A personal note, from icon to icon
By late 1957, Jack Kerouac was streaking from frustrated anonymity to literary stardom. “On the Road” had just been published, “Subterraneans” was due out in a few months and journalists were clamoring for interviews with the novelist who had suddenly become a spokesman for the Beat Generation.
Kerouac could taste the riches he thought would surely come. And getting Hollywood’s hottest actor, Marlon Brando, to star opposite him in a movie version of his novel would have sealed it . Or so he wrote in a one-page letter to Brando to be auctioned off next month in which Kerouac suggested he play narrator-alter ego Sal Paradise opposite Brando’s Dean Moriarty, based on Kerouac’s real-life pal Neal Cassady.
“I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it,” Kerouac wrote, admitting he hoped to rake in enough money to “establish myself and my mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go roaming round the world” and “be free to write what comes out of my head & free to feed my buddies when they’re hungry & not worry about my mother.”
While the previously unreleased letter doesn’t contain any major revelations -- there was talk at the time of a possible Kerouac-Brando pairing, which never materialized -- the typed and signed dispatch is likely to draw significant attention from Kerouac collectors while confirming the beat of its author’s cash-starved heart.
“He lived in great poverty until ‘On the Road’ came out and he started making money,” said Gerald Nicosia, author of the 1983 Kerouac biography, “Memory Babe.” “He had clearly been struggling for years and had been dodging his wife for child support. He had great hopes.”
The letter is among Brando’s personal belongings -- he died in July at age 80 -- going up for auction June 30 at Christie’s in New York, preceded by a showing from June 7 to June 10 at Christie’s Los Angeles gallery. Christie’s estimated the letter will go for $5,000 to $7,000.
Other mementos to be auctioned include an annotated script from “The Godfather” with Brando’s notes on playing Don Vito Corleone; a letter from author Mario Puzo urging Brando to take the part; various acting awards, including Brando’s Oscar nomination certificate for 1954’s “On the Waterfront” (Brando’s first Oscar win); and such idiosyncratic items as his personal foosball table, childhood yearbooks, Native American artifacts and a variety of bongos, congas and harmonicas.
But the Kerouac letter is perhaps the most intriguing, as Nicosia noted, “one cultural icon writing to another cultural icon,” at a time when both men were simultaneously celebrated and derided as representatives of youth rebellion. Kerouac might have been money-hungry, Nicosia said, but he believed in his art and his book and in Cassady’s frenetic taste-all-you-can approach to life.
“He thought it had a lot to say to America and didn’t want to see it trivialized as just sex, drugs” and jazz, Nicosia said. “He wanted Neal to be seen as a thinking person who wanted to create a new lifestyle for America.”
Ann Charters, who edited two volumes of Kerouac’s correspondence, said the letter reflects Kerouac’s concern for the well-being of friends and family, particularly his mother, with whom Kerouac lived in the late 1950s and 1960s until he died of alcoholism in 1969 at age 47.
“The celebrity status of both Brando and Kerouac means that it is a major letter,” said Charters, a University of Connecticut English professor who has written extensively on the Beats, including a Kerouac biography. “Plus the fact that it is long and meaty, and shows Kerouac at his most typical -- enthusiastic and knowledgeable and much smarter than people gave him credit for and trying to help the people in his life.”
Author’s big plans
Kerouac wrote to Brando about adapting “On the Road” for the screen by truncating the novel’s crisscross travels into “one vast round-trip.” He envisioned it filmed “with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak.”
The second half of the letter encapsulates Kerouac’s soaring hopes and ambitions for literature, theater and cinema through adaptations of “The Subterraneans” and “On the Road.”
“What I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of ‘situation’ and let people rave on as they do in real life,” Kerouac wrote. “That’s what the play is: no plot in particular, no ‘meaning’ in particular, just the way people are. Everything I write I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is.”
Brando never responded to the letter, and the two icons apparently met only once at New York’s Actors Studio, where Kerouac enrolled in late 1960 in hopes of starting an acting career. Like his visions of riches, it was a short-lived dream. Fifteen minutes into a rehearsal, Nicosia wrote in his biography, Kerouac asked, “Don’t they give you any drinks in this place?” Encountering Brando, a regular at the Actors Studio, Kerouac invited the actor out for a drink, which Brando declined.
Nicosia said Kerouac had felt snubbed when Brando didn’t respond to his letter. Warner Bros. had offered $110,000 for the rights to “On the Road,” but Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, turned it down, hoping for $150,000 from Paramount, which planned to use Brando for the film. The deal didn’t happen.
“Kerouac was mad at his agent because he thought he had queered the deal by asking too much,” Nicosia said.
Kerouac finished the letter by urging Brando to visit him in Orlando, Fla., where he was living in a small one-bedroom apartment with his mother (she had the sleeper-sofa), or during one of his trips to New York.
“What we should do is talk about this because I prophesy that it’s going to be the beginning of something real great,” Kerouac wrote. “I’m bored nowadays and I’m looking around for something to do in the void, anyway -- writing novels is getting too easy.”