35 Images That Capture The Beatniks’ Heyday In New York City
By Alec | Checked By John Kuroski
Published October 24, 2016
Updated September 25, 2019
Photos of the beatnik movement in 1950s Greenwich Village that was home to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the thriving Beat Generation.
In the late 1940s, a new counterculture coalesced around the writings of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs that embraced nonconformity, sexual liberation, and a bohemian lifestyle. Known as the Beat Generation, they laid the philosophical foundations for a free-spirited expressionism that would evolve into the broader hippie movement in the 1960s.
Beatniks found their home in Greenwich Village, a then-downtrodden neighborhood of New York City with low rents and an insular but welcoming community. As described by one resident:
Like, man, if you’re Beat, where else is there to go but Greenwich Village, Earth? Like, it’s Endsville, man, you dig?
In this gallery, we look at fascinating images of what life looked like in the Beatniks’ New York of the 1950s and 1960s:
At the center of the Beat movement were writers Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac, who maintained lifelong friendships with one another. In 1956, Ginsberg published "Howl," a seminal poem that illuminated the spiritual restlessness of a generation.
From left, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso are photographed in the Greenwich Village in 1957.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Likewise, Kerouac's novel On The Road explored America from the lens of a new generation that embraced drugs, sexual liberation, and jazz. After its release in 1956, The New York Times called it "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat'."
In this photograph, Kerouac holds court at the Seven Arts Cafe in Greenwich Village in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Before becoming a poet and a fixture of the Beat community, Gregory Corso spent most of his life in orphanages and prisons. Thanks to the donation of an extensive library at Clinton State Prison by reputed mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Corso was able to study poetry and literature, which would spark his own creative talents.
Pictured, Corso waits in the stairwell to read his poetry at the Seven Arts Cafe in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Titled "On the Scene in the Village," this photograph captures a group of beatniks hanging out in front of the Greenwich Village Pharmacy "waiting for the action to begin."Bettmann / Getty Images
Mimi Margaux, who described herself as a "dancer, actress, model and follower of 'la Vie Boheme,'" enjoys the view from the balcony in an East Village hangout in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Jazz music was central to Beat philosophy and served as the soundtrack for the movement. Much of the vocabulary and ethos of jazz was infused into beat culture, and in fact the word "Beat" was taken from jazz slang, meaning down and out.Bettmann / Getty Archives
A jazz bands plays from the top of a liquor cabinet at the Half Note nightclub, a regular hangout for the New York Beats, in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
A group plays folk music to a crowd in Washington Square Park in New York City in June 1955.Bettman / Getty Images
The Beat movement blended disparate elements of surrealism, jazz, and post-modernism into its own unique modes of expression. At a reading on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, one man recites poetry while accompanied by a flutist.Bettmann / Getty Images
Beat culture found its home in the then-new, now-omnipresent coffee shop. Here, people could congregate, listen to music, and drink their beverage of choice without time constraints.Bettmann / Getty Images
A handmade sign outside the Cafe Wha? offers "Beat poets, jazz, crazy bongos, congos, Live Beatniks, Creepniks, ?!?!?!"Bettmann / Getty Images
Coffee shops also served as the defacto venues for oft impromptu Beat performances. In this photograph, a woman recites poetry during a late night session in a Greenwich Village cafe in 1959.Bettman / Getty Images
A poetry reading in Greenwich Village in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
The Gaslight Cafe was a popular venue for folk music performances, and as the story goes, audience applause reverberated into the surrounding apartments, which caused several disturbance complaints to the police. Audience members were then instructed to snap in lieu of clapping.Bettmann / Getty Images
A candid moment from the Cock N' Bull coffee shop in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
A man plays guitar while his friend writes poetry in the Gaslight Cafe in 1959. As described by the photographer:
At places like the Gaslight, which calls itself the Village's oldest coffee shop, the beats meet to drink espresso coffee (and sometimes ice cream sodas) and hold weighty philosophical discussions of art and life. Their beards, unkempt hairdos and strange costumes all express their rebellion against convention.
Bettman / Getty Images
A woman sits in contemplation while enjoying an espresso at Gaslight Cafe in 1959.Bettman / Getty Images
Jack Kerouac reads for an audience at the Seven Arts Cafe in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Famed for his motto of "jazz is my religion, and surrealism is my point of view," poet and trumpeter Ted Joans was a fixture of the Beat scene in New York City. He was similarly famed for holding bohemian parties, like in this photograph taken at a costume party in Greenwich Village in 1960.ICP / Getty Images
Ted Joans reads poetry at the Bizarre coffee shop in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
The Walter Bows Band plays a party at an artist's loft in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Jack Kerouac talks to a friend at a Beat party.Burt Glinn / Magnum
A few late stragglers at a Beat party who have enjoyed some libations.Burt Glinn / Magnum
A woman and man dance to the accompaniment of a drummer beating on congas at a party in Greenwich Village in 1956.ICP / Getty Images
Beats enjoying a party, 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Four friends share a bed in a Greenwich Village apartment after a long night out in 1956.ICP / Getty Images
Cafe Rienzi, opened by painter David Grossblatt, was one of the first coffee shops in New York. Located on MacDougal Street, it was described by The New York Times as the center of intellectual life in the Village during the Beat Generation.Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images
A couple share a soda at the Cock N' Bull on Bleecker Street in 1959.Bettmann / Getty Images
A man plays guitar at dusk in Washington Square Park in 1959.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Hugh Nanton Romney sings at McSorley's saloon in 1959. Later, Romney would adopt the name "Wavy Gravy" and become a lifelong peace activist.Burt Glinn / Magnum
Coffee shops were often run illicitly and sometimes operated as fronts for drug dealing. In 1960, the fire department and the police department began shutting down coffee shops throughout New York City. In this photograph, a group prepares for a protest against city actions.Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images
Beatniks protest in front of New York's City Hall in 1960 in response to closures of coffee shops.Bettmann / Getty Images
Contestants for the "Miss Beatnik" competition pose for a photograph in 1959.Wikimedia Commons
The winner of "Miss Beatnik," identified only as "Angel," is surrounded by the judges of the contest.Bettmann / Getty Images
Beatnik culture was quickly commodified by the mainstream and was used to sell things like record players and movies. Similar to what would happen later in the 1960s to the hippies in San Francisco, Greenwich Village became a tourist destination and featured bus tours to see "beatniks in real life."Hulton Archive / Getty Images
If you're fascinated by this era, watch this short documentary from 1961 about Beat culture in New York:
Alexander is a Brooklyn-based cofounder of All That's Interesting with an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in History and Economics and an MSc from the School of Oriental and African Studies in Economics. He specializes in American history, the Cold War, and true crime.