We’re All Boring Compared to the Beats
A history of the Lucien Carr murder.
By Becky Miller
Strolling down Broadway, Panda Express leftovers in hand, I stopped at the book stand on 114th to scour the selection. My eyes caught a familiar title. “Naked Lunch!” I cried, perhaps too loudly, searching for someone, anyone who cared that I had read all the great Beat novels in high school. The woman behind the stand perked up. She wore a lot of scarves. “Those crazy Beats started out right in this very spot,” she said. “You know, the Lucien Carr murder happened just one block away from here.” That sounded interesting—I wanted to know more. Careful to conceal my ignorance, I replied, “Oh yes, the murder, I have known of it for some time, but I could use a refresher.” Her eyes lit up at my interest. Before I knew it, she was unraveling the details of that hot August night in 1944, nodding to the shop across the road, gesturing west toward Riverside Park, and tossing me up to 125th Street.
Restless and bored during a sweltering summer, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac went out drinking. This was a typical outing for the pair, who lived and socialized in Morningside Heights with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Carr was at the center of the social circle. As Ginsberg famously put it, “Lou was the glue.”
The air was heavy, the sky dark. Carr and Kerouac were sweaty, disappointed, and planning to drink themselves silly. Although they had planned a maritime odyssey across the Atlantic to Paris—where they would retrace the steps of Arthur Rimbaud and wander across Europe—the pair found themselves still kicking around Columbia. Their dreams kept them up late the night before, and by the time they reached the docks, the boat had embarked without them. So, that night, instead of crossing the Atlantic, Kerouac, the restless dropout of both the U.S. Navy and Columbia, and Lucien Carr, an idealistic, charming College sophomore, nursed a pint or two.
The West End—now the board game café Hex & Co. on 114th and Broadway—was the 1020 of the 1940s: the hangout spot for revolutionaries. After a couple hours of shit-shooting, Kerouac paid his tab and walked uptown, past Low steps and toward his girlfriend’s apartment on Amsterdam. Crossing campus, he ran into an old friend of Carr’s, the 32-year-old David Kammerer. Kammerer asked for Carr, and Kerouac pointed him to The West End. “And I watch him rush off to his death,” Kerouac later wrote in his autobiographical novel, Vanity of Duluoz.
Kammerer found Carr and they drank together until 2 a.m., before the two, thirteen years apart in age, stumbled over to 115th and Riverside. Formerly Lucien’s Boy Scout troop leader, Kammerer had followed Carr from St. Louis to the University of Chicago to Columbia. He was working as a janitor in New York and on the fringes of Carr’s circle of friends. Back in Missouri, Kammerer had taken Carr under his wing, mentoring him in literature and in life. To the casual observer, the two seemed close. But, over time, Kammerer had developed an intense attachment to Carr, and now grew increasingly anxious at the idea of losing him to the merchant marines and a lifetime of adventure.
Lying in Riverside under the summer moonlight, Kammerer made what the New York Times later reported as an “offensive proposal.” Carr refused his advances and a physical fight ensued. The scrawny sophomore was reportedly losing until, in an act framed by Carr’s lawyers as self-defense, Carr stabbed Kammerer twice in the chest with his Boy Scout knife. Some, like the bookstand owner on 114th, claim that these two swift jabs gave birth to the Beat generation. That Lucien’s blunt knife was the source of all of the boundless cross-country drives, the morphine- and benzedrine-induced midnight walks through strange cities, the pages and pages of typed words—all of the revolutionary thought, borne of that night.
In the immediate aftermath, Carr, unaware if anyone had witnessed the murder, frantically covered his tracks. He used Kammerer’s shoelaces to tie his hands and feet together, weighted his dead body with rocks, and pushed his former Boy Scout leader into the Hudson. Running on adrenaline, Carr ran to wake up William Burroughs, another old buddy from St. Louis, and then Kerouac. Having enlisted their help, Carr buried Kammerer’s glasses in Morningside Park. The men then ventured to 125th Street and disposed of the bloodied knife in a subway grate.
