“My really best friend…” an interview with Seymour Wyse by Dave Moore

Seymour Michael Wyse was one of Jack Kerouac’s closest friends. An Englishman, educated at Charterhouse School, Wyse met Kerouac when they both attended Horace Mann School, New York, in 1939. They remained in close contact until Wyse returned to England in 1951. Seymour (under the pseudonym ‘Lionel Smart’) features as a character in many of Kerouac’s books, including Maggie Cassidy, Vanity of Duluoz, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody, Big Sur and Book of Dreams, and is also mentioned in his poems and various magazine articles. [1] Kerouac cites Wyse as being responsible for introducing him to new styles of jazz, including bop. Wyse still lives near London with his wife and family, and is the manager of a hi-fi shop on King’s Road, Chelsea. This interview, his first on Kerouac, took place in May and June 1984.

DM: Maybe you could start by telling me something of your background?

SW: I was born in 1923 in the Hampstead or Kilburn area of London. Priory Road, NW6.

DM: How did you come to attend Horace Mann School in New York?

SW: In about March 1939 I went to the States with my mother and younger brother, primarily because my father thought that war was coming — and he was right — and he wanted to get his children out of the firing line. My father stayed here and was later with the Eighth Army in Italy, Sicily and North Africa. We were going to return to England after about a year but we stayed on and I went to school at Horace Mann. The reason why I went to that school is interesting. On the boat over, the Ile de France, I’d met the Duke Ellington band. They were returning from a tour of Europe and played concerts on the boat and I met them — a very good band. I went to see them again when I got to New York and that’s where I met a fellow called Donald Wolf. Donald was going to Horace Mann and told me it was a very good school so that’s why I went there.

Seymour Wyse, Horace Mann School, 1940, courtesy of Dave Moore

Seymour Wyse, Horace Mann School, 1940, courtesy of Dave Moore

DM: And then you met Kerouac?

SW: Yes, and I’m pretty sure that it was Donald Wolf who introduced us. Donald was a man who made himself very busy with everyone and that’s the sort of thing he would have done. He was also a great jazz fan and played a bit of clarinet. I think he later became a songwriter. [2] He once introduced me to Benny Goodman who was a big name then — a tremendous success. That was before Glenn Miller came on the scene. Now Kerouac came to Horace Mann as a ringer — those were the people who came in to boost the football team. That’s the way they would do it in America — bring people in purely to play football and not for any scholastic reasons, and give them free tuition in return. That was Jack’s case and there were others, about five or six of them. I’ve completely forgotten who they were, but Kerouac was the only one who had any staying power in other ways. So that’s how I met him, and we were in the same class, although I don’t think he did Latin and I did. We were fairly good friends during the period when we were both at school. We used to go hear some jazz together in various places, like Harlem — the Apollo, the Savoy ballroom and the Golden Gate and that’s where we heard and met the Count Basie band and other bands of the day. But we didn’t meet all that much outside of school at this time except when we went to these afternoon things.

DM: Were you influential in changing Jack’s musical tastes?

SW: I think he was very easily influenced in that respect. I don’t think he was committed one way or the other anyway. He had some friends in Lowell who were very heavily into serious music and he may have been somewhat interested in that, but not a lot. I didn’t at that time care too much about serious music but since then I’ve changed completely. But Jack definitely took to jazz very heavily at that time. One of the players that we used to go and listen to a lot was Roy Eldridge. He was probably the greatest trumpet player of that period and I got Jack interested in him. Eldridge was an amazing player — considered to be the link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. We heard him at Kelly’s Stable. A great player.

DM: What did you do after leaving Horace Mann?

SW: I attended NYU — New York University in uptown New York, studying accountancy. Jack was at Columbia University and I don’t think I saw a lot of him at this time. It was during this period that I used to visit a lot of jazz clubs — but I didn’t see Jack in any.

DM: So when did you meet up with Jack again?

