From the City of Angels to the City of Poets
A Foreword to Ferlinghetti: A Life
This spring, Black Sparrow Press is publishing an expanded edition of the first biography ever published of poet, publisher, bookseller, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti (originally released in 1979) by Neeli Cherkovski. We are presenting here a new forward written by Cherkovski for this expanded edition, relaying how the book came to be.
Two tabs of acid illustrated with underground comic artist R. Crumb’s white-bearded imp Mr. Natural took me by the hand, plunked me down in front of an old Underwood typewriter with broken keys, and helped me to write my proposal for the first biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In no time at all, I conjured up a ten-page document that made the case for my project and promised big sales. Ferlinghetti: A Biography was the title.
“Not bad,” I assured myself. “It’s as clear as can be.”
I owed it to the acid.
Three years before that drug-inspired evening, I arrived in San Francisco from my native Los Angeles. It was 1974 and I was twenty-nine years old. I drove across the Bay Bridge entranced by the lights.
I was moving to the city to work on the mayoral campaign of George Moscone. A longtime state senator, Moscone was a native San Franciscan and had set his sights on City Hall. He was a clear favorite among the liberal-minded voters. The city, with its large Asian population and vigorous Latino community, had a strong labor tradition, especially along the busy docks. Back then, progressive politics of inclusivity like Moscone’s were appealing to working-class people.
The City of Poets is how I thought of my new home-to-be. I believed San Francisco was the epicenter of contemporary literature. Frank Norris’s disturbing 1899 novel, McTeague, brought the city to life, as did Djuna Barnes’s 1937 cult classic, Nightwood. Kenneth Rexroth arrived in the 1930s, followed in droves by writers who came to make up the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The scene was far-reaching, evolving to encompass a wide range of styles and ideas, from esoteric gay poets such as Robert Duncan to Richard Brautigan, the naive king of counterculture hippie writers in the 1960s.
At the center of all these writers was City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Opened in 1953 in the North Beach neighborhood at a nexus of the city’s Asian and Italian communities, City Lights stood as a shrine to avant-garde and outsider writing traditions, to dissident political and social thinking.
Crossing the Bay Bridge, I triumphantly recited the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a bardic shout inspired by Walt Whitman and famously first read in public by Ginsberg at the Six Gallery, in the city’s Marina District, on October 7, 1955. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, was in the audience. He wrote Ginsberg a telegram that night: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” Then he asked for more poems, enough to make a full collection. In 1956, Howl and Other Poems was published—complete with an introduction by William Carlos Williams—by City Lights as number four in its Pocket Poets Series.
Thinking about what came immediately after the book’s publication, I almost bounced my car off the bridge’s railing: the San Francisco Police Department arrested Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, the bookstore’s manager, and charged them with disseminating obscene literature. City Lights—and modern poetry itself—was on trial! With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti prevailed. “We were lucky,” he said after the verdict. “I mean, it really put us on the map in a way that nothing else would have.” I gripped the steering wheel and smiled at Ferlinghetti’s puckish response. The lights of the City of Poets’ downtown skyscrapers twinkled and set me right. I pulled off the bridge at the first exit.
It was 9:30 at night. I drove around with no sense of where I was going. The backseat and the trunk were filled with books and clothing, and as I went up and down the steep hills in Chinatown, everything slid around into disarray. I found myself in North Beach just in time to see the clerk locking up City Lights Booksellers. The Moscone campaign had advised me to get a rental before I arrived but in my excitement I had forgotten, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had to find a place to sleep.
I stopped at an all-night doughnut shop on the edge of North Beach, closer to the Financial District, and ordered glazed doughnuts and what turned out to be an absolutely horrific cup of coffee. Two young guys in paint-splattered clothes were sitting at the next table. We began talking. They were working as house painters and had an apartment just a few blocks away. I told them my predicament and they invited me to spend the night on their couch, which after two or three hours of conversation and a great many beers I gladly accepted.
