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"A Beat Live Affair in Letters."

Writer Joyce Johnson, talks about her relationship to Beat icon Jack Kerouac, and her new book, “Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in letters” (Viking). In 1957, Johnson started a relationship with the then little-known writer Kerouac. 9 months later, Kerouac’s Beat classic “On the Road” was published. Johnson will talk about her two-year, tumultuous love affair with Kerouac, how the publication of “On the Road” changed Kerouac, and she’ll talk about what it was like being young and female and part of the Manhattan bohemian scene. “Door Wide Open” contains many letters sent to Johnson by Kerouac. In addition to “Doors Wide Open,” Johnson is also the author of 3 novels, including “In the Night Café.” Her memoir “Minor Characters” won the National Book Critics Circle award, and her work has been published in major magazines including the New Yorker and Harper’s.


Other segments from the episode on July 19, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 19, 2000: Interview with Joyce Johnson; Review of the album "The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan Sessions."


DATE July 19,
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author Joyce Johnson talks about her relationship with
Beat icon Jack Kerouac, and her new book

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Writer Joyce Johnson, met Jack Kerouac in 1957 through their mutual friend
Allen Ginsberg. Johnson and Kerouac were lovers for nearly two years.
Kerouac was 35 years old and not yet famous when they met. But while they
were together, his novel "On the Road" was published and he was transformed
into the spokesperson of the Beats. Much of the time that Johnson and Kerouac
were lovers, he was traveling or living in another city while she stayed in
Manhattan. During those times, they communicated through letters. The
letters they wrote to each other are published in the new book "Door Wide
Open." Johnson was also the author of an earlier memoir called "Minor
Characters," focusing on the period when she knew Kerouac. But she couldn't
quote from his letters in that book because Kerouac's widow withheld
permission, and it wasn't until 1998 that his estate sent her copies of the
letters she had written to him. I asked Joyce Johnson who she was when she
met Kerouac.

Ms. JOYCE JOHNSON (Author): OK. I was 21 years old. I was a couple of years
out of Barnard College. I was working for a literary agency, MCA literary
agency. And I was also working on my first novel. And that's what I was

GROSS: And what about Kerouac?

Ms. JOHNSON: And Kerouac--I met him in January of 1957, and that was nine
months before the publication of "On the Road." He'd had one previous book
published, "The Town and The City," but that had been published in 1951.
And he'd had nothing published in between, even though he'd written a great
many books. He was totally broke, worn out, discouraged. It wasn't even
clear until January that Viking was indeed going to publish "On the Road"
in the fall. They'd been holding the manuscript for several years, very
nervous about putting it out because it was bound to be so controversial.

GROSS: So you weren't attracted by his celebrity, because he wasn't famous
yet. What did you find really attractive and interesting about him?

Ms. JOHNSON: He was the most unusual person I'd ever met. He had an
incredible memory, he told great stories. He'd had amazing adventures. And
he had a kind of sweetness and melancholy about him that were also very, very
appealing. And an ability to take a lot of pleasure in small, everyday
things. You know, if I made him a bowl of Lipton's pea soup, I was a great
cook. He was, you know--he totally charmed me when I met him.

GROSS: Now you met him through Allen Ginsberg...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...and shortly after you met, he was off on his travels again.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: And one of the early letters in your book is one he sent you from
Tangier, and I'd like you to read an excerpt of it.

Ms. JOHNSON: Sure.

This was in early March, 1957. He wrote it just as he was nearing the coast
of Africa. He'd been on a freighter called the SS Sylvania for about a month.

`All during the trip I ate alone at a huge, white tablecloth with one
mysterious Yugoslavian woman, Matahari. We had a dangerous storm 500 miles
out and almost foundered. In all my years as a seaman I never saw my ship
bury its nose in mountain waves and plunge up into other valleys like a
rowboat. It was awful. We had to flee south and lose a day. During this
ordeal I heard the words, "Everything is God, nothing ever happened except
God," and I believed and still do. Kierkegaard and the storm together made me
see this luminous, peaceful truth.'

GROSS: Now I found your response to his letters so interesting, because here
he is, you know, traveling around the world, having these, like, grand
adventures and you're, you know, working in New York and trying to deal with,
like, your life vs. his life and how different they seem. Read us an excerpt
of your response to him.


