Neal Cassady’s Life May Have Been More Interesting Than The Characters He Inspired

Published April 25, 2018
Updated May 7, 2018

His story inspired several writers to base characters on him, but Neal Cassady's life hardly needed embellishment.

Cassady And Kerouac

Wikimedia Commons Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were friends as young men.

Neal Cassady was one of the most prominent figures of the Beat Generation, despite having never published a piece of work during his lifetime. Although his list of works includes only personal letters and an unfinished manuscript, his lifestyle and close friendship with several members of the Beat crowd, most notably Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, helped shaped the work of an entire generation of writers.

Cassady had a troubled childhood. He was born in Salt Lake City and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. By the age of sixteen, he had already gotten in trouble with the law for incidents involving car theft and shoplifting. He found a mentor for a brief time in a man named Justin Brierly, who recognized Cassady’s intelligence and wanted to help him turn his life around. However, even with Brierly’s guidance, Cassady did not stop his criminal activities, and was eventually arrested and served eleven months in prison for possession of stolen goods.

Cassady And Kerouac

Once he was released from prison, he married a sixteen-year-old woman named LuAnne Henderson, and together the two of them traveled to New York City to visit a mutual friend from Denver named Hal Chase, who was studying at Columbia University. He met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg through Chase, and the group became close friends.

Cassady asked Kerouac to teach him how to write fiction. In turn, Kerouac cited Cassady as the main source of inspiration for his spontaneous prose writing style, which he modeled after a personal letter Cassady had written to him in 1950. The full text was later found and auctioned under the name “The Joan Anderson Letter” in 2017.

Cassady also inspired more than just Kerouac’s writing style. He was also the main inspiration for Dean Moriarty, the main character of Kerouac’s seminal work, On the Road. In the original manuscript, Moriarty was named Cassady, and although the name had been changed by publication, there is no doubt that Neal Cassady was the real Dean Moriarty.

Neal Cassady

FlickrNeal Cassady as a young man.

Cassady And Ginsberg

He was also the subject of inspiration for many of Allen Ginsberg’s poems. The two had an on and off sexual relationship that lasted for twenty years, and he appeared in many of his works, including as “N.C.” in Howl. They lived together for a time in San Francisco in 1963, after Cassady’s second divorce, and Ginsberg also published several poems about Cassady, including On Neal’s Ashes and Elegies for Neal Cassady, written after his death.

Neal Cassady traveled extensively throughout his life, eventually meeting young novelist Ken Kesey and joined up with his group of friends and colleagues, who called themselves the Merry Pranksters. As a group, they rejected the establishment and were strong proponents of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. In the early 1960s, the Pranksters planned a drug-fueled bus trip from San Francisco the New York World’s Fair, which would later become the inspiration for Tom Wolfe’s book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Cassady may have also been part of the inspiration for the protagonist in Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Although he was an inspiration to many, Cassady’s years of fast living had taken a toll on him, both physically and mentally. He had been known to express regret over the effect his lifestyle had on his family, especially his children. By the age of forty, he had fathered five children and had four failed romantic relationships, including two divorces. In his later years, he had become even more restless, traveling all across the country and to Mexico in the mid and late 1960s.

In 1968, Neal Cassady had been attending a party in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and consumed a large amount of the barbiturate Seconal. He then left the party and went walking alone towards the next town, wearing only jeans and a T-shirt even though it was a cold and rainy night. He was discovered in a coma by the railroad tracks the next morning and was taken to the hospital. He died later that same day, just four days short of his 42nd birthday.


Next, read about Sally Horner, who inspired ‘Lolita.’ Then, read about Roland Doe, who inspired ‘The Exorcist.’

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.
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