I slept well and woke early. It was my first morning in San Francisco. I left a note of thanks on the kitchen table and went out to try and get my bearings in the city and stake my claim, such as it was. Sadly, I never saw those guys again. They were handsome, and I’d have been happy to snuggle in with either—or both—if I had been asked.
When I found the Moscone for Mayor campaign headquarters and reported for duty, they told me to take a week and get to know San Francisco. Now, that sounded good! I told myself that this was just the kind of job I needed: no supervision and lots of free time. I began exploring the city’s neighborhoods and found a room to rent downtown in one of the most decrepit buildings I’d ever seen.
Back at campaign headquarters, I was given a desk, and I sat there for a week or so doing basically nothing. I attended some strategy meetings, but I wasn’t given any assignments. Again I thought: This is the job for me! Moscone came into town from Sacramento, where he was still serving as a state senator, and I found him entertaining.
Eventually, I was asked to drive around the city and drop off press releases to various media outlets. This did not make me happy, as I was not asked to write the press releases, which had been one of my jobs in previous political work. On top of that, I got two or three traffic tickets and the campaign expressed no interest in paying them.
The strategy meetings I attended left my head in a whirl. I began to realize that the campaign wasn’t going to be the exciting adventure I hoped it might be. I simply wouldn’t be able to focus enough to study the issues as much as I should in order to write press releases, much less any position papers—my inborn hyperactivity just wasn’t going to allow me to grasp the important political details, whether or not I put my mind to it. I was a writer, sure, but it was my natural inclination to spontaneity that had led me to poetry. What could be simpler than an empty white page that you fill up with whatever words that appear in your mind?
At our meetings in the campaign office, I knew my coworkers could see my eyes wandering to the windows, just as they had when I was trapped in school. I would watch the trees, the branches swaying in the breeze or in a heavy wind, and I would count the birds as they came and went. This was good for a poet, but it was not going to help Moscone land in City Hall. I knew my days in politics were numbered. The bohemian life loomed. That would be okay, I decided. I’d write poetry and literary criticism and short stories, probably tackle a novel or two, and then write my memoir—all in a day’s work. While I waited for the ax to fall, I sat at my desk and looked busy as I typed up a pile of poems.
One afternoon, the campaign manager—an old coot who had directed the presidential campaign of Lyndon Johnson, in the late 1960s—called me into his office. He sat me down and said I seemed more interested in my poetry than in Moscone’s campaign. I had to confess: he had good instincts.
I left the office that day and never looked back. I secured good unemployment benefits that seemed to go on and on—they kept me supplied in all the comforts a bohemian poet could hope for. Moscone, of course, went on to win the mayorship without me.
For a time, I lived at the Italian-American Hotel, on Sansome and Broadway, a place filled with dockworkers and immigrants from Spain and Italy. There was a communal kitchen, as well as communal toilets and showers. I had a room that looked out onto a street that led down to what looked to me like canyons of the dead in the Financial District.
I became a regular at the Caffé Trieste, about two blocks from City Lights, and one by one I met the city’s poets. The Greek poet Nanos Valaoritis, who taught at San Francisco State University and owned an island in Greece, approached me one day while I was sitting in the café.
“I know you,” he said. “Neeli Cherry, Bukowski’s secretary.”
I got a kick out of that: it’s just the sort of thing a European literary figure would say.
I got reacquainted with the poet Harold Norse, whom I had known in Los Angeles, but always with our mutual friend Charles Bukowski present. His book Hotel Nirvana had just been published by City Lights in the Pocket Poet Series and he was riding high. Norse and I became close friends after I told him I was just as gay as he was.
One day, Lawrence Ferlinghetti walked in and sat down with me and Norse. He teased me about being from Los Angeles, but I came to the defense of my beloved hometown. Then Ferlinghetti asked what it was like hanging out with Bukowski.
“It could be a blast,” I said, “but not enough to keep me in L.A.”
When I told Ferlinghetti I had recently left the Moscone campaign, he approved.
“Now you can be a leisure-class poet here on the beach,” he said, referring to Jack Hirschman and other left-wing poet-activists.
He asked if I’d ever been to Paris.
“Sure, and I made it my business to look up Paul Verlaine,” I said.
Norse chuckled and Lawrence grinned.
“You should have gone down to Aden to find Rimbaud,” he said.
A few days after meeting him, Ferlinghetti invited me to have dinner with him at the U.S. Restaurant, which served enormous plates of Italian working-class cuisine. The two cooks and the waitress, Marie, doted on Ferlinghetti, who was forever aware of his weight; that night, I gorged on lamb chops.
We began going to the movies together, including Chaplin’s City Lights at the Times Theater, the ornate little neighborhood nickelodeon. Ferlinghetti invited me on some of his reading trips out of town, usually just the two of us driving somewhere in his 1960s Volkswagen van. Eventually, Ferlinghetti helped find me a three-room apartment in North Beach, just across from where he was living. The landlord was an old Italian wary of poets but happy to rent me the space for $135 a month. My apartment would quickly become the gathering spot for an ongoing neighborhood salon. Ferlinghetti often participated, along with Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, and Philip Lamantia.
On our drives or over dinners, Ferlinghetti and I often talked about the state of literature. He confessed that he wished he’d published Jack Kerouac, but said he felt back in the day that so much of the writing was derivative of Thomas Wolfe.
“I loved all those great American epiphanies,” he said. “And wolves riding. They stuck with me through the years.”
I asked him about William Burroughs. He said that in the late 1950s, Ginsberg had tried to interest him in Burroughs’s novel, but he couldn’t make sense of it and felt it was unfinished.
During the course of our many conversations, I began to see that Ferlinghetti was committed to clarity, not just in prose but in poetry as well. His thinking led to “The Populist Manifesto,” a poem decrying what he considered to be the insular sensibility of contemporary poetry. He felt that many writers were being deliberately obscure, a stance Bukowski took as well. He didn’t talk about it much, but Ferlinghetti had been influenced early in his life by the popular American poets Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters. At the same time, he praised Philip Lamantia, a great latter-day surrealist.
“Philip can push the language in new directions, and yet still write a poem you can follow,” he said to me. That was one of the same reasons Ferlinghetti always loved Corso’s poetry.
One day he confided that being a publisher meant that he had to reject too many poets, which he disliked. But City Lights received many submissions from hopeful writers. “It’s hard to imagine publishing everybody,” he said with a sigh. “You’d have to be a billionaire just to afford the paper.”
When Ferlinghetti asked me about my own writing, I wouldn’t tell him much. I preferred to turn the conversation toward politics, an area in which we agreed. As we were both on the far left side of the spectrum, there was rarely an argument. I marked him up as a sentimental anarchist. I, on the other hand, liked being invited to one or another of the many local campaign events because it meant free food and plenty of alcohol. At these events, I was often plied with questions about the writing community huddled around North Beach, and when it got around that I was hanging out with Ferlinghetti, they asked about him, too. When it was suggested that I approach him to publicly support Moscone, I declined. The politics we discussed weren’t usually local. He rarely expressed anger to me, but when he did, it was often about politics; it’s no surprise to me that he wrote so many political poems and poems of protest. Ferlinghetti and I usually talked about overseas events, because I didn’t want to get into potentially tense local matters with him. But I did detect in our conversations that Ferlinghetti thought San Francisco would soon take a turn to the mainstream, and that would mean more business on top of business, something the city had, at that time, to an extent avoided.
Ferlinghetti had dismissed the idea of expanding City Lights to other cities, and that was important to him. He had staked his claim in the most European-style city he could find in America and he was satisfied: no matter where he traveled, he loved his adopted city of San Francisco the most of all.
Not long after I first met Ferlinghetti, he handed me the keys to his cabin in Big Sur. Getting to escape to the rustic hideaway in isolated Bixby Canyon was a gift without measure. I would drive down Highway 101, take the Monterey exit, swing down Pacific Coast Highway 1 past Carmel, and come to the great, arching Bixby Canyon Bridge. From there, a rough narrow road led to the canyon floor. Ferlinghetti’s cabin was hidden behind tall, thick bushes and one had to walk a couple of hundred yards to a clearing with the small cabin and a beautiful meditation hut—I’d sit in that Japanese-style shelter for entire days writing in my notebook. In the evening, I cooked on the open-air pit and watched the flames shoot into the air.
