Posts Tagged ‘Jack Kerouac Greenwich Village’

Beat writers and bohemians: One woman’s memoir of 1950s Greenwich Village

July 19, 2021

“When I got back to New York after my divorce came through there was never any question that Greenwich Village was where I wanted to be,” recalled Helen Weaver in her 2009 autobiography, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.

Helen Weaver and Jack Kerouac, undated

It was 1955 and Weaver was in her early 20s. Her brief marriage to her college boyfriend was behind her, and she looked forward to moving to a “patchwork crazy quilt” section of Manhattan filled with “artists, would-be artists, and oddballs like myself.”

“To the overprotected little girl from Scarsdale that I was, the very dirt of the streets and the subway and the stairs of tenements was exciting,” she wrote. “It represented freedom from everything I had escaped: parents, marriage, academia.”

Sullivan Street and West Third, 1950s

Little did Weaver know that she’d find herself part of the fabric of bohemian Village life in the 1950s and early 1960s: a love affair with Jack Kerouac, dalliances with poet Gregory Corso and Lenny Bruce, and a witness to the Village’s transformation from quirky and artsy to a neighborhood with rougher edges.

He story at first sounds like that of any young adult who arrives in the Village on their own. First, Weaver had to get an apartment: a third-floor walkup on Sullivan Street.

“E.B. White wrote that New York City ‘bestows the gift of privacy, the jewel of loneliness,’: she wrote. “That first apartment was a magical place for me because it was there that I learned the art—and the joy—of solitude.” To pay for her space, she secured a position as a “gal Friday” at a publishing house.

Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso

A college friend also on Sullivan Street showed her how to live, getting furniture at the Salvation Army, dressing like a Village bohemian (“long skirts, Capezio ballet shoes, and black stockings”), and going to dinner at the Grand Ticino on Thompson Street. They also visited Bagatelle, a lesbian bar on University Place.

A new friend—Helen Elliott, a free spirit who had attended Barnard—became her roommate in her next apartment at 307 West 11th Street, “an old brownstone with a small paved courtyard just west of Hudson Street and kitty-corner from the White Horse Tavern of Dylan Thomas fame.”

So thrilled to have a bigger apartment, it wasn’t until after she moved in that Weaver realized there was no kitchen sink. No matter, they would do the dishes in the bathtub.

White Horse Tavern in 1961, across from Helen Weaver’s West 11th Street apartment

Helen Elliott had become friendly with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac while at Barnard, and one November morning in 1956 the two not-yet-famous Beat writers showed up at Weaver and Elliott’s apartment. They had just returned to New York after hitchhiking from Mexico.

Elliott and Ginsberg went off to see fellow Beat Lucien Carr, who lived on Grove Street. Back on West 11th Street, Weaver and Kerouac began their tumultuous year-long relationship, which was marked by Kerouac’s drinking, long absences, and then the 1957 publication of On the Road, which made him a celebrity.

Upset that Kerouac wasn’t the man she wanted him to be, Weaver had a one-night stand with poet Gregory Corso before breaking things off for good.

Villagers at Cafe Wha?

“The pain of my disappointment in Jack and the pain of rejecting him was compounded by the pain of rejecting the part of myself that felt most alive,” wrote Weaver.

As the 1950s slid into the early 1960s, Weaver moved to a third apartment on West 13th Street. She smoked her first joint with a boyfriend and began campaigning for the legalization of marijuana.

She also became a fan of rising comic Lenny Bruce, attending his show at the Village Theater on Second Avenue (later it would become the Fillmore East) eight days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

In 1964, when Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go, Elliott and Weaver started a petition in support of Bruce’s right to free speech. When Bruce heard about it, he got Weaver’s number and thanked her…then came to her apartment, where the two went to bed together.

“All those hours Helen and I had spent listening to his voice on the records: that was our foreplay. And his gig at the Village Theater back in November: that was our first date,” Weaver wrote. In the end, Bruce was convicted of obscenity. (Bruce died two years later of a heroin overdose before his appeal was decided.)

In the 1960s, Weaver moved a final time to West 10th Street. But rising crime drove her to leave the neighborhood she loved.

MacDougal Street, 1963

When she first came to the Village, she recalled being able to walk around at any hour of the night and feel safe. Not so anymore: “Near Sheridan Square I saw a big bloodstain on the sidewalk. Another time in the subway a man punched me in the breast. I started taking cabs home instead of riding the subway. It got so I was afraid to walk to the corner deli after dark for a quart of milk. New York was getting scary.”

In 1971, she sublet her apartment and relocated to Woodstock, where she worked as a translator and astrology writer. Except for short trips back to New York City to see old friends and be part of Beat Generation events, Weaver never lived in the city again.

Helen Weaver in the 1950s

She began her memoir in the 1990s. By the time it was published in 2009, the main characters—Helen Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso—had all passed away. Weaver died in April of this year at 89. She was perhaps the last of a group whose sense of adventure and artistic leanings defined a certain time and feel in Greenwich Village.

[Top photo: from The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties; second image: oldnycphotos.com; third image: unknown; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Village Preservation; seventh image: Robert Otter; eighth image: The Awakener: a Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties]