American writer and unlikely Beat icon who married Jack Kerouac's wild road companion Neal Cassady
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. Carolyn was an unlikely, and in many ways an unwilling, Beat icon herself. When she met Neal in Colorado in 1947, Carolyn 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 LuAnne 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 LuAnne (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 with an interest in Rimbaud and Baudelaire, bourgeois).
Carolyn Elizabeth Robinson was born in Lansing, Michigan, the youngest child of five. Her father was a biochemist and her mother was a teacher. She moved with her family to Nashville, Tennessee, where she went to school, and then 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 Fransisco 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.
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 LuAnne, 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.
Carolyn claimed that her association with Neal "made my life", and his boisterous, carnal presence certainly made her book. Yet her memoir is so buoyant even in the darkest troughs of her recollections, or when she is excusing the inexcusable, that it seems a pity she did not write more. Her artistic interests led her towards the theatre, then to drawing and painting, and she took several of the most famous photographs of Neal and Kerouac in the 1950s.
Neal 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, 1944-67, 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, more turned-on. By the time I met her in the late 1990s, she was based in a cluttered flat in Belsize Park, north-west London. A quietly spoken grandmother, she enjoyed the cultural aspects of the city and her interest in drugs extended no further than a packet of menthol slim cigarettes. She was a follower of Edgar Cayce, a believer in reincarnation, whose homespun wisdom – "The stronger you are, the tougher the tests" – provided her with support in difficult times.
Cassady later settled in Bracknell, Berkshire. She is survived by her children, John, Jami and Cathy; and her grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.