By Larry Clinton
As recently reported in the local and national media, a long-lost letter mailed from Beat legend Neal Cassady to author Jack Kerouac has been acquired by Emory University in Atlanta. But not before the letter mysteriously “disappeared” here in Sausalito.
The 40,000-word single-spaced typed document, known as the “Joan Anderson Letter,” was the inspiration for Kerouac’s masterpiece On the Road. and was purchased at auction. The sale price was $206,250, according to published reports — one-tenth what it was once thought to be worth.
The Joan Anderson Letter tells of Cassady’s adventures, including an affair with a woman named Joan Anderson, thus giving the document its name. In addition to inspiring Kerouac to rewrite his first draft of On the Road in a similar stream-of-consciousness style, the letter generated intrigue when it vanished soon after Cassady mailed it to Kerouac in 1950.
Kerouac said that in 1955 he loaned the manuscript to poet Allen Ginsberg who supposedly passed it along to another Beat poet, Gerd Stern, in hopes of getting it published. Stern was living on a barge at Gate 5 at the time, and Kerouac accused him of losing the letter overboard in a 1968 interview with the Paris Review. In reality, Stern claims, he returned the letter to Ginsberg, who then sent it to Richard Emerson at Sausalito’s Golden Goose Press. Emerson didn't bother to read it, and after Golden Goose folded, Emerson gave his archives, including the still-unopened letter, to record producer Jack Spinosa, who took the material home. There it languished until Spinosa died, and his daughter found it while cleaning out her late father's house.
But Allen Ginsberg continued to blame Stern for losing the letter. Stern lived with that accusation for 50 years, but not without a sense of humor. "Yes, I'm the guy who dropped the letter off the boat, but of course I didn't," Stern said recently. "People have written to me and damned me for this. After 50 years, it's a blessing to be vindicated."
Asked to speculate on Ginsberg’s motive, Stern replied, “I'm convinced Allen lied which is not the only lie of his I recall of his from decades of friendship. But it doesn't matter now. Allen's dead. Jack's dead. Neal's dead. But I'm still alive."
Stern, now 89, no longer lives in Sausalito, but still visits Marin from time to time. In June 2015, he made an appearance with Literary Kicks blogger Levi Asher at Fort Mason. Here’s how Asher announced the event:
“Meet Gerd Stern, O.H. (Original Hipster), who became a part of the Beat scene when he befriended two confused young men named Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon in a mental hospital in New York City, who discovered the art of performance poetry with Maya Angelou while living with her on a Sausalito barge, and who then joined the thriving 1960's activist modern art scene at the height of the hippie explosion. Gerd will talk about his personal encounters with Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, Stewart Brand, Timothy Leary, Robert Creeley, Nam June Paik, Norman Mailer, Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton, about his own unique and deeply moving life's journey, and about what it all means today.”
Sorry to have missed that one!
The full text of Neal Cassady’s original letter may be read at https://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/joan-anderson-letter-neal-cassady.