“The Old Maestro”: an interview with Kerouac friend Henri Cru by Dave Moore

Henri Cru was one of the friends that Jack Kerouac met at Horace Mann School, New York, in 1939. Their friendship sustained for many years, and Cru featured as a character in several of Kerouac’s books. He was the model for “Remi Boncoeur” in On the Road and “Deni Bleu” in Visions of Cody, Lonesome Traveller, Desolation Angels, Vanity of Duluoz and Book of Dreams. After a working lifetime of sailing the seas as a marine electrician, Henri retired to live in Greenwich Village, New York, where he continued to pursue his interest in horse-racing. Cru emerges as a shadowy character in the various Kerouac biographies, probably because he seems not to have been interviewed by the researchers concerned. I am indebted to Edie Parker for putting me in touch with Henri Cru in 1982. Henri was then in Bellevue Hospital, New York, recuperating after having his left leg amputated as a result of diabetes. In answer to my questions, letters followed from Henri, carefully drafted in capital letters in the style described by Kerouac. Henri Cru sadly died in 1992. This interview is based on our correspondence between 1982 and 1986. I should also like to thank Henri, his sister Yvonne Perkins, nephew Geoffrey Moore, and Russell Lambariello for their patience and help.

DM: Can you begin by telling me something of your family, and when and where you were born?

HC: I was born on April 2, 1921 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the site of what is now the Williamstown Playhouse.

Henri Cru with his father, Professor Albert Louis Cru, 1950. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

Henri Cru with his father, Professor Albert Louis Cru, 1950. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

My father, Albert Louis Cru, was teaching at Williams College, and later at Middlebury College in Vermont, and as professor at Pennsylvania State College. He then brought the family to New York City where he taught French at Teachers College, Columbia University. In his obituary in The New York Times it stated that dad received the Croix de Guerre. That’s only the half of it — I was in the cabin of the French liner De Grasse when my parents received the wireless message that father had been awarded the distinguished Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, the most prestigious medal awarded by the French government for making the French language so important in American Foreign Language education.

DM: So Kerouac had changed your father’s profession when he wrote in On the Road that he was “a distinguished doctor who had practiced in Vienna, Paris, and London”? [1]

HC: Yes, that’s correct. My father was never a medical doctor, although he was a Ph.D. What puzzles me is how come Professor Cru had such a dumb-bell for a son.

Henri Cru with his sister, Yvonne. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

Henri Cru with his sister, Yvonne. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

After terrorizing the Horace Mann lower school in New York City I was shipped over to boarding school, the best in France, at Verneille, near Paris. Three years at L’Ecole des Roches (the School of Rocks) and they had it with me and shipped me back to America by myself on the French liner Paris. Upon arrival in New York my parents informed me they were getting a divorce. At 13 years of age this was totally incomprehensible to me. My one and only beloved older married sister Yvonne took over and whisked me up to her home in Mount Kisco, 39 miles from New York City. In the fall I was enrolled at Lincoln School, a progressive school linked to Columbia College. I rampaged through this school learning nothing because of my run-away imagination. I don’t mean that I wanted to run away, but that I did a lot of day-dreaming and very little learning. After getting bounced from this progressive institution I was shuttled over to Horace Mann Prep School, where I made a very weak attempt to conform. My imagination carried me everywhere except into my studies, which were realistically most important.

DM: And it was during this time that you first met Kerouac?

HC: Yes, Jack came to Horace Mann in 1939 from Lowell, Mass as a ringer, to play football. It was a very expensive school with an excellent scholastic reputation. Jack and the rest of the first team got a big discount on their tuition, because they enhanced the school’s football reputation. When I first saw him on the field he appeared to be a French-Canadian who had some American Indian blood. He was short, but built like a weight-lifter. He was also fast, and held his own with the big boys. He arrived at Horace Mann with a football uniform that looked like he’d bought it at an Army/Navy Store during World War One. It was a second-hand khaki uniform, worn thin from years of use. He wasn’t the best player on the team, but he was better than any player that was rated second. He first impressed me as being a country boy, but he approached me in a most friendly fashion and tried to talk to me in French. I had been born into a French family, and Canadian French is hilarious to a Frenchman. But he was a real good kid and we became close friends. He certainly helped me all he could with my English in school. I believe that deep inside Jack wanted to become a real Frenchman, and he struck up a real long-lasting friendship with me.

I made half a dozen other good friends at Horace Mann. I was very close with William La Cava, the son of Gregory La Cava, the motion picture producer. [2] A fellow named Ditmar’s parents had a palatial home where I was regularly invited to parties.

