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Witnesses to a legend: Jack Kerouac

For two bay area men, the author was more than the voice of a generation. He was a friend.

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published September 2, 2007


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For Jack Kerouac, the road ended in St. Petersburg in 1969. For two Tampa Bay area men who knew him, his memory is as vivid as his prose. And it doesn't look as if the final chapter of his legend will be written any time soon.

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Kerouac's best-known work, On the Road. He wrote the draft of the autobiographical novel in a fevered three weeks on a continuous scroll of paper 120 feet long - then waited seven years to see it published.

It made him a cultural icon, the man who named the Beat Generation, a rhapsodic voice of the American search for identity. On the Road still sells 100,000 copies a year. In 2001, that 120-foot manuscript was sold for $2.43-million.

But Kerouac never saw that kind of money from his work. He spent the last year of his life in St. Petersburg, living in a nondescript ranch house on 10th Avenue N with his ailing mother and his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac.

Kerouac's consumption of alcohol was part of his legend. After he moved to St. Petersburg, he became a regular at the Wild Boar, a Tampa bar near the University of South Florida.

That's where Lawrence Broer, 68, of Tampa, met him. The retired USF English professor says, "I was a bona fide Kerouac enthusiast. After I heard that he had been seen at the Boar, I would sit down at the end of the bar in awe just of the prospect that Ti Jean a Kerouac nickname might come in."

When he did show, the bartender had to point out the famous author. "He was wearing overalls that looked like they came from the Salvation Army. He was unshaven, unkempt. But somehow there was this aura of wonder around him."

Broer, then 25, was so starstruck he followed Kerouac into the men's room, where the writer stood in front of the mirror, "slicking back his jet-black Indian hair." He gave himself an admiring look and said, "'Not since Valentino died.' Those were his first words to me."

Although the Wild Boar was a gathering spot for the fledgling university's academics, Kerouac disdained most literary discussion, Broer says.

Instead, in life as in his work, Kerouac was an inexhaustible storyteller. "He just had this endless, wonderful overflow of exuberance and delight. It was hard to imagine it wasn't going to go on for years and years."

Kelly Reynolds of Bradenton met Kerouac in 1957, in the heady days after On the Road was published. Reynolds, 72, an actor and retired English professor, is known to many Floridians for his one-man show as railroad magnate Henry Plant.

It was at the beginning of his acting career that Reynolds met Kerouac. He was 22, fresh from Ohio, when his agent told him a film of On the Road was in the works. He sent Reynolds to a Greenwich Village tavern to meet the author.

"I had read the book back home and was knocked out by it," Reynolds says. He showed up with On the Road under his arm to find Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg waiting for him.

Kerouac later wrote to a friend, "I have discovered cat to play Neal in On the Road, Kelly Reynolds, Irish nervous Neal with blue eyes and imperious Neal look," Neal being Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady, the novel's indelible Dean Moriarty. Kerouac signed the actor's copy of On the Road: "To Kelly Reynolds, my boy, Jack Kerouac."

The film was never made, and Kerouac struggled with fame and the pressure of work. The next time Reynolds saw him was two years later. "He looked like he had been standing in a wind tunnel ever since, ravaged, sandblasted."

Although he moved to the Tampa Bay area not long before Kerouac's death, Reynolds had not yet gotten in touch when he heard of the writer's passing. Kerouac did him countless kindnesses over the years, Reynolds says. "Once you were his friend, you lived in his heart."

In October 1969, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times knocked on Kerouac's door. His wife said he wasn't home, but then "a face came peering over Stella's shoulder. A face with grizzled jowls and red-rimmed eyes and spikey, dark tousled hair."

Kerouac talked about writing, about the Beats, music, politics. He told the reporter, "I'm glad to see you 'cause I'm very lonesome here."

The story was published Oct. 12, 1969. A week later, while watching The Galloping Gourmet on television, Kerouac began vomiting blood. He was taken to St. Anthony's Hospital with a massive internal hemorrhage, caused by years of alcoholism. Surgery and 30 pints of blood couldn't save him. He died on Oct. 21.

Jack Kerouac was 47.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.


 

[Last modified August 30, 2007, 12:22:42]


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