Story by Chris Simunek
"On the Road was taken by the young as a passport to freedom—or that is, 'forget responsibilities and do anything you feel like.' They didn't look to see that Jack had no responsibilities, but was against ignoring them," explained Carolyn Cassady, wife of Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Kerouac's most enduring literary creation, Dean Moriarty. "So the 'freedom' of the young became license and then chaos. They didn't realize there is no freedom without fences. When he was accorded the titles of 'King of the Beats' and 'Father of the Hippies,' Jack was eventually so depressed at being so misunderstood and misinterpreted, he vowed to drink himself to death. Which he did."
When On the Road was published in 1957 it forever altered the lives of the people upon which the book was based. Kerouac's driving, romantic prose turned the knowledge-hungry, reform school graduate Neal Cassady into a new American archetype—the fast-talking, hipster, con artist Dean Moriarty. Kerouac portrayed himself as Sal Paradise, Dean's self-conscious, meditative foil. Together they crisscrossed the nation—jukebox cowboys in search of "kicks," jazz, women, poetry, identity and ultimately beatitude—igniting the imaginations of an American public still trying to shake off the hangover left by World War II.
Much has been written about the exploits of Jack and Neal, but few know the true story behind the educated, artistic, knock-out blonde who appeared as Camille in On the Road, and Evelyn in Visions of Cody and Big Sur. Carolyn Cassady's book, which will be re-released by Viking-Penguin next year in an expanded version entitled Off the Road: My Twenty Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, is an underrated gem in the Beat literary canon and the definitive female voice on the subject. She was Neal's wife and (with her husband's tacit approval) Jack's lover nearly a decade before On the Road was published, and was afforded a vantage point into the psyches of these two intellects that no other woman can claim. While her philandering husband Neal and his enabling friend Jack were off forging their legacies, she was the woman waiting at home, caring for Neal's three children.
Born in Lansing, Michigan on April 28, 1923, Carolyn's early years were spent between the Dutch Colonial home her father had built in East Lansing, and a summer cottage on Glen Lake. For Carolyn, the cottage "was the ultimate in heaven for me; the three months of summer were like three years, and it remains in my memory as just that. We had no car, no electricity, no plumbing, only spring-fed wells and kerosene lamps. When we first lived there, our only neighbors were the local Indians, whom my brother taught to swim." Coming from an academic family—her father worked as a biochemist at Michigan State Agricultural College—she was introduced to literature at an early age. Winnie the Pooh, The Wizard of Oz and Charles Dickens provided the companionship that her otherwise isolated life lacked. As idyllic as her country life might have been, it came with a dark side. The lack of affection she received from her parents, compounded by an early experience of sexual abuse, left her "painfully self-conscious, guilty and shy. I couldn't look a male in the face. I went to all-girl schools, so I didn't learn to relate to them. I was scolded throughout my school years for never speaking up in class, and when I was asked a question in a group situation, every eye on me, I either blurted out nonsense or wouldn't reply."
It wasn't until her family moved to Nashville and she got involved with the Nashville Community Playhouse, that Carolyn was free to forge her own identity. "My Victorian parents had been against any demonstration of affection or emotions and cuddling ceased after infancy," she explained. "In the theater I found the warm and caring 'family' I had never known, and I couldn't give it up. Here I was 'at home.'"
COMPLETE STORY IN FEBRUARY 2004 HIGH TIMES