The longtime publishing insider and agent Sterling Lord is still keeping the Beat flames burning for Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Kesey. PKM’s Benito Vila spent a memorable day in New York with the 99-year-old prince of letters, the man to whom Jack Kerouac entrusted his scroll version of On The Road.
Editor’s introduction: In December, trainman Al Hinkle died at age 92. Not a household name by any means, Hinkle is better known as “Ed Dunkel” or “Big Ed”, the back-seat passenger in the Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. His passing set off a discussion at PKM of who from that era might still be alive. When the name of the centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti came up, Benito Vila jumped at the chance to reach him. That set Benito into reading Ferlinghetti’s recent memoir, Little Boy and, later, to meeting the 99-year old Sterling Lord, long-time literary agent for Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Ken Kesey, among many others.
Part One: Ferlinghetti’s Story
Who better to ask “why be normal when you can be happy?” than a 100-year old man? Especially if he happens to be poet/painter/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Booksellers and daring champion of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti asks that question in Little Boy, his memoir/novel published this past March, and scampers through his youth in a flowing discourse familiar to his readers ever since his first volumes of poetry: 1955’s Pictures of the Gone World and 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind.
That flowing is as unique now as it was then––“a circus of the soul” is how Ferlinghetti described it in the late 1950s––full of long-sentenced acrobatics, twirling questions, muscled-up details and scant punctuation. In Little Boy, that discourse comes alive yet again by way of a distinct, spiraling, percussive melody––evoking a run-amok, literary-loving calliope, one capable of roaring out the cadences of Henry Miller, Dante, Rimbaud, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and William Burroughs at any time.
In A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti states he is “awaiting a rebirth of wonder”, eager for what critics then called “non-conformist” conditions to become the norm: “for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right”; “for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead”; “for them to prove that God is really American”; “for the human crowd to wander off a cliff somewhere clutching its atomic umbrella”; “for Aphrodite to grow live arms at a final disarmament conference”. In that collection, Ferlinghetti offers a poem entitled, “Autobiography”, where he claims, “I have read the Meaning of Existence yet have forgotten exactly where. But I am the man and I’ll be there. And I may cause the lips of those who are asleep to speak.” In that poem, he also threatens to “write my own eponymous epitaph instructing the horseman to pass.”
In Little Boy, sixty-plus years later, Ferlinghetti continues to elude death, give voice to the absurdity of the modern present and ask “what in hell are we here on earth for anyway?” Or, as he puts it, “Am I a willing well-fed participant and protagonist in our consumer society a consumer-gatherer or a rebel antagonist revolutionary an enemy of the state or something in between?”
The facts of Ferlinghetti’s early life are these: He was born in Yonkers on March 24, 1919, the last of five boys. His Italian father had died six months earlier, and his French-Portuguese Sephardic Jewish mother was beset with grief and institutionalized, unable to care for herself or her boys, who were shuttled between family and orphanages. Before turning two, Ferlinghetti’s maternal aunt Emilie took him to Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine, France, where he learned to speak French as his first language, coming back to New York City in the mid-1920s when Emilie attempted to reconcile with her husband.
While in Emilie’s care, Ferlinghetti was taken from her after he was discovered to be suffering from malnutrition (diagnosed as rickets) by New York City child welfare authorities. A short time later, Emilie landed work as the governess for the Bisland family in Bronxville, N.Y. Ferlinghetti then found himself living on an isolated country estate, befriending the elder Mr. Bisland, a Southern-born aristocrat, the Italian gardener, the Dutch driver, the Irish maid and the Swedish cook.
An unknown transgression caused Emilie to depart suddenly, wordlessly leaving Ferlinghetti with the Bislands, who had, incidentally, lost a son named Lawrence to an infection in infancy twenty years before. As a seven-year old, Ferlinghetti was sent to the Bronxville public school, living in town with a widow who took him in as a boarder. In Little Boy, he recalls delivering newspapers on two routes before school as clearly as he does forming a small gang with the local boys and being caught shoplifting the same week he was made an Eagle Scout.