Henri Cru and his girlfriend Helen & dog Spookey, 1946. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru

Henri Cru and his girlfriend Helen & dog Spookey, 1946. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru

I brought the actress Anne Baxter, who was several years younger than myself. Her grandfather was the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. My mother had tutored her as a teenager. Poor, but very wealthy Anne dropped dead on the streets of New York. When Jack was attending Columbia on a football scholarship he invited me to one of the big games. I brought Nina Foch, who went into motion pictures after graduating from Lincoln School. When she went to Hollywood I was attending Turbo-Electric School at Marin City, two miles from Sausalito, California. I wrote Nina that I was planning on coming to Hollywood to visit her. She responded with a telegram rubbishing me.

DM: Can you tell me something of your wartime activities?

Henri Cru in uniform. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

Henri Cru in uniform. Photo courtesy of Yvonne C. Perkins.

HC: I obtained my seaman’s papers in August 1942, enlisted in the Merchant Marine and made a trip stopping at two ports in New Zealand and three in Australia. After this voyage I got bounced in beautiful scenic San Pedro and railroaded back to New York. On my next ship, The African Star, we went to South Africa and were torpedoed by a German U-boat 200 miles off the coast of Brazil. We were picked up by a Brazilian destroyer and taken to Rio de Janeiro where I spent a month recuperating on the Copa-Cobana beach.

DM: I believe it was around this time that you met Edie Parker, who later became Kerouac’s first wife?

HC: Upon returning to New York I met Edith Parker at the West End Café. When it came time for the joint to close I politely said goodnight and how happy I was to have met her. She responded: “Aren’t you going to take me home?” to which I replied: “I don’t believe your boyfriend will think too highly of that”. Edith retorted: “Hell! He’s not my boyfriend, he’s my brother!” — who turned out to be a splendid fellow. Regrettably he died in World War Two. Edith wore a lot of sweaters, was built like a brick chicken-house and had legs that looked quite long because she wore high-heels most of the time. Besides the fact that she was a great sport and loads of fun, I was most attracted by her. I don’t think it would be in very good taste for me to dwell on what happened shortly thereafter … [3]

One thing I remember vividly was that while we were walking down to the movies at 110 Street, she suddenly encountered friends of hers and introduced me by saying: “I would like you to meet my fiancé Henri Cru”.

Letter from Henri Cru to Dave Moore, Aug 13,1982. Courtesy of Dave Moore.

Letter from Henri Cru to Dave Moore, Aug 13,1982. Courtesy of Dave Moore.

When we moved on I jumped up a foot off the sidewalk and hollered out “Your WHAT?!” She very calmly explained that since we had been intimate she automatically concluded that we were engaged. I was red hot for her, but this revelation cooled me down considerably. You must understand that I do not breed well in captivity. It wasn’t long after this that I waltzed her over to Jack Kerouac’s dormitory at Columbia University, went upstairs, and brought him down to meet Edie. He fell in love with her on the spot, after which we all sneaked across the street and she put away five hot dogs. That must have impressed Jack considerably because he was in like Flynn, and I found myself out like Stout. My sixty days ashore were up so if I wanted to be drafted I had to ship out on the very next ship hiring in the shipping hall of my union. I went to join a convoy to Liverpool, England, and Edith became ensconced with her new shack-pappy who she subsequently married in jail. [4] This is a long, weary tale that will have to wait for another time. When I returned with the convoy I couldn’t help observing that I had lost my Edith.

To say that I was (excuse the expression) pissed-off was putting it mildly. I didn’t talk to Edith for forty years. When she phoned me at Mother Cabrini Hospital, Edith asked me if I was still pissed-off. I told her I was too old and too tired to be pissed-off. After that conversation my left leg was amputated.

Henri Cru and jockey Jeff Fell, 1978. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

Henri Cru and jockey Jeff Fell, 1978. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

Edith was so good to me, phoning me constantly, visiting me, mailing me gifts and coming to my nephew’s house in Greenwich, Conn., where I was living, and driving me to New York, where we stayed at the Seaman’s Residence, 18 State St., NYC — (separate rooms). I’ve been around the world twenty-seven times, to dozens of countries, but I’ve never met a chick as generous and as much fun as Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker. She is the best of the best, and has succeeded in retaining her good looks. Forty years, and ten thousand women later we are really good friends, and now, when she says, “Henri, you know me,” I just chuckle.

DM: In On the Road, Kerouac describes staying with you in 1947 near San Francisco and working with you as a guard in the barracks nearby. Was this correct? [5]

HC: Most everything Jack wrote was generally true, but he did change the names of his characters, towns, and ships. We never lived or worked in “Mill Valley”, and “Mill City” didn’t exist. Jack and I worked as auxiliary policemen in a shipyard defense housing project nearby Sausalito, across the Bay’s Golden Gate Bridge. Two miles further on was another housing project, called Marin City, where I was living with Dianne. [6] Jack had gravitated from New York to stay with us. Instead of knocking at the door, at 6:30 a.m., Jack climbed in through the ground-floor window of our one-room shack. (This did not become a menage-a-trois).

