Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit of Jack Kerouac

Joyce Johnson (nee Glassman) reveals life as a woman on the beat circuit, “as a female, not quite part of this convergence… merely being here, she tells herself, is enough… It’s only her silence that I wish finally to give up.” Joyce grew up in NYC, a straight arrow, good Jewish girl living on 116th Street, beginning to live a double life in 1949 aged 13 when she begins to sneak down to Washington Square Park with pal Maria, hanging out in the square with the people singing and strumming guitars, drinking coffee with them in diners. She lives this double life until heading to college at Barnard, giving up her downtown ways for more polished collegiate ones. At Barnard, she meets Elise Cowen who becomes a lifelong friend. They both fall for Alex, a PhD candidate teaching at the school, who was connected to Allen Ginsberg at Columbia (Alex sets up Ginsberg & Cowen on a blind date in 1953 and Elise falls head over heels). After graduation in 1955, Joyce moves out of her parents’ house and supports herself with secretarial work while she works on her novel. She details the terror of obtaining an illegal abortion after her therapist refused to order her a therapeutic abortion. During this time, Kerouac is living as a hermit on a mountain in Washington for a few months, then descends and heads back to San Francisco where Howl has taken the world by storm. Joyce gets a job at a literary agency and borrows their copy of Kerouac’s The Town and the City.

In November 1956, Kerouac arrives in NYC with Ginsberg and his boyfriend Peter. Elise gives Ginsberg and his lover a place to stay, and Joyce hopes to meet Kerouac. Finally Allen tells Kerouac to call Joyce in early 1957, she meets him at a Howard Johnson’s and buys him dinner then takes him back to her place. He moves in the next day, needing a place to stay. “I’ve never bought a man dinner before. It makes me feel very competent and womanly.”

But Jack can never stay in one place long, always itchy feet to travel, grass is always greener (or more potent) on the other side. He sails to Tangier, then Paris, then London, then homesick heads back to New York for a few days before heading to Orlando to live with his mother (a constant theme). Joyce is constantly taking care of Jack whenever he’s in town, and mails him $30 to buy a bus ticket from Orlando to do an interview with Time magazine in September 1957 to coincide with the publication of On The Road. Jack slips back into town on Sept 4, and on Sept 5 Gilbert Millstein’s New York Times review catapulted Kerouac into the stratosphere of fame. Joyce now struggles to help Jack deal with intense and immediate celebrity:

Fame was as foreign a country as Mexico, and I was his sole companion in its unknown territories. He’d quickly learned it was a country with sealed borders. You couldn’t leave it when you’d had enough of it, though it could cast you out when it had had enough of you. It feted you and stoned you, flattered you and mocked you–sometimes all in teh same day. It demanded your secrets and whispered insulting innuendos behind your back. It corrupted your life with its temporary excitements; it invaded your dreams. The night he read Millstein’s review, Jack dreamt of being followed by a parade of children chanting his name. With a wound in his forehead, he escaped with his army into Mongolia. But inside the Victory Theatre, the fame police had nearly caught him….

[Jack goes on a talk show called Nightbeat] Jack sat on a swivel stool with a spotlight on him like a suspect awaiting the third degree, his hair tangled and wet, his face gone slack. I knew exactly how much wine he’d had to drink to get himself there, and I felt scared for him.

“Tell me, Jack, just exactly what you’re looking for,” John Wingate asked in his smoothly supercilious announcer’s voice.

“I’m waiting for God to show me His face.”

It was the truth, but somehow not the right kind of truth for television. Much as your host seemed to prod you toward a striptease, you were not supposed to show yourself naked. That night Jack knew he’d crossed some dangerous line. He’d failed to protect that deep visionary part of himself that had to remain in darkness, that could only reveal itself in dreams or books. For the next two days he stayed in the apartment and hardly spoke at all, even to me.

I remember trying to turn my twenty-one year old self into an instant expert on fame. Someone had to put it in the right perspective for Jack… “Why don’t you say no to things you don’t want to do?” I advised him.

Discovered through Shopping in Space