A trip back: Kerouac in Northport

Interest in Jack Kerouac has always been high

Interest in Jack Kerouac has always been high in Northport, where the writer lived for six years. Photo Credit: Handout

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Almost 55 years ago, the man dubbed King of the Beats, the writer who created one of the most iconic works of 20th-century literature, stumbled down Northport's Main Street in his slippers.

Jack Kerouac was already famous at age 36 when he moved to Long Island in the spring of 1958. His book "On the Road" -- a slightly fictionalized account of his cross-country journeys with friends in the late 1940s — had been published the previous year.

Kerouac used earnings from the book to purchase his first house in Northport, a wood-framed Victorian on Gilbert Street that he shared with his mother, Gabrielle. They moved there in March 1958 and stayed in Northport for six years, moving twice during that time.

Yet, as adulation grew for the novel and the writer who supposedly defined the free-spirited, anything-goes "Beat" movement in America, Kerouac was spiraling down into the cauldron of alcohol abuse that would eventually kill him.

"In 1958, Northport is not a cutesy little village like it is today," said resident Dan Sheehan, who leads periodic Kerouac walking tours for the Northport Historical Society. "This wasn't the Gold Coast."

And by that time, Kerouac wasn't the same young man who penned his seminal novel. The older Kerouac was a tragic figure. With the release of the film version of "On The Road," due Dec. 21 in select cities, the spotlight will again be turned on the man who originally came to Long Island to escape unwanted and unexpected fame.

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But how do Northport's current residents feel about the controversial, iconic novelist and poet — Kerouac died in 1969 at age 47 from internal bleeding — who once traversed their neighborhood? How do they remember him?

Suffolk County poet laureate George Wallace believes his legacy is powerful, if not easily discerned.

"When [Kerouac] came here, Northport was still a rough and tumble village in a lot of ways," said the laureate, who has written and lectured extensively on Kerouac's time in Northport. "It reminded him of Lowell," added Wallace, referring to the mill city in Massachusetts where Kerouac grew up during the Depression, the surviving son in a struggling French Canadian family.

There are other indicators that Kerouac has not been forgotten in the years since: At the Northport Historical Society and the local library, requests and calls for information about Kerouac's time in Northport are a fairly steady occurrence.

"Interest [in Kerouac] is quite alive," said Barbara Johnson, the local history librarian for the Northport-East Northport Public Library, which has an extensive collection of Kerouac materials, including an original manuscript of his first book, "The Town and the City." She also noted that his books circulate regularly, especially with younger readers. "It's often the young that find him appealing."

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The Northport Historical Society is planning another of its periodic salutes to Kerouac in March (the 55th anniversary of his arrival in the village). Sheehan said that when the theme is Kerouac, he'll get 50 participants for a historic walk — about five times the number of people who normally show up.

Kerouac still seems to be a tourist magnet, one likely to become even more powerful once the movie premieres this month. The film, with Francis Ford Coppola as an executive producer and Walter Salles as director, opens first in New York and Los Angeles and will be released in suburban theaters in January.


Escape from trouble

Like the town Kerouac spent part of his childhood in, Northport had a trolley track running down the middle of the street.

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There may have been darker reasons behind Kerouac's move to the village besides escaping from fame. A few months earlier, he had been in a nasty bar fight in Greenwich Village that left him hospitalized. In Northport, Wallace said, "he could be far enough away from trouble in New York but still get into the city when he wanted."

Kerouac's closest buddy in Northport was artist Stanley Twardowicz. The two spent boisterous days and nights in the painter's Main Street studio. A young architect named Larry Smith was also part of the inner circle.

"He was basically a shy person, until he got lubricated with alcohol," recalled Smith, now 82 and still a Northport resident.

Smith said Kerouac and he often met at the softball field near his home for catch or to participate in pickup games. The writer — a football star in high school who went to Columbia on a football scholarship — was now paunchy and slow. "I know it ate at him that he was no longer in good shape," Smith said.

His nightly sojourns into the village to pound down boilermakers at Murphy's or Gunther's didn't help (ironically, the man who wrote "On the Road" did not own a car in Northport). Arlene Handel, later the deputy mayor of Northport, remembers going to Murphy's bar with her parents as a young woman. She recalls "a dark figure hunched in the back of the bar, just drinking, not talking. There were many serious drinkers in Murphy's, but for some reason that solitary figure stood out. The image is still in mind."

