“What you’ll do now to me is a mystery, because what do you do with a degree in history?”
Fortunately for us, Jerry Cimino decided in 2003 to take his collection of items he had personally gathered over 25 years: inexpensive reading copies of various books purchased at bookstores, minor ephemera pieces like newspaper clippings, posters, LPs, and copies of movies and open The Beat Museum in San Francisco.
Beverly Hill spent some time with Cimino and shares this interview first published in Manuscripts, this past November.
Collecting Conversations: An Interview With Jerry Cimino,
Founder and Director of The Beat Museum in San Francisco
Beverly Hill: Your website states that The Beat Museum is “dedicated to preserving the work of the counterculture in general, and the Beat Generation specifically.” How would you define the Beat Generation?
Jerry Cimino: The Beats were a group of friends who supported each other’s artistic endeavors in post-World War II America. They ultimately changed the course of both America and the world with their writing, poetry, and other forms of creative expression. They were the non-conformists in an age of conformity. Their values focused on tolerance, compassion, and inclusiveness. Their motto seemed to be, “We don’t care who you are, what you look like, or what you’re into – as long as you’renot hurting anyone else, come join our party.”
And what a party it was! The Beat Generation ushered in a freeing of convention, a shifting of norms and mores, a reevaluation of what was acceptable and permissible within general society along with a new definition of what might be considered “normal.” It was as if the floodgates were opened, and more and more people felt empowered enough to reveal who they truly wanted to be. A new era of living in an authentic way had been unleashed upon both America and the world.
BH: The names that immediately come to mind are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, but there were many other members.
JC: They are, by far, the most famous, but the truth of the matter is there were dozens of other people involved in the group, such as Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Neal Cassady, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Lenore Kandel, and Bob Kaufman. And there were others who weren’t writers: there were painters, dancers, film makers, bartenders, students, and friends of friends in all lines of work. But it was the three white male writers: Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, who got famous.
There is no particular Beat style of writing. They all wrote in their own unique ways. As a generality, you can say they were all non-conformists in the way they approached both their writing and their lives. But what made them especially unique is they were non-conformists in the very conformist 1950s Eisenhower era. In postwar America, most people wanted to forget about the trauma of World War II, and go back to a simpler life. Men came back from the war, and all they wanted to do was marry their high school sweetheart, start a family, get a good job with a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence – that was the American Dream. But the Beats didn’t necessarily aspire to the American Dream the way many people did.
Allen Ginsberg was gay or, more accurately using the vernacular of the times, he was “queer.” And in the 1950s, the term “queer” was not necessarily a pejorative, it was simply a word many hip and not so hip people used in place of the more traditional word homosexual. The thing is Allen Ginsberg was a “Gay Activist” before we had the term “Gay” and before we’d heard the term “Activist,” he was living that life. And being a gay man in America in the 1950s he didn’t live in a world that might allow him to one day marry a man and possibly have children of his own.
Similarly, Jack Kerouac could barely take care of himself, much less a wife and children. It was because they spoke of their own experiences, and with a level of candor and authenticity, their works were vibrant, exciting and well accepted. American culture changed because of their authenticity.
In the late 1950s, three television shows debuted directly because of the growing influence and popularity of the Beat Generation – Route 66, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and 77 Sunset Strip. There were numerous movies released to the big screen as well, including The Subterraneans and The Beat Generation. And because Hollywood television and movies dominated world markets, the Beats came to influence not only US culture, but world culture.
A common criticism against the Beats, especially in the last 15 or 20 years, is they were misogynistic and there was no room for women. And while it’s true that many of the New York City publishing houses were only interested in the male writers, within the group itself women were treated as intellectual equals to the men. And even though the members of the Beat Generation in the 1950s were products of their time and often reflected the view of traditional gender roles, I would make the argument that the Beats were far ahead of most of their contemporaries when it came to important issues like Women’s Equality, Racial Diversity and Gay & Lesbian Rights.
BH: What is your background and where did the idea of opening the museum come from?
JC: I was a history major in college. At the time I graduated, some good friends who were pre-med and pre-law who lived in my dorm had a little fun at my expense by reciting a short ditty at my going away party. It ended with the line: “What you’ll do now to me is a mystery, because what do you do with a degree in history?”