That unruly teen behavior led him back to the Bislands, who then sent Ferlinghetti off to boarding school in Mount Hermon, Mass. He went from there to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduating in 1941 just before enlisting in the United States Navy. Ferlinghetti served for most of World War II, commanding a patrol boat during the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 and going to Nagasaki in 1945, six weeks after the second atomic bomb had been dropped there. After leaving the Navy, Ferlinghetti took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the G.I. Bill) to complete a master’s degree in literature at Columbia University in 1947 and earn a doctoral degree in poetry at l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne in 1950.
An astute observer of society’s chaos, Ferlinghetti set off for San Francisco in 1951 to reconnect with poet, essayist and anarchist Kenneth Rexroth, whom he had met while in Paris. Finding the city fitting his more-European-than-East-Coast sensibilities, and finding its blossoming literary scene much to his liking, Ferlinghetti stayed, marrying his long-time girlfriend and taking on teaching positions as well as freelance writing work. After settling into San Francisco’s heavily Italian North Beach neighborhood, he started City Lights, a poetry magazine named after Charlie Chaplin’s anachronistic 1930 silent film, with co-editor Peter Martin. To help support the magazine, the pair soon opened City Lights Pocket Bookshop, a small store selling paperback books, which were still somewhat “new” to book buyers at the time. The bookshop immediately became a destination for San Francisco’s emerging underground political scene and its non-conformist writers.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched a publishing operation from the store and called it City Lights Pocket Poets, with the first volume being his own, Pictures of the Gone World. When Ginsberg first publicly read his poem “Howl” in October 1955 (at the Six Gallery, a moment described by Kerouac in detail in Dharma Bums), Ferlinghetti was there and offered to publish it. The first edition of Howl and Other Poems was printed in 1956 and quickly sold out. The second printing, done in London in 1957, was seized by U.S. Customs officials, with the San Francisco Police arresting Ferlinghetti on charges of printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti’s defense, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, drew national attention to the San Francisco “Beat Movement” and set a First Amendment precedent, allowing for the publication of controversial work with “redeeming social importance”.
Ginsberg reading “Howl” in 1956:
Sensitive. Ingenious. Modest. Expressive. Badass. Five words to describe Ferlinghetti; he found himself at the right place at the right time, time and time again, and convinced himself and others to unapologetically speak their minds and fully express their experience of a world that no longer valued individuality or curiosity––a world gone mad.
In trying to connect to Ferlinghetti in mid-January, I learned from Doubleday Publishing, that he had recently gone deaf. I sent a host of questions to Ferlinghetti by email, through Doubleday, asking about “everything”, from the writing of Little Boy to the development of The Pocket Poet Series.
Part Two: The Questions for Lawrence
Here are the questions I sent to Ferlinghetti:
— What questions does Little Boy ask or answer for you?
— Does it put anything to rest for you?
— What came up for you in the writing about your early life and your later life that you didn’t expect?
— Is there anything you’ve left out?
— There are many parallels between Little Boy and A Coney Island of the Mind, both in tone and content. How do you see the two relate?
— Are there frameworks, forms and questions that repeat for you when you write?
— How would you define your poetry? Your prose? What is the relationship between the two for you?
— Your life has written itself, continuously and unexpectedly. How do you provide structure and form to its telling?
— Fourth person singular. You use the phrase often in “Little Boy”. It’s hypnotic and blatantly questioning. What is its affect on you? What does it mean to you?
— You’ve found yourself in the right place at the right time several times. What is that like? How do you describe that feeling?
— In five, ten or a hundred words what would you describe as the spark/gift/genius of Jack Kerouac? Allen Ginsburg? Gregory Curso? William Burroughs? Michael McClure? Kenneth Rexroth? Gary Synder?
— Who of that early group of writers doesn’t get the credit they are due?