SW: I would say when he was in the merchant marines. After one of his voyages he invited me to stay with him in Lowell for a couple of weeks over Christmas 1942 and we had a lot of fun up there. It was very strange, because we were both interested in baseball at the time, and individually we had invented a game which we pooled together and actually made into one game which we tried to patent — a card game — it was quite a good game. We didn’t patent it but we played it and that’s what we were doing in Lowell most of the time. [3] There was no live music up there. Nothing. I remember his parents quite well. I remember his father — he was not somebody I liked. His mother was — well, she was a very dominating woman. Jack was very much under her influence but so far as her communication with anybody outside of Jack, I don’t think there was any. So, although I knew them in so far as I stayed there and they were very hospitable there was no relationship between myself and them at all.

DM: Did you meet any of Jack’s other friends in Lowell?

SW: Yes, I met that Greek fellow, the one who was killed during the war — Sebastian Sampas. He was a nice man. I also met a professor there, but I can’t remember his name now. That made us very close friends, that time, and then we drifted apart a bit, because I lived in Manhattan — I can’t remember where Jack lived, possibly Long Island, I’m not sure. In early ’43 I joined the Canadian Air Force, stationed at Lachine, near Montreal, and when I used to go on leave I’d go to New York and we’d get together then. And we used to write — I had a lot of letters from Jack at that time. I was in the Air Force for about eighteen months and then returned to New York and Jack was living with Edie Parker near Columbia University. Edie and Joan, who was to become Bill Burroughs’ wife later, were sharing an apartment and I saw a hell of a lot of Jack then and we went to a lot of different jazz clubs together.

DM: Edie Parker recalls walking home from the clubs in the early hours with Jack and yourself exchanging jazz riffs across the street.

SW: Yeah — I’d rather forget that. It’s true, we did — I admit it. (Laughs)

DM: In some of Jack’s books he gently mocks your English accent. Did he do this in your presence?

SW: On very rare occasions, maybe. I’ll tell you what, though — we used to impersonate Laurel and Hardy, and as you can imagine, being an Englishman, I was Laurel. That was quite good, because we used to love them and we’d go and see their films — they really broke us up. Now, they are quite fashionable, but in those days they weren’t. We also went to see Humphrey Bogart films — The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Across the Pacific, To Have and Have Not — I saw most of these with Jack. One film we saw together which I’ll never forget was Crime and Punishment with Peter Lorre. Now that was a great film — maybe the first film Lorre made in Hollywood — and he played Raskolnikov and Edward Arnold played the inspector — a marvellous part. That film made a big impression on us — I’ve never forgotten that. And of course, Lorre was also in those Bogart films and he was bloody marvellous. So, those were the films we used to watch.

DM: How about books? What were you reading at this time?

SW: Well, one thing that Jack did was to put me onto some books that were great! He introduced me to Kafka’s work, that’s for sure, and it was quite an experience to read that. Jack was a great fan of Kafka, you know. Other writers he brought to my notice were Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos — his USA trilogy — and Céline, an evil bugger, really, but a great writer. A very evil man.

DM: Spengler?

SW: No, I didn’t come across him but I’ll tell you what others — Melville, Nathaniel West — quite a few, really. And that’s something I’m eternally grateful to Jack for.

DM: Which of Jack’s friends did you know?

SW: Oh, at that time, through Jack I got to know Allen Ginsberg, Bill Burroughs, Hal Chase and Lucien Carr — and that was during the business of the David Kammerer murder in which Jack got himself unwittingly involved. [4] I also knew Kammerer and that was very strange, the whole thing. Then in 1946 I came back to England and stayed here for a couple of years. I went back to the States in 1948 and that’s when Jack and myself became very, very close friends, because during that period he in fact lived with me for a couple of months in New York.

DM: When was that?

SW: 1950 — around late summer, in 24th Street, Ninth Avenue — the Chelsea district of New York. This was just before Jack married Joan Haverty, and I also knew her well. That’s the one whose daughter has been writing recently. [5]

DM: Jack’s marriage to Joan didn’t last more than six months. Any idea why this was so?

SW: I don’t think, quite honestly, that any woman could have got on with him for very long. Jack’s relationships with women were never long-lasting. He was difficult to get on with from a woman’s point of view, because he would live his own life completely apart from her, and as you well know women are not too keen on that. Joan was five or six years younger than Jack, a very cheerful person, quite lively, the kind of person that would have been good for him. When they were together and I knew them they were fairly happy, but Jack was leading his own life and therefore I can well imagine that it wouldn’t last.