They were right, of course, and while I love history and the lessons it teaches us, financial need quickly loomed large. My innate skills led me to corporate sales, and I had a long career with both IBM and later, American Express, two of the bluest of the blue chips. I did well and I enjoyed my work, but I eventually came to realize that the corporate world could take and take and take and that there was very little of my heart’s desire in those jobs.
And then one day on my way into work I narrowly missed what could have been a fatal car crash. And that led me to a realization that if I got hit by a bus, the company would have someone else sitting at my desk the very next day. That’s when I decided to exit big business and strike out on my own, to try to make a difference in the world in a way that was important to me. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but my wife, Estelle, was very supportive. In fact, she maintained the income that was needed for our household with her career counseling business in downtown Monterey, California.
Estelle had a private office space on the first floor of a five-story office building that included a large extra room where there was a separate entrance. One day I suggested, “How about I take my collection of Beat Generation stuff that’s in the garage, put it in your extra room at the office, call it “a museum” and see if anybody shows up?” Our local newspaper ran an article on our new “Beat Museum” located adjacent to my wife’s Career Center a few days later, and the irony was lost on no one.
The day after the newspaper article hit, a gentleman walked in the door and gave me a 1959 LP on the Fantasy Records label – it was red vinyl, which marked it as a first pressing for that particular label titled, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Kenneth Rexroth Live at The Cellar. Ferlinghetti’s poetry was on one side and Rexroth’s was on the other, both reciting their poetry with a live jazz band at a fairly well-known nightclub in San Francisco called “The Cellar.” I was familiar with the album and, because it was a first pressing, similar to a first edition book, I knew it was worth a fair amount of money. I said to the man, “This is really great, but I can’t buy it from you because I don’t have the money to pay you.” The guy looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not looking for money, I want you to put this on your wall. This is history. This is important, and young people need to know where all their history came from.” I went home that evening, and told my wife, “I think we might be on to something.”
BH: What does the Museum contain and where do the items come from?
JC: When The Beat Museum first started in 2003, our entire collection consisted of items I had personally gathered over 25 years: inexpensive reading copies of various books purchased at bookstores, minor ephemera pieces like newspaper clippings, posters, LPs, and copies of movies. There certainly wasn’t anything of any major value. But you don’t need expensive pieces to tell a great story.
Once we opened The Beat Museum to the public, though, people immediately started giving us things. One item (see Figure 1) is a typewriter that belonged to Allen Ginsberg. Another is a jacket that Jack Kerouac owned and wore often. There are photographs of Gregory Corso as well as many other original Beats. The largest item at the Museum is the 1949 Hudson automobile used in the making of the film On the Road that was given to us by Director Walter Salles and driven up from Los Angeles by actor Garrett Hedlund, who played Dean Moriarty in the film.
We have always had a tiny budget for acquisitions. Fortunately, it hasn’t hindered our growth, because people who love what we do want to contribute. Hundreds of items have been donated to us over the years. Some are more valuable than others, but all are important to the people who donated them. They want to testify as to what The Beat Generation meant to them, and therefore they often want to pass on their prized possessions to us.
Even today, we regularly receive phone calls and email inquiries from people who want to donate their entire book collections or specific ephemera, because their children may not be interested. We’re in the position to offer donation letters for tax purposes through our non-profit. Most people simply want to make sure their valuables go to a good place where other people can continue to enjoy them.
BH: Please tell us about the mobile unit.
JC: We call it the Beat Museum on Wheels (affectionately known by supporters as The Beatmobile), and it has been around for 18 years. The Beatmobile has allowed us to offer multimedia performances that tell the story of the Beats all over the USA. The shows feature live poetry and jazz, storytelling, videos and dramatic readings and are consistently well received by a broad range of audiences.
Just last year, during our Jack Kerouac 100th Birthday Tour, our stops included the American Writers Museum in Chicago, IL, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH and the new Bob Dylan Center recently opened in Tulsa, OK. We have also visited dozens of high schools, colleges and community centers all over the country. Our website is kerouac.com and people will often show up to our events wearing our exclusive merchandise (shirts, hoodies, hats, tote bags, etc.) that they’ve purchased from us online.