— You seem to have modeled the City Lights Pocket Poets series on the affordable Livres des Poches paperbacks you saw while at the Sorbonne after the war. You were there when existentialism ruled the city of Paris. Did any of that existential spirit of Paris carry over to the San Francisco Beat scene? How?
— Along with Kenneth Patchen, you led the way toward the performance of poetry with musical accompaniment. What inspired you to first get up there on stage with a jazz band behind you?
— In Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, you and Michael McClure set the rambunctious tone for the evening with your poems. Was it Bob Dylan’s idea to have poets like you and McClure, who had influenced him, perform on that stage that night?
Yes, this is a lot to ask of a 100-year old man. I wanted Ferlinghetti to answer a few of those in his rapid-fire way, hoping we’d all get an insight to his life and his work––and that it would all appear on PKM. It turns out that a mischievous demon had other plans. After four months of follow-up and waiting, an email arrived in mid-May, reading: “Unfortunately Lawrence’s press schedule is full and he’s not able to move forward with your request. I’m so sorry not to be writing with better news.”
A “Dear John/Dear PKM” letter? After four months? Like PKM is not good enough? Like my cover-torn A Coney Island of the Mind means nothing? You must be kidding. That’s not how things work.
Part Three: Sterling’s Answers
I had to find another way into Little Boy. All roads in led me back to his long-time agent Sterling Lord. You ever reach out to an active 99-year old literary agent by cell phone? It’s not an easy, always-works connection. When I reached out last winter, Lord was “on it”, delighted to hear about PKM and what we do. He put me in touch with Doubleday, connected me with his agency’s staff and made me feel like I was doing important, honorable research.
Lord is a saint; a prince of letters; a publishing savant; the man Jack Kerouac entrusted his scroll to [Editor’s note: Kerouac’s scroll is the 120-foot roll of taped-together tracing paper sheets on which he originally typed out On The Road]. Lord was also the long-time literary agent of novelist Ken Kesey, crime writer Dick Francis, political journalist and espionage insider David Wise, sportswriter Jimmy Breslin, and Spartacus creator Howard Fast. When I caught up with him last month, I once again found Lord eager to talk, although I had to remind him who I was, what PKM is and why I had interest in Ferlinghetti. He wanted to see “the magazine”. I suggested we meet in person and soon I was walking into a luxury senior living tower in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City, carrying a 20th anniversary edition of Please Kill Me.
Lord came down to the lobby attended by a nurse, sporting a padded walker. He wasn’t pushing the walker as much a gliding behind it, and the walker itself looked like it was meant to go fast––be climbed on––and do more than merely steady its owner. At 99, Lord is a far from “old”, and anything but “weak”. There’s an intense vitality in his blue eyes. When he leaned towards me as we shook hands, he suggested boldly, “Let’s go find a quiet room”, as if we were about to be co-conspirators in a casino heist. Lord was office-dapper, dressed in a dark grey tweed blazer over a light grey sweater that had a bright long sleeve blue polo peeking out. It was clear he was ready to work, eager to talk, and everyone that appeared around him set off to make sure we had a place to ourselves where we would not be disturbed.
We set off to talk specifically about Little Boy, but I couldn’t help but start by asking about Jack Kerouac. That was a good thing. Our talk turned into an almost two-hour conversation, focused mostly on Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Kesey, and edited here for clarity.
PKM: What was your relationship like with Kerouac?
Sterling Lord: In the first couple of months of our relationship I went out to Northport, to the place he had on Long Island, and he took me out behind his house to his backyard where he had a basketball backboard against the garage. I had been a nationally ranked tennis player, but he didn’t think that was sport. He knew something about tennis and he’d been working all week to set up a basketball game that scored like tennis. We played his game and I beat him; I beat the hell out of him. Years later, the last time I saw him before he died, he was in my office a little bit tipsy and he kept saying, “Sterling, I still can’t see how you did it.” He just continued to think of me as a buttoned-down guy sitting at an office desk. I was kind with Jack; he was good to me and I liked Jack. It was a good relationship.