DM: How was it for you, sharing an apartment with Jack?

SW: Not too bad — Jack was all right. It was more difficult sharing with Neal Cassady, which I did in 1949. He was a little bit more difficult to accommodate. This was while Neal was still married to Carolyn whom I’ve never met, by the way, although I hear she’s now living in England. Another fellow I met at this time was John Clellon Holmes, and I got to know him quite well. And then around May 1951 I finally returned to England. [6] I remember when I went to take the boat — the Queen Mary — Jack and Lucien and all of them came to see me off, and there was a very, very weird scene in the cabin, I’ll tell you! We had an English naval attaché from Washington who’d come up there, and he was very typically English of that period. This was the fellow I was to share the cabin with, and what he made of it all I don’t know — but we had a hell of a session in the cabin, I remember that.

DM: In a letter to Ginsberg in 1954, Jack says that you were managing the Ted Heath band at the time. [7]

SW: Not correct. I was and still am a very close friend of the ex-drummer of the Heath band — Jack Parnell. He had his own band at the time, a road band like Heath’s. I also knew a lot of the Heath boys, people like Ronnie Scott and Tommy Whittle, but I never managed the band.

DM: Did you see Jack again?

SW: Yes, in 1957. He came here from France and stayed with me at my place in St. John’s Wood, North West London. He was also staying in a hotel as well, in Leicester Square. He was in pretty good shape then. [8]

DM: When Jack returned to the States, he wrote to John Clellon Holmes saving: “Seymour disappointed in me because I had become such a big drinker.” [9]

SW: Did he say that? Oh dear. No, I can’t remember that. He didn’t drink all that much when I knew him in the States and he didn’t strike me as being different as all that when he came to London. Although, I must admit that I didn’t have the same relationship with him then as I had earlier. It was more distant. Partly the time lag, of course, and partly the difference in what had happened since between what he’d done and what I’d done. The difference had widened — no question about it. And that was the last time I saw him.

DM: When you first knew Jack did he have any trace of a French accent?

SW: Yes, he did have a slight accent — and he spoke very quickly. It’s funny because my wife is French. We got married in 1960 and Jack phoned us — it was a weird telephone call, I’ll tell you. It might have been the last time I spoke to him, I’m not sure. It must have been in the early 1960s. [10] It was about four o’clock in the morning here and he was calling from California and seemed completely stoned. I remember he phoned up collect and I couldn’t gather my wits and in the middle Michelle spoke to him. He burst into French and she couldn’t understand what he was talking about because of his French-Canadian accent and that accent from a French point of view is almost impossible to understand. The funny part about it was that Jack had a great ideal about France because he was of Breton origin and when he went there he was very disillusioned with the French. I remember him telling me that very clearly. I don’t know what he expected of them, I’m sure, but almost any ideal about a people is bound to be destroyed. He found many of them to be pretty commercial, which they are, but his connection with France was pretty remote, really. He was an American and that’s all there is to it.

DM: Did jack often telephone you?

SW: No, just two or three times, I should think. That was the last one, as far as I can remember, and certainly the last time I saw him was when he came here in 1957.

DM: Have you read much of Kerouac’s work?

SW: Oh yeah! The Town and the City, which was very derivative of Wolfe; On the Road — and I think that was his best book, really; The Subterraneans; Satori in Paris

DM: Did you read The Town and the City when Jack first wrote it?

SW: Yes, indeed. And that was at a time when his writing wasn’t acknowledged at all — but I think he expected that. And when success finally hit him I don’t think he could take it — he couldn’t handle that. He could handle failure, but not success. Pretty strange, isn’t it? He could handle the situation when he didn’t make it. He could just say “Ah well — they don’t understand this.” — that kind of thing. And then when they did understand him, or thought they did, then he couldn’t take it. Very weird.

DM: When did you read On the Road?

SW: I read the draft copy when he wrote it, in ’51.

DM: What form was it in?

SW: On one long roll of paper — and then I read it in print, some six years later.

