Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

Day in 1973

The day that Doris Day died, I did something irrational. Instead of driving straight home from work, I went out of my way and visited her childhood home.

Maybe I was half-expecting a small crowd of mourners. Elderly men and women in overcoats on a damp, overcast evening, sharing their grief over the passing of another icon from their youth.

Of course, no one was there but me. The red-brick house appeared shuttered, as did the entire neighborhood. I wondered, Do the current residents know they are living in Doris Day’s house? It’s a much different neighborhood now than in 1922, when she was born. An interstate highway rips through the center of Evanston, Ohio, now part of downtown Cincinnati. You can see the semi trucks from her front yard. Most of the residents are African-American, not German-American.

Perhaps I was the only visitor all day. But I like to think that my sentimental journey provided a smile for the girl christened Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff, wherever she might be right now while tossing pastel pillows back and forth with Rock Hudson.

Doris Day birthplace

The former Kappelhoff home, Cincinnati, Ohio

I was only a year old in 1959 when the movie Pillow Talk was released. As the 1960s progressed, I knew little about what was happening in the world. I received news of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, and the Watts riots via “trickle down” effect. The Cold War, for me, was Boris and Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. I’m not really a child of the Sixties. Much as I often hate to admit, I’m a child of the Silent Majority.

Doris Day was a Silent Majority cultural icon. She was conservative 1950s who spilled into the 1960s before they became “The Sixties.” She was middle-class, nuclear-family, Caucasian America; traditional, familial, uncomplicated, and safe. With her ever-present smile, twinkling eyes, golden-blonde bob haircut and California tan, she was sunshine and, in my imagination, is always clothed in canary yellow. The ending of her film Move Over, Darling says everything: she jumps in the backyard swimming pool—fully clothed—to join her husband (James Garner) and two kids. Their laughter and splashing, after finally being reunited, are as good an antidote to late 20th and early 21st century anxiety and cynicism as you’re likely to find.

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The nuclear family in Move Over, Darling (1963)

Day’s close friends called her “Clara Bixby.” Rock Hudson, her romantic co-star in three of her most well-known films, called her “Eunice.” To her parents she was Doris Kappelhoff, and to everyone else, Doris Day. Names that are simple, non-glitz, and (though she hated the term) girl-next-door. And despite her great beauty, difficult personal life, and professed dislike of her chaste image, that’s how she presented herself in her movies.  It’s telling that she turned down the juicy role of “Mrs. Robinson” in Mike Nichols’  The Graduate because she found the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Doris’s father was a philanderer who walked out on the family when she was young. (One night, in her bedroom, little Doris was a traumatized earwitness to her father’s sexual relations with a party guest in the next room.) She was married four times. Her first husband, a jazz trombonist, tried to force her to abort their unborn child, then beat her when she was eight months pregnant. She divorced her second husband, a saxophonist, because he was jealous of her success. She was married to her third husband, Martin Melcher, for 17 years. But despite producing some of her best films, his blind faith in a fraudulent attorney left her bankrupt when he died. (She fought for years to finally obtain a $6 million decision.) Her fourth husband divorced her because he was jealous of her “animal friends.”

There was the tragedy of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS. They were good friends offscreen, and his last public appearance was in 1985 when, looking extremely frail and telling her he had no appetite, he visited “Eunice” at her home and was filmed for the short-lived cable show, Doris Day’s Best Friends.

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Dramatic turn in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Her biggest sorrow was the death of her only child, Terry Melcher, from melanoma in 2004. They were only 20 years apart and like brother and sister. Melcher was a talented music producer, working with the Byrds, Beach Boys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, assisting with music for his mother’s movies, and producing the 1968-73 sitcom The Doris Day Show. He came close to producing songs by Charles Manson, but backed out after visiting The Family at their ranch. The house Melcher had earlier shared with actress Candice Bergen was the site of the 1969 Tate murders (although Manson denied he was targeting Melcher).