It was easy to feel as if I had fallen into something quite wonderful, and it was all because of Ferlinghetti’s generous nature. But I certainly wasn’t the only one who had been given the keys. A quarter of a mile down the road sat Ferlinghetti’s original cabin, where Jack Kerouac wrote Big Sur, catching the many moods of the land, the shadows and sea breezes, the sun being swallowed by the walls of the coast early in the afternoon, and the sound of the creek running down to the sea. Focusing on the canyon’s smallest details on one of his many visits, Allen Ginsberg wrote “Tiny orange-wing-tipped butterfly / fluttering sunlit / from violet / blossom to violet / blossom,” in his poem “Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Word Breeze.”
Ferlinghetti himself wrote several poems catching all of this, of course, and it didn’t take much to understand why he savored this counterbalance to his sometimes hectic and obligation-filled North Beach life, where there was a bookshop to help run, piles of manuscripts to read, and no shortage of people who wanted his attention for one thing or another. But no matter how busy things got, the City of Poets held his heart: “I’ve got Big Sur and Paris, just like Henry Miller,” he told me. “When you add San Francisco, you really have something that you want to hold on to.”
In the first months of my friendship with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I learned that despite his incredible ability to get things done and stay on top of his many obligations, he had an insecure side. He was vulnerable, which isn’t particularly surprising for a poet, I suppose. I learned that he had a good feeling for younger writers and made it a point to find himself among them as often as possible, being present and participating as much as he could as simply one of the poets. He was never one of the old guard who’d mutter, “My God, what’s wrong with this new generation …” He was open-minded and respectful.
Somewhere along the line, during one of our dinners or over a coffee, I mentioned to Lawrence that I’d like to do a biography of him. His response was that nobody would want to read it.
“Somebody should do Allen’s biography,” he said. “He’s really the one. What have I done that people are going to be interested in?”
I reminded him that he was a best-selling poet and that this was a very rare thing to be. He smiled and shook his head. We let it go with that, but the idea stayed in my mind as a possibility.
I was enjoying my lollygagging, bohemian days but I knew my unemployment was going to run out. Sooner or later, I’d have to stop making trips to the unemployment office down beyond Market Street, in a shadowy part of town. I loved my unemployment benefits, which I wrongly considered free money. I was thrifty and managed to save some of it, as well as some of my salary from working on the Moscone campaign. But my meager savings wouldn’t hold me for long, and I needed a plan. Remarkably, I stumbled into a way to earn some decent bread one afternoon while sitting in the crowded Caffé Trieste. Puccini was on the jukebox and Yolanda was behind the espresso bar summoning frothy cappuccinos for the multitudes. I was at one of the front tables with my usual gang. A short, inquisitive-looking fellow was sitting next to me in what looked like a rumpled suit, although it might’ve just been the style of the clothing he wore. When I glanced at him, he smiled.
“Are you from New York City?” he asked.
I laughed and told him I came from Southern California, that I’d been born in Santa Monica, a small seaside community right up against the LA city limits.
“Are you sure?” he asked, amused.
“Okay, “I replied. “There was a secret subway that went directly to Times Square while I was growing up, and I took it every day.”
He laughed and said it was my hand gestures and loud voice that made him think I was a born and bred New Yorker. He asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was living on unemployment, but it was soon to run out. I gave him my usual line: “It’s kept me in caffeine and good food and a lot of Merlot.”
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
I said I wanted to write a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He nodded and said he thought that was a good idea. Then he said, “Oh, by the way, my name is Jerry Rubin.”
Yes, sitting in Caffé Trieste that day was the very Jerry Rubin whose 1968 protest at the Democratic National Convention led to his being tried as one of the Chicago Seven, among them his fellow Yippie Abbie Hoffman. This was just the sort of thing you could almost expect to happen in San Francisco in the 1970s.
