Before they became the voices of the Beat Generation, the still unknown Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were involved in a story of intrigue and murder that played out on the Columbia University campus and Riverside Park. As we learned from the article, “The Last Beat,” in Columbia Magazine by David J. Krajicek, former professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, this long-forgotten story centers around the enigmatic character of Lucien Carr, a forgotten cornerstone of the Beat Generation.
Lucien Carr was a transfer student, but he handled his transition from Bowdoin College to Columbia with grace and panache. Good-looking, intelligent and magnetic, Carr effortlessly drew attention and admiration from his peers. Soon, he formed close friendships with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, all of whom he introduced to one another. The men became friends, but Carr, a talented and opinionated writer, was the force that kept them together. He also aroused feelings of a less platonic nature as well–Ginsberg was known to be utterly besotted with him. There were also men from outside their cozy group who were interested.
David Kammerer had been Carr’s scoutmaster back in their hometown of St. Louis. He was an essential guiding force who had recognized Carr’s considerable literary potential and tried to cultivate it by recommending books and imparting sage advice. It was during this time that Kammerer fell madly in love with Carr. When Carr’s mother discovered his impassioned letters, she sent her son away to boarding school in Chicago. This was hardly a deterrent, however. Kammerer ended up stalking his beloved across states and schools all the way to Columbia.
Carr did not quite reciprocate Kammerer’s affection, but he didn’t attempt to put a stop to it either. He even seemed to thrive off the attention to some degree. Whatever enjoyment he derived off Kammerer’s feelings is perhaps what ruined them both, for he probably would not otherwise have agreed to get drinks with his former instructor at the West End bar, once located on 2911 Broadway.
The drinking went on well into the early hours of the morning and then segued into what Kammerer might have considered a romantic, moonlit stroll in Riverside Park, the gay cruising destination of the 1960s. Around West 115th street, as they lay in the grass, he decided to make his move on his former protegé. When he was rebuffed, he became incensed. An impassioned physical struggle ensued.
No one would have expected Lucien Carr to use his Boy Scout knife, of all things, to fatally stab Kammerer twice in the chest. Somehow, Carr gathered his wits enough to bind the body, weigh it with rocks and roll it into the Hudson River. He ran to the first people he could think of, his friends. Burroughs and Kerouac helped him dispose of the evidence, burying Kammerer’s sunglasses in Morningside Park on West 118th St and dropping the sullied childhood relic into a subway grate on 125th St. But after only 12 hours, Carr turned himself in at the district attorney’s office.
Overnight, Carr became quite a media sensation. His studious, intellectual persona garnered a lot of sympathy among the public and the judges alike. The portrayal of Kammerer as a homosexual predator also won Carr supporters. It was no surprise then that he was only charged with manslaughter. He was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory for eighteen months instead of Sing Sing prison, where all the “real criminals” went. Kerouac and Burroughs were tried as material witnesses, but were soon bailed out.
Carr later became the news editor for United Press International who thrived off sensational tabloids. He worked there until his death in 2005. Had Lucien Carr not been destroyed by his own crime, perhaps the Beat Generation would have had a completely different hero. His friends attempted to immortalize Carr in writing. Their first attempt, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, was the least subtle and successful of these. However, his dark influence lives on in the Beat classics they were later to create, like Kerouac’s On the Road, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.
Read more from “The Last Beat,” in Columbia Magazine by David J. Krajicek.