BH: What is the purpose of the museum and why San Francisco?
JC: In addition to telling the story of The Beat Generation, the purpose of the Beat Museum is to encourage people, especially young people, to find their own way in the world, and to live an authentic life. This idea came to me through my good friend, David Amram, who still tours as a professional musician at the age of 93. Amram was very close to Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, and similar to what Ferlinghetti and Rexroth did in San Francisco, David used to play live jazz behind Kerouac reading his poetry at various clubs in New York City in 1959. Amram was in a movie with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso called Pull My Daisy. What is amazing is Jack Kerouac later narrated the movie soundtrack by speaking spontaneously into a tape recorder upon viewing the silent film.
Over the years I’ve seen David Amram speak to high school and college students a number of times, and he always gave a nod to Jack Kerouac. More than a few times I saw him address young people by saying, “When you’re 20 years old it can be a confusing time. Your mom wants you to be a doctor. Your dad wants you to be a lawyer and you want to be a writer or a musician or a painter or a dancer, but you’re too timid to even bring it up, because you don’t want to disappoint the people who love you.” David would tell these young people, “We all have people in our lives who love us so much they don’t want to see us get hurt. So they tell us to take the safe route, the route they think will be best for us. And my advice to you is you must love those people back, and you must bless them, but hang out with somebody else. You should hang out with the people who support your dreams.”
The reason The Beat Museum is located in San Francisco is because after we opened to a positive response in Monterey, we realized if the Museum was ever going to have a possibility of becoming something bigger with some degree of longevity, we had to take it to San Francisco. The Beat writers may have met in New York City, but they got famous in San Francisco when Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights published Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl. Ferlinghetti knew Allen Ginsberg and was in attendance at the famous 1955 Reading at the Six Gallery when Allen read his poem, Howl, for the very first time. Jack Kerouac was also in the audience, and he later recounted the night in his book The Dharma Bums that was published in 1958.
Not long after publishing Howl and Other Poems by Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti was arrested and put on trial for publishing an obscene work. He could have gone to jail for years simply for publishing a book of poetry. It seems rather arcane today, but in 1957 it was serious business. So, prior to publication, Ferlinghetti did the smartest thing you might imagine he sent a pre-release copy of Howl and Other Poems to the American Civil Liberties Union telling them he was pushing the envelope in San Francisco, and he might very well be arrested because of the language in the book.
Ferlinghetti knew the accepted rules of publishing in the 1950s. He knew you couldn’t print certain four-letter words in a book that was published in the United States of America at that time. The ACLU responded with their opinion that it was a free speech issue. They were saying, in effect, “We should be able to publish books like this in the United States of America. So you go ahead and publish and if you get into trouble with the law, we will be there to defend you.” And that’s exactly how it played out. Ferlinghetti was acquitted of all obscenity charges. When the judge ruled, he said Howl had “redeeming social value,” making it not obscene, but a work of art. Howl went on to become a best seller because everybody wanted to read the so-called dirty book! Lawrence himself was later quoted as saying, “You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
BH: What has been the reaction to the Museum? Do you give tours? What type of people come to the Museum? What about young people and what do they think about the things they see in the Museum?
JC: In April 2023, The Beat Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary. It sometimes amazes me that this little venture I’d hoped might have some meaning to others has been going strong for over 20 years. And that we are still located directly across the street from City Lights Bookstore, a North Beach institution in San Francisco, where so much of it began.
All kinds of people come to the Museum every day, from every walk of life, from all over the world, all over the USA, all ages and all demographics. In fact, we’re the envy of many larger and more established museums because they tend to skew toward older patrons. Sometimes parents will bring their children or even their grandchildren to show them what happened during their own lives. Just as often a hip high school student might walk in with his or her parents who have never even heard of the Beats.
We typically see one to two school groups a week, a good mixture of both high schools and colleges as well. And it’s intuitive for these young people to understand what the Beats mean to American culture. I often start the conversation with a group of students by saying, “I’m looking around the room and I see a tremendously diverse group of young people, but what some of you may not be aware of is if this were 1955, you wouldn’t know each other much less go to the same schools. And because of the segregation that existed in those times, you wouldn’t live in the same neighborhoods. So you have to realize if your class had come here for a tour in the 1950s you wouldn’t be a diverse group at all. In fact, you’d all be Black, or you’d all be White, or you’d be Asian or Latino. But you wouldn’t know each other, and your lives would be quite different.”
And what is fascinating to me is every time I give this talk, invariably a teenage White girl will hug her Latina girlfriend, or a Black boy will fist bump his Asian classmate. They’re acknowledging that they’re in each other’s lives, and it seems they think that is a good thing.
The themes of The Beats and the values of the Beat Generation, which later became San Francisco values, got passed on to the Hippies of the 1960s and then to most American youth today. A majority of these students already believe in many of the ideas the Beats espoused: Diversity, Racial Equality, Gender Equality, Gay & Lesbian rights, these are all no-brainers for the youth of today. Even an awareness of Climate Change is top of the mind to youth around the world, though the Beats would have called it “Environmentalism” decades ago when they wrote about saving the whales and the dolphins and when Allen Ginsberg was a featured speaker at the first Earth Day in 1970.
I see great hope for the future in the youth of America and the world. Even though adults in our country are once again fighting the culture wars, the same squabbles many people thought were resolved back in the 1950s and 1960s are still at the forefront. It is my firm belief, though, that once the younger generations take power, they will never go back to the way things used to be. I view this as a good thing. It is one of the reasons I’m proud to be able to say we have played a small part in this social change.
BH: What are some of your favorite pieces in the Museum?
JC: A few years ago, when the poet Ruth Weiss died, her estate presented us with a number of her personal effects. Ruth was a great friend and often performed at The Beat Museum. In fact, we hosted her 90th birthday party a year before she passed away. Both my wife and I were featured in a movie about Ruth’s life called The Beat Goddess. One of the most impactful storylines of the film was about her family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1938, just prior to the outbreak of WWII, when Ruth was only 10 years old. Ruth was only able to bring two items from her childhood with her to America, a Brother’s Grimm book and a toy doll named Suzy. Both of these items reside in The Beat Museum today. The Estate also gave us the typewriter on which she wrote her poetry throughout her life. She called it her “Loyal Royal,” the same name Herb Caen gave to his typewriter when he worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and popularized the word “Beatnik.”
A very important donation occurred in 2016 when we received an unexpected email from a librarian in Southern California. He told us the library had a regular borrower who enlisted their help in finding a good home for some dozens of letters and drawings she had in her possession mailed to her by the poet Gregory Corso. This started a dialogue where we learned the woman’s name was Cynthia and she met Corso while she was a student at Radcliffe in Cambridge, MA in the 1950s. Some of the letters were addressed to Cynthia, some to Cinder, a nickname Gregory often called her, and sometimes he addressed her as simply “C.”
Gregory corresponded with Cynthia for a number of years as he moved about the country and Cynthia returned from Radcliffe to her home in California. Eventually Cynthia donated dozens of letters and original drawings Gregory Corso had mailed her in the mid-1950s, between 1954 and 1958. This spans the period when The Beat Generation was just starting to become known to the general populace. Prior to this donation, scholars in the Beat world had never heard of Cynthia or her relation to Gregory because she met him before he became famous, and they didn’t stay together. They both moved on to other relationships, though they continued to correspond. Eventually Cynthia announced she was engaged to be married right about the time Gregory met a woman called Sura who he claimed was his muse and the love of his life. Gregory attempted to arrange for Cynthia and Sura to actually meet and Sura even mailed Cynthia a postcard saying her real name was Hope Savage and suggested if Cynthia ever traveled to Europe she should contact her care of the American Express office in London.
Cynthia is a very private person and declined requests for an interview to elaborate on the story, allowing these important letters and drawings to speak for themselves. She asked The Beat Museum to be the caretaker of these magnificent original documents that had been sitting in her file drawer for well over 60 years, likely unseen by anyone else. We’re obviously thrilled she entrusted them to us. And now they’re the focus of an upcoming biography on Gregory Corso being written by a friend, Kurt Hemmer, that is slated for publication in the near future.