`I thought a lot about your letter, about your finding God in the middle of
the storm. I can't really comprehend that, I want you to know that about me.
I scramble from day to day, hour to hour, and I seldom stop to ask questions,
because when I do, I find everything in the world senseless, without reason,

and it terrifies me. I'm not defending myself, I'm simply telling you this.
I look at your way with wonder, but there's nothing I can say to you about it
except that. And in the meanwhile, I moved two miles downtown to a new job,
not too different from the old one. And you move across the ocean to another

GROSS: In a way, while he's having this big adventure, you know, going to
northern Africa, your adventure is in part being with him, and knowing him.

Ms. JOHNSON: Absolutely. That was a big adventure for me. But also my
adventure, as it turned out, was also being in New York in that whole
wonderful period and discovering all these very, very gifted people who are
all converging on downtown Manhattan: painters, poets, photographers, actors.
It was sort of an amazing scene. It was a very, very good time to be in New

GROSS: You know, although Kerouac sounds really excited and invigorated in the
first letter he sends you, his letter starts to sound more depressed not long
after that. Let me ask you to read an excerpt of this March, 1957, letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: `There are many dull expatriate characters here I try to avoid
mostly, not too many good vibrations in Tangier. And the Arabs, very
quiet, send out no vibrations at all. So I spend most of my time musing in my
room. Somehow can't write here, but anyway, that can wait. What I'm actually
doing is thinking nostalgic thoughts of Frisco. Not too interested in this
Old World scene, as though I'd seen it before plenty. Anyway, in early April,
I'm off by myself to Paris--the others can join me later to get cheap
garret--then London, Dublin, Brittany. Then I try to get job on freighter,
work my way back this summer. I just don't seem interested. Got too much to
do in America. Shouldn't have come at all, of course. So I'll likely be
seeing you in New York, in July maybe. Look forward to seeing you, lonely
here. Don't like whores anyway, and no girls speak English. Mostly fags
abound in this sinister international hive of queens. I've had everything in
the books--smoked opium, ate hashish. Don't want any of it. Just musing in
my room, lights out, face sea, moon, liquid lights of anchored ships in bay.
Good enough.'

GROSS: How did it make you feel to have him complaining about the whores?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it certainly made me feel weird. It was as though he had
forgotten that I was his girlfriend, you know, and he sounded as though he was
writing to one of his buddies. I didn't know what to make of it.

GROSS: Were you surprised that here he was in this place that he'd worked so
hard to get to and he didn't like being there, and he was saying maybe he
shouldn't have come at all, and he's telling you all these other places he's
going to go to and sounding very depressed.?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I was surprised, because he had really been looking
forward to this trip immensely and planned to spend many months in Tangier and
then spend a good part of the next year traveling in Europe. But I soon
learned that this was sort of a pattern of Jack's. You know, before he went
to a place, he would fantasize about it and think that it was going to be
wonderful and the solution to all his problems. And then he'd get there and
inevitably the bad vibrations would set in, because wherever he went, he took
his troubles with him. And I think by that time in his life there was no
place in the world where he could really be happy or comfortable. It wouldn't
work for him.

GROSS: In the letters, he always seems to want to be in the place that he

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right. To see something new and strange.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Wondering how that affected you. For instance, I mean, he'd
invite you to come and be with him in San Francisco and then he'd write and
tell you he was leaving for Mexico. He'd invite you to Mexico and then he'd
decide, no, no, no, he had to go to New York. And so you were always having
to change your plans.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it certainly complicated my life immensely, and it was
very disappointing 'cause I wanted so much to travel myself and I also, you
know, had to take steps in order to prepare myself to travel, such as giving
up my job or saving money or giving up my apartment. So I had a very rather
complicated summer, the summer of 1957, when I was thinking, first, that I
would join Jack in San Francisco, and then later in Mexico City. I was
particularly disappointed about not going to Mexico City. I began to realize
that this was Jack, this was the way he was. It was almost impossible for him
to make a plan and stick to it.

GROSS: So you never met up with him in San Francisco or Mexico, but...


GROSS: the spring of '57, he did come and stay with you in New York for
a few days. And I'm going to ask you to read a letter that you wrote to him a
couple of months after that. This is July of 1957. Set up this letter and
then read us an excerpt.

Ms. JOHNSON: This letter was written to Jack after he had left San
Francisco, gone to Orlando, Florida, with his mother, and then was preparing
to go to Mexico City, and he invited me to meet him in Mexico City.