DM: So, how do you rate Kerouac’s work?

SW: Well, he had tremendous talent, although his writing wasn’t always disciplined. But he was like that — it was his personality. He was capable of enormous outbursts of imagination but would suddenly go off at a tangent. I mean, you got it with his politics, quite apart from anything else. His politics were irrational. You forgive that, though, because it’s not really serious.

DM: What were his politics, when you knew him?

SW: He had this vision of America as being — well, “God’s own country” if you like. The kind of idea that happens a lot in the States. There are two sides to that country — politically I dislike it because of the kind of idea that Reagan represents. Everything is oversimplified and made to fit into a prepackaged “good-and-evil” division of the world, and we don’t need this in the world today, with the dangers that exist. So, in a way — not that Jack would have subscribed to such a view — he did believe in that sort of America. Not quite the America that Reagan believes in, but a “hip” version of it. Jack had a flirtation with the Communist party very briefly back in 1944 and when you get in and out of that you can revert very quickly to an opposite extreme, which is equally crazy.

DM: In 1969 in one of his last pieces of writing Kerouac showed a rather right-wing stance. [11]

SW: About Vietnam? I never discussed that with him, but I can imagine the way he felt about it, because I remember his views about Korea in the early ’50s. This was a bit different to Vietnam — the ideas in both places were similar, but one succeeded and the other didn’t. But Jack believed very strongly in America’s position in Korea, which I was a little bit hesitant to believe in too thoroughly because it was all a bit too pat. I think, in Vietnam, it was more clear that they were making a terrible mistake — it was obvious from the start, and most Americans themselves saw it in the end. And that would have disillusioned Jack, if he had lived to see the end of it — had he taken it seriously, which maybe he didn’t. But that would have been a great disillusionment to him to see it end the way it did — as a nothing — which is what it was. However, Jack was not that consistent, really — he had individual opinions which were unique. He wasn’t a classic right-winger, or anything like that — by no means. Neal Cassady once said, quite openly, that he would like to be a mercenary for Chiang Kai-shek — I mean, you never heard anything so crazy in your life. But I think he must have been stoned at the time, so I don’t think I’d take that too seriously.

DM: Can you tell me about another friend of Jack and yourself — Jerry Newman?

SW: Yeah. Jerry would have been a little bit older than Jack and me. I’ll tell you how I met him. I got a recording machine — a disc recording machine — because I wanted to record some jazz. This would have been about ’41 and there was no such thing as a tape recorder in those days, but you could get a portable disc recording machine, and cut an acetate with a cutting head.

DM: Like the one that Jerry Newman used to record Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian in the Harlem clubs in 1941?

SW: Yes, exactly so. Well, I got some of Count Basie’s musicians together to record. I don’t know how — it’s funny when you come to think of it — the way things are so commercial now — people would do it for nothing, virtually, then. We recorded some jazz, but we couldn’t use a bass player because we couldn’t get a bass up the stairs. So we had no bass, but we had a piano there, and there were some good musicians like Buck Clayton, Clyde Hart and Buddy Tate. I had tried to get Lester Young but failed. Jerry Newman didn’t like Lester anyway and he brought his own tenor player, a fellow called Herbie Fields, a great friend of Jerry’s. And that’s how I met him — he took over the recording and I sort of faded out — he did the whole thing. So I got to know him and then later on when he was doing those recordings at Minton’s that you mentioned, I used to go up there and see him. I was at several of those.

DM: Would Kerouac have been present at those sessions too?

SW: No, because he didn’t meet Jerry until way later. Jerry went into the army in ’42. and he was here in England for the D-day landings in 1944. Then, when I went back to the States I met up with him again, and in ’49 I worked for his record shop which was in Greenwich Village — the Greenwich Music Shop. That’s where Jack came to see me, and I introduced him to Jerry Newman and they became friendly. [12] Then later Jerry formed a record company and I became a partner with him. Jerry wanted to call it “Esoteric” but I didn’t like that, I thought it was a little bit out of the way. I chose the name “Counterpoint” and so we used both names. Some of the records we released on our label were taken from the acetates that Jerry made at Minton’s and Monroe’s back in ’41, including the Dizzy Gillespie track called “Kerouac” — although Jerry gave it this title much later. The Charlie Christian recordings from Minton’s with Joe Guy and Thelonious Monk were remarkably good, and this was one of our best sellers.