Another important collection of letters was donated in 2017 by the daughter of John Montgomery who was a mutual friend of Jack Kerouac and the poet Gary Snyder. Gary became famous as the protagonist in Jack Kerouac’s second most popular novel, The Dharma Bums, released in 1958. Coming off the buzz of On the Road, the publishers said to Kerouac, “Give us something fast and make it great.” Kerouac assigned Gary Snyder the name of Japhy Ryder in the novel, and he is one of the most beloved characters in the Kerouac universe.
The letters that were donated were written by Gary to his friend John Montgomery during the course of their 45 year friendship. Like Snyder, John Montgomery was also a character in The Dharma Bums. He was Henry Morley, the third man who climbed the Matterhorn in the Sawtooth Mountain Range known as Sierra Nevada, but who never made it to the top because he turned back to drain the crankcase in the car to keep the engine block from cracking as the temperature dropped overnight.
The letters illuminate details of Gary’s daily life after he moved to Japan in the 1960s, soon after The Dharma Bums was published. From Japan, Gary often wrote on Aerogrammes, a thin blue lightweight piece of paper that folded up into its own envelope. The light weight kept the cost of the letter low even though it was going airmail. Sometimes Gary typed the letters and sometimes he wrote them by hand, almost always signing with a calligraphy styled signature. Gary and John corresponded regularly for many years, both of them moving often, but always staying in touch. In addition to dozens of letters, the collection also includes unique Polaroids and other photographs and ephemera, much of which has never been seen by the public. We were able to deliver photocopies of these letters to both Gary personally as well as to the Special Collections section of the UC Davis Library where his archives are maintained.
BH: What has been the influence of the Beat Generation?
JC: The Beat Generation influenced just about everybody in the modern age. It started with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and just imagine how many people hung on their every word in the 1960s and beyond. But it didn’t stop there. Famous musicians who have visited The Beat Museum in the last 20 years have included Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Van Morrison and even Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Famous actors and other personalities include Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson, Michael Polish, Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Tom Sturridge, John Waters, Kate Bosworth, Penn Jillette, Michael Imperioli, Kristen Stewart and just last week Willow Smith.
Every generation has its nonconformists. Even going back to the Greeks and the Romans of antiquity. But The Beat Generation was the first group of nonconformists to come of age with radio and television, and for that reason their message went around the world. William Blake, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, all they had was the printed word. The Beats are the first group of nonconformists to be immortalized on electronic media. They became idols of subsequent generations because their writings focused on youthful rebellion, search for identity and restless yearnings. And it didn’t hurt that some of them had movie star good looks. It is for these reasons every generation rediscovers the Beats anew, and I suspect that will continue to happen for a very long time.
Everyone comes to The Beat Museum for their own reasons. For some it’s about the music, whether it’s Jazz or Rock & Roll, or both. Some see it as the freedom of the road, the adventure, the excess partying, whether drugs or booze or living on the road vicariously. For some it’s about sex, how the Beats ushered in a new age of free love with no judgments on who people want to love.
I try to steer the conversation back to a quest for spiritual truth. Jack Kerouac’s story of On the Road is a metaphor for the journey of life. It’s an inner journey, a spiritual quest similar to The Hero’s Journey explained so elegantly by Joseph Campbell.
What I try to impress upon students is, “We’re all on our own Hero’s Journey, and we get to decide what we want that journey to be. So to come to a more clear understanding of how we want to live our lives, we each have to tap into who we truly are and what is important to us as individuals. And it is my firm belief if we want to live a joyful, authentic and successful life, we need to allow ourselves to become the person we truly want to be.”
About the Interviewer
Beverly Hill is a former president of The Manuscript Society (https://manuscript.org/).
This article is one of four found in Manuscripts, Vol75, #4, 2023. Manuscripts is one of the publications members receive as part of their membership. In addition, membership includes the Manuscript Society News, the bi-monthly digital Digest, monthly updates on events and webinars through Manuscript Mondays.
For a digital copy of this article CLICK HERE.