Unlikely icon of Beat generation who led extraordinary life

Carolyn Cassady - Born: April 28th, 1923; Died: September 20th, 2013

In her book Off the Road (1990), Carolyn Cassady, who has died aged 90, charted her extraordinary life with the Beat writers Neal Cassady, her husband, and Jack Kerouac, her lover.

Cassady was an unlikely, and in many ways an unwilling, Beat icon herself. When she met Neal Cassady in Colorado in 1947, she was a student of theatre design at the University of Denver, having attended a smart east-coast ladies' college; he was a car thief, an energetic seducer of women and occasionally men, and possessed of a restless, manic energy that had already bewitched Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

He also had a teenage bride, LuAnne Henderson. Soon after they had begun their relationship, Carolyn crept into Neal's flat one morning to give him a surprise, only to find him asleep with Henderson on one side and Ginsberg on the other. After Carolyn relocated to San Francisco, Neal followed her. They married in 1948.

Kerouac's novel On the Road (1957) was based on the cross-country dashes he made from New York with Neal (who became the wild-man hero Dean Moriarty in the novel) and Henderson (who became Marylou, in the passenger seat in the book).


Meanwhile, Carolyn – who had stayed at home, raising the first of her and Neal’s three children – was portrayed as Camille, the symbol of all that was stable and decent (or, for the youthful madcaps keen on Rimbaud and Baudelaire, bourgeois).

Carolyn Elizabeth Robinson was born in Lansing, Michigan, the daughter of a biochemist and a teacher. After secondary education she went to Bennington College, Vermont, at the time an all-female institution.

Humorous and level-headed about most things, she had a blind spot where Neal was concerned. On a gambling kick, Neal persuaded Natalie Jackson, a girl he lived with in San Francisco during the late 1950s, to pose as Carolyn and draw out the family savings, which he lost at the racetrack.

From almost the moment of their meeting, Neal was unfaithful to Carolyn, sometimes more than once a day. When his adventures – on the road, or in another’s bed – had paled, she welcomed his return.

Defended Kerouac
Kerouac, too, she defended against his detractors. Urged on by Neal, she and Kerouac had an affair. Neal had played the same game earlier, with Kerouac and Henderson, which Carolyn described fondly in Off the Road. By contrast, Carolyn had little liking for Ginsberg, whose lifelong claims on Neal (resembling, at times, the claims of a thwarted spouse) she resented deeply.

Neal Cassady died in 1968, by which time he and Carolyn had been living apart for several years. Her memoir Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal was published in 1976. She wrote the foreword to As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady (1977).

A collection of Kerouac's letters to Carolyn was published in 1983, and Carolyn wrote the introduction to Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967, published in 2005.

In the film Heart Beat (1980), written and directed by John Byrum, Sissy Spacek played Carolyn and Nick Nolte played Neal. Some people encountering Carolyn in later life were surprised to discover that she was not more hip, more "Beat".

In the late 1990s, she lived in northwest London where she enjoyed the cultural aspects of the city and her interest in drugs extended no further than a packet of menthol cigarettes. Cassady later settled in Bracknell, Berkshire.

She is survived by her children, John, Jami and Cathy, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.