`I remember walking with you at night through the Brooklyn docks and seeing
the white steam rising from the ships against the black sky, and how beautiful
it was. And I'd never seen it before, imagine. But if I'd walked through it
with anyone else, I wouldn't have seen it either because I wouldn't have felt
safe in what my mother would categorically call a bad neighborhood. I
would've been thinking, `Where's the subway?' and missed everything. But with
you, I felt as though nothing could touch me, and if anything happened, the
hell with it. You don't know what narrow lives girls have, how few real
adventures there are for them. Misadventures, yes, like abortions, and little
men following them in subways. But seldom anything like seeing ships at
night, so that's why we've all taken off like this. And that's also part of
why I love you. Take care.'

GROSS: Did Jack Kerouac understand your thoughts about how few adventures
girls could have? I mean, did he comprehend the difference in gender?

Ms. JOHNSON: He did. He did. And one thing that was very important to me
about our relationship was that he was very encouraging to me about my
writing. And he often told me that in order to be a really important writer,
I would have to really expand my experience. And he would counsel me to give
up my job and take to the road like he did, which, of course, was impossible
for me to do. The idea that I was going to go to Mexico City to meet him, for
example, was supposed to be a kind of educational experience for me. That's
how he referred to it. So he did have some notion of it, but I think he also
didn't understand that a young girl like me couldn't just take to the road by
herself. That sort of eluded him.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, he was in Mexico hoping that you'd come visit him
there, and I'm going to ask you to read a letter about that. And this is
shortly after a big earthquake in Mexico. Was he directly affected by the

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. He was there when it happened, although the hotel where
he was staying wasn't harmed, but he was terrified by it. It was a huge
earthquake that really devastated Mexico City.

GROSS: And this is late July of 1957. This is an excerpt from a letter by
Jack Kerouac to my guest, Joyce Johnson.

Ms. JOHNSON: `At first I thought I wanted to be alone and stare at the walls.
But now I realize that after the earthquake, no one can be alone. Even one's
own body is not alone. It is a vast aggregate of smaller, living units. It
is a phantom universe in itself. And maybe I've come to realize this now
because in this altitude--8,000 feet--I don't get drunk, and I'm not taking
drugs anymore. My connections are dead. And I just stare healthily at the
interesting world. Come on, we'll be two young American writers on a famous
lark that will be mentioned in our biographies. Write soon as you can, this
address. I'll be waiting for your answer.'

GROSS: You must've been happy to get that letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, I was thrilled to get that letter. And I immediately gave
up my job and bought a ticket on TWA, which I never used.

GROSS: And--why?

Ms. JOHNSON: Why? Because the next I heard from Jack, he had gotten the
Asiatic flu in Mexico City and was going back to Orlando, Florida. And from
there, he planned to come to New York in time for the publication of "On the
Road." He thought it might be kind of interesting to be around for it.

GROSS: And he was...

Ms. JOHNSON: He had absolutely no notion of what awaited him.

GROSS: Right. Well, he was around for it. In fact, he was staying with you
at your apartment...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...the day that famous review by Gilber Wilstein(ph) came out in The
New York Times. Would you describe what it was like to go with him at
midnight to the newsstand and pick up this review that basically made him a
star overnight?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it was nothing that Jack was prepared for. I mean, he
could barely sort of take it in. You know, it compared him and his importance
to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wilstein said what Fitzgerald was to the lost
generation, Kerouac would be to the Beat generation. And he made him the
spokesman for a whole generation. He kept reading it and sort shaking his
head and saying, `Well, I think it's pretty good. What do you think?' I'd
say, `Yeah, it's really good.' And then the next day, the phone started
ringing and never stopped.

GROSS: Not all the reviews were positive, like Truman Capote...

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, definitely.

GROSS: Yeah. Describe some of the bad reviews.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I would say, by and large, reviews "On the Road" got were
hostile, humiliating; very insulting things were said about "On the Road."
For example, Truman Capote said, `This isn't writing, this is typing.' I
mean, I can't think of any American writer who endured such consistent abuse
from critics and reviewers all through his career. And it was very, very
devastating for him.

GROSS: How did he take the bad reviews?

Ms. JOHNSON: They made him very depressed. Of course, he had a tendency to
be depressed. And the only way he seemed to be able to get himself through
this period was to step up his drinking, which was already pretty heavy.

GROSS: My guest is Joyce Johnson. Her new book is called "Door Wide Open."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Joyce Johnson. Her new book collects the letters
she and Jack Kerouac wrote to each other. When we left off, we were talking
about "On the Road" and the rave review in The New York Times.

