Cathy Cassady: The Beat Generation On & Off the Road

Daughter of Beat Generation Pioneers Neal & Carolyn Cassady to Speak at Roethke House on September 24th

Posted In: Culture, , Biography,   From Issue 884   By: Geoffrey Carter

29th August, 2019     0

Two years ago my mother unexpectedly bought me a book focused on Jack Kerouac’s stylistic influence on music artists such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and the Grateful Dead. I had not read Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road in years, and this essay had me looking to replace my lost copy. In the process, I stumbled upon a curious memoir by Carolyn Cassady, the wife of Neal Cassady, the man who served as the basis for Kerouac’s central character, Dean Moriarty. Carolyn’s memoir, Off the Road: Twenty Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, promised a female account of those heady years that had been fictionalized in the 1950’s and somewhat immortalized by what became known as The Beat Generation.

Much to my surprise, Carolyn’s own account of the Beats reached back to East Lansing, Michigan, where her father worked as a biochemist at what is now Michigan State U. in the 1920’s. Given that my wife’s family has ties to MSU and live nearby, on a whim, I emailed the Cassady Estate to see if I could discover the location of Carolyn’s childhood home. Much to my surprise, Cathy Cassady Sylvia, the oldest daughter of Carolyn and Neal, enthusiastically responded to my inquiries, even going so far as to tracking down a birth certificate.

As it turned out, 207 Bogue Street is now a fraternity house near campus. Also, as fate would have it, Cathy was planning to visit East Lansing and Glen Lake (near Sleeping Bear Dunes) as part of a major road trip from Sacramento to see her Mom’s former home and family summer cabin sites. She offered to meet and speak, as she has done for colleges and libraries in California, to interested students and faculty at Saginaw Valley State University.

What’s clear from Cathy’s desire to travel and share her family’s stories—and I tried to emphasize this in my Dow Visiting Scholar and Artist grant that was ultimately approved—is connected to the spirit of adventure that motivated the Beat Generation. It’s a spirit that helped inspire the 1960’s Hippie Generation. After all, it was Cathy’s Dad who drove the infamous tie-dyed colored Furthur Bus from Ken Kesey’s compound in California to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. Cathy’s trip East is, strangely, a kind of coda to Tom Wolfe’s account of Neal’s journey in his bestselling book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The difference this time is that Cathy’s Mom, who was integral to why Neal and Jack were on the West Coast in the first place, is now getting her due as a painter, poet, and novelist in her own right.

Cathy’s mom, as I’ve come to discover, lived into her nineties and in that time was charged with explaining the motivations of the famous men in her life. Neal, who passed away in 1968 when he was only forty-one years old, and Kerouac who lived less than two years after Neal’s death and died from alcoholism at forty-seven, haunted Carolyn in ways that must have been challenging.

Carolyn’s own story was somewhat taken up in a 1980 Hollywood movie, Heart Beat, starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek and in a 2011 Swedish documentary entitled Love Always, Carolyn, though the results were less than satisfying to the Cassady family. The complexity of Carolyn’s relation with Neal and Jack, how that relationship was depicted in art, and how that art became contested in various courts are challenges that Cathy and her younger sister and brother continue to wrestle with.

Cathy’s trip to Michigan was something she originally thought would be part of a cross-country journey to places that were significant to her mother’s life. Cathy’s goal is to acknowledge and celebrate her mother’s accomplishments, and to have her recognized as the talented woman she was apart from her connection to the Beats.

Cathy’s journey begins in Michigan, Carolyn’s home state, and includes stops at Syracuse University, and Bennington College in Vermont, with a presentation scheduled at the Lowell Celebrates even in Lowell, MA. Cathy will share musings and memorabilia from her mother’s collection. Part of her presentation will showcase unpublished poetry, paintings of poet friends like Allen Ginsberg, and fiction that in many ways is ahead of its time speaking about domestic and workplace abuse that has come to the fore in the wake of the #MeToo Movement.

Cathy’s last memory of her Dad was when he showed up unexpectedly in Texas when she gave birth to her first child. He held his grandson briefly, but tragically passed away a few months later in Mexico. Cathy has found ways of reconciling the frenetic nature of her father, perhaps most unexpectedly through meeting an older brother, Robert Hyatt, who only became aware of his connection to the Cassady family in 2011. Like her mother and father, Robert is an artist; and while Cathy does not consider herself an artist, in many ways the curatorship of her family’s memory - truly the first children of a generation that would inspire a mindset that helped to precipitate the 60’s - is pivotal at keeping that artistry alive.

It’s worth noting, as Cathy makes her way east, that this year is not only the 50th Anniversary of Kerouac’s passing, it’s also the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock. Something of the spirit of travel is in the air as Cathy and her husband, George, take to the road.

Those interested in her stop over in Michigan should mark September 23 at SVSU’s Founder’s Hall at 4pm and September 24 at The Roethke House in Saginaw at 6pm on their calendar. Cathy’s own career included a position as the Publications Coordinator for the Stanford Medical School Cardiology Division and as Editor-in-Chief of “The Cardiogram” newsletter.  These experiences help her current efforts to assist her brother and sister in curating their parent’s unpublished poems, memoirs, novels and paintings.

For the event on September 24th at Roethke House admission is $22.00 and dinner will be catered by Sullivan’s Restaurant.  Reservations are required and can be placed by phoning  989-928-0430.


Please login to comment



Current Issue


Don't have an account?