By the mid-1970s, Day had had her fill of Hollywood. She moved up the California coast to Carmel Valley, taking in stray pets and establishing the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She was also part-owner of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn. In the last few decades, she politely but steadfastly refused requests for appearances, even after receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

That’s the private Day. Doris Day the entertainer took her alliterative stage name in 1939 after a song, “Day After Day.”

Doris Day Posing with Hand on Chin

“Clara,” in 1949 (Bettman Archive/Getty Images)

She became a popular ballad singer with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, scoring a huge hit with the WWII homecoming theme, “Sentimental Journey.” She had a confident and clean singing style, modeling herself after Ella Fitzgerald. She was a natural. In a rare audio interview with Turner Classic Movies, she said she never experienced stage fright, either while singing or acting.

As great a recording artist as she was, though, it is her 1950s musicals and 1960s romantic comedies that she is remembered for, especially the latter. They’re G-rated, but sophisticated; light and fluffy confections, with upbeat music, colorful clothing, and animated opening graphics, maybe a little Day singing, and lots of playful romance. (Called “sex comedies” when they were filmed, the word “sex” referred more to gender than physical lovemaking.) The plots generally revolve around a trite and temporary misunderstanding between Day and her partner.

Doris Day - Lover Come Back

Classic Day expression from Lover Come Back (1961)

These innocent predicaments allow Day to skillfully shift emotions between domestic contentedness and exasperation or outrage. The humor comes because you know what will transpire before Day’s character does. Then, when the revelation hits, you get to see her puff her cheeks, swivel her head sideways, plant her hands on her hips, and stomp away briskly, her back stiff as a board.

While Day is the undisputed focal point in these movies, a key humorous element is her leading men. As a foil for her, they had to be handsome, but in a warm, non-threatening way. Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers), James Garner (The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling), and Rod Taylor (Do Not Disturb and The Glass Bottom Boat) all fit the bill, because they have a puckish playfulness, especially Hudson, who was extremely adept at light comedy.

But it is Doris Day who carries these films. The great Steve Allen called her “one of the very best comedy actresses of all time” but one who “hasn’t gotten the critical appreciation to which she is entitled.” Steve, you are correct on both counts.  And longitudes predicts she will ultimately get this recognition.

Since her recent death at age 97, some male writers have grappled with just how sexy was this “World’s Oldest Virgin,” as she was mockingly labeled (though she actually advocated living together before marriage…four marriages might have something to do with that). Sex and sexuality are an obsession in our post-sexual revolution age, when mere pillow “talk” is considered boring. I won’t dwell on this topic, other than to assure the aforesaid writers that—while I never knew Day before she was a virgin—in my testosterone-soaked eyes she was hot, in both looks and personality, and she got hotter as she got older. Anne Bancroft is talented and beautiful, but it’s a shame adolescent males couldn’t enjoy Clara as “Mrs. Robinson.” And if you writers don’t agree, you can click this.

glass bottom boat

One of Day’s most fun flicks, The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

***

As with The Lawrence Welk Show and Petticoat Junction, which I’ve also profiled on longitudes, Doris Day’s films are a safe harbor for me. They carry me back to a time of innocence, to family and fireside. It’s not because I’m a “male animal” who pines for the days when women were merely Pollyannaish partners to the “stronger sex.” (My career-minded wife and liberated daughter also love her films and introduced me to several. My macho son, on the other hand, is a different story.) It’s more because they are uncomplicated, wholesome, funny, and fun. They are a shelter from the storm, and we all need shelter, especially in these turbulent, less rational times.

While I’m thankful for the “The Sixties” and the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Grateful Dead, détente, civil rights, equal rights, gay rights, copyrights, etc., I’m also thankful for animal rights and Doris Kappelhoff of Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston, Ohio for the safe harbor she’s given us.

Que será, será!

***

After retiring from the spotlight in the 1970s, Doris Day devoted herself to the cause of animal welfare. I gave a small donation. If you’d also like to help, here’s the link: Doris Day Animal Foundation.

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(Silver Screen Collection/Moviepix/Getty)