Soon after that review in The New York Times, he left New York. And soon
after he left, you wrote a letter to your friend Elise(ph). And I'd like you
to excerpt that letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: `I dig ironing his shirts, cooking for him, etc. It's funny,
it's not at all romantic anymore, but it doesn't matter. I love him. Don't
mind playing Mama, since that's what he seems he wants me to be. I may go
down to see him in Orlando. I've gotten kind of a left-handed, backwards
invitation. His mother seems to want me to come. There's no doubt in my
mind anymore that Mama is the villain in the true classic Freudian sense.'

GROSS: Now when you said it's not that romantic anymore, what did you mean?

Ms. JOHNSON: I found myself in the position of almost having to take care of
Jack, to kind of get him through this whole experience that he was coping with
so badly. And it was a very unfamiliar role for me. I was only 21. But I
thought, you know, he would get through the difficulties of this period and
come out of it, but that's really not what happened.

GROSS: How did you feel being in this really unconventional relationship, yet
expected to do very conventional things for Kerouac, like cooking and ironing
and taking him home when he got too drunk?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, you know, everything seemed so crazy. We were living
such a strange life that it was almost a relief to iron a shirt. It was sort
of quiet and familiar, you know? Everything that was sort of quiet and
familiar and homelike had gotten to seem sort of exotic to me because the life
we were living was so strange. And getting Kerouac home from places was a
very anxious business, getting him up four flights of stairs. I was living in
a brownstone at the time on the fourth floor. That was kind of anxious. And
fending off various admirers, especially other women.

GROSS: Right. Now in this letter that you just read an excerpt of, you said
that there's no doubt that his mother is the villain in the true classic
Freudian sense.

Ms. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did you mean by that?

Ms. JOHNSON: It became apparent to me that Jack really had not separated from
his mother. He was overly attached to his mother. You know, he planned to
settle down and live with her, which was something that was very hard for me
to understand; that she had too much of a hold on him for his own good.

GROSS: Was it her trying to have a hold on him, or was it him wanting to be
with her?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it worked both ways. I mean, she wanted to keep him with
her, and so that any young woman who came into his life was considered the
enemy, someone who had to be fended off, or driven off. At the same time, she
had always been a sort of refuge for him during those years when he was very
broke and obscure and out wandering around the United States and virtually
homeless. She provided a base for him, a place where he could come and crash
and write another book and keep his manuscripts and his letters. So I think
without Jack's mother, we might have had fewer Kerouac novels. She, you know,
she was important to him in that was that way, in a good way. But her
emotional hold on him was very crippling for Jack emotionally.

GROSS: Was his personality any different when he was in her presence?

Ms. JOHNSON: I only saw him in her presence once. This was in the summer of
1958, after Jack had bought her a house in Long Island and moved into it with
her. And he really seemed cowed by her. You know, she ruled the house. He
was like a child in the house, you know, who wasn't allowed to do this and
wasn't allowed to do that. And he retreated from the whole situation by
drinking a lot.

GROSS: Joyce Johnson's new book is called "Door Wide Open." Here's a
recording of Jack Kerouac on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1959, with Allen at
the piano.

(Soundbite of Jack Kerouac on "The Steve Allen Show")

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. JACK KEROUAC: So in the last page of "On the Road," I describe how the
hero, Dean Moriarty, come to see me all the way from the West Coast just
for day or two. We'd just been back and forth across the country several
times in cars and our adventures are over. We're still great friends, but we
have to go into later phases of our lives. So there he goes, Dean Moriarty,
ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought especially for the freezing
temperatures of the East. Walking off alone, the last I saw of him, he
rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead and bent to it
again. Gone.

So in America, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river
pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land
that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast and all that
road going and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and now I know
by now that children must be crying in the land where they let the children
cry. And tonight the stars will be out, and don't you know that God is pooh
bear. The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on
the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses
the Earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore
in. Nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the
forlorn rags of growing old. Think of Dean Moriarty--I even think of old Dean
Moriarty, the father we never found. Think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: Joyce Johnson will talk more about Jack Kerouac in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits given)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Joyce Johnson. Her new
book, "Door Wide Open," collects the letters that she and Jack Kerouac wrote
to each other in 1957 and '58 when they were lovers. He was not yet famous
when they met, but as we discussed earlier, she was with him when The New York
Times review of his novel, "On the Road," was published, turning him nearly
overnight into a celebrity. I asked her how fame agreed with him.

How did fame agree with him?

Ms. JOHNSON: Fame did not agree with him very well at all. Part of the
problem was he didn't become famous in the way that he would have liked to
have become famous. So I think what he really dreamed of was having a
real--you know, a literary success, which would have been much quieter, for
one thing. But instead of that, he found himself the spokesperson for the
beat generation and this was not a role he felt at all comfortable with. It
was something Allen Ginsberg, of course, could have played to the hilt. But

Jack was not very, very good at facing the public. He was basically a shy,
rather naive guy about the whole business and it was very difficult for him
being on television and so on. It was frightening for him and it made him
feel that he didn't know who he was anymore.

GROSS: Now you say that after he became famous there was a pack of predatory
women that invaded your lives. What was it like watching all of these women
flirting with Jack Kerouac?

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, of course, I hated it, and it made me furious. And it was
as though, you know, I didn't exist at all. Suddenly there was this swarm of
women around him, you know, because he was such a celebrity and so attractive.
And, you know, right in front of me these women were throwing themselves at
Jack. It was very unpleasant to watch.

GROSS: You say that during this period everyone wanted to like give him pills
or buy him drinks. He already had a drinking problem. Did it get worse?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. It did get much worse. And, you know, I think he felt
that he had to live up to an image of himself that people had, that they
didn't really expect to see someone like Jack Kerouac who was a fairly quiet
guy, kind of an observer. They expected to see someone very extroverted like
the Dean Moriarty character in his novels. So the only way he could
approximate that character was to get very loaded.

GROSS: And did he become more like Dean Moriarty when he did become loaded?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, you know, he became much more extroverted and outgoing
and talked more.

GROSS: Now you say that you grew up in a house without any alcohol with the
exception of Manishewitz Passover wine.

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

GROSS: Were there things you didn't understand about his drinking?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I really didn't understand about his drinking. I thought
that, you know, if Jack could just sort of get through this period and settle
down and maybe have a real home somewhere, he could sort of straighten himself
out. And he kept wanting to stop drinking and he would make attempts, even
during this period. And in order to stop drinking, we'd basically take the
phone off the hook and stay shut up in the house for a week. He always seemed
a different person in a way when he'd stop drinking for a while. And then his
innate sweetness would come out.

GROSS: Now one of the times he came to New York, he came to do a series of
readings at the Village Vanguard. At the performance you went to, he was very
drunk. Would you explain what that performance was like?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, this was one of his last performances at the Vanguard.
He'd been there for a week. He came on stage and he had a bottle of
Thunderbird in his hand and he turned his back on the audience and sort of
bopped along with the musicians as though he'd forgotten where he was. And
then when he read, you know, the words were often very slurred and the people
in the audience got very restive. They got up and some people booed, some
people left. And he was sort of aware of that. It was kind of a humiliating

GROSS: You wrote him a letter, trying to discourage him from drinking. I'm
going to ask you to read an excerpt of that letter.

Ms. JOHNSON: `I'm sorry you felt so depressed about New York once you
reached home. But, baby, forgive me for being boring, but I do think it's all
that drinking. Not drinking itself, but the amount of it you do. Like my
cats, you don't know when to stop. It's really desperate, gluttonous
drinking. Like maybe the whiskey ocean's going to dry up soon, which, alas,
it won't, you know. Listen, when you come to New York in October, why you
don't try this: Eat a really good meal somewhere with maybe a glass of wine
or two, then just stick to beer. It was those two bottles of wine that fouled
you up. Also to avoid feeling shabby, bring one clean shirt and pajamas next
time. Horrible feeling living in the same clothes for three days. Sordid, my
dear. Oh, practical bourgeois Joyce that I am, don't let me bug you, but
consider above suggestions.'

GROSS: Did you feel like you were being bourgeois by suggesting that he were
clean clothes and not be drunk?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah, I did feel a little bourgeois. I wanted to be cool and
beat. But there was a bourgeois, practical side of me which probably saved my
life and sanity.

GROSS: How did you and Kerouac end up breaking up?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, we were--went out to dinner--this was in October of
1958--with a bunch of artists we knew and right before my eyes Jack was
flirting outrageously with a woman whom I knew was very interested in him and
I could sort of see the handwriting on the wall. And I'd seen this kind of
thing one too many times. And I just couldn't stand it so I asked Jack to
come outside the restaurant with me. And I told him I couldn't bear to--and
that it was the end. I'm--I said to him, because it was the only thing I
could think of, `You're nothing but a big bag of wind.'