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Only later did she learn that it was Kerouac.

Still, the brooding, dissipated writer was not the Kerouac everyone knew.

"He was charming, a likable guy," said Smith, whose fondest memories of his old friend are of sitting on a porch at Smith's brother's house, overlooking Northport Harbor, talking about sports, their travels, their time at sea (Smith had been in the Navy, Kerouac in the Merchant Marine).

"That's when I liked to be with him," Smith said. "When he didn't have to perform, or be the guy everyone expected him to be."

Those expectations may have hit their peak in 1964 when Neal Cassady blew into town. Cassady — the inspiration for Neil Moriarty, the frenetic protagonist of "On the Road" -- had moved on to a new scene. He had just driven across the United States with a successful, young writer named Ken Kesey — author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- in a school bus festooned in colors that would soon become known as "psychedelic."

Cassady was dispatched to Northport to bring Kerouac back for a meeting in Manhattan between the King of the Beats and the leader of the new literary hipsters.

According to various accounts, Kerouac was in Gunther's when Cassady drove down Main Street in the bus, screeched into a parking lot opposite the bar, left the engine running and dragged his old running buddy out.

But the much-anticipated get-together in the city ended acrimoniously. Kerouac took umbrage when Kesey and his friends, who called themselves The Merry Pranksters, draped him in an American flag. He stormed out of the party, a symbolic break between himself and what he saw as the increasing radicalization of his former crowd.

Despite what was seen by many in the village as his eccentric, even degenerate behavior — walking the streets in slippers, hanging out with local teenagers, passing out in the woods — Kerouac apparently felt content in Northport.

But when his sister became ill in Florida, his mother wanted to be closer to her. In August 1964, after a raucous farewell party — tape-recorded by Smith and later turned into a play, "Jack's Last Call: Say Goodbye to Kerouac," by Patrick Fenton — mother and son headed south. Once there, his decline accelerated.

"He got so self-destructive with drinking," said Smith, who stayed in touch with Kerouac. "I don't believe he connected with or made any good friends in Florida."

Kerouac died in Florida five years after arriving there. Though some biographers have dismissed his period in Northport as an extended bender, Wallace disagrees.

"That's an oversimplification that's been handed to us," he noted, pointing out that during his time on Long Island, Kerouac began work on "Big Sur," still considered one of his best books, and co-wrote the short film "Pull My Daisy."

And there are yet more traces of him in Northport. There's a semiannual softball game in his honor. And at Gunther's, his old drinking spot, an eerie image greets the visitor looking in the east front window: It's a full-size poster of Kerouac staring back through the glass.

"It's not the particular things he did while he was here that added value to the Northport community," Wallace said. "It's the recognition that a person of his stature and a person of his aesthetic influence was part of this community, which adds to the fabric of Northport. And this is recent enough history that people can relate to it. When you walk down the same street as Jack walked down, it's not just another street."


Film portrays young writer

When Jerry Cimino, founder of The Beat Museum in San Francisco, met Sam Riley, the actor who plays Jack Kerouac in the new film version of "On the Road," he was skeptical about the young English actor's ability to play the man whose book is in many ways a heartfelt love letter to America.

"We're having drinks, and [Riley] is saying 'bloke' and 'mate,' and I'm thinking, 'This guy doesn't sound like Jack Kerouac,' " Cimino recalled. But director Walter Salles, who had done research for the film at The Beat Museum, reassured him. "Walter said, 'Don't worry, he's got a good American accent when he needs to use it.' "

When he saw the preview, Cimino said he was amazed by Riley's performance. "He does a great job. It's a tremendous portrayal."

It's also a depiction of the writer in his late 20s, when Kerouac was still young, fit and ambitious; a far cry from the way he appeared and acted a decade later, when he moved to Long Island. "This is absolutely not the Northport Kerouac," Cimino noted. "By that time, Jack was in the bottle."

Viewers not familiar with the book may be surprised to find that Riley, whose previous films include "Control," "Brighton Rock" and "13," is not the star. In fact, he spends much of the film observing and listening, offering his thoughts in voiced narration taken verbatim from the novel. "He's not the hero of the film, because he's not the hero of the book," Cimino said with a laugh.

He added that he has already seen an uptick in attendance at his museum, mostly visitors from Europe, where the film has already opened. He hopes that if nothing else, the American release will spark new interest in Kerouac and his books, especially among younger people.

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