Lit Nerd Wednesday!
Columbia University, besides being outrageously expensive and eminent domainy, played a key role in one of the biggest literary movements of the 20th century and one of its most shocking episodes even after 70 years. When talking about the poets and writers who would reluctantly be labeled “Beats,” one doesn’t normally associate murder drama splashed across the front pages, but in the summer of 1944 that’s precisely what happened only a few blocks from this campus.
William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac all met at or near Columbia in the early 1940s. Each came to do their own thing unassociated with writing – Kerouac to enroll on a football scholarship, Ginsberg to become a lawyer and Burroughs to soak up the NYC seediness of Times Square while living off his inheritance (he was related to the inventor of the Burroughs adding machine). In time they’d abandon these goals and gravitate to the enigmatic Arthur Rimbaud-like Lucien Carr, the glue that brought them together while bringing them chaos.
Born in New York, Carr spent his childhood in St. Louis where he eventually met Burroughs and his friend David Kammerer, an English and gym teacher who became infatuated with Carr. As the troubled teen bounced from school to school and came east, Kammerer followed, picking up odd jobs along the way. Carr eventually landed at Columbia, where he had a chance meeting with Ginsberg who heard the sound of Brahms blaring from Carr’s dorm room. Ginsberg was then introduced to Burroughs, who then brought around Kerouac, whose girlfriend Edie was a friend of Carr’s.
There’s been debate for decades about the relationship between Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. Those who knew both insisted Carr never fed into or reciprocated Kammerer’s advances, but there were also suggestions Carr toyed with him and loved the attention. Whatever the truth was, what’s known is that the tension came to a head in August 1944 when, after an unsuccessful attempt to stow away and travel to France, Carr and Kerouac spent the day drinking at The West End Bar at 2911 Broadway near 114th Street (now Havana Central). Kerouac left him about midnight and, while walking through campus, ran into Kammerer, who asked his usual “Where’s Lucien?” Kerouac pointed him to the West End and, as he writes in Vanity of Duluoz, “watched him rush off to his death.”
After a heated talk at the bar, Carr and Kammerer went to Riverside Park to cool off near the Hudson. From here it’s anyone’s guess what happened, but according to Carr’s account to police, Kammerer threatened to kill his girlfriend and lunged at him. In self-defense, Carr stabbed him twice in the heart with his boy scout knife, and just when you thought it couldn’t get more bizarre and disturbing, bound his limbs with shoelaces, weighed his body with rocks and dumped him in the river — Kammerer’s body would be discovered a few days later. The next morning, Carr woke Kerouac saying, “Well, I disposed of the old man last night.”
A day later Carr turned himself in claiming self-defense and served only 18 months at Elmira Reformatory. The murder would stay with the Beats for the rest of their days – a year later, Burroughs and Kerouac jointly wrote a hard-boiled retelling of the story, And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. In the late 60s Kerouac would write about the story again in graphic detail in The Vanity of Duloz. Ginsberg took a shot at it in The Bloodsong but was talked out of pursuing it by a Columbia professor for fear of bad press for the University. For decades the murder and Lucien Carr have been almost a footnote to the history of the Beat Generation, only in recent years getting a second look.
What: Columbia University, The West End Bar, Riverside Park
Who: William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, David Kammerer
Where: 116th Street & Broadway, 2911 Broadway near 114th Street, Riverside Drive & 115th Street