GROSS: What was his reaction when you told him you couldn't take it anymore?

Ms. JOHNSON: He said, `I told. I told you. I didn't like--I don't like
blondes. Unrequited love's a bore.' You know, we were shouting nonsense at
each other and then he stomped off into the restaurant and I went up the block
and that was it.

GROSS: So that was really it.

Ms. JOHNSON: That was it. It ended very abruptly.

GROSS: How did he describe you in "Desolation Angels"?

Ms. JOHNSON: As middle class, sad and looking for something.

GROSS: He also wrote, `perhaps the best love affair I ever had.'

Ms. JOHNSON: Right. And he said that, `I had me a companion there.' And I
think that was a very important thing to Jack--the fact that we were both
writers and a lot of our--a lot of the things we wrote to each other were
about our writing. And this was a novelty for him to have a woman in his life
who was as interested in writing as he was.

GROSS: Now when his letters were published long after his death, you were
able to read what he wrote about you to his men friends. What were some of
the things that surprised you about what he said about you in his letters to

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, well, he wrote--I mean, for example, he wrote to Neal
Cassidy, I believe, `I have a blond novelist following me from New York.'
I mean, I wasn't following him. He'd invited me. And then he said that
there'd be orgies in San Francisco, which was a lot of nonsense.

GROSS: Orgies with you?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it was sort of male boasting. And he
would also write to his male--his friends that he'd just been in bed with
three women. They were always--it was always three women. I can--as I read
the letters, I thought, `The same three women?' You know, a lot of it was
assuming a certain persona when he wrote to the--he wrote to these guys.
(technical difficulties) most hurtful to me was a letter--a letter he wrote to
Allen Ginsberg. This was around--I don't know--December 1957, and he had just
been in contact with an old girlfriend of his and he wanted to get--at the
time he wanted back together with her. So he wrote to Allen that when Allen's
friend Peter Orlovsky came back to New York, he could--perhaps he could move
in with me if he needed a place to stay, because Jack wanted to make it with
this other woman. And that was really, I thought, ugly. And, even though it
was many, many years later, it still hurt when I read it.

GROSS: Right. Right. Yeah, it must have been so strange to read these
things many years later.

Ms. JOHNSON: Very strange. I mean, what an odd position to be in. One often
doesn't know so much about, the--you know, the people that one has loved.

GROSS: Yeah, and then you probably had to ask yourself which were the more
honest letters, the ones he wrote to you or the ones he wrote to...

Ms. JOHNSON: Exactly.

GROSS: ...his men friends.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: My guest is Joyce Johnson. Her new book is called "Door Wide Open."
More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Joyce Johnson. Her new book collects the letters
that she and Jack Kerouac wrote to each other.

You say in your new book that you've had to protect your memories from being
swamped by Kerouac's legend. What are some parts of the legend that don't fit
with your memories?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, the idea that Jack was such a free spirit, you know,
mainly, that--the big example of freedom or this, you know--or that he was
this great Buddhist. Those things. Because, you know, although he certainly
did go on the road, you know, deep inside him, he wasn't free at all. He was
knotted up and so miserable and so attached to his mother. And Buddhism was
something that was very important to Jack and he--it was one of those things
he looked to to find some solution to what troubled him. But he really
misused it, even though he had a profound intellectual understanding of it.
He used Buddhism to sort of rationalize all his problems and pre--and, you
know, what was the point of dealing with them, since we're all going to die

GROSS: Recent biographies of Kerouac have asked whether he was really
bisexual. Any thoughts about that?

Ms. JOHNSON: I never felt when I was with him that he was attracted sexually
to other men. And I know other women who were also involved with Jack, and
they never felt that way, either. Certainly he had deep psychic connections
to his male friends, but I didn't--I never felt there was anything physical
about those feelings that he had.

GROSS: What did you think a few years ago of The Gap campaign of, you know,
`Kerouac wore khakis'?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, one thing that amused me very much about that campaign was
there was a--it was a picture of Jack wearing khakis in a photo shoot. It was
an old photo that had been taken for Pageant Magazine(ph). A photographer had
followed Jack and me around the Village for a night, and I was airbrushed out
of it, almost though I had never existed.

