Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Heroby David Sandison, Graham Vickers
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This fascinating and in-depth biography of Neal Cassady takes a look at the man who achieved immortality as Dean Moriarty, the central character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. A charismatic, funny, articulate, and formidably intelligent man, Cassady was also a compulsive womanizer who lived life on the edge. His naturalistic, conversational writing style inspired Kerouac, who lifted a number of passages verbatim and uncredited from Cassady’s letters for significant episodes in On the Road. Drawing on a wealth of new research and with full cooperation from central figures in his lifeincluding Carolyn Cassady and Ken Keseythis account captures Cassady’s unique blend of inspired lunacy and deep spirituality.
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The Fast Life of A Beat Hero
By David Sandison, Graham Vickers
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 David Sandison and Graham Vickers
All rights reserved.
IT MAY SEEM ODD to begin a biography with a correction, but Neal Cassady's story is one that is shot through with myth and falsehood from the very start. The circumstances surrounding and preceding his birth have been repeatedly misrepresented and misunderstood over the years. A tangle of contradictory accounts and false recollections has made the task of arriving at an honest version a complex one, and for authors and readers alike, the process sometimes resembles opening a set of those nesting Russian dolls that keep revealing yet another truth inside the one that you felt sure was the last. While this has the advantage of preparing us for the recurring theme of lying and creative reinvention that was to run throughout Neal Cassady's life, unpicking these familial myths and misdirections may strike some as an unwelcome delay to the start of the action. One hopes, however, that this Cassady family history does remind us that the world into which Neal was born was one in which public records and family gossip could be equally unreliable, the former often being nothing more than a record of the latter, and the latter acquiring embellishments and alterations to suit prevailing circumstances and personalities.
Neal Cassady was certainly born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and definitely grew up in Denver, Colorado, where he lived from the age of two. However, myth and ambivalence surround not only his parents' history but even distort the circumstances of his birth. Neal Cassady was not born in the backseat of a car (or any other vehicle) stopped by the roadside on the outskirts of Salt Lake City in the early hours of February 8, 1926. That was one of the romantic inventions that Neal fed Jack Kerouac many years later, fabrications that were unquestioningly accepted by the captivated author and woven into the legend of the charismatic Dean Moriarty, Cassady's alter ego and the hero of On the Road. Over time people came to believe the Moriarty myth, causing this fiction to become one of many spurious Cassady "facts." Only in 1981, with the posthumous publication of the second extended and revised edition of Neal's memoir, The First Third, was the record (more or less) set straight. In an amended prologue, he admitted that his mother had given birth to him in "the L.D.S. Hospital," a Salt Lake City medical institution supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact he was born in a maternity ward of another hospital, Salt Lake County General. His birth certificate states that an infant named Neal Cassady Jr. (whose parents were identified as a thirty-two-year-old white man, Neal Cassady, and a thirty-three-year-old white woman, Maude Jean Scheuer), was indeed born there at 2:05 A.M. on February 8, 1926.
Neal's account of his family's history in that prologue was an altogether bewildering fiction in which were buried a few tantalizingly accurate details, a confection of half- remembered stories told to Neal by his father (who spent most of his waking hours in an alcoholic stupor) and anecdotes from far-flung relatives whom Neal contacted but whose secondhand recollections of long-gone events were understandably vague.
According to this unreliable memoir, Neal's father (whose full birth name was Neal Marshall Casady [sic], a spelling that would come to acquire an extra s and sometimes even became Cassidy) was born into a small rural community near Queen City, in northwest Missouri, in 1893. This much we know to be fact, but if we want the real story we should ignore Neal's embroidered account of his parents' early lives and turn instead to the diligent research of Louise Marie Casady Kiser, a distant cousin of Neal's who lived in Montana and who compiled a rather more reliable Casady family history in 1972. An excerpt from this history appeared in the first part of an excellent two-part Neal Cassady magazine published during the 1980s by Tom Christopher, a Washington State–based author. Christopher's exhaustive research further added to a more reliable picture of the senior Cassady's early life and offers a plausible explanation, beyond the effects of alcoholic befuddlement, for the man's fanciful dissembling: he had much to cover up.
