Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why Do They Keep Killing David Kammerer? The Homophobic Killing The Beats