GROSS: That's really funny.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So you saw that photo without you on...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: On buses and...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...and posters...

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right.

GROSS: ...whatever. Oh, that's very funny.

Ms. JOHNSON: And I knew there was a ghost there. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. That's so perfect, because your first book was called
"Minor Characters."

Ms. JOHNSON: It was called--exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: And all about how the women were relegated to the status of minor
character in the beat story.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, that's so funny. You know, one of the things that really strikes
me of--in this book of letters that you and Kerouac wrote to each other is
really how well-written your letters are. I mean, you were 21 and these are
really well-written letters with interesting thoughts in them. How do you
feel re-reading them?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, when I heard that these--all these letters still existed,
I didn't know how I'd feel when I saw them. But I was surprised by them, too,
and I also realized when I read them how much editing I'd done on them.
You know, in a way, I didn't want to let Jack know that I was in pain or
disappointed. You know, I wanted to be cool, so a lot of these letters
reflect my great effort to be cool. I also found that the whole experience of
answering Jack was very important for me as a writer. I felt I had to write
up to him and I had to describe things for him. And I could feel my style
sort of stretching and changing as I wrote him.

GROSS: Did you change your style for him?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes, I did. I did. And it was a--you know, and it was good
for me.

GROSS: How did it change?

Ms. JOHNSON: The sentences got freer and longer and the breadths got longer.
The whole--the rhythms of the sentences changed.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Any other thoughts about Jack Kerouac--his writing or his
personality--that you'd like to leave us with?

Ms. JOHNSON: I'll tell you my own theory about Jack. And this was something
I didn't really come to until years after I wrote my memoir, "Minor
Characters," and after I'd read the first volume of letters--of Jack's
collect--selected letters. When I--I'd never really realized before then what
bad shape Jack was in at the time that I met him in '57, even before he became
famous. I don't think it was the fame that did him in. It had been a
cumulative process.

My feeling after reading the letters very closely was that something had
happened to him after 1951 when he'd had his big breakthrough writing "On the
Road," which he wrote in three weeks on a scroll of paper in a kind of
non-stop way. And it was a big breakthrough into spontaneous writing and he
wrote his--all his books the same way after that, in very short, intense
periods of time. And I think this discovery, in a certain way, took away the
last stability he had in his life.

I feel that possibly when he was working in a more conventional way in the
town or the city over many years, he always had that work in the center of his
life and that it balanced him. But once he discovered this breakthrough fast
way of writing, he lost that sense of balance. So he'd be on an enormous
high, blasting out another book. And then right after it, he'd crash. He'd
be in sort of a terrible valley, full of despair and loneliness and
self-hatred and alcohol, until the next time that he could get himself
together and write another book in that, you know, break-neck speed.

And as he got all these sort of terrible reviews and negative publicity, I
think all that hostility that he encountered got between him and his work.
His work was really all he had. It was the only thing he was good at. It was
the only thing that made him purely happy. And he lost that source of
happiness in his life after the publication of "On the Road."

GROSS: Is there a letter of Jack Kerouac's that is particularly meaningful to
you that you'd like to leave us with?

Ms.JOHNSON: OK. This is the letter that Jack wrote me from Mexico City on
July 28th, after the big earthquake. `Don't go to silly Frisco. First place,
I have this fine earthquake-proof room for 85 cents a night for both of us.
It's an Arabic magic room with tiles on the walls and many big round
whorehouse sex-orgy mirrors. It's an old 1710 whorehouse, solid with marble
floors. We can sleep on the big clean double bed, have our private bath, also
with 20-foot ceiling and cloistral bar-relief Muhammadan windows. It's right
downtown. You can enjoy city life to the hilt. Then when we get tired of our
Majean(ph) (technical difficulties) in a sultan's room, we can go off to the
country and rent a cottage with flower pots in the window. Your money will
last five times longer, and in Frisco, you wouldn't be seeing anything new and
foreign and strange.

`Take the plane to Mexico City--bus too long, almost as expensive, too--then
take a cab to my hotel, knock on my door. We'll be gay friends, wandering arm
and arm in Mexico. Also, we'll do our writing and cash our checks in big
American banks and eat hot soup at market stalls and float on rafts of flowers
and dance the rumba in mad joints with 10-cent beers. Perhaps you can go to
Frisco, see Elise after Mexico and complete your educational tour. But I am
lonesome for your friendship and love, so try to come down. Lots to talk
about. Lots of sleeping and loving, eating and drinking and walking and
visiting cathedrals and pyramids. And wait till you drink big water glasses
of cold, fresh orange juice every morning for 7 cents and giant T-bone steaks
for 85 cents that you can't finish. And I'll show you sights most Americans
don't know exist here, and you can write a big book.'