Mrs. Kiser discovered that the Casadys were Irish Quakers who had immigrated to America and settled in New Jersey in the early nineteenth century. Parts of the family headed west during the next few decades, some of them settling in Missouri. Neal Sr.'s father was the ninth and youngest child of Samuel Surry Casady and his wife, Permilia Ann Mulli-nix. The First Third erroneously states that Neal's grandfather was named William, and that he married his brother's pregnant widow, Cora. (Samuel and Permilia did have a daughter named Ora and that may have led to this particular mistake in Neal Jr.'s account.)
Another of Tom Christopher's sources recalled that Permilia died when Neal Sr. was a baby and that the boy left home in his mid-teens. His father, Mrs. Kiser said, remarried "a couple of times," and so did not slump into the morose, introspective, Bible-thumping, child-beating recluse that Neal Sr. described to his son.
While some details of the elder Neal's trail have proved elusive, in 1914 he can definitely be placed in Des Moines, Iowa. At that time, far from being the virginal and naïve youngster chastely courting a German girl named Gertrude Vollmer, as The First Third would have it, Neal Sr. actually married a local girl named Ethel on September 10 of that year. By 1919 a "Mr. and Mrs. Neal Cassady" were listed in the Des Moines directory as residing at 931 7th Street; his occupation was given as "barber" and hers as "grocery clerk." Two years later that same directory listed Neal Sr. as living alone at 207½ 6th Avenue.
Neal Sr.'s World War I military career and other career "facts" described in The First Third are also thrown into doubt by the sworn testimony that Ethel gave when she divorced him in 1924. According to her petition, she and Neal had lived together until June 1921, since the time when (and indeed for some time before) he had "failed in any manner to support [her]."
Ethel also claimed that during the last six years of their marriage Neal Sr. had "pursued a course of cruel and inhuman treatment" toward her, had failed to support her financially, and had made it necessary for her to perform labor for which she was unfitted "in order to gain a livelihood." Neal Sr. had also "constantly harassed and abused" her, thereby impairing her health and endangering her life. Neal Sr. did not contest his wife's action and the divorce was granted on May 6, 1924.
Neal Marshall Casady stood five feet, eight inches tall, and weighed 160 pounds. Although long in the body he had relatively short arms and legs. His son described his face as being "usually alight with the kindness of simplicity," adding that while Neal Sr. possessed a restless mind, it was "slow, with very little in it." With regard to his fanciful memoirs, Neal Jr.'s mind might, by contrast, be described as having rather too much in it. The First Third prologue, colorful and imaginative as it might be, proved highly untrustworthy — not only in major fact but also in minor detail.
Neal Cassady's mother, he assured his readers, was named on her son's birth certificate as Maude Jean Scheuer. She was born in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1890. The fourth and final child of a German-born master mariner Neal Sr. referred to as Otto Scheuer, Maude came from a formerly stable, respectable, and well-off family that had begun to disintegrate in 1898 when her mother died of pneumonia shortly after Otto left on one of his yearlong voyages.
Within a few months, Neal wrote, Maude's sister Carrie had departed for Sioux City, Iowa, where she took a job as housemaid with the wealthy parents of a longtime pen pal. An older brother, Charles, secured work with the Railway Express Company in Duluth. When Otto finally returned from his voyage, he arranged for Maude's twelve-year-old sister, Lucy, to join the same household staff as Carrie in Sioux City, while Maude was sent to live with the family of a seaman friend near Duluth.
When Maude was twelve years old her sister Carrie married and moved with her husband to California. Lucy took over her duties and Otto arranged for Maude to join Carrie's erstwhile employers in their Sioux City household as well. The sisters shared a cottage on the estate, and the family for whom they worked soon made a favorite of the pretty, gracious, and mild-mannered Maude.