PKM: How did Jack approach you with the scroll?
Sterling Lord: I hadn’t known Jack before On The Road. In fact, I hadn’t even met Bob Giroux, who was already a legendary editor and publisher, but Bob called me one day––don’t forget there was nobody in New York like me, interested in sports and who had writers who wrote about what were then considered “uncommon” things––and he said, “Sterling, look, I hear you’ve got a guy named Ralph Martin who’s got an interesting book project. I’d like to meet you and talk about it.”
I’ll give you the end of the story: Bob had just been reunited with Jack and he knew Jack needed somebody like me. That’s how I got Jack. Bob said, “Now, Sterling, the only thing is, there’s a problem here. The whole of his autobiography is in a scroll and you’ll have to deal with it.” I said, “Well, okay.” But by the time Jack got to me, he’d taken it out of the scroll. I got it in standard form, typed-up.
PKM: As pages?
Sterling Lord: Yes. That’s the way it came in. I gave it to a very literate woman to read and she hesitated. Then, I started reading it. I didn’t know whether it would sell or not, but I knew it was something that should be published. That’s how it started.
PKM: Did Jack call it On the Road when he came to you? What was his title?
Sterling Lord: Beat Generation was his title. The “new” title happened at Viking Press, after they took it on; it didn’t have a title when they agreed to buy it. I’m trying to remember how Viking got to the On the Road title, but I always thought Beat Generation would limit the whole thing.
Jack had a wonderful copy editor there at Viking. She was a musician and had a nice feeling for Jack’s work. She made some changes and that blustered up Jack. He wanted to have a stop sign after that. Jack vowed that he’d never allow that to happen again, and I put a stop sign in all his subsequent contracts––you can’t change a word. Of course, by that time Jack had a reputation and they’d do anything I asked.
PKM: That’s a great agent.
Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show in 1959:
Sterling Lord: There are people I represented that it was a real pleasure to work with; Jack’s one of them.
PKM: Before he brought you that book, did you know of Jack?
Sterling Lord: No, not at all. I hadn’t spoken to him. He just came in with what he had and left. It was a little more than that, but not much.
PKM: You stayed his agent to the end?
Sterling Lord: Yes, I was the only agent Jack ever had.
PKM: What was a day like with Jack before his fame?
Sterling Lord: Before his fame? Let me think. Well, when he would come in town, he would stay with a woman. Was it Joyce Johnson? No, it wasn’t Joyce Johnson. But whoever it was, she was a pal; I’m sure he wasn’t in love with her. When the news broke that the book was hot, I knew right away where to go and get him. He was at this girl’s house; the girl who I first met when she was still on a bed that Jack had just left. I don’t know who that was. I’ll have to work on that.
In those days, I would go out with a friend of mine and we would pick up Jack and drink a little bit. One night, the other guy was dropped off to go home. I stayed with Jack a little bit––he had been drinking a lot––I never drank that much. That night, about 15 minutes after I left him, some kids beat him up. It was some place downtown, in Greenwich Village. That alerted me that I had better try to take a little better care of him.
PKM: What was he like after his fame?
Sterling Lord: He stayed closer to his family, mother, wife and so forth. When I went down to Florida to be with him, a few times, and it’s there I saw him a little bit more in the family picture than he had ever been before.
PKM: What was Jack’s real genius?
Sterling Lord: His real genius? [Pause.] It was being Jack. [Chuckles.]
PKM: Somebody might look at a scene and tell a story about it in their way. Jack might look at a scene and tell it his way. What would you expect to find in Jack’s way of the story?
Sterling Lord: Jack spent some time with a kid that did a lot of movies. It wasn’t that that guy was a movie star or anything; he just was part of the group. I think Jack saw things the way they show it to you in the movies. Also, Jack got to know a number of independent, or wild, people. Out of that, he forged a personality for himself. I didn’t think he knew what he was doing, but he handled himself pretty well most of the time.