I think there's real generosity in that. You know, it was a very wholehearted
invitation, even though Jack changed his plan after being stricken with the
flu. At that moment, anyway, he meant that.

GROSS: Joyce Johnson, thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Joyce Johnson's new book, "Door Wide Open," collects the letters that
she and Jack Kerouac wrote to each other in 1957 and '58.

Here's Kerouac in 1959, reading his poem "Mother" on "The Steve Allen Show,"
with Allen at the piano.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. KEROUAC: I keep falling in love with my mother. I don't want to hurt
her. Of all people to hurt. Every time I see her, she's grown older. But
her uniform always amazes me for its Dutch simplicity and the doll she is--the
doll-like way she stands bow-legged in my dreams, waiting to serve me. And I
am only an Apache smoking hashish in old Kabashi(ph) by the lamp.

GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "The Complete Blue Note
Recordings of Horace Parlan." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of piano music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Horace Parlan box CD

Jazz pianist Horace Parlan has always had a great feel for the blues and a
gospel tinge you can trace to his growing up as the son of a minister. Both
strains served him well as a member of Charles Mingus' band in the late 1950s.
He played on the bassist's classic albums "Blues and Roots" and "Mingus Ah
Hum." In the mid-60s, Parlan worked with saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Later, he settled in Copenhagen where he still lives.

Between his stints with Mingus and Kirk, Parlan was signed to Blue Note
Records where he recorded seven albums as a leader. Those recordings have
just been reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.

(Soundbite of piano music)


There's something about Pittsburgh. For some reason, they make really good
piano players there--Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Ahmad
Jamal, Sonny Clark and Horace Parlan. Maybe it's something in the water that
comes from all those rivers or maybe it's foundry smoke. Sometimes Horace
Parlan's keyboard touch and chord voicings give his playing a beautifully
dusky quality, as if a soft haze had descended on the piano.

(Soundbite of piano music)

WHITEHEAD: In jazz, musicians set their own agendas, free to play to their
strengths or sidestep their shortcomings. Pianists with small hands,
trumpeters who can't hit high notes and saxophonists uncomfortable with fast
tempos can find ways to compensate so effectively listeners may not notice a

Horace Parlan was stricken with polio when he was five and has only partial
use of his right hand. You can hear that he makes up for it, but you have to
see him play to appreciate how brilliantly he does it. He'll strike a few
simple chords with his right hand, using thumb and one or two fingers. His
amazing left hand plays the usual low-end chords, then leaps up the keys to
execute some short melodic line before heading home. That keeps him close to
the center of the keyboard, one reason his sound often has that dark muted
air. His technique is strictly homemade, but he uses it to support
traditional concepts.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

WHITEHEAD: Horace Parlan with George Tucker on bass and Ray Barretto on
congas. Good as Parlan is as a front man, he really excels in the background,
goosing along a horn soloist. He has a drummer's timing and sure instinct for
placing accents.

His own drummer, on all but one of the sessions he recorded for Blue Note
between 1960 and '63, is the overlooked Al Harewood. He's from Brooklyn, but
Parlan dug him because he took after the greatest drummer ever to come from
Pittsburgh, bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke. When Parlan and Harewood link up,
it's almost like having two drummers in the band. Listen to them backing
tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, who's also from Pittsburgh.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

WHITEHEAD: Horace Parlan's ideal tenor saxophonist was the late Booker Ervin.
They played together in Charles Mingus' band on a few on Ervin's records and
on Parlan's last two Blue Note sessions. The pianist's down-home blues and
gospel sense was a perfect fit for the saxophonist's Texas tenor shout.
They'd met when Ervin spent a few months in Pittsburgh. The sessions they
made together are a fitting climax to the new five-CD box, "The Complete Blue
Note Horace Parlan Sessions." It's yet another meticulously produced and
annotated gem from the mail-order house Mosaic Records who're in Stanford,

Hey, it's not like everything good has to come from Pittsburgh.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead reviewed "The Complete Blue Note Horace Parlan
Sessions" on the Mosaic label.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of jazz music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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