As Maude became a teenager she began to receive advances from prospective suitors. Among them (Neal Sr. told his son who relayed the information to readers of The First Third) was James Kenneth Daly, scion of a wealthy and well-connected Sioux City family.
Daly was described by Neal as "a lawyer well-up in the local political sphere, despite his youth ... he brought his wife into a home of financial security." An Irish immigrant, Daly was characterized by Neal as intelligent, gruff, quick to anger but kindhearted and sentimental, a hard worker, a keen duck hunter, a fine marksman, and an enthusiastic consumer of McSorrell's Ale and substantial meals. He and Maude married in the autumn of 1906, when she was just sixteen years old and Daly was twenty-four.
In 1919, Neal wrote, Jim Daly was unexpectedly elected mayor of Sioux City on an anti-graft platform that proposed widespread reform of the city's legislature. Three years later and just before a second election campaign, Neal assures us, Daly died of apoplexy when he was not yet forty years old. His pregnant widow was thirty-two at the time of his death, having already given birth to four boys and four girls. One of the boys had died at birth in 1917, and the names and birth dates of the surviving seven were given as: William (1907), Ralph (1910), John (1912), Evelyn (1915), Mae (1919), Betty (1920), and James Kenneth Jr. (1922).
Maude sold the Sioux City family house and moved to Des Moines. There, with the family in financially reduced circumstances, the eldest boys went to work. William left school and got a full-time job; Ralph began working afternoons and Saturdays as a housepainter, John became a newspaper delivery boy.
Taken into a circle of bridge-playing ladies, Maude was also drawn into a Sunday concert group that ensured her presence at some of Des Moines' most select gatherings. It was at the annual dance held by this group that Maude met Neal Sr. After a decorous courtship (during which Neal also sought to win over Maude's suspicious children), he proposed to Maude in the spring of 1925 and married her on May 1 of that year. Maude became pregnant in the first month of the marriage with the child who would be named after his father. However, here more confusion of names further clouds an already doubtful history. Neal claimed that his father wanted him to be named plain Neal Cassady and thus be known as Neal Cassady Jr. (even though Neal Sr. was still given to spelling his own surname as Cassidy). Maude, however, decided that the boy would be named Neal Leon Cassady, rendering the "Jr." tag further redundant.
Even more dubious facts now appear in the younger Neal's memoir. He wrote that prior to his birth, back in Des Moines, his father had built a remarkable timber house on the back of a two-ton Ford truck on which Neal Sr., his heavily pregnant wife, and her two youngest children, five-year-old Betty and three-year-old Jimmy, were to travel west in search of a better life in California. Maude's older children would stay and fend for themselves in Des Moines until this family of pioneers either returned or made its fortune and sent for them. It was during that trek, as they neared Salt Lake City and Maude began to go into labor, that Neal Sr. headed for the county hospital where his son was born. When Maude was sufficiently rested the newly extended family hit the road once more until it reached Los Angeles, where, with the last of his savings, Neal Sr. bought a barbershop on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Within a year he sold the business and, acting on a suggestion from Maude's brother, Charles, relocated to Denver, Colorado.
In fact the Los Angeles episode appears to be yet another of the fictions that litter the prologue to The First Third. Neal's half-sister Evelyn was certain that the Salt Lake City expedition and the move to Denver were not interrupted by a spell in California, and said as much to Tom Christopher.
It was again half-sister Evelyn who provided conclusive evidence to show the extent to which the two Neals had, between them, fabricated an inaccurate family history. Early in 1982 Carolyn Cassady sent a copy of the newly revised The First Third to Evelyn, who was by then living in the Los Angeles suburb of Garden Grove. On June 16 of that year Evelyn wrote Carolyn to set the record straight. Her letter has never before been published, and it is worth quoting here in full:
In reply to your request, I'll try to indicate below a few of the differences I noted:
Mother's name was Maud (no e) Webb Scheuer. (Jean was a nickname).