DM: There are tapes of Jack singing in Jerry Newman’s studio in about 1961.

SW: Yes, and I’ll tell you something else which is interesting. Jerry had several tapes of Dylan Thomas which he recorded in the Village when Thomas was very drunk and which he could never put out because the American agent stopped him. When I returned to England Jerry asked me to go and see Thomas to get a release on those tapes, which would allow him to issue them. But I never got around to it, and meanwhile Thomas died, so that was the end of that. Jerry wasn’t all that happy about it because they would probably have been very successful commercially.

DM: Returning to jazz, in Memory Babe (p. 112), Nicosia states that you and Jack got to know Lester Young through your brother who was an editor on Downbeat magazine.

SW: Not true. My brother was never involved in Downbeat. He’s younger than me and would have been in his teens at the time so it’s nonsense. I met Lester Young firstly with the Count Basie band and later on at Minton’s although I didn’t know him that well.

DM: In a letter to Neal Cassady in 1951, [13] Ginsberg quotes you as saying, just before you returned to England, “Jazz killed itself.” Kerouac also later used the quote as the basis of an article on jazz [14] and even wrote a poem around it. [15] What made you say this?

SW: I felt very disillusioned that certain things had happened.

Seymour Wyse, 1981, courtesy of Dave Moore

Seymour Wyse, 1981, courtesy of Dave Moore

I heard Lester Young play in ’51 and I could tell that he had declined badly since I last heard him, in ‘ 42 or ‘ 43. With Charlie Parker it was different because he was quite a new thing and had brought about a tremendous change in the music. He’d done two things at once — he’d revolutionized it and also made it stereotyped by those who copied him, so that the originality was going out of it. So here you had the great innovator — one who created such a style that everybody felt they had to copy it, but with mixed results. Jack writes about Lester, hut he never heard as much as I did — nowhere near. Lester was really a poet of a musician. His style was so compact — it was as if he had written the music — it was unequalled. But as time wore on he became more self-conscious and his style became rather precious, and that was really the end of it. You listen to his early records, you listen to his late records — and you’ll hear a very similar thing in Billie Holiday, because she had exactly the same change. It’s very weird, that they should have been so alike in their decline. Billie was a one-off as well. So, that must have been what made me say what I did. I’d been particularly attached to Lester, and later to Charlie Parker, who was a brilliant and original player. The people who copied him tried to do the same things, but they were just copying clichés. And then, when it got over here and I heard it here, although it was well-played, it was so imitative that it really put me off jazz and I lost a lot of interest at that point. Lately, I must admit, I’ve begun to listen again, but it’s really too much of a nostalgia kick to be healthy. I listen to some of the old stuff occasionally — with great enjoyment, I might add. But it isn’t good either, because it means that creativity today is stagnant — which it unquestionably is. We are in an age of tremendous technical progress, but no originality whatsoever.

DM: Which of your old American friends have you met again since your return from the U.S.A.?

SW: I saw William Burroughs here in the mid-1950s, [16] and also Allen Ginsberg several times, [17] with that other fellow — Peter Orlovsky. Allen’s a very nice guy.

DM: Surprisingly, you don’t seem to have been interviewed by any of Kerouac’s biographers.

SW: In fact, an American woman who was writing a book on Kerouac did contact me, but I regret to say I’m a rather inactive person and probably did nothing. And that was more than ten years ago.

DM: Finally, what were your thoughts on Kerouac’s continuing popularity?

SW: It’s extraordinary, really, because I never thought Jack would make it the way he did. It didn’t occur to me that it was possible. I thought he was a tremendous individual with great talent, but didn’t think it would become as big as it did. You feel that somehow he’s neglected and nothing will ever happen, but it did happen — but too late, and also in the wrong sort of way. Most things that happen nowadays are exaggerated — they overdo it, you know. Something that you thought was of tremendous interest and importance suddenly becomes debased by virtue of the fact that it has become a common currency. I don’t know — who knows?

