Cassady was born to Maude Jean (Scheuer) and Neal Marshall Cassady in Salt Lake City, Utah. His mother died when he was ten, and he was raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. Cassady spent much of his youth living on the streets of skid row with his father or in reform school.
As a youth, Cassady was repeatedly involved in petty crime. He was arrested for car theft when he was 14, for shoplifting and car theft when he was 15, and for car theft and fencing when he was 16.
In 1941, the 15-year old Cassady met Justin W. Brierly, a prominent Denver educator. Brierly was well known as a mentor of promising young men, and, impressed by Cassady's intelligence, Brierly took an active role in Cassady's life over the next few years. He helped admit Cassady to East High School where he taught, encouraged and supervised his reading, and found employment for him. Cassady continued his criminal activities, however, and was repeatedly arrested from 1942 to 1944; on at least one of these occasions, he was released by law enforcement into Brierly's safekeeping. In June 1944, Cassady was arrested for receipt of stolen property, and served eleven months of a one-year prison sentence. He and Brierly actively exchanged letters during this period even through Cassady's intermittent incarcerations; these represent Cassady's earliest surviving letters. Brierly, apparently a closeted homosexual, is also believed to have been responsible for Cassady's first homosexual experience.
Neal Cassady was a major figure of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the psychedelic and counterculture movements of the 1960s. He was prominently featured as himself in the original "scroll" version, and served as the model for the character Dean Moriarty, in Jack Kerouac's 1957 version of On the Road. Cassady had a sexual relationship with Allen Ginsberg, whom he met in 1947, which lasted off and on for the 20 years, and he traveled with both Kerouac and Ginsberg on multiple occasions.
In October 1945, after being released from prison, he married the fifteen-year-old LuAnne Henderson. In 1947, Cassady and his wife moved to New York City, where they met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University through Hal Chase, another protégé of Brierly's. Although Cassady did not attend Columbia, he soon became friends with them and their acquaintances, some of whom later became members of the Beat Generation. Carolyn Robinson met Cassady in 1946 while she worked in Denver, Colorado, as a teaching assistant. Carolyn would leave the Beat group shortly after walking in on Neal, Allen Ginsberg and Neal's wife at the time, LuAnne, in bed together. Five weeks after her departure, Neal got an annulment from LuAnne and married Carolyn on April 1, 1948. Her book, Off the Road, details her marriage to Cassady and recalls him as "the archetype of the American Man." The couple eventually had three children and settled down in a ranch house in Monte Sereno, California, 50 miles south of San Francisco, where Kerouac and Ginsberg sometimes visited. In 1950 he entered into a bigamous marriage with Diane Hansen, with whom he fathered one son, Curtis Hansen. During this period, Cassady worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad and kept in touch with his "Beat" acquaintances even as they became increasingly different philosophically.
Following an arrest during 1958 for offering to share a small amount of marijuana with an undercover agent at a San Francisco nightclub, Cassady served a sentence at San Quentin State Prison. After his release in June 1960, he struggled to meet family obligations, and Carolyn divorced him when his parole period expired in 1963. Cassady shared an apartment with Allen Ginsberg and Charles Plymell in 1963 at 1403 Gough Street, San Francisco.
Cassady first met author Ken Kesey during the summer of 1962, eventually becoming one of the Merry Pranksters, a group who formed around Kesey in 1964 who were vocal proponents of the use of psychedelic drugs. During 1964, he served as the main driver of the bus named Furthur on the iconic first half of the journey from San Francisco to New York, which was immortalized by Tom Wolfe's book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Cassady appears at length in a documentary film about the Merry Pranksters and their cross-country trip, Magic Trip, directed by Alex Gibney, released on 5 August 2011.
In January 1967, Cassady traveled to Mexico with fellow prankster George "Barely Visible" Walker and longtime girlfriend Anne Murphy. In a beachside house just south of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, they were joined by Barbara Wilson and Walter Cox. All-night storytelling, speed drives in Walker's Lotus Elan and the use of LSD made for a classic Cassady performance – "like a trained bear," Carolyn Cassady once said. Cassady was beloved for his ability to inspire others to love life. Yet at rare times he was known to express regret over his wild life, especially as it affected his family. At one point Cassady took Cox, then 19, aside and told him, "Twenty years of fast living – there's just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don't do what I have done."
During the next year, Cassady's life became less stable and the pace of his travels became more frenetic. He left Mexico in May, traveling to San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; New York City, New York, and points in between: then returned to Mexico in September and October (stopping in San Antonio, Texas, on the way to visit his oldest daughter who had just given birth to his first grandchild); visited Ken Kesey's Oregon farm in December; and spent the New Year with Carolyn at a friend's house near San Francisco. Finally, in late January 1968, Cassady returned to Mexico once again.
On February 3, 1968, Cassady attended a wedding party in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. After the party he went walking along a railroad track to reach the next town, but passed out in the cold and rainy night wearing nothing but a T-shirt and jeans. In the morning, he was found in a coma by the track, reportedly by Dr. Anton Black, later a professor at El Paso Community College, who carried Cassady over his shoulders to the local post office building. Cassady was then transported to the closest hospital, where he died a few hours later on February 4, four days short of his forty-second birthday.
The exact cause of Cassady's death remains uncertain. Those who attended the wedding party confirm that he took an unknown quantity of secobarbital, a powerful barbiturate sold under the brand name of Seconal. The physician who performed the autopsy wrote simply "general congestion in all systems". When interviewed later, the physician stated that he was unable to give an accurate report, because Cassady was a foreigner and there were drugs involved. 'Exposure' is commonly cited as his cause of death, although his widow believes he may have died of renal failure.
The First Third by Neal Cassady
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: City Lights Publishers; Rev Exp edition (January 1, 2001)
Amazon: The First Third
Immortalized as Dean Moriarty by Jack Kerouac in his epic novel, On the Road, Neal Cassady was infamous for his unstoppable energy and his overwhelming charm, his savvy hustle and his devil-may-care attitude. A treasured friend and traveling companion of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey, to name just some of his cohorts on the beatnik path, Cassady lived life to the fullest, ready for inspiration at any turn.
Before he died in Mexico in 1968, just four days shy of his forty-second birthday, Cassady had written the jacket blurb for this book: “Seldom has there been a story of a man so balled up. No doubt many readers will not believe the veracity of the author, but I assure these doubting Thomases that every incident, as such, is true."
As Ferlingetti writes in his editor’s note, Cassady was “an early prototype of the urban cowboy who a hundred years ago might have been an outlaw on the range.” Here are his autobiographical writings, the rambling American saga of a truly free individual.
More Real Life Romances at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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