PKM: That’s my last Jack question: How did you meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti?
Sterling Lord: Well, I met Ferlinghetti because of Jack. The first time I went out to San Francisco after I’d been around representing Jack, he said, “You got to look up Ferlinghetti out there. He’s your kind of guy.” Apparently, Jack said the same thing to Ferlinghetti about me. That’s how we met. We’ve been working together ever since.
PKM: Were you Ferlinghetti’s agent for A Coney Island of the Mind?
Sterling Lord: No.
PKM: He sold that himself?
Sterling Lord: Yes. Poets then weren’t looking for representation. I don’t think, at that time, when I met him, Lawrence had gotten to the point of being all that interested in his print presentation. But that’s a changing thing. That book sold a million copies at least.
PKM: What was your role in bringing Little Boy together?
Sterling Lord: It was my idea.
PKM: How did you suggest it to Lawrence?
Sterling Lord: He’d been working on it all along. It was in his head mostly, but then he started writing it up. He kept telling me, “Put it away. That’s not going to sell.” I kept opening it up. I knew there was something there. I had it on the shelf for about a year when Ferlinghetti called me to say, “Sterling, I think we ought to put that thing permanently away.” I told him, “Lawrence, I want to get that book out and I’m going to sell it, believe you me.”
PKM: What was it that made you say, “I can sell this”?
Sterling Lord: The originality; it’s consistent throughout. The fact is it’s an honest autobiography. Despite that, Lawrence doesn’t say, “This is my story”. He doesn’t insist on this is this and that is that. The style is different––it’s fluid, in terms of time, place and perspective.
PKM: It reads like it’s almost one long sentence.
Sterling Lord: [Excitedly] Yes. Yes.
PKM: Lawrence uses the phrase “fourth person plural” often. What do you know about that phrase? It’s hypnotic, the way he uses it.
Sterling Lord: It is. You just know something’s happening there when you read it. We don’t know exactly what “that” is. Perhaps that’s what we’re meant to question.
PKM: Lawrence is constantly questioning. He questions the structures of American society in A Coney Island of the Mind. He’s still questioning things in Little Boy. He’s asking: Why is all of this going on now? What’s my role in it? And he’s asking the “big” questions we all have: Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? What does this all mean? He’s still asking those questions at 100.
Sterling Lord: Yes, he’s been asking those questions all his life. He’s a hell of a man.
PKM: What attracted you to Lawrence’s personality and his work?
Sterling Lord: As I said, Jack introduced me. I didn’t know much about Lawrence and I didn’t spend that much time with him at first. After a while, though, I was eating with him every time he came to New York or when I went out to the West Coast––every time.
He’s an original. He’s not the only guy who gets up every morning and takes a shower first, but the way he does it is all his own. One of the things I’ll never forget was the time I went to some hole here in New York, and he was reading his own poetry on the stage. There’s nothing like that––nothing to compare that to in my mind––it was extraordinary; simply powerful.
PKM: What do you believe Lawrence has been asking us collectively to consider, or reflect on, through his writing?
Sterling Lord: He’s got an interesting view of life that’s different than most. The only way I can get to it, I think, is: he doesn’t care. That’s the difference: life doesn’t bind Ferlinghetti to anything; he goes on living his regular life, whatever comes. He’s made a place for himself apart from a number of influences. He’s very private.
PKM: That’s funny. You describe Jack as having that same aptitude––being able to synthesize the experiences of other people while maintaining his own experience.
Sterling Lord: I think so. I think so. I haven’t thought of it until now, but, yes, that’s what they do. It’s a quality they both have.
PKM: What do you think allows Lawrence to do that? To get involved with other people without taking on their stuff?
