FEATURE

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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In the fashion of that era, journalists were invited to have a look at Carr as he sat in the DA’s office. They found a “slender, studious youth” who was “peacefully reading poetry,” as the New York Times put it. The Daily News called Carr “refined and erudite.” Nicholas McD. McKnight, a dean of Columbia College, spoke out for Carr, declaring him “definitely a superior student.”

A front-page account published in the Times on August 17, 1944, began, “A fantastic story of a homicide, first revealed to the authorities by the voluntary confession of a 19-year-old Columbia sophomore, was converted yesterday from a nightmarish fantasy into a horrible reality by the discovery of the bound and stabbed body of the victim in the murky waters of the Hudson River.”

“The Beats were a complicated group of people, with Lucien Carr directly at the center,” says Ann Douglas, the Parr Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature, who has long taught a popular course on them. “Understanding the murder, and the reasons behind it, is instrumental to understanding them.”

The day after Carr confessed, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs’s father came to New York to post his bail, but Kerouac’s family refused. Instead, his girlfriend Edie Parker came to his rescue, though the judge would not allow her to bail him out unless the pair married, which they did in a short ceremony on August 22, setting the course of Kerouac’s next several years.

Though Ginsberg was the only one who escaped arrest, it was on him that the murder arguably had the gravest impact. Deeply in love with Carr, he had also developed a close friendship with Kammerer and was struggling with his own homosexuality. Johnson suggests in The Voice Is All that, while Carr denied it, Ginsberg may have experimented sexually with both men before the murder. And in August, she writes, Ginsberg “spent some intensely lonely weeks mourning the loss of Lucien and ‘wonderful, perverse Kammerer,’ twice drafting suicide notes in his journal.”

The greatest change, though, was that their leader was gone. In Carr, the friends found an attractive iconoclast who harangued them with profane oratories about creativity drawn from Yeats and Rimbaud. In his journal, Ginsberg called Carr “my ideal image of virtue and awareness.” In And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a roman à clef co-written by Kerouac and Burroughs, Burroughs describes the Carr character as “the kind of boy literary fags write sonnets to, which start out, ‘O raven-haired Grecian lad ...’” To honor Carr’s beauty, as well as his snobbishness, Ginsberg and Kerouac invented an alter ego for him, a withering French aristocrat they named Claude de Maubris.

But Carr wasn’t just the muse; rather, Johnson suggests, he was quickly becoming famous across campus as something of a literary prodigy. “His verbal brilliance impressed professors and led admirers to believe he might well become ‘another Rimbaud,’” she writes. Kerouac referred to him in Vanity of Duluoz as “Shakespeare reborn almost.” To his new friends, Carr’s intellectual prowess was as compelling as his striking good looks: it was with poetry that he wooed Ginsberg, late-night intellectual sparring that won over the often stoic Kerouac, and his precocious worldliness that lured Burroughs uptown from his Greenwich Village apartment.

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