Cassady, Neal

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1926-02-08
Death 1968-02-04
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Neal Leon Cassady, Jr., 1926-1968, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, while his parents were traveling from Iowa to Hollywood, California. Neal's father earned a living intermittently as a barber, and his mother had been widowed and already had seven children before marrying the senior Cassady. Neal was six when his parents separated and Neal went to live with his father in the slums of Denver.

Exposed at an early age to poverty, alcoholism, and the despair to which men can be driven, young Neal learned to use his intellect to move up in the world. A good reader with an excellent memory, and eager to be liked by authority figures, he did well in school and pushed himself to be a good athlete, playing football and running track. While he was impressing teachers and coaches at school, he was also becoming involved in petty crime, eventually becoming a car thief. He had been arrested six times by the age of 21. Cassady frequently ran away from home and around the age of 15 he began trading in on his good looks and worked as a male prostitute. An attorney, the nephew of one of Cassady's clients, took an interest in his welfare and endeavored to help him better himself. Besides helping him out of legal difficulties he introduced Cassady to Hal Chase, a student at Columbia University.

In 1946 Cassady moved to New York, along with his new 16 year-old wife, LuAnn Henderson. He was to have entered Columbia in the fall, thanks to the intervention of Chase, but did not reach the City until December. Though angry that Cassady had thrown away the opportunity to go to college, Chase introduced him to his friends, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Both men took an interest in Cassady, and he and Ginsberg became lovers, though Cassady denied being homosexual and only had sex with men for money or some other consideration. In the case of Ginsberg, Cassady used him both as a tutor and as an entry into the intellectual crowd he admired.

Cassady only remained in New York for a few months before returning to Denver. In 1948 he finalized the annulment of his first marriage and married Carolyn Robinson, who was pregnant with his child, and took a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. His attempt to settle down into a more conventional lifestyle was not very successful. Cassady felt stifled by the responsibilities and over the next several years he would take off on several road trips, often with Kerouac, and often lasting for months at a time. In 1950 he married Diane Hansen, who was pregnant, but he had not divorced Carolyn and within a few months abandoned Diane and returned to Carolyn and his job on the railroad.

In 1951 Diane gave birth to a son and Cassady began to feel his life spinning out of control. He wrote a long, confessional letter to Kerouac which altered the way Kerouac viewed writing. Cassady wrote in a spontaneous and unedited manner which conveyed a breathless rush to get the words onto paper. Kerouac was inspired by the method, later calling it spontaneous prose, and he used it for the rest of his writing career.

Throughout the fifties, Cassady's behavior grew more erratic. He ceased to even try to hide his affairs from Carolyn and though he managed to keep his job and support her and their three children, it was clear that he was heading towards some sort of crisis. In 1955 he moved to San Francisco with another woman and in 1958 was arrested on narcotics charges and spent two years in San Quentin.

In the early sixties Cassady met Ken Kesey and the two men became friends, sharing an interest in sports, drugs, and literature. Cassady was deeply admired by Kesey's group of young acolytes, the Merry Pranksters, and he joined their group on many cross-country bus trips. In 1963 he reluctantly agreed to a divorce from Carolyn, but continued to return to see her and their children, until Carolyn asked him to stop in 1965. In January 1968 he went to Mexico to make an avant-garde film. At a cast party on February 3 he took a fatal mixture of alcohol and tranquilizers. He was found unconscious the next morning on nearby railroad tracks and died a few hours later.

From the guide to the Neal Cassady Collection TXRC00-A14., 1947-1965, (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center The University of Texas at Austin)

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