Feb. 26, 2005
A Rebel Without a Pause
The last time I saw Lucien Carr -- icon of the counterculture, confessed killer and my old boss on the news desk of United Press International -- we talked about the big cats. It was more than a dozen years ago. UPI had fallen apart and I was leaving the U.S. to work for another wire service in Southeast Asia. I stopped by the bureau in Washington to say goodbye and as I talked with Carr, I asked what had become of a colleague of ours, his long-time deputy.
"The big cats," Carr said.
I asked him to explain. Carr said our colleague -- one of the most senior editors at UPI -- had decided that he would be bored working for any other news organisation. So he joined the circus and was caring for the lions and tigers -- cleaning the cages and that sort of thing. Carr and I were both smiling as I walked out of the door for the last time.
Memories of UPI and the big cats came back to me a few weeks ago when I picked up The Daily Telegraph here in London and read that Carr had died at the age of 79. Other obituaries said he had been suffering from cancer.
Carr's death was a news story on both sides of the Atlantic because he was present at the creation of the Beat movement in the 1940s. Its leading writers -- Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs -- all met each other through Carr.
Carr also was the first of the group to gain notoriety - for killing his former scoutmaster, an obsessed older man who had followed him from their native St Louis to New York. If Carr sounds like a character in a Kerouac novel, it's for good reason. Kerouac wrote about Carr.
By the time I met Carr, about four decades later, he had moved on. After serving two years in prison for manslaughter, he joined what was then United Press in 1946 and stayed for nearly half a century, becoming the undisputed dean of the editors who worked on the news desk. From a Beat perspective, he was a dropout -- a member of the club who got a job and never wrote a book. To many people, his greatest literary contribution came when he liberated the wire service teletype paper that Kerouac supposedly used to write "On the Road."
But I always thought Carr was ahead of his time as a rebel. It was almost as if he realised early on that looking into the abyss can get to be as boring as anything else. His rebellion lacked the drama of the Beats. His later life was a far cry from the opening lines of his friend Ginsberg's poem, "Howl": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves though the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix."
But if you think about it, dragging yourself through the streets looking for a fix is a drag. It's an exercise in logistics -- like going to work, only more time-consuming.
I suspect that many of the more critical minds of his and subsequent generations wound up like Carr. You could find these people hiding out in newsrooms, or places like them, looking toward their computer screens in the hope they would find something that would hold their interest.
Carr liked stories -- about big cats, or dangerous storms or movie stars or any subject that got his juices flowing. In an interview with a former UPI editor named Don Mullen, which appeared in his UPI obituary, Carr confessed to a lack of interest in political journalism, saying: "I never wanted to work on a story where the working verb was 'he said.'"
Carr also didn't like commas or dashes or anything that interrupted the flow of a sentence. I once put a dash in the first sentence of a story and Carr offered the observation that only 19th century female novelists used dashes.
Carr's influence on the UPI desk was so strong that there was no question that I would recast the sentence and dump the dash.
But for all his aesthetic concerns, Carr had little desire for public recognition as a writer. UPI was a big company when he ran the desk and he became one of the influential news editors of his generation. His words went around the world. But he almost always wrote under other people's bylines. There was a selfless quality to his work. He just did it.
I found that out one night when I was leading UPI's coverage of a hurricane that was poised to strike the U.S. Gulf coast. It was the strongest hurricane ever measured at sea and it was moving erratically, meaning dozens of reporters were filing notes to yours truly.
Carr left the office around dinner time and I thought I wouldn't see him again that night. But several hours later -- after a few cocktails -- Carr ambled in. He asked me what was going on. I told him and he made his way slowly to a computer terminal. He typed quickly, growled, "There's your lead," and he headed out of the door. I wrote several more versions of the story as circumstance changed, but I kept Carr's introduction all night. Carr had nailed the lead and
I got the credit. After Carr died, the obituary in The New York Times called him "a literary lion who never roared". That observation is true as far as it goes. From where I sat, I heard something different. -- Gary Silverman