Henri Cru celebrating his retirement. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

Henri Cru celebrating his retirement. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

While Jack was living with me and Dianne in Marin City we went to San Francisco and walked along Market Street. Every dozen blocks he had to stop to renew the newspaper in his shoes, because they both had holes. Dianne didn’t take kindly to stopping in front of street garbage cans so Jack could renew the newspaper. When On the Road was published I wrote Jack and asked him if he was still stuffing his shoes with newspaper. He answered, in a letter, “Yes, I still stuff my shoes with newspaper, but I’ve switched from The Daily News to The New York Times“. In those days The Daily News was a trashy paper and The New York Times gave Jack many fabulously good reviews. (Jack’s publisher had taken an ad covering an entire back page, and costing $5,000.)

DM: In the same book Jack mentions a disastrous dinner with yourself and your “stepfather” at this time.

HC: This was another of the facts that Jack changed in his novel, as I introduced him to my real father in North Beach, California, the Greenwich Village of San Francisco.

Henri Cru in Greenwich Village, 1987. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

Henri Cru in Greenwich Village, 1987. Photo courtesy of Henri Cru.

As always, Jack arrived at the restaurant where we had made the dinner appointment very late and very drunk, and very ill-behaved. Jack attempted miserably to engage my father, Professor Albert Louis Cru, in a French conversation by attempting to tell him that he was high. Jack’s Canadian slang was of no help whatsoever, as what he said, “Je suis haut,” meant in French “I am tall”. Jack was definitely not tall, in fact he was somewhat on the short side. My father turned to me and in French enquired “What’s he saying?” Petit Jean was very high that evening, but definitely not tall at all.

DM: In a short story, “Piers of the Homeless Night”, Kerouac wrote about two characters, Matthew Peters and Paul Lyman, from the S.S. Roamer, gunning for you in San Pedro in 1951. How true was this? [7]

HC: This happened, except that the ship was really the S.S. President Harding. “Matthew Peters”‘ real name was Peter Murray, a young Australian con-man whose car I wrecked after he conned me once too many times. “Paul Lyman” was John Holman. I was living at a later date with him and his common-law wife. She seduced me when he shipped out, so I can’t blame him for hating me.

DM: The same story ends with the humorous tale of the pair of you and a piece of tumbleweed … [8]

HC: The huge clump of tumbleweed was unbelievably large, and when Jack and I, both drunk, brought it up the gangway of the President Harding I said something silly to the watchman, like “We are taking this plant to San Francisco for botanical studies”. This was 3 o’clock in the morning when we forced it through the door to the wiper’s foc’sle. When the poor old rummy wiper was asked by the first assistant engineer why he hadn’t turned to at 8 a.m., he replied, “When I woke up I couldn’t get out of bed … someone put a tree in my room!”

DM: And your friendship with Jack continued over the years?

HC: Yes. I visited him several times at his home in Long Island. [9] But after he became a celebrity he could not deal with success and drank cheap whiskey by the quart. It became impossible to stand his company at times, and I gave up on him when he became too difficult to deal with.

NOTES

1. On the Road (Penguin) p. 76.

2. This is the “famous director” father of Remi Boncoeur’s buddy, for whom Sal Paradise writes a “gloomy tale about New York” in On the Road, p. 63.

3. Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker’s “The Popsicle Man”, first published in The Kerouac Connection 6, April 1985, presents Edie’s own story of her early days with Henri Cru and Jack Kerouac.

4. This event is described in Vanity of Duluoz (Penguin) p. 242

5. On the Road, pp. 59-79.

6. Dianne was “Lee Ann” in On the Road.

7. “Piers of the Homeless Night” in Lonesome Traveler. This event is also mentioned in Visions of Cody (Penguin), pp. 107, 114.

8. Lonesome Traveler (Grove), pp. 19-20.

9. Fernanda Pivano’s C’era Una Volta Un Beat (Arcana) pp. 18, 25-26, describes an errand by Henri Cru, on behalf of Jack, visiting Pivano in Milan, Italy, in June 1960, when his ship docked at Genoa. “… My best friend Jack Kerouac … wishes for me to tell you that I am Remi and that he sent me. I have no idea why he wants me to tell you this, but knowing Jack as well as I do he must have some kind of mystical reason.”

[This interview was first published in The Kerouac Connection, 13 (Spring 1987).]


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About Dave Moore

Dave Moore lives in Bristol, England, and is the author of many articles on the Beat writers. Founding editor of The Kerouac Connection magazine in 1984, he compiled and annotated the Collected Letters of Neal Cassady for publication by Penguin. Dave also writes on mystery and crime fiction as well as jazz and blues, and is the author of The Kerouac Companion, a definitive on-line guide to the more than 600 characters in Jack Kerouac's work. More of Dave's writings can be found at Kerouac Corner.