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‘One and Only:’ The female catalyst of the Beat Movement

'One and Only:' The female catalyst of the Beat Movement

Co-authors of One and Only, Anne Marie Santos & Gerald Nicosia

In a small room in Montreal, a semi-circle of people sit entranced while listening to an old tape recorder. A warm, charming middle-aged woman’s voice is projected from the grainy cassette static as the group of actors listen intently. Lu Anne Henderson’s voice brings the small collective back to another time; to the era of the beatnicks, young, dubious love and recalled road-trips.

The owner of the cassette, Gerald Nicosia, is the fortunate fellow who was granted the interview with Henderson while she laid in a San Francisco General Hospital bed. These interviews, with the assistance of Henderson’s daughter, Anne Marie Santos, became the source for their new book One and Only  which chronicles Henderson’s story and her lasting influence on the Beat Generation.

Chicago native and University of Illinois Chicago alumnus, Nicosia critic spoke Nov. 16 at a UIC alumni author series, sponsored by University of Illinois Alumni Association and the UIC Library. Though Nicosia is a journalist and literary critic, he’s best known for his extensive research of the beat writers of the 1950s and the detailed account of beat front-runner Jack Kerouac‘s life in his biography, Memory Babe.

While Nicosia traveled the country compiling more than 300 interviews and stories to bring the hazy details of Jack Kerouac to life, he was compelled to meet with Henderson, known as Mary Lou in the Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road (1957).

Just as the beats bridged the gap between the hippie generation, Henderson was the missing link that brought Kerouac and the infamous icon Neal Cassady together. Beloved by both men, she forged a relationship between the two, and as a result, the Beat Generation sprouted, as well as giving Kerouac inspiration and material for his groundbreaking novel.

The influential series of trips published in On the Road chronicles Kerouac’s spontaneous adventures across America with friends and beat writers of the time as they pushed the American norms of sexuality, drug use and societal philosophies. During these mid-century adventures the important friendship between Kerouac and Cassady formed. As a free-spirited, fast-talking maverick, Cassady inspired Kerouac to partake in a number of trips across America to ‘get their kicks’ and find the allusive ‘IT’ of America.

Henderson’s story lays the background of the two prominent figures before they were iconic and is the unrecognized female force in On the Road. Nicosia used parts of his interviews with Henderson in his Kerouac biography, but didn’t realize the significance of the eight hour recordings until 30 years later, when he dug up the old tapes to assist a film cast recreate Kerouac’s classic.

Author Gerald Nicosia at Jack Kerouac's grave

Nicosia attempted to get in touch with Henderson about three decades after their fateful interview at the hospital. In doing so, he got a hold of Santos, and received the news that she passed away a few months prior. Up to this point, most women rising out of the web of beat influences already had books published. Carolyn Cassady (his second wife) and Joyce Johnson (Kerouac’s ex-girlfriend) both had critically acclaimed published works already out and Santos expressed how she had aspirations for a book about her mother. This sparked the collaboration between she and Nicosia to tell the true story about the charismatic, blond-curled beauty named Lu Anne Henderson.

In One and Only, the two paint the fascinating picture of the Depression-era child who came from Denver. Henderson married the wild, ex-convict, Cassady at age 15. At the time, Cassidy was corresponding with New York writers that were students at Columbia. Following her husbands dream of becoming a writer, Henderson stole her uncle’s car and drove out east with Cassady. While in New York, fate brought them into the company of would-be writing pioneers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Over the next decade, the subsequent adventures of this group of friends would produce such gems of literature: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and aforementioned Kerouac’s On the Road.

The literary genius that came out of the ’50s influenced the next generation of counter-culture and activism during the next couple of decades and still holds relevance during the ‘occupy’ era of today.

With a star-studded cast, the film adaptation of On the Road (expected to be released sometime next year) includes Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi and Sam Riley.  To better familiarize the cast with the era of the film, Director Walter Salles initiated his own ‘beatnick boot-camp’ to teach and train the young actors about the beat culture heyday. It was during these neo-beat training sessions that Nicosia relinquished his old tapes of Henderson to help assist Kristen Stewart portray the misunderstood and rather ambiguous character Mary Lou.

For more information about Nicosia, click here.

Credit: Photo #1-Ilenia Lutz. Photo #2-Gerald Nicosia

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