Kerouac and Carr, two aspiring seamen landlocked by Manhattan, wandered the island that morning. They stopped at MoMA, bought hot dogs in Times Square, and went to the cinema to see The Four Feathers, a 1939 British war adventure about honor and weakness. The two friends procrastinated, tried to prolong their independence, their youthful license to fun, before Carr turned himself in to the district attorney.
The defense painted the murder as a sort of honor-killing, arguing that the young, handsome, sharp Carr was stalked and pursued by the disturbed, relentless Kammerer. This logic, eagerly bought by the jury, earned Lucien Carr only two years in the Elmira Correctional Facility upstate. The day following Carr’s confession, Kerouac and Burroughs were also arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs’s wealthy father came to New York to bail him out, while Kerouac’s family refused. The judge would not allow his girlfriend to pay his bail unless the two got married, which they did, on August 22, 1944.
After the woman at the bookstand finished the story, I thanked her and continued walking, but her enthusiasm lingered in my mind for weeks. Carr’s generation had inspired her, and her fervor inspired me, so I continued retracing Carr’s impact on the Beats after the friends’ paths parted.
While Carr was in jail, reading poetry in his cell, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg began their careers as literary giants and bohemian nomads. Kerouac embarked on his nationwide expedition that inspired On the Road. Ginsberg graduated from Columbia and was promptly sent to a mental institution. Burroughs moved to Mexico City. They were scattered across the hemisphere, no longer drinking and fighting and philosophizing in Morningside Heights. All four men attracted danger—in 1951, Burroughs shot his wife, although he claims it was an accident. Carr, on the other hand, completed his two-year sentence and began a nearly 50-year career at United Press International, rising from copyboy to news editor. He faded from the public eye and lived comfortably in SoHo with his wife while his college buddies raged at the epicenter of American counterculture.
On a recent trip to the Butler stacks, I read through postcards, letters, and poems written from Kerouac and Ginsberg to Carr between 1957 to 1975. They clearly loved each other. In one letter, Kerouac, keeping Carr in the loop from his stable SoHo perch, began the note, “Dear Lou, Just a love tap, old boy” and signed off as “Jackiboo.” In another, Kerouac, bored of writing and meditating in the woods, admits, “sometimes I wish I was in NY where I could drink wine with you… must say, if it hadn’t been for your kindness and cheerful hospitality and et al that last trip of mine to NY would have been a gloomy bust.” Ginsberg and Kerouac’s correspondence detailed all of their quotidian doubts and musings: one of them wrote a play but didn’t know if it was any good, someone missed this friend or that one, someone wished there was more money to travel. “Life sure is weird and inevitable,” Ginsberg wrote Carr from Amsterdam in 1957. Though he evolved into a literary and cultural behemoth, during this period, Ginsberg was spending what little money he had from Howl’s sales to hop between Morocco, Chile, England, and Paris.
In all of the letters I read, there was no mention of Carr’s sentence, or of Kammerer. The four were just Columbians on a lifelong, desperate search for adventure. And all along, their friends from Morningside Heights remained dear, even as they shaped a generation’s culture with their passion, unorthodoxy, and violence. It seems like they had fun. And although I do not condone stabbing or shooting your wife, I somehow find myself nostalgic for the kind of excitement these men experienced in their college years. Especially now, feeling so sheltered and isolated after a year of college from under the covers, dropping out and becoming a merchant seaman doesn’t sound so bad. At least I’d get to sail the seas.
Legend has it that Carr sprayed his roommates’ rooms with a firehose while they were sleeping. Once, when a friend asked why he was carrying a jar of jam across campus, he replied that he was “going on a date.” Ginsberg wrote in his journal, “Know these words, and you speak the Carr language: fruit, phallus, clitoris, cacoethes, feces, foetus, womb, Rimbaud.” From thence, the Beats. As Ginsberg wrote Carr, “Life sure is weird and inevitable.”