Who was Neal Cassady?

Neal Cassady: a brief biographical sketch

Born on February 8, 1926, Neal Cassady grew up in Denver, Colorado. He was the son of a barber who moved the family from cheap hotel to cheap hotel. As a young man, Neal was usually a truant, hanging out in pool halls, hitchhiking, stealing cars, and, finally, landing in reform school, where he read his way through the library’s shelves of literature.

He met Jack Kerouac through Hal Chase, a friend who had moved from Denver to attend Columbia University. By the time Neal (and his wife Luanne) came to New York Neal Cassadyin 1947 to visit Hal, Kerouac had already heard the stories about Neal, and they quickly became friends. Jack was in awe of Neal’s high energy, his ease with women, his spontaneity and excitement for life. Allen Ginsberg, too, was impressed with Neal, falling in love with him; the two became lovers. Cassady left New York in March 1947. Jack took his first cross-country road trip to see Neal later that year, and thus began his life “on the road.” He was the inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road, as well as characters in many other Kerouac novels.

Neal divorced Luanne and in 1948 married Carolyn Robinson, with whom he eventually had three children: John Allen (named for Kerouac and Ginsberg), Cathy, and Jamie.

In Neal 1958 he was sent to prison for two years for offering marijuana to a policeman. His life with Carolyn was always tumultuous, and in 1963, after Neal’s parole ended, the couple divorced.

In the early 1960s Neale met Ken Kesey, a writer who was experimenting with LSD and testing the society’s limits with his band of friends, the Merry Pranksters. Neal joined them and participated in the Acid Tests, Kesey’s spectacles of LSD, light, and sound. As “Speed Limit,” the driver of the Prankster’s bus, “Further,” he became a cultural hero to a new generation, bridging the gap from the Beats to the sixties counterculture.

Not long after breaking with the Pranksters, in 1968, Cassady died after leaving a wedding party in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, victimized by a mix of drugs and alcohol, or possibly by renal failure. He was four days shy of his 42nd birthday.

Neal Cassady’s books

Unlike his friend Jack Kerouac, Neal wasn’t a very prolific writer. His autobiographical novel, The First Third, was published posthumously by City Lights Books in 1971.

His letters have been published in several collections:

You can find a huge collection of Cassady book covers at Beat Book Covers.

Books about Neal Cassady

You’ll find information about Neal in most books about Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. There have been a few Neal Cassady biographies, as well.

Books by Carolyn Cassady

Neal’s wife, Carolyn, has written about her life with Neal and the other Beats.

Heart Beat, an excerpt from the (at that time unpublished) manuscript of Carolyn’s memoir, Off the Road, was published in 1976. It was used as the basis of the film of the same name.

The complete book, Off the Road was finally published in 1990. It has recently been revised, expanded and re-issued and is currently available.

Learn more about Neal:

Neal Cassady photos by Larry Keenan

NEAL CASSADY WATCHING OUT FOR THE COPS

NEAL CASSADY WATCHING OUT FOR THE COPS
Oakland 1966

While waiting for Ken Kesey to arrive, Cassady kept a lookout for the cops. Kesey was a fugitive at the time. Cassady asked me, “What’s the heat like around here, man?” Thinking he was talking about the weather, I said, “Pretty nice.” He gave me the weirdest look, then I knew what he meant.

CASSADY AND MURPHY

CASSADY AND MURPHY
Oakland 1966

Neal Cassady, and an old girlfriend of his, Ann Murphy, were at CCAC to attend an underground lecture. The lecture was by Ken Kesey, who had jumped bail and was now a wanted fugitive. Cassady was there at my school to be sure no cops were around before Kesey arrived.

GYPSY & NEAL CASSADY

GYPSY & CASSADY
Oakland, 1966

Gypsy was a Hell’s Angel from Colorado, where he said he knew Dylan. Neal Cassady is lighting Gypsy’s cigarette from his, in this photograph. Both of them were talking in ‘con talk’ most of the time. Neal asks Gypsy “Hey, have you got any animals, man?” Gypsy replies that he doesn’t have any animals. Later, I asked Gypsy what Cassady asked him for and he said that Neal wanted some Camel cigarettes.

See more of Larry Keenan’s Beat & counterculture photos.