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Carolyn Cassady dies at 90; wife of Beat legend Neal Cassady

As the wife of Neal Cassady, Carolyn Cassady provided a measure of stability to him, Jack Kerouac and other icons of the Beat generation.

By Elaine Woo

10:42 PM EDT, September 24, 2013

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If proof was needed that opposites attract, the loves of Carolyn Cassady's life would more than make the case.

The daughter of a biochemistry professor and an English teacher with strict, Victorian values, she grew up in the 1940s envisioning a traditional marriage with children and a steady husband to keep them in comfort.

What she chose, however, was marriage to Neal Cassady, the fast-talking, hard-living, womanizing wanderer who would be immortalized as Dean Moriarty in "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel that celebrated nonconformity in a rigidly conformist era with its depictions of sexual freedom, drugs and other revelry on the open road. Kerouac modeled Moriarty's second wife, Camille, on her.

Married to Neal for 15 years, she had, with his encouragement, an affair with Kerouac. Both men were legends of the Beat generation when they died in the late 1960s.

"I'm one of the last survivors," she told the London Guardian in 2011 of her two decades of intimate association with the Beats, "and, of course, I wasn't a part of it really."

Cassady, an artist and memoirist who spent much of her life trying to correct what she said were misconceptions about the Beat idols, died Friday in Surrey, England, after a bout with acute appendicitis, said her son, John Cassady. She was 90.

During her marriage to Neal Cassady, she raised their three children and made their Northern California home the haven he and Kerouac needed when they returned from their wild adventures. Through them she met other seminal figures, including William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, who made her husband the "secret hero" of his epic poem "Howl."

"She was a sort of unwilling den mother" to the Beats, Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia said in an interview this week. "She was trying to create this stability. That was her main legacy. She tried to show them that despite being psychic explorers they could still have a family life."

A self-described "square," she told the Washington Post in 1978 that she "hated all the Beat scene and I still don't like'em very much."

She was left to support herself and the children for two years when Neal was serving time in San Quentin on drug charges. On multiple occasions, she threw him and his buddies out of the house, evicting Kerouac when he tried to sneak another woman into his bedroom and Ginsberg when she caught him performing a sex act on Neal.

She wrote two memoirs: "Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal" (1976), which was the basis for the 1980 movie "Heart Beat," starring Nick Nolte as Neal and Sissy Spacek as Carolyn; and "Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg" (1990).

Born Carolyn Elizabeth Robinson in Lansing, Mich., on April 28, 1923, she was one of five children of Charles Robinson, a biochemistry professor, and the former Florence Elizabeth Sherwood. When she was in grade school, the family moved to Tennessee, where her mother taught English literature at Nashville's Vanderbilt University.

An early interest in theater led Carolyn to join the Nashville Community Playhouse when she was 12. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in drama at Bennington College in Vermont in 1944 before enrolling in graduate courses in drama at the University of Denver.

Her early life couldn't have been more different from Neal's childhood. His mother died when he was 10, leaving him with his alcoholic father on Denver's skid row. He stole and fenced cars and spent much of his youth in reform schools.

An aspiring writer, he was three years her junior but she was instantly drawn to his rough-hewn good looks and air of "dangerous glamour" when they met through a mutual friend in 1947.

When she moved from Denver to San Francisco, he followed her even though he was married. He married Carolyn on April Fool's Day, 1948, when she was pregnant with their first child.

He worked for the Southern Pacific railroad for a dozen years, first as a brakeman and later as a conductor. During those years, he provided solid support for his family. "People don't want to hear that, though; they want him rushing around in cars the whole time," Carolyn Cassady told a Scottish newspaper in 1997.

She said he and Kerouac pined for a conventional home life and she provided one that was much closer to "normal" than the public might have imagined.

Son John recalls Rockwellian scenes of his father in his impeccable conductor's uniform lifting all three children in one arm, and Carolyn in the kitchen cooking spaghetti. She banned television except for Sunday nights, when the children were allowed to watch the Walt Disney program. On other nights Kerouac entertained them with stories, sometimes while picking the stems and seeds out of a pile of marijuana plants.

"We had the same goals as everyone else — a home and a family. And so did Jack," Cassady told the London Independent in 1990.

Kerouac had fantasies of setting up house in Mexico with the woman he called "my darling blonde aristocratic Carolyn," but she loved Neal more. The three of them remained close after she divorced Neal, in 1963. Neal went on to become a figure in the counterculture as one of writer Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters.

Neal died in 1968, a few days shy of his 42nd birthday. Kerouac died in 1969 at the age of 47. Drugs or alcohol were believed to be involved in both deaths.

"They were always hunting for the meaning of life and how to make it better," Cassady told the London Independent. "But they were weak. They suffered like crazy for what they couldn't conform to. They just couldn't get their lives to fit."

Cassady moved to England in 1983, but continued to correspond with the hundreds of Cassady and Kerouac fans who wrote to her. "She remained a mother figure to the end," said Brian Hassett, a close friend.

She never remarried. "I have never met a man remotely possible," she said in a 2011 interview with the Guardian of London. "There wouldn't be anybody to match Neal."

Besides her son John, she is survived by daughters Jami Cassady-Ratto and Cathy Sylvia, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

elaine.woo@latimes.com