Jerry said he would call his literary agent and tell him about my project. “You’ll like John Brockman,” he said, and rushed to the payphone in the corner of the café.
A few minutes later, Jerry motioned me over to the phone and I found myself talking to an affable-sounding, real-life New York agent who loved the idea of the biography. Brockman asked me to talk to Ferlinghetti and get the go-ahead for his cooperation and then get back to him.
I talked to Ferlinghetti that evening. When I told him the biography would probably happen because I’d landed an agent, he seemed at first a bit unnerved. He was worried about the privacy of his son and daughter, and of exposing too much of his private life. It took him a few days before he decided that it would be just fine and he would give his full cooperation.
I phoned Brockman back. He asked me to write a proposal for the biography and get it to him as quickly as possible. That was precisely when two tabs of Mr. Natural acid seemed necessary. Instinctively, I knew it was the way to go. Back then, I sometimes referred to myself as Old Uncle Acid because I handled a trip fairly well. To this day, I believe one trip enabled me to take my car and fly on a sort of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride over the rooftops of San Francisco with my friend the poet Ken Wainio. The only problem was that afterwards, Ken had no memory of the experience—he just thought I’d been driving rather erratically.
At any rate, the acid did the job: Brockman took my smashingly well-written proposal and immediately sold it to Doubleday for a handsome advance.
I wish I had seen Rubin again after that encounter in the café and after what he had so spontaneously and thoughtfully done for me. But that would not be the case. As with so many others in my life, he simply went one way and I went the other.
By the time I began working on the biography, I was fairly clear-headed. I conducted hours of interviews with Ferlinghetti, his friends, and his associates. I didn’t know how to write a biography—I’d never written anything so long, much less something that required so much research and careful stitching together—but I figured it out as I went.
Sometimes when I interviewed Ferlinghetti, I found that his natural shyness meant I had to really coax information from him. I’d ask, “What did you think when you first read Ginsberg?”
Silence. Silence. Silence.
Then he’d say enthusiastically, his voice rising, “Oh, I loved Allen’s work.”
Silence. Silence. Silence.
I’d ask, “But what did you think of it?”
Silence. Silence. Silence.
And so it went.
It’s not that Ferlinghetti was ever hiding anything; it was simply his natural inclination—likely because of his troubled childhood—to hold back and put up a kind of protective cloak against the outside world. But I had a whole book to write, so I kept cajoling him.
At times I would procrastinate. On one occasion I dropped some more Mr. Natural acid at a party and as I munched on some potato chips, I heard a voice from the big plastic bowl of chips: “Ferlinghetti is the word you eat.” It freaked me out so much that I ducked out of my friend’s house and walked to a nearby park that had a sweeping view of the city. I believe the scenery saved me. Still, it was a week or more before I could get back to the book.
I worked on the biography for a long time, which was difficult for a poet with a wandering mind and hyperactivity. I remember Ferlinghetti saying to me, “You can’t sit still. Sometimes I don’t know how you could even finish a haiku … and that’s only three lines.” But I worked hard. I read portions of the work in progress to my boyfriend at the time as Vivaldi or Bach floated through my apartment.
When I was almost finished with the biography, Mayor Moscone was assassinated. Sitting in North Beach, I heard over the television that he’d been killed by Dan White, a disgruntled city supervisor. I was devastated and tried to get through to City Hall to reach old friends in Moscone’s office but was unsuccessful. The next day, I wandered across the city and tried to reach City Hall, but the police turned people back.
As the book’s publication drew near, Ferlinghetti began to worry that I might reveal too much, but I assured him that I didn’t like biographies that probed too deeply. I didn’t want either a book of gossip or a book of academic-style criticism—I was a poet, after all, writing on another poet, not some stuffy, erudite soul on a year’s sabbatical. I also decided I didn’t want the book to be a massive tome, nor authoritative. I wanted to gather and put down on paper the practical details of his life and what he’d accomplished because I believed there was historical value in his story.
The saving grace of the seemingly never-ending project was that the more I learned and wrote about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the more I appreciated him.
And this is the book I wrote to celebrate him.