Born in Utah on February 8, 1926, Neal Cassady became a key figure of the Beat movement and an inspiration to his writer friends. Cassady's magnetic energy and wild spirit is immortalized in the character based on him, Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Later in life, Cassady joined Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and fell into drugs. He died as a result, on February 4, 1968.
Neal Cassady Jr. was born on February 8, 1926, in Salt Lake City, Utah. His mother died when he was 10, and he was raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Texas. Cassady stole cars, hitchhiked, and was in and out of reform schools. He spent a year in jail at the age of 18.
Meeting the Beats
In 1946, Cassady traveled to New York City to visit a friend at Columbia University. There, he met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom were enthralled by Cassady's energetic persona. He moved to New York City with his 16-year-old wife, LuAnne Henderson, who quickly returned home. Cassady remained in the city, and though he claimed to be straight, began a sexual relationship with Allen Ginsberg. The poet was deeply in love with Cassady; his groundbreaking poem "Howl" calls Cassady a "secret hero."
Cassady learned how to write fiction from Kerouac, who based the character Dean Moriarty from 1957's On the Road on his beloved friend.
On the Road
Cassady was relentlessly energetic. His free-flowing, detailed letters to Kerouac heavily influenced the novelist's style. Cassady's own prose is characterized by the same breathlessness, but he never finished a book; he struggled to package his ever-expanding ideas into sentences.
In 1947, Cassady met Carolyn Robinson and moved to San Francisco for her. One year later, his marriage to LuAnne was annulled and he wed Carolyn. She had his child, and the family moved to Los Gatos, a suburb of San Jose where Cassady worked on the Southern Pacific railroad.
Cassady was notoriously unfaithful, sometimes cheating with multiple women in a single day. Carolyn also found him in bed with Ginsberg more than once. While she stayed home and raised the couple's three children, Cassady road-tripped across the country while sleeping with his ex-wife. In 1950, he wed Diana Hansen, a model pregnant with his child, while he was still married to Carolyn. With Cassady's encouragement, Carolyn eventually had an affair with Kerouac. In his novel Big Sur, Kerouac documents this experience.
Drug Use and Death
In 1958, Cassady was arrested for selling marijuana and served two years in San Quentin Prison. Fed up, Carolyn divorced Cassady in 1963. Afterward, he joined author Ken Kesey and his group, the Merry Pranksters, on a cross-country, drug-filled road trip. Their adventures are detailed in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Heavy drug use ultimately led to Cassady's death, on February 4, 1968. He was found on railroad tracks after a party in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. His autobiography was published posthumously as The First Third.
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