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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Carr, photographed by Allen Ginsberg, 1986. / Photograph by Allen Ginsberg / Corbis

“Carr was really important in getting the group together,” says Aaron Latham, who features the Kammerer slaying in his play, Birth of Beats, and who also wrote a 1976 New York magazine article about the then-forgotten case. “One key part of the Beat phenomenon was the group dynamic they had. Carr was the one friend that bridged them all.”

Or, as Ginsberg famously put it, “Lou was the glue.”

“Perhaps Lucien had never hated Kammerer more; perhaps he had never felt closer to yielding to him.”

The most direct literary result of the murder was Hippos, a thinly veiled mystery novel told in alternating voices, which Burroughs and Kerouac produced almost immediately, completing a final version in 1945. They made repeated attempts to publish it over the years, though Burroughs later claimed that “it wasn’t sensational enough to make it [commercially] ... nor was it well-written or interesting enough to make it [from] a purely literary point of view.” (Near the alcohol-induced end of his own life, Kerouac readapted the material for Vanity of Duluoz.) When Grove Press eventually released Hippos in 2008, after all central parties were dead, the New York Times called it “flimsy” and “flat-footed,” noting that “the best thing about this collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs is its gruesomely comic title.”

But the bloodshed also clearly inspired, in some senses, the tortured-soul narratives in the three elemental Beat masterpieces: Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956, Kerouac’s novel On the Road in 1957, and Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch in 1959.

Oblique references to the event are perhaps most evident in “Howl,” which was initially dedicated to Carr. Hinting at a unity forged among the Beats through the slaying, Ginsberg wrote, “Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time! / Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! ... Down to the river! into the street!”

Lucien Carr was charged with second-degree murder. But the sympathetic narrative of an intellectual fighting off a homosexual predator made it easy for prosecutors to offer a plea of manslaughter. A psychiatrist judged Carr “unstable but not insane,” and Judge George L. Donnellan opted to send Carr to the more genteel Elmira Reformatory rather than to Sing Sing.

“I believe this boy can be rehabilitated, and I would recommend that he have the attention of a skilled psychiatrist,” Donnellan said.

It was this narrative that, decades later, inspired Kill Your Darlings director John Krokidas to tell Carr’s story. He was initially moved by Beat literature as a gay teenager. Reading Ginsberg and Kerouac, he says in a 2009 interview, “introduced me to the idea that the idea of wanting to live outside the boundaries of society was a perfectly acceptable choice.” But ironically, he says, it was society’s rejection of that choice that spared Carr a harsher sentence. “I was furious when I discovered that in 1944 you could literally get away with murder by portraying your victim as a homosexual. They called [Kammerer’s murder] an ‘honor slaying’ or the ‘homosexual panic’ defense.”

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