Kammerer, Carr, and an early Beat tragedy
By David Sterritt
Following last year’s release of On the Road, adapted by director Walter Salles from the legendary Jack Kerouac novel published in 1957, two more Beat Generation movies are on the way. Big Sur, a November release directed by Michael Polish, stars Jean-Marc Barr, Stana Katic, Anthony Edwards, and Radha Mitchell in a story based on Kerouac’s 1962 novel about his efforts to shake off inner demons at an isolated cabin near the California coast. Kill Your Darlings, arriving in October, marks the feature-film debut of John Krokidas, who directed and co-wrote it. It’s a tale of madness and mayhem centering on an actual tragedy that occurred in 1944, involving two friends of the young Beats during their Columbia University days. Lucien Carr is an emotionally insecure student caught in a turbulent relationship with David Kammerer, an older man whose erotic obsession with Carr leads to his own death. The cast includes Michael C. Hall as Kammerer, Dane DeHaan as Carr, Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Huston as Kerouac.
The real-life episode is described in this excerpt from The Beats: A Very Short Introduction:
In 1944 an event took place that troubled Kerouac as well as Burroughs and Ginsberg, helping to catalyze the unhappy outlook on life that characterizes some early Beat writing. The main players in this tragedy were Lucien Carr and David Kammerer.
Kammerer had been a friend of Burroughs since childhood, and in 1933 they had visited Europe together. Burroughs found him “always very funny, the veritable life of the party, and completely without any middle-class morality.” Kammerer became an instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, and he also ran a youth group that Carr joined while still a boy. By all reports, Kammerer was infatuated and then obsessed with Carr, a well-to- do Columbia student whom Kerouac describes in Vanity of Duluoz as a young man of “fantastic male beauty . . . actually like Oscar Wilde’s model male heroes.”
They traveled to Mexico together in 1940, with permission from Carr’s mother. After finding some of Kammerer’s letters, however, the shocked mother worked hard to keep them apart. Kammerer then followed Carr to each of several schools he enrolled in. Carr evidently had no interest in a homosexual relationship, but he appeared to enjoy the attention his older friend lavished on him, especially when the former English teacher ghost-wrote his college homework. Carr transferred to Columbia in 1943, with Kammerer and Burroughs trailing along. Soon Kammerer met Ginsberg and Kerouac, becoming part of the fledgling Beat circle.
Kammerer and Carr were an odd couple with a penchant for trouble, ranging from childish horseplay to deep emotional crises. An instance of the latter arose in 1943, when Carr landed in a mental institution after an apparent suicide attempt. The already unstable mood of their friendship took another downturn when Carr fell in love with a young woman. Kammerer stalked Carr on some days and refused to see him on others. The tension between them finally exploded on a summer night in 1944. Kammerer had been hunting for Carr that evening, eventually finding him drunk in the West End, a bar in the Columbia neighborhood. They left the bar together, and later in the night they came to blows on a hillside not far away.
According to Ted Morgan’s account, Carr then went to the apartment that Burroughs was sharing with Kerouac and Edie Parker, telling them what had happened next and throwing Kammerer’s eyeglasses onto a table. “I just got rid of the old man,” Carr said. “I stabbed him in the heart with my Boy Scout knife.” Kerouac asked why. Carr answered, “He jumped me. He said I love you and all that stuff, and couldn’t live without me.” He added that Kammerer had threatened to kill both him and his girlfriend. After stabbing Kammerer, the young man had tied stones onto the body’s arms and legs, using strips torn from the shirt. Then he had pushed Kammerer’s body into the Hudson River, where it hovered until Carr waded in up to his chin and pushed it into the current.
Burroughs advised Carr to turn himself in and make a plea of self-defense. Taking a very different tack, Kerouac went with Carr to the scene of the crime, where Carr buried the incriminating glasses and dropped his knife into a sewer. Then they went for drinks and watched a movie. Two days later, Carr took Burroughs’s advice and surrendered to the police, reaching a plea bargain that reduced a possible twenty-year sentence to two years of actual time served, and placed him in a reformatory rather than a penitentiary. He left the reformatory a changed man, so eager for a conventional life that he complained when Ginsberg later dedicated “Howl” to him. Burroughs and Kerouac, considered material witnesses to the crime, were arrested for not reporting it. Burroughs’s family bailed him out immediately. Kerouac’s humiliated father refused to follow suit, so Parker put up the money on the condition that Kerouac marry her. He did. Ginsberg was not hauled into the legal system, but he was deeply shocked by what had happened, fearing it was a horrific consequence of the morbidly tinged romanticism in which he and his friends had indulged. He soon started a novel, The Bloodsong, based on the incident. Kerouac wrote about the tragedy in I Wish I Were You, a novella that also went unfinished. He later wove the affair into his first novel, The Town and the City, and his last, Vanity of Duluoz. In its immediate aftermath, Kerouac and Burroughs used it as the basis for their attempt at a joint novel, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tank, writing under pseudonyms and borrowing their title from a news report about a circus fire. They found an agent, but nobody would publish it.
David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and professor emeritus at Long Island University. A noted critic, author, and scholar, he is chair of the National Society of Film Critics and chief book critic of Film Quarterly, and was for many years the film critic for The Christian Science Monitor. His books include The Beats: A Very Short Introduction, Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the ’50s, and Film and Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility, and he serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Beat Studies. Read his previous blog post: “Jack Kerouac: On and Off the Road”
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Image credit: Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr (right), late Spring 1944, Columbia College Campus. From Allenginsberg.org used for the purposes of illustration via Wikimedia Commons