Frequently I read comments by young fans or writers as to how intrigued they are by Neal's anitcs with Kesey and the Pranksters during the last five years of his life. The evidence is there in stories and flims of his behavior; he did behave in the ways shown and described, it is true. (There is in the works another book by Paula Douglas, "Gretchen Fetchen", who was with them and on the bus. She gives glimpses of a different side of Neal at this time; let's hope it is published.)
In my book OFF THE ROAD and in Jack Kerouac's many books about Neal, another man is revealed. as he is in the hundreds of letters he wrote long before these last years. Three books have been published of them, but the last one and still in print is one edited by Dave Moore, the ultimate expert on Kerouac and Cassady. His footnotes are a valuable source in themselves. Also, delightful are the stories his son, John, has written about his memories of his father, a few now available from the Beat Museum and John's website: johnallencassady.com.
For those of you who have not read my book nor John's, I will summarize the true facts that lie behind this extraordinary behavior. The fascination for it is beyond me.
From a childhood spent in the slums of Denver among the dregs of lost men, Neal was determined to better himself, to become someone respectable and worthy. He had a genius IQ and a photographic memory which impelled him to devour books...literature, philosophy and the sciences, all of which remained in his mind. He perfected his physique as well, training himself as best he could to excel in ballgames and dreampt of playing football with Notre Dame. He became obsessed with auto racing on all levels, and he made himself into the most skillful driver of cars anyone ever met. He had to be the best at anything he attempted or any job he took, and he prided himself he could work at anything. He also prided himself on his sexual prowess.
On a honeymoon trip to New York when he was twenty and his bride sixteen, he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Here were two men who were formally educated, one a writer and the other a poet, and Kerouac was a football hero. Neal was a match for them intellectually, and they became lifelong friends. Here were the men he longed to emulate and rise above his usual poolhall friends in Denver. They recognized his brilliance and knowledge, but his energy and curiosity for life drew them even closer. You all know those stories.
Then Neal met me, an upper middle-class well-educated girl not too hard on the eyes. Here was his chance to invade a higher level on the social scale, and he went for it. He never really left his girl bride, although their marriage was annulled years later when Neal married me. These events you already know but perhaps not the driving motive behind them. With me Neal became passionate about a new way of looking at life: Metaphysics, and he tried desperately to absorb and live these new principles. He at last reached his goal: he became a respectable citizen. He was a home-owner and supported a family, and he had a good job for life. He'd made it. But, alas, his restless energy and his ingrained habits were not so easily dismissed. He needed excitement, challenges and approval.
I think, perhaps, that since he'd never experienced mother-love (his mother died when he was ten, and he said he didn't remember her at all) he never got enough of that essential ingredient for every life. I think his need to continually conquer women was to not only receive more love but to prove himself worthy of it. He had been ingrained so early with the Catholic dogma of being a miserable sinner and guilty, no matter how much his mind told him that wasn't true, this was a concept he could never overcome, try as he might.
So he had to live a double life, and he enjoyed all of it, but the urge for worthiness was constant.
Two pillars supported his self-respect: his railroad job, at which he was the best they ever had, and his family. After he was falsely accused and imprisoned for two years he lost them both. First, the railroad wouldn't hire him back, and I, mistakenly thinking I was freeing him to live as he liked without the burden of a family to support, divorced him. In five years he was dead.
I saw him often during those years. He lived with Kesey and the Pranksters, and I was grateful they took him in. He, however, felt now he had utterly failed in his mission, and he knew he could never go back. He died inside; only his body survived. This he did his best to destroy. He no longer believed in suicide, but he did all he could to be killed. Once a driver who never scratched paint on a car or dented a fender was now rolling buses sideways and VW bugs. He told me he swallowed handfuls of pills anyone offered, even not knowing what they were. Is this not an obvious death-wish? He admitted it was. He told me how he loathed himself for the way he was behaving, but his will wasn't strong enough not to when everyone expected it of him.
I have better understood why Neal so wished to die from reading the excellent essay about how writers viewed Neal. The essay is called The Friendly and Flowing Savage, and it is probably the best book to analyse the writers of the Beat Generation: The Daybreak Boys by Gregory Stephenson. I highly recommend it.
Neal is frequently accused of drinking. He would be described as a user of
alcohol and drugs. Many times I've read that he died because he had
chug-a-lugged Pulque at a Mexican wedding after taking Nembutal. He did
swallow Nembutal that day, but he would never have had too much to drink,
then or previously--if he could help it. He had a very delicate stomach, and anything more than a couple of beers
made him terribly sick. He was so kind, when he was stuck with some
alcoholic conductor on a freight run who, when they rested in the "crummy"
(caboose) and the man would ask Neal to share his flask, Neal would oblige
him. After one of these he came home so sick, so miserable, I knew he'd
never touch another drop. Once, too, he was forced to drink too much Hamm's
beer, and again, he writhed on the floor holding his stomach and cursing
Hamm. He never drank wine, except a sip or two to again be polite, but his
early years with a wino father put him off wine. He had great difficulty
controlling his disgust with Jack's indulgence in wine, but he never
condemned him to his face; he'd just leave the room at such times.
Many years later I asked Ken Kesey if he agreed with my suspicion as to
the possibility that had Neal really attended a wedding (no one knows this
for sure) and he had been asked to toast the bride, Neal would have done so,
even knowing what the combination of the drug and alcohol might do; he would
never be rude and refuse. Ken agreed with me.
We will never know. I have all
the papers relating to his death. I also have letters of testimony by men
who went back to research those events. They could learn no more, except
that the autopsy was not reported in full, because, said the doctor in
charge, it was a matter of drugs and a foreigner. The cause of death on the
certificate is "all systems congested", and that is all.
Please take note:
Other things can cause this, such as renal failure, also likely. The cause
was NOT exposure, as often said.
There is also a common belief that Neal was counting railroad ties when he died. This false idea came from a moving story Ken Kesey wrote called The Day Superman Died about his fictional name for Neal, "Houlihan". In that story Houlihan dies as he is counting ties while walking to the next Mexican village, his last words being the number he had so far counted. This was not true; he died a few yards outside of San Miguel.
Robert Stone also used this image of one of his characters based on Neal in his book and film Dog Soldiers.I hope you all will help us celebrate this unique man as a whole individual if not perfect yet.
I recently heard a quote in a play, the source I forget: "A man's measure is not from the amount of love he gives to others but the amount he is loved." I have to think about that, but Neal was/is certainly loved.
Thanks for listening.