Lucien Carr wasn’t just the person who brought Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs together in New York, he also provided a “New Vision”—the name of his manifesto—around which this circle could initially unite, before they became known as the Beat Generation and long before Neal Cassady arrived on the scene. Carr was also at the center of the one tragic event that would forge the lifelong bonds of the Beat circle.
The end of 1943 saw the dawn of a new season. Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were introduced to each other by an enigmatic Columbia University undergraduate named Lucien Carr, and together, they lay the foundation of Beat ethic in life as art, as well as literary influence and form. The words Lucien set down in his manifesto, The New Vision, along with the literary influences each would bring to the table, fueled a dynamic exchange of ideas and work that cemented lifelong friendships and laid the groundwork of a social and literary movement that still resonates today.
When Ginsberg was transformed from an awkward, bespectacled youth to an awkward, bespectacled elder statesman, he proclaimed that “Lu was the glue.” This quote inadvertently placed Lucien Carr in a category of nostalgic friendship. Lu’s glue did not merely bind the members in fraternity; he bound them together in ethic and language and, within a year, he would ultimately bind them together in blood.
Lucien Carr was born in New York City on March 1, 1925. After his parents’ separation when he was 12, his mother Marion took him back to her family’s home in St. Louis, Missouri. It was there that he met future Beat, William S. Burroughs, who was 11 years his senior, through David Kammerer, who was in the sinister process of integrating himself into the life of young Lucien. Kammerer was an English professor and physical education instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, and supervised groups of youths on camping trips. Lucien was a member of one of these groups, and Kammerer quickly became obsessed with him. Marion Carr, struggling to raise her children alone, welcomed the interest of this man in both her son, and in herself.
He was an angel-headed hipster who was no angel at all. But his legacy, first and foremost, must be resurrected and recognised as the architect of the Beat Literary Movement
After Kammerer had earned their trust, she allowed him to take Lucien, then 15, on a road trip to Mexico, away from any other adult supervision. Eventually, Marion began to suspect that Kammerer’s interest was something other than paternal. She decided that Lucien would leave St. Louis, not just to attend a prestigious prep school for a better education, but to get him away from the obsessive attentions of this formerly trusted guardian.
After Lucien was enrolled in Phillips Academy, halfway across the country in Andover, Massachusetts, Kammerer pursued him there. This prompted Marion to move her son further north, to Bowdoin College in Maine, and then closer to home, to the University of Chicago. Each time, Kammerer followed. While in Chicago, Carr attempted suicide by sticking his head in a gas oven. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Cook County Hospital; when asked why he tried to kill himself, he shrugged it off as being “for the sake of art.” Carr’s hospital discharge papers bear the signature of David Kammerer as guardian.
Lucien’s mother blamed her son’s troubles directly on Kammerer, so he was moved one last time, back East to Columbia University in New York City. And, one last time, Kammerer followed, taking up residence on Morton Street in Greenwich Village, working odd jobs, and living in close proximity to his old friend, William Burroughs.
Meanwhile, at Columbia, Lucien was becoming infamous. Although his peers were drawn to him, the establishment was threatened by his challenge of, and disdain for, authority. No amount of rebellion was able to compromise his performance at Columbia, only serving to widen his circle of friends. One such friend, Edie Parker, was an art student from Grosse Pointe, Michigan who met Carr in a life drawing class. Edie shared an apartment on West 118th St. with Joan Vollmer, who would later become Burroughs’ common law wife, and take her own place in the pantheon of tragic Beat heroes. The roommate situation would be growing to three as soon as Edie’s boyfriend came back from a stint at sea with the U.S. Merchant Marine. Edie had been telling Lucien all about her amazing boyfriend, the brilliant writer Jack Kerouac. When Carr finally met Kerouac, he was greeted by a moody man’s man slouched in a chair, demanding to be fed. Jack had summed up Lucien at first glance, thinking him a “mischievous little prick.” He had no idea how much the mischief was a means to an end, and how influential this little prick would be for the rest of their lives.
