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Roads for Kerouac lead to Ozone Park

The smoky dives of Greenwich Village and the coffee houses of San Francisco may have been the natural habitat of the Beat Generation, but for the movement’s most renowned symbol, home was really Queens.

“Jack Kerouac 1922-1969,” proclaims a plaque on the wall of a two-story attached house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd. in Ozone Park with an Italian pastry shop and caffe in the storefront below.

The plaque says Kerouac lived on the second floor of the house from 1943 to 1949 and wrote his first novel, “The Town and the City,” above what was then a pharmacy. The poet and novelist also “planned ‘On the Road,’ (1957), his seminal novel that would define the Beat Generation,” it says.

But there is no mention of Queens in the documents and artifacts from the Jack Kerouac Archive now on public display for the first time at the New York City Public Library.

The Kerouac items are part of an exhibit called “Victorians, Moderns and Beats, New in the Berg Collection 1994-2001.”

The omission of Queens is not surprising because Kerouac’s early works contain few references to the borough even though he both lived and wrote for many years in the Ozone Park house as traffic roared along the boulevard below and later on a quiet street in Richmond Hill.

Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac of French-Canadian parents in the Massachusetts mill town of Lowell, lived with his parents in the Cross Bay Boulevard house a few blocks south of Liberty Avenue after they moved to New York during World War II in search of work.

The Kerouacs did find employment after their arrival in Queens during the war, Ann Charters writes in her 1973 book, “Jack Kerouac, a Biography.” Leo, Kerouac’s father, got a job as a Linotype operator in Brooklyn and Memere, his mother, worked in a shoe factory.

Young Kerouac, a star football player at Lowell High School, had been recruited by legendary Columbia University Coach Lou Little. But Kerouac suffered a leg injury on the gridiron, got into a dispute with Little and quit school, enlisting in the Merchant Marine as World War II broke out.

His father died in 1946 and a few years later, the writer moved from Ozone Park with his mother to a three-story house at 94-21 134th St. in Richmond Hill.

Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, Kerouac lived in Queens, always returning from his odysseys across America or his adventures in Manhattan. He finally moved in the early 1960s with his mother to a house in Northport, L.I. He died in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 1969 at the age of 47.

Queens was also the site of an incident involving a member of the Beats’ inner circle, Allen Ginsberg.

The New York Times of April 23, 1949 carried a story about a car that made a wrong turn from Francis Lewis Boulevard against traffic into 43rd Avenue in Bayside. Police arrested the small-time crooks but only after the motorist fled from the officers in a 65 mph chase that ended with the car overturning twice and coming to rest upside down.

The Times said stolen goods in the car were traced to the Manhattan apartment of Ginsburg, who told police he had associated with those in the car because he was a writer who needed “realism” for a story he was writing.

Charters, in her biography on Kerouac, writes that Ginsburg had actually been a passenger in the fleeing car in Bayside but managed to open a door and run, arriving at his Manhattan apartment ahead of police. He was not charged, although those in the car were convicted of a variety of crimes.

The exhibit ranges from Kerouac’s intense and serious childhood in Lowell to the 1940s when he and Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others who came to compose the nucleus of the Beats, met in Morningside Heights and on to Kerouac’s untimely death in 1969.

Among articles about Kerouac and the Beat Generation are a complicated fantasy baseball game Kerouac built as a boy, a Valentine he created for his mother in 1933 when he was 11 and a Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman’s lantern Kerouac used as a railroader on routes out of Denver.

Also on display is a photograph of Kerouac carrying the ball in a football game at Lowell High School. The negative was printed in reverse so that the numeral on his jersey is backward and he is running in the wrong direction.

The Beat materials include more than 1,050 manuscripts and typescripts, including novels, short stories, prose pieces, poems, notebooks, journals and correspondence.

A movie lobby poster advertises the 1960 film, “The Subterraneans,” (from Kerouac’s book) starring Leslie Caron, George Peppard, Janice Rule and Roddy McDowall as well as jazz greats Gerry Mulligan and Carmen McRae. The poster is headlined: “Love Among the New Bohemians!”

The overall exhibit includes original handwritten drafts of poetry and fiction by W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, Saul Bellow and Sylvia Plath along with letters from Henry James, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Ginsburg. There are volumes inscribed or annotated by James Merrill, Herman Melville, E.B. White and other writers.

The exhibition is open through July 27 at in the Samuel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall, New York Pubic Library Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Hours: Monday and Thursday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Closed Sunday and national holidays. Admission free.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.

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