The final paragraph contains a reference to Eliot.
Murder Somewhat Foul
By Robert Ast
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 29, 2007
As a willing victim of both fine, fine institutions, I can say that the
University of Chicago is creepier than Columbiacreepier in the sense of
both "What is on that guy's computer?" and the dim, uneasy,
heimlich/unheimlich perception of being on the brink of some abyss or
other. But hold your head up, Columbia, because after all the U of C has
stolenthe Manhattan project, the Core, the self-righteous
self-gratification over the Corewe can finally steal something back:
the prize for best murder.
In 1924, in one of the first Crime(s) of the Century, U of C students
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb misread Nietzsche and murdered
(chloroform, chisel) a random boy to prove that they were supermen. It
was quite a big deal because a) it was 1924, and b) they were rich,
smart, Jewish, and gay.
In addition to two good films (Rope, Swoon), the murder/trial spawned
the film Compulsion, which suggests that all this unpleasantness could
have been avoided if they had only talked to girls once in a while.
There have been no films, however, about the Columbia murder, which is,
quite frankly, bullshit, because whatever the 1944 killing of David
Kammerer by Lucien Carr lacks in malevolence, it more than makes up for
in sordidness and famous people.
Carr was 19, rich, straight, and, by all accounts, a hot piece of
assoh-so-hetero Jack Kerouac describes him as both a "fantastic male
beauty" and "a mischievous little prick." He had already bounced out of
Andover, Bowdoin, and, obviously, the University of Chicago, where he
tried to kill himself (head in the oven). Apparently none of these were
deal breakers for the Columbia College admissions office, so he came to
New York, with Kammerer one step behind.
Kammerer was 33 and had beenenjoy this moment, because your mind is
about to be made up foreverthe leader of Carr's Boy Scout troop in St.
Louis, and he had "followed" Carr to each expensive school. But he had
good qualities, too. Allen Ginsberg writes of the "wonderful, perverse
Kammerer." Kerouac notes that he was "not a bad guy in himself." If
nothing else, he introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to his hometown friend,
William S. Burroughs.
But the Carr/Kammerer relationship is a little less straightforward than
it might seem. Using pseudonyms, Kerouac notes that "it isn't that
[Carr] wants [Kammerer] to follow him, or that he wants to turn him
away, it's just a lot of fun, like [long story about sinking a yacht for
fun]." And they had fun at Columbiapushing Kerouac in a barrel up and
down Broadway, for examplefor a while.
Kammerer had met Carr five years earlier, when he was 14, in what
Kerouac presents as a fairly Lolita-like story, with Carr as the
reincarnation of an earlier beautiful boy. And we all know the familiar
device in Lolita-like storiespeople grow up. It's impossible to know if
Kammerer was actually a pedophile or just tired of waiting, but he
apparently grew increasingly desperate as the summer of 1944 wore on,
prompting Carr to plan to run away and be poetic with Kerouac in
So then it is unclear why Carr went willingly with Kammerer and a bottle
of wine to Riverside Park, which was (and still is, the proper
authorities tell me) a place where gay guys hook up. It's also unclear
what ultimately led Carr to stab him in the heart 12 times with, just
for the Greek tragedy of it all, his Boy Scout knife.
After shoving Kammerer into the Hudson and conferring with Burroughs,
Carr woke Kerouac at dawn, so that they could dispose of the knife and
Kammerer's glasses, visit Carr's analyst, catch a movie, stroll around
MoMA, and return home, where the cops were waiting.
The New York Times notes that Carr listened "lackadaisically" to the
arraignment while clutching A Vision by William Butler "Keats" (as one
tabloid had it) and that Kerouac, held as a material witness/accessory
after the fact, was "greatly concerned at the high bail set." Kerouac
got out of jail (after identifying Kammerer's Hudson-bloated corpse) by
promising to marry his girlfriend if she bailed him out (annulled a year
later). The Carr defense team presented the idea that he was protecting
his honor from a predatory homosexual, and he was out in two years.
Sadly, any possible lesson remains elusive, because in 1944 there was no
BWOG-like entity to record the diverse brilliant reactions of the
Columbia community. Fortunately, though, the Spectator editorial board,
apparently with Leopold and Loeb in mind, lost all sense of perspective:
"[T]here is a complexity to the background of the case that will defy
ordinary police and legal investigations. The search for motive will dig
deep into the more hidden areas of the intellectual world. What it will
reveal may not be pleasant to the humdrum and ordinary society outside.
But that the evidence derived from so strange a case will be immensely
important that society will not be able to deny."
Kerouac's synopsis is similarly insightful: the "Gospel truth" is that
Carr "had been subject to an attempt at degrading by an older man who
was a pederast, and that he had dispatched him off to an old lover
called the river."
But what is there to say, really? Lacking any kind of center,
discernible moral, or sympathetic character, the story has a way of
frustrating its telling. A collaborative novel by Kerouac and Burroughs
was never published, and Kerouac was only able to relate the story
successfully (and break his promise of silence) by imitating his other
endless strings of pointless episodes.
Still, perhaps Ginsberg, who abandoned his own novel when his CC adviser
called it "smutty," has the best narrative sense of all. Kerouac reports
that Carr kept repeating what the dying Kammerer kept repeating: "So
this is how David Kammerer ends." In a letter to his father, Ginsberg
transforms this into T.S. Eliot on the way the world ends, "not with a
bang but a whimper." Then he notes: "School otherwise is coming along.
Chemistry was trouble, as usual."
Robert Ast is a senior in the School of General Studies.
Columbia Babylon runs alternate Mondays.
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