NOTES

1. Wyse is mentioned in the poem “To Allen Ginsberg” (Scattered Poems, p. 57), and in the articles “The Beginning of Bop”, Escapade, April 1959; “The Origins of the Beat Generation”, Playboy, June 1959; “The Last Word”, Escapade, December 1960.

2. Donald Wolf is ‘Milton Bloch’ in Maggie Cassidy (p. 165, Granada). Wolf and Wyse are also probably the ‘Dick’ and ‘Jay’ of The Town and the City (p. 128, Quartet). Wyse at Horace Mann is mentioned in Vanity of Duluoz (pp. 39 & 59, Granada).

3. The baseball card game is described in Desolation Angels (pp. 38-41, Granada).

4. Kerouac describes the murder of David Kammerer (‘Franz Mueller’) in Vanity of Duluoz (pp. 237-273, Granada).

5. Kerouac’s meeting with Joan Haverty (‘Laura’) is recounted in On the Road (pp. 287-8, Penguin). The wedding and celebrations are described in a letter from Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, Nov. 18, 1950, reprinted in As Ever (p. 81, Creative Arts). Jack’s daughter, Jan Kerouac, has recently had her book Baby Driver published in the UK by Corgi.

6. The final days of Wyse (‘Lionel’) in New York are mentioned by Kerouac in Visions of Cody (pp. 518, 522-3, Granada).

7. Letter from Kerouac to Ginsberg, c. May 1954. Reprinted in Beat Angels (p. 47, tuvoti).

8. This trip to England is described in “Big Trip to Europe” (in Lonesome Traveller, Granada) and Desolation Angels (pp. 329-332, Granada).

9. Letter from Kerouac to Holmes, June 23, 1957, reprinted in The Beat Journey (p. 49, tuvoti).

10. It is probably this phone call to Wyse which is mentioned by Kerouac in Big Sur (p. 134, Granada), at the time of Jack’s breakdown.

11. “Man, am I the Granddaddy-O of the Hippies”, Miami Tropic (October 12, 1969). Reprinted in a slightly different version as “Kerouac: The Last Word from the Father of the Beats”, Washington Post (October 22, 1969) and “After Me, The Deluge”, The Los Angeles Times (October 26, 1969).

12. Jerry Newman features as a character in several of Kerouac’s books. In The Subterraneans he is “Larry O’Hara” and in Visions of Cody and Book of Dreams appears as “Danny Richman”. Newman died on January 8th, 1970, just a couple of months after Kerouac.

13. Letter from Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, Feb/March 1951. Reprinted in As Ever (p. 101, Creative Arts. See also p. 107).

14. “Ten years ago my good friend Seymour Wyse of London ran his finger across his throat and said: ‘Jazz killed itself.’ Couldn’t take his word too lightly because as far back as 1941 he’d written an article entitled ‘Lester Young is Ten Years Ahead of His Time’ … When he left America in 1951 he did add: ‘But Charlie Parker’s trying to do something impossible.’” From “The Last Word” by Jack Kerouac, Escapade, December 1960.

15. Poem: “Jazz killed itself”, White Dove Review, I, 3 (1959). Reprinted in Kerouac’s Scattered Poems (p. 58, City Lights).

16. William Burroughs wrote a humorous letter to Allen Ginsberg on May 30, 1956, describing his meeting with Seymour Wyse in London. Reprinted in Letters to Allen Ginsberg (pp. 139-141, Full Court Press).

17. Allen Ginsberg mentions a visit to Wyse in London in a letter to Peter Orlovsky, Feb. 15, 1958. Reprinted in Straight Hearts’ Delight (p. 137, Gay Sunshine Press). Wyse is also mentioned in Ginsberg’s Journals — Early Fifties, Early Sixties (p. 142, Grove) in a transcription entitled “Kerouac on Ayahuasca” from October, 1960.

[This interview was first published in The Kerouac Connection, 3-6 (1984-85). Reprinted in Kerouac at the "Wild Boar" & Other Skirmishes, edited by John Montgomery, Fels & Firn Press, 1986.]

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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.