Dad's name was James Daly (no middle initial).
Our Grandad's name was John Scheuer (not Otto). He remarried and lived in Minot until his second wife's death when he moved to Denver to live with his youngest daughter, Lucy Rieger. No one in the Daly or Scheuer families ever lived in Des Moines. Mother and Dad lived in Sioux City, Iowa until after Ralph was born. They then moved to Denver and spent the rest of their lives there, except for the time Mother and Neal traveled.
The order of our (Daly) births was as follows:
Austin Gerald (not William) 5/19/07 Sioux City, Iowa
Ralph Denton 2/19/09 " " "
Evelyn 2/19/11 Denver, Colorado
Jack Kenneth 12/19/12 " "
Mae Eleanor 11/19/16 " "
Betty Louise 5/1919
James Robert 4/1921
There was another child born (blue baby) I believe between Jack and Mae, but I'm not sure. I was very young but remember it being taken to be buried.
My Mother's family and the order of their births was as follows:
Raymond (not Charles)*
*Charles was Lucy's husband and Ray never lived in Denver although he visited on occasion.
Dad was never a Mayor of any town, but rather a Claim Adjuster for the Railway Express. Neal and Mother met in Denver (I was there at the time.)
To my knowledge, Carrie, Mother & Lucy never worked for a wealthy family. Carrie worked for the Telephone Company as a Long Distance operator after her mother died and was married at 16 years of age. Her husband (another Charles) worked with Dad in Sioux City and that is how Dad and Mother met.
Lucy lived with her dad & stepmother until she was 18 years old when she went to Denver. She worked for a family in Fort Lupton, Colo. She married the half-brother of the lady for whom she worked.
Shortly after Mother & Neal met (about 2 years after our Dad's death) Jack & I went to Sioux City to live with Dad's eldest brother Pat Daly and his wife Laura.
Some of the above is of little consequence, but since it is fact I have shown it.
Evelyn may have considered her information to be of little consequence, but it changes the legend of the senior Neal Cassady in significant fashion. His account of his wife's family, her raising, and their first genteel meetings was pure invention.
Then there is his portrait of Maud's first husband, James Daly. There was in fact no hard-won election to become an anti-graft mayor of Sioux City — and no apoplectic death on September 17, 1922, when he was still only thirty-nine years old. In fact, James Daly died at his home, 3047 California Street, Denver, on October 8, 1922, after residing in that city for thirteen years. He was forty-three years old. His physician, Dr. Galen Locke, certified that the cause of his death was pulmonary tuberculosis. James Daly was laid to rest in Denver's Mount Olivet Cemetery after a requiem mass at the Sacred Heart Church.
Given that Neal Sr.'s account of his courtship of Maud was so riddled with inaccuracies, his version of the trek from Des Moines toward the Promised Land with his heavily pregnant wife (in the middle of a midwestern winter in a truck with no heater and with two children under the age of five) seems at least open to question. Yet Neal Jr. was indisputably born in Salt Lake City — so why were Neal Sr. and Maud there?
Partial clues lie in two pieces of information Neal Sr. volunteered when he filled out his son's birth certificate. (It must have been Neal who performed that duty and not Maud because she is unlikely to have added an e to her first name or given her nickname, Jean, as her middle name when it was actually Webb.) In the box where he had to give his occupation, Neal wrote "Barber (Deseret Gym)." For his place of residence, he wrote the Salt Lake City address "481/2 West Broadway." So we must conclude that Neal was already working and living in that city.
Excerpted from Neal Cassady by David Sandison, Graham Vickers. Copyright © 2006 David Sandison and Graham Vickers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
David Sandison was the author of biographies of Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara, and Sharon Stone. Graham Vickers is a freelance magazine writer who has covered the subjects of advertising, design, movies, and popular culture. His books include 21st-Century Hotel and Key Moments in Architecture.
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