In the Columbia University dorms on 120th St., Lucien had been cultivating another friendship. Allen Ginsberg, a shy freshman with hopes of a future practicing law, was drawn to Lucien’s room by the strains of Brahms Trio No. 1. It was only a matter of time before Lucien changed the direction of Ginsberg’s life forever by introducing him to Rimbaud, Verlaine, Yeats, The New Vision, the underground counterculture of Greenwich Village and, eventually, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Hovering around the perimeter of what would soon be The Libertine Circle, was David Kammerer.
When Ginsberg was transformed from an awkward, bespectacled youth to an awkward, bespectacled elder statesman, he proclaimed that “Lu was the glue.”
By the dawn of 1944, the Season was in full swing and the Libertine Circle, as they now unabashedly called themselves, was complete. Carr, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg spent their time frequenting Times Square cafeterias, Minetta’s Tavern, and The West End Bar. Edie Parker, Joan Vollmer, and Lucien’s girlfriend, Celine Young, would often accompany them. David Kammerer, seldom invited, followed close behind.
Lucien served as a guide, carefully collaging his friends into a combination of exploring the underground and underworld of New York City, with analysis of the works of Rimbaud, Yeats, and Blake. Kerouac writes in his Diary in 1944:
“Lucien, brilliant companion, most amazing figure in this neighbourhood of amazing figures. Yet, he is cold, not warm. We rout out together the curiosities of Greenwich Village and allied cultures. To Lucien, archetypal circumstances are cliché. Still and all, he would make a wonderful anthropologist, another Aldous Huxley.”
Carr, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs began a process of deconstruction/reconstruction by following the tenets of The New Vision, a call to arms nudging his friends’ subterranean collective consciousness toward challenging authority and murdering conformity in art as well as in themselves. The waterfront antic of Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr signing a union petition as Verlaine and Rimbaud, was not merely a young man’s prank. It symbolised a new rebellion invoking the names of the new heroes who inspired it.
Jack had summed up Lucien at first glance, thinking him a “mischievous little prick.” He had no idea how much the mischief was a means to an end, and how influential this little prick would be for the rest of their lives.
While the imagery and symbolism each would choose was uniquely their own, The New Vision led them to the paths they would ultimately take. Inspired by W.B. Yeats’ “A Vision”, and nodding to Emersonian transcendentalism, and Parisian bohemianism of the 19th century, its tenets stated:
- Naked self-expressionism is the seed of creativity.
- The artists’ consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses.
- Art eludes conventional morality.
If we examine each of these on a deeper level, we can see how fully it, therefore Carr, influenced Kerouac and Co.
- Naked self-expressionism is the seed of creativity: While ‘first thought, best thought’ is often ascribed to Kerouac, the phrase was coined by Carr. Write the truth. Art must be an exercise in honesty, and in order to do that, there can be no hint of self-consciousness in self-expression. Don’t edit yourself, don’t edit your art.
- The artists’ consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses: To transcend the mundane through ecstatic means not only refers to alcohol, drugs, and sex, but also to music, nature, and travel. Bop and its freedom from conventional form caused their souls to soar. Companionship forged through art, with each being equally invested in the other’s process, is also ecstatic and expansive. The exploration of subcultures heretofore unfamiliar, expands the senses. Each endeavor to crack the god connection, and understand the soul/angelic self, certainly provides an ecstatic experience.
- Art eludes conventional morality: The decision of how and what to create should not be dictated or influenced by accepted standards or the fashion of the time. Creativity is above that, for it is intrinsically linked to the spiritual. All goodness is spirit, therefore above and beyond the ever-changing and shifting conventional laws of man.
