Jerry Kamstra reviews One and Only
ONE AND ONLY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ON THE ROAD By Gerald Nicosia with Anne Marie Santos
242 pages – Viva Editions -- $22.95
Reviewed by Jerry Kamstra
The eminent Beat historian, Gerald Nicosia, has been on a mission for the last several years in illuminating and even protecting the reputations of the feminine half of the Beat Generation. This he has done in Jan Kerouac: A Life In Memory, the tragic tale of Jack Kerouac’s only daughter, and now in One And Only, the story of Lu Anne Henderson, Neal Cassady’s first wife.
Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady did not drive down that highway called On The Road alone; they had a 16-year-old girl with them, Lu Anne Henderson, just married to Neal, and on the way to Kansas City and New York City and Denver and San Francisco--this the first manifestation of the journey so many of us would take later, on the road looking for that promised land, the land beyond the rainbow.
Overall, the women of the Beat Generation have not been treated kindly: abandoned, divorced, beaten, slapped, hit, shot at (and killed), run-away-from, left, roped in, tied down, unfree, sexually frustrated. These are not the signs of well-postured partnerships. But you’re in a ’48 Hudson travelling up from New Orleans on the way to the coast, it’s hot outside and you’re nude in the front seat, Kerouac on the right and Neal on the left, with Lu Anne in the middle holding both joysticks, heading for history just a few more miles down the road.
Of all the myths surrounding the Beat Generation women, none is more poignnent than that of Lu Anne. Portrayed in many of the memoirs and biographies of Kerouac as a teenage slut, in One and Only we see her as a sensitive and caring person with an acute sense of her own place in the pantheon, a sixteen-year-old girl who loved both men and in so doing brought them closer together, in that way contributing to the birth of the Beat Generation. As Nicosia says, “Although she had little formal education, she had a profound understanding of people.”
It may be presumptuous to proclaim that it was a 16-year-old girl from Denver who linked together the two forces that were the yin and yang of the Beat Generation; but it was Lu Anne who swept Neal Cassady off his feet, and despite being abandoned several times, was always able to reel him back. “You are my one and only wife,” he says in a letter to her. But her only 16, what did she know about the forthcoming birth of the Beat Generation, of which she was one of the seeds, germinating on the road, fecundating in New York City in the mid 40’s, resuscitating and reviving and loving her Tom Mix hero, holding on wildly to the back of the stallion, reaping woes in the saddle, hauling ass to the graveyard? “You are my one and only,” he says to her, and she says of him: “His weaknesses were all of our weaknesses, only magnified.”
She was only 15 when she married Neal, and she married him to get away from her stepfather, who was already shooting pinup photos of her and begining to lust after her. Accompanied by Neal to her uncle’s house where they stole the uncle’s car, they then went on to steal three hundred dollars from her employer’s dresser drawer; and they were off and running on the road heading for New York City, him 20, her 16, but with an ability to match him caper for caper, save for the fact that “he could hurt (you) so damn bad and not be aware of it,” as she puts it in an interview in Nicosia’s book.
It was a rocky hard road the early Beat femme fatales rode down, back and forth across America in a journey destined to become the most famous (and famously followed) trip in America, and eventually the whole world. One weeps over the travails of the beatnik babes, those feminine lovelies who not only lightened the lives of the iconic heros, but made most of the decisions that allowed them to survive to their 40’s rather than die in their 20’s. Still, they all died too early, swept off the stage of history by history itself, half a dozen guys who changed literature in America, along with four or five femmes fatales.
In these memoirs taped and transcribed by Nicosia, Lu Anne is sharp, expressive and a good rememberer. Like Kerouac, she is able to reconstruct the details and gives a pretty clear picture of the times. What is apparent in these memoirs however, is the fact that the boys come off looking not too good, self-absorbed to a great extent, and when not self-absorbed, busy thinking only of themselves. When she and Kerouac are abandoned by Cassady in San Francisco after one of their cross-country journeys, Kerouac spends the whole night they are together weeping in her arms. She is 18. He is 26.
One loves these women as one gets to know them, and wishes somehow one had been a lover of each one, in order to treat them better, to love them more. But Kerouac himself saw it was too late for that. In one of the vignettes in these pages, after recalling how he and Lu Anne used to look up in the heavens at all the images forming there in the clouds, and point out to one another each different image they saw—a game they often played together—he turns to her and says, “I don’t see anything in the clouds anymore.”
Considered to be among the original Beat writers himself, poet and memoirist Jerry Kamstra is the author of The Frisco Kid and Weed: Adventures of a Dope Smuggler.