Sterling: I remember once, he was visiting here, and he came into the office and started talking about something that I’d never heard about, that I didn’t know about or hadn’t asked him to do. All of a sudden, here’s this guy expounding on something that’s new; that’s news to me. He’s a spellbinder, I think. He’s carved out his own life on a minuscule and maximal point of view. Doing that keeps him sane, true to himself. By god, not many people make it to 100. [Lord is just seven months younger than Ferlinghetti.]
PKM: Is there anything else you admire about Lawrence?
Sterling Lord: There is a thing you should know, although it’s a little bit of a story. Do you know who Don Budge was? The tennis player? He was the first man to play all four major tennis championships and win them in one year, in 1938. Don Budge was a good friend of mine. I’d been in New York about two years, and I got a call from an Iowa friend who says, “Sterling, my son Eddie is coming to New York next week. Could you make a tennis match for him?” You don’t turn those things down and I found myself on the court playing with Eddie, who’s about 14 or 15. And guess who was playing next door?
PKM: Mr. Budge.
Sterling Lord: That’s right, the great tennis player and somebody else. We go down to the locker room at the same time. Once we’re there, I walk up to Don, and I say, “Don, I’d like you to meet my friend Eddie Brody from Des Moines, Iowa.” Don goes over and said, “Eddie, I was watching you play. You hit a beautiful forehand. You’ve got a good shot.” Now, Eddie will remember that for the rest of his life. That’s the kind of generosity that you can’t re-pay.
Not everybody has it, but Lawrence has it. He gave Jack Kerouac a month’s time in one of his cabins on the water. He didn’t ask for anything back.
PKM: Did that become Big Sur?
Sterling Lord: Yes, it did. Showing that sort of kindness––as Don did to Eddie, as Lawrence did to Jack––to me those are the extraordinary things one has to do to make a difference for others.
Kesey was like that, too. Ken had that thing, of helping somebody else even though he was the top guy in the world. I’d been representing Ken about nine years and hadn’t met him. I went out there to the farm [Pleasant Hill, Oregon] and he was with Babbs [author and fellow Merry Prankster Ken Babbs]. They were cutting and pasting a film. Ken took off every day, three days in a row, to take me around the countryside. Each day was prettier than the last. Ken showed me everything in town, everything about that was happening in the lumber business. There was so much going on for him, but yet he just threw everything down to take me around.
PKM: You were representing him and you’d never met him?
Sterling Lord: That’s correct. I first got him when he and Faye were having trouble understanding the material in a series of royalty reports. It was basic stuff and I worked through it all with them and Viking; that’s how I got started with him. My fee was only 5%, but I didn’t care; it put me in cahoots with one of the greats.
You know, I can’t give you everything here today. I want to write another book and there’s already a writer I work with who’s writing a book on Kesey––and he’s been at it for six or seven years.
PKM: That’s okay. I appreciate the time you’ve given me. One more Jack question though. The scroll itself, you had it for years, right? Did you read On The Road from that?
Sterling Lord: Just a little. I undid the first bit of it, but not the whole thing.
PKM: Did you sell it?
Sterling Lord: No. I didn’t sell it. It was never mine. I just had the keeping of it.
PKM: How did you keep it?
Sterling Lord: In the safe in my office. I never made a move to get the ownership. I probably should have, but I was happy with my relationship and so forth. Jack’s estate owned it.
Interviewer: Jack’s family owned the scroll?
Sterling Lord: The estate owned it. The estate was another family. They didn’t have any of the kind of closeness and respect for Jack that I did.
PKM: It sold for a large number.
Sterling Lord: It sold to a guy who owns a pro-football team [Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who paid $2.45 million for it in 2001]. People ask me about that, and I say, “He’s looking for entertainment at halftime.”
PKM: That’s great. Thank you. Again, I appreciate all your time.
Sterling Lord: You’re welcome. I can’t wait to see the results.
Editor’s postscript: Benito sent this to Sterling, who called him back on a Saturday night just after 10 p.m. Sterling said he had edits. Benito stopped breathing but got ready to take notes. Sterling changed one word and added two, and asked when he’d be able to see it in print. He’s reading this now.