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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Similarly, the Beats had mixed feelings about the academy coming to Carr’s rescue. Johnson writes that “soon Allen Ginsberg ... would be explaining to tabloid reporters the importance of the New Vision. During the pretrial hearings, Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, the leading lights of Columbia’s English department, would appear as character witnesses for Lucien.” But while the portrayal of Carr as an Ivy League scholar helped garner a lenient sentence, he and his friends were constantly questioning the role of traditional education in their intellectual development. Kerouac had dropped out of Columbia, and Carr himself was ready to abandon the pending semester to join the merchant marine. After the trial, Columbia was also a convenient antagonist, says Ben Marcus, a novelist and associate professor at the School of the Arts. The young writers needed an enemy, Marcus says, and “they took a lot of energy from their subversion of the university.”

Carr spent eighteen months at Elmira, and initially, even behind bars, the haughty Count de Maubris seemed alive and well. “Lucien has changed somewhat since you last saw him due to various vicissitudes which he has undergone,” Carr, referring to himself in the third person, wrote to Ginsberg. “Still the introspective, he will never cease to see, like Thoreau, all of life in a drop of water ... And he has begun to see a little more clearly along the ascendant paths of self-consummation!”

But soon that also began to waver. Johnson writes that “the last they heard from Lucien for the next couple of years was a coded letter forwarded to Allen but addressed to ‘Cher Breton,’ in which he wrote that he was undergoing some changes in prison that were leading him to wonder whether the power of the intellect was less important than the ‘spirit.’”

After his parole, Carr returned to New York and began a long career in a field that many would regard as the occupational opposite of brooding self-examination: he became a wire-service newsman, with United Press, which would later become United Press International.

A trove of correspondence to Carr from Ginsberg and Kerouac in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library demonstrates that although their paths diverged, they remained close friends. They chatted about everything, from world politics to Carr’s “awful” mustache. Writing from Paris in 1957, Ginsberg quoted Burroughs: “I mean, having a mustache like that to keep oneself from being pretty is like knocking out a couple of teeth or sticking in a nose-plug or some other such barbarous self-mutilation, in fact it’s worse, it’s a crime of self-desecration to try to make yourself ugly, to please a lot of jerks down at the UP & be one of the boys is terrible.”

Ginsberg added, “Jack & I agree.” The advice didn’t take hold. Carr spent much of his adult life behind a mustache and full beard — perhaps to spite his old friends. Carr distanced himself publicly from his Beat pals, initially because he feared being drawn into a parole violation by their recklessness and later because he preferred to erase the homicide from his biography. He even demanded that Ginsberg remove his name from the dedication of “Howl.”

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