Hot Docs 2011: Love Always, Carolyn: A Film About Kerouac, Cassady and Me

"The only reason anyone is interested in me," Carolyn Cassady declares in the film's opening moments, "is because I was married to Neal Cassady and lover of Jack Kerouac." But despite that claim — and the film's subtitle — Love Always, Carolyn is much more interested in Carolyn Cassady than Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac. It does touch on their days together at the height of the Beat movement, but only briefly. Instead, the film is a portrait of the woman today: a senior citizen still struggling to come to grips with the death of her husband and lover all those years ago and the public attention they left her alone to deal with.

Carolyn met the Beats at the University of Denver in the late-'40s. She soon started an affair with Cassady and when she moved to San Francisco, the Beats followed. Before long, Carolyn and Neal were married with three kids. But that didn't stop him from living the same kind of drug-fueled, sexually-adventurous life he was used to. While he traveled across America on a bender, she was left to take care of the children and their home. The trip with Kerouac, which inspired On The Road, she saw as a "desertion". The bus ride with the Merry Pranksters that spawned The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip was him acting "like an idiot". She makes it clear that the man readers fell in love wasn't the man she'd fallen in love with. Her Cassady was a man who wanted to be respectable, confided that he hated himself on drugs, and loved wearing a suit and tie. "And this is what he's celebrated for," she says over footage from one of his trips, "which is so sad." Eventually it killed him, and Kerouac, too, the man she'd been having an affair with at her husband's insistence.

Today, she's still alone, and the world insists on celebrating the central tragedy of her life as a cultural triumph. She's constantly pestered with endless, brazen questions about her relationships with those men. And she's clearly conflicted about how to deal with it all. On one hand, she's uncomfortable with the attention. She has no problem being curt with those who cross the line or misunderstand her history. On the other, she clearly wants to set the record straight and, more importantly, needs the money. She's still living off the royalties from some old Beat photos and her children —  particularly her son John, who admits, "I sort of dig the attention" — push her to capitalize on everything from DVD sales to a Beat-themed jug wine. They seem willfully ignorant of her open disdain for the schemes.

It's all a melancholy reminder that cultural heroes can leave behind a very different kind of legacy in their personal lives. Burning out may be romantic from a distance, but it's hell for the people who love you the most. And so, more than sixty years after falling in love with an icon, Carolyn Cassady is still paying the price.




Photo: Still from Love Always, Carolyn

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Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.




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