I perceived what we were in those people’s minds. No one—not one other kid—was colored. All their parents were there with them. And we, Ethel and I, were little ‘colored’ girls who couldn’t make fools of ourselves because we didn’t count in the first place, and that’s what ‘we’ did—sing and dance. Little colored boys and girls singing and dancing for white people… I never sang or danced there again. And whenever I saw Ethel dancing for anyone, like that grocery store man, who sold pickles in a barrel, with his fat belly and cigar, sitting outside the store, throwing pennies at her, I could have strangled Ethel. But the words for the problem hadn’t formed in my brain yet and I didn’t know how to name the difference and therefore I couldn’t explain to Ethel. I would tell her, ‘They’re laughing at us.’”
Alene had clear plans to use her intellect and revered physical beauty to become an individual. This additional excerpt from “Sisters” reveals her desire to form her own identity, free from societal constraints.
“Catherine was sick. They were going to put her in a hospital. The doctor thought electric shock would be advisable. Alene recoiled. The third one. The last of her sisters. The most vibrant, the one who danced like a LaChaise woman, the one who had loved the most… why must they kill the ones who really live? I thought, ‘I gotta do something, be something that nobody can take away from me.’ And I pondered, and thought, and I read. And I read many a day and months, and thought… and one morning I woke up and knew that I could get something and be something that I didn’t have to ask anyone for and nobody could take away from me. I could feel harder, think harder and take riches from the world that they couldn’t stop me from having cause most people didn’t know they were there for the taking. And nobody could stop me from having them as long as I didn’t let them know what it was I wanted. And that became mine, my dream. And being black didn’t matter, cause schools, the principal, nobody could take from you what they didn’t know existed. And all I had to do was guard it, and believe in it and it would be mine some day.”
Throughout the 1950s, Alene Lee lived in Paradise Alley—an East Village tenement building at the corner of East 11th and Avenue A that acted as a de-facto clubhouse for the Beats (mentioned by Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”) and was a notable regular of jazz haunts like Cafe Wha? and Caffe Reggio. She met Jack Kerouac while he was working as a typist and editing manuscripts for William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac describes meeting Alene for the first time abstractly through the fictional characters Leo and Mardou, “‘Making it’…the big expression with her, I can see the little out-pushing teeth through the little redlips saying, ‘making it’ —the key to pain—she sat in the corner, by the window, she was being ‘separated’ or ‘aloof’ or ‘prepared to cut out from this group’…so I went home and for several days in sexual phantasies it was she, her dark feet, thongs of sandals, dark eyes, little soft brown face, Rita-Savage-like cheeks and lips, little secretive intimacy and somehow now softly snakelike charm.” (The Subterraneans, 1958)
Alene Lee’s electric persona and intelligence was undeniable. In her 2010 essay, Alene’s daughter, Christina Diamente, quotes Lucien Carr, the man whom her mother was romantic partners with for eleven years. “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg is also quoted as saying, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene has often been wrongly labeled a mere “groupie” to the Beat writers, having provided the persona and wit that directly inspired seminal pieces of Beat writing. She was present, active, and not a mere bystander to the machismo-soaked sexuality of that group. Her daughter has a private archive of Alene Lee’s unpublished writing, and has mentioned that Grove Press editor, Fred Jordan, dissuaded Lee from pursuing any further writing during her lifetime because her subject matter was not, “commercially viable.”
There is also the questionable fetishization and crude flattening of Mardou Fox’s Blackness as “exotic” and “othering” in The Subterraneans—Jack Kerouac isn’t exactly known for his rich treatment of minority and female characters—and it is key to separate the real, complicated, and rounded out Alene Lee from the fiction.
Anonymity was of utmost importance to Alene. In a 1995 New York Times interview, her daughter recounts, “Lee was an extraordinary person. She never capitalized on her involvement with the Beatniks. She had no interest in having her fifteen minutes of fame.” Countless Jack Kerouac biographers reached out to Alene during her lifetime, facing a stern refusal to cooperate unless quoted under pseudonym. Alene did not see merit in airing the secrets of the since-deceased Kerouac, or forcing her longtime lover, Lucien Carr, to recount the 1944 murder of David Kammerer yet another time. In a selfless avoidance of dredging up painful memories for her ex-circle of friends, she near-erased her true identity and contributions.
Christina Diamente writes, “She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a Black girl groupie who hung out with junkies…But a Black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place…She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write…she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no Black or Indigenous females in the picture.”
Lee was further “whitewashed” from the Beat picture with the film adaptation of The Suberraneans (1960), which starred Leslie Caron as Mardou Fox and George Peppard as Leo. Caron was/is (she’s still alive, at age 90) French-Canadian, and as white as they come, a stark contrast to the Black and Indigenous Alene Lee. The casting was an obvious attempt at making the story more “marketable” to 1960s middle America–a racist erasure and whitewashing of a key Beat heroine. Additionally, the film commercialized the “beatnik” craze in a very shallow way; laden with stereotypes and outdated jargon…it was a mashup of every “beatnik” cliché in the book, Hollywood’s attempt at chopping up Kerouac’s flowing prose into bite-sized bits of Maynard G. Krebs-level hipster drivel and selling it to people who likely had never seen the inside of a jazz club. Its only redeeming value was the soundtrack that included Gerry Mulligan (who also had a part as a street preacher) and Art Pepper. (Fun facts: Dean Martin was first offered the part of Leo; and Roddy McDowall played the Corso character, Yuri Gilgoric.)
Alene Lee died from lung cancer in 1991. Her final wish to her daughter was to “help keep her alive.” There are only a handful of images widely circulated online of Alene, but even the few available depict a maddening beauty and effortless style. The intensity of Lee’s eyes depict a faint sadness, as if she knew that their unbridled howling in the face of conformity wouldn’t last much longer after the camera’s bulb flickered out.
What Kerouac wrote about Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans, may be true for Alene Lee, too: “I know she’s the most enwomaned women I’ve ever seen, a brunette of eternity incomprehensibly beautiful and for always sad, profound, calm.”