The Last Beat

A murder in Riverside Park changed the lives of a group of Columbia undergrads. Did it change literature as well?

by David J. Krajicek ’85JRN Published Winter 2012-13
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Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr on campus, 1944. / Photograph by Allen Ginsberg / CorbisKammerer, who was thirty-three, had known Carr years before in their native St. Louis, where he had been Carr’s scoutmaster, as well as a kind of life coach and literary beacon, recommending books that helped nurture the boy’s literary talent. But Carr was more than Kammerer’s protégé. He was his obsession. For years, Kammerer had trailed Carr to a series of schools, the latest being Columbia, where Carr, nineteen, had just completed his freshman year.

Kammerer wanted a sexual relationship with Carr, and while Carr was ostensibly straight and dating a Barnard student (which only further fueled Kammerer’s jealousy), his feelings were clearly complicated. Ginsberg later said that while Kammerer craved Carr, Carr craved the attention. James W. Grauerholz, a friend of William S. Burroughs’s and his literary executor, would describe Kammerer as Carr’s “stalker and plaything, his creator and destroyer.”

At the West End, Kammerer caught up to Carr. The two men drank until after 2:00 a.m., then headed down to Riverside Park. As they lounged on the grass at the foot of West 115th Street, Kammerer made what the New York Times would call an “offensive proposal.” Carr “rejected it indignantly,” and the men grappled. As Johnson writes in The Voice Is All, “Perhaps Lucien had never hated Kammerer more; perhaps he had never felt closer to yielding to him.”

Losing the struggle, Carr withdrew a small folding knife and twice jabbed the blade into Kammerer’s chest. As Kammerer’s life drained away, Carr rolled the body to the river’s edge, bound the limbs, weighted it with rocks, and watched his old scoutmaster sink into the Hudson. Carr was anxious to report his deed, but not to police. Instead, he headed straight to the apartments of his trusted friends — first Burroughs’s, then Kerouac’s — breaking the news with a macho, film noir–style quip: “Well, I disposed of the old man last night.”

That Carr had been at the West End at all was something of an accident: the previous day, he and Kerouac had hatched a scheme to sail as merchant mariners to Europe, where they planned a wartime visit to Paris to retrace the steps of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, a literary hero whose volatile relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine had culminated, in 1873, in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the arm. But Carr and Kerouac arrived at the dock too late.

Now, instead of sailing the Atlantic, they took a macabre walk through Manhattan. They stopped in Morningside Park to bury Kammerer’s eyeglasses, then went north to 125th Street in Harlem, where they ditched Carr’s old Boy Scout knife — an apt tool — down a grate. Then, delaying the inevitable, they wandered down to Midtown. The stopped at the Museum of Modern Art, ate hot dogs in Times Square, and ducked into a movie house on Sixth Avenue, where they watched Zoltán Korda’s 1939 remake of The Four Feathers, a British war adventure about cowardice and redemption.

After a twelve-hour odyssey, Carr finally walked into the district attorney’s office, where he confessed. Authorities wondered whether the skinny student, who cradled a dog-eared copy of W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, was a lunatic. They doubted that he had the gumption to kill someone.

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