Two Joans were on display at Christie's on June 16, one was the much-missed Joan Rivers with a sampling of her sequined gowns adorning mannequins in the auction house entrance, going on the block the following day. The other was the famed subject of a 1950 letter to Jack Kerouac from his pal, Neal Cassady, long thought lost. You may have read about it 18 months ago, when Jean Spinosa found the letter among her father's papers in Oakland, California. Then came a bit of legal wrangling among Cassady's heirs, the Kerouac estate, and the letter's finder. Because Kerouac claimed this letter was inspiration to his spontaneous prose, the letter has entered legend. Cassady, famed for fast driving and cocksmanship, met Joan Anderson on a Greyhound bus, convincing her to make it with him, the writing fast, rambling, and rhapsodic. Now on display on the auction floor, with only the first of 16-pages showing, the letter held some surprises.
Of course, Kerouac loved Neal Cassidy, and was always encouraging to the "son of a Denver wino" who grew up on the streets stealing cars. Neal came to him at the suggestion of Allen Ginsberg. Neal wanted to learn how to write, with the great irony, who was teacher to whom? The first page of the letter revealed an aspect of their literary relationship and kinship, calling Melville, for example, "humpback Herman," homage and put down simultaneously. Celine, called Ferdie, was also the subject of wordplay.
In Kerouac criticism, the tide had turned regarding the importance of this letter: books like Joyce Johnson's The Voice is All, Hassan Melehy's Kerouac: Language, Poetics & Territory, and a collection of Kerouac writings recently published in Quebec, La vie est d'hommage, focus more on his French-Canadian roots, culture, and language as a major influence even on his English language books, such as the most famous, On the Road.
At the auction, letters, leather bound editions, maps by Whitman, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Matisse and Jack London, an important Kerouac influence, sold just fine, priced lower than this beat generation artifact. Then again, none of these achieved this level of legend.
Everyone expected the auction of this letter to exceed its estimated $400,000 to $600,000, just as the On the Road scroll had when James Irsay swooped in and took it for $1.43 million, the highest price ever paid for a literary manuscript. This time, the room lacked the buzz. The bidding on the phone between two callers never got to the estimated value, ending at $380,000. Jami Cassady, one of Neal's children with Carolyn Cassady wondered why the bidding stopped when it did, in effect, not selling, and ensuring, the long saga of "The Joan Anderson Letter" will have a next chapter.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.