While the experience and education of the elders Burroughs and Kammerer introduced Lucien to primary source material for his New Vision, what Lucien did with their guidance was uniquely his own. Kerouac noted that the roles of teacher and student were constantly interchangeable between Lucien and Burroughs. Coupled with Kerouac’s unique working class, Catholic French-Canadian perspective and creative intuition, Kammerer’s influence became increasingly obsolete.
As the Season progressed, Lucien found himself staying with Jack and Edie more often and the apartment was the go-to meeting place for the Libertine Circle. Floors and furniture were strewn with bodies, bottles, butts, books, notes, and records. It was also a haven for Lucien and Celine, trying to escape the disapproving looks of Kammerer, who was becoming severely unhinged. Lucien had a mean streak, and he showed it by toying with Kammerer. He alternated invitations with snubs, and created scenarios that would humiliate Kammerer in public. Lucien would let him know where he and his friends would be on a given night, and when Kammerer appeared, as Lucien knew he would, he was excluded from the group, forced to sit alone at another table, watching Lucien embrace Celine, or engage Kerouac in male bonding and intellectual discourse while his own participation was dismissed offhand. Once, when dining with the group at an Italian restaurant, Lucien dared Kammerer to eat a tablespoon of hot paprika, saying that if John Keats could do it, why couldn’t he? David, desperate to please Lucien, ate the paprika, and paid for it afterward.
While ‘first thought, best thought’ is often ascribed to Kerouac, the phrase was coined by Carr.
As Kammerer spiralled downward, his stalking became more intense. For example, he broke into Lucien’s apartment, just to watch him sleep; climbed fire escapes to gain entry to parties to which he was not invited; looked for Lucien at Kerouac’s place; and on one occasion, when finding neither there, attempted to lynch Kerouac’s cat with a necktie, only to have Burroughs rescue the animal. Kerouac vowed to beat Kammerer up the next time he saw him.
With the backdrop of the Libertine Circle putting the New Vision into action, the passion-play between Carr and Kammerer merged with art to create a crucible which, in combination with The New Vision, would propel the Beats into notoriety, and launch them forward onto their individual paths. David Kammerer would find his role in history approaching its apex, and Lucien Carr would end up as the sacrificial lamb.
Lucien was tired of taunting Kammerer and becoming increasingly nervous about the escalation of David’s stalking. He and Kerouac hatched a plan to sail with the Merchant Marine, jump ship in France, and walk to meet the Allies as they liberated Paris. Kerouac, who spoke French, would pose as a peasant, and Lucien would be passed off as his deaf-mute brother. But just as Kammerer was always able to find Lucien no matter where his mother sent him, he found out about their plan, and met them at the Union Hall, saying that he intended to join them. Jack and Lucien left the waterfront and decided to find another way to escape Kammerer. They ended up at The West End Bar for a drinking and plotting session. Kerouac left first, and on his way home, bumped into Kammerer who asked where Lucien was. Kerouac told him he had left him at the West End.
What transpired next is Beat legend. Lucien and David left the West End and walked to Riverside Park. There, Kammerer allegedly grabbed Carr, telling him that if Lucien did not surrender to him, he’d kill Lucien and then himself. After a struggle, Carr stabbed Kammerer in the chest with a Scout knife, bound his hands and feet with his own shoelaces, weighed the body down with stones, and left him to drown in the Hudson River. He gathered Kammerer’s blood-stained glasses, monogrammed handkerchief, and pack of Lucky Strikes along with the murder weapon, and went to Bill Burroughs. Burroughs advised him to have his mother get him a lawyer, and use “honor slaying” (self-defence against an act of homosexual aggression) as his defense. Burroughs smoked the last Lucky, then flushed the blood-stained packet down the toilet. Lucien, fearing that he’d be convicted and “get the chair” ran to Kerouac’s apartment, waking him and telling him, “I disposed of the old man tonight.” Kerouac said, “Aw, why d’ya go and do that?” After getting dressed, Jack accompanied Lucien as they walked around the city, dumping the evidence. After several hours of drinking, movies, and museums, Lucien finally broke down and decided to turn himself in to the police.
While the killing of David Kammerer in 1944 and/or the arrival of Neal Cassady in 1946 have been widely pointed to as the event(s) that gave birth to the Beats, it is in reality, Lucien Carr’s New Vision, and the literary cabal this created in 1943. The genesis of the Beats has three steps:
- Birth: The New Vision lay the foundations of voice, method, and influence in fellowship.
- Discovery: The killing of Kammerer created the impetus to “go” by disconnecting the students from their teacher and flinging them apart to apply what they’d learned, alone.
- Application: Cassady’s arrival was the signpost of where to go.
Now, the Beats had to learn to walk. Kerouac, in And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks—a novel written with Burroughs in 1945 but not published until 2008—describes his moment of illumination as he says goodbye before Lucien turned himself in:
“Then he said, ‘So long,”, and I said ‘so long’, and he turned and went into the lobby and I walked toward Columbus Circle where two big trucks went by that made me want to travel far.” (pp 180)
Where he would go and how the rest of the Beat Circle would proceed would become apparent between 1945 and ‘46.
The Season came to an end. The Libertine Circle did not so much disband as set their out on their individual roads of self-discovery. Lucien was convicted of manslaughter and would serve 18 months in prison. Jack and Bill were arrested and charged as accessories and material witnesses to the killing of Kammerer. Ginsberg continued at Columbia, tried to write a novel about the killing, and by following the guidelines of the New Vision, was suspended from school, spent time in a mental hospital—where the seeds of Howl were planted—and came to terms with his homosexuality.
Burroughs’ father bailed him out on condition that he return to St. Louis and check into a sanitorium to undergo analysis. Kerouac’s father refused to bail him out, and Jack had to rely upon Edie Parker’s trust fund for the $500. The executor of her trust would not release the money unless they were married, so Jack and Edie wed, left New York upon his release from jail, and moved to Grosse Pointe, where he worked off his debt, and eventually returned to New York City… without Edie.
By March of 1945, Jack and Bill were both back in New York and seeing a lot of each other. In what he would call his Self-Ultimacy period, Jack spent time under the tutelage of Burroughs, but was undeniably still under the influence of Lucien’s New Vision. He stated that Bill is “responsible for the education of Lucien” whom he cites as “a very important person.” While working on a piece called “I Bid You Love Me” Jack dared Ginsberg and himself to “lose society, find oneself.” Kerouac said that it was really Lucien who wrote, “I Bid You Love Me”, not himself. He wrote of Lucien, “He is significant in that he killed rather than be killed in this K affair. He is most like Bill – horizon seeker. Tremendous and active personality, who makes activity. Lucien will survive if he wants to – barring that, he will make a glorious exit if he wants that. A man of will much more than Bill. In any story he must rule because of all of this. He made history while I was foundering in my own nature.” (sic)
Lucien languished in The Tombs, waiting to be transferred to Elmira Reformatory to serve his sentence. He pondered his situation and his identity in a letter to Kerouac, giving a bird’s eye view of what New Vision conversations must have been like. He useds pseudonyms for himself (de Maubri) and Kerouac (Breton):
“One thinks in jail. But it takes will power to direct your mind so that its activity may be dignified with the title of thought rather than garbled day-dreaming. In the exegeses of the two Veltaunschaugen that you sent me I think you draw too distinct a demarcation line. The “romantic eclectic” and the “introspective visionary” are not at antipodes with one another. Into which class would you allocate Joyce the Dublin eclectic and Dedalusean visionary? I would hesitate to put Breton or de Maubri completely into either class, though they may tend one way than another. The great artist like Joyce must be in both. Can you place Breton with his talk of the artistic completion of spiritual circles in the former class, or de Maubri (whose guise I assume with distinct missgivings) with his hatred of generalities and anthropological preoccupations in the latter? Eh bien, mon frere, this all preambles a novel I am planning. The novel of Claude de Maubri if you will. But Claude has changed somewhat since you last saw him due to various vicissitudes which he has undergone. Still introspective, he will never cease to see, like Thoreau, all of life in a drop of water. He is still convinced that the secret of morality lies within and not without the self, though he has learned that the self is far fuller (pardon the solecism) entity than he ever thought it before. He is not disillusioned with the intellect and its power but has relegated it to a position of less importance. He has begun to wonder about the meaning of the “spirit”. But notre garcon still worships fervently, more fervently than ever before, at the shrine of parturience. And he has begun to see a little more clearly, along the ascendant path of self-consummation. Once when de Maubri read the “Symposium” he said, “Ah Aristophanes! How true was thy half jest”, and then he wondered what that little rhetorical outburst meant. Now he has begun to find out.” (sic)
Lucien would never write that novel. The trauma of the murder, and his separation from the group by his incarceration permanently changed him and murdered his own development as an artist. When he emerged from the abyss that was Elmira Reformatory, he was no longer a student, an aspiring poet, or novelist. His need to remain under the wire caused him to recreate himself as a newspaper man, and even to change his physical appearance. In a letter to Carr, Ginsberg wrote: “Bill sends his love & and says you should shave your moustache, it’s awful. ‘I mean having a moustache like that to keep oneself from being pretty is like knocking out a couple of teeth or sticking in a nose-plug or some other such barbarous self-mutilation, in fact it’s worse, it’s a crime of selfdesecration to try to make yourself ugly, to please a lot of jerks down at the UP & be one of the boys it’s terrible.’ Jack and I agree, on account of nobody’s really watching anyway.” (sic)
So, Lucien faded into the background as a second-string character in Kerouac novels cloaked by pseudonyms, as a notorious teenage murderer, as just one of the guys; his true legacy lost, convoluted, misconstrued.
Carr distanced himself from the Beats in public, but not in private. Although he remained accessible for advice, critique, loans, and parties, he did not want to be associated with any Beat literature or discussed in interviews. His name was removed from the dedication in the first printing of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, and he asked Kerouac to change the title of his poem from “Old Lucien Midnight” to “Old Angel Midnight”. In a letter to Lucien, Kerouac writes, “As to Al Hendrix of the Post, call him up and tell him Jack says not to mention you … you’re not supposed to be mentioned, his talk about you was after this interview was over, when Pat MacManus Obregon O’Toole and I were talking about where to go that night. But if you want, tell him I said to keep it cool about you… besides they haven’t run that story yet and proly won’t. But I’m pretty sure he won’t mention you and understands.” (sic)
So, Lucien faded into the background as a second-string character in Kerouac novels cloaked by pseudonyms, as a notorious teenage murderer, as just one of the guys; his true legacy lost, convoluted, misconstrued. To some, he is forever connected to the salacious crime that put the Beats on the map. To others, he is the hard-boiled editor at UPI, a mentor and surrogate father for those who worked under him. To his sons—one of whom, Caleb Carr, has become an acclaimed novelist and military historian—he was a violent alcoholic parent who could not break the cycle of abuse, and although he did not sexually abuse his children, he terrorised them verbally, psychologically, and physically.
Indeed, he was all of those things. He was an angel-headed hipster who was no angel at all. But his legacy, first and foremost, must be resurrected and recognised as the architect of the Beat Literary Movement, for without his New Vision, the convergence of minds he brought together, and the collective voice they used to “report it well and truly,” it would not have existed. The Killing of Kammerer became his cross to bear and led to the sacrifice of his own voice, which created a movement that is still relevant and inspirational today, almost 77 years after its inception.
Lucien Carr died of bone cancer in Washington D.C. on the 28th of January, 2005. He was 79 years old.
In this 5-minute segment, filmed by Robert Frank in 1959, the elusive Lucien Carr, his wife and kids can be seen hanging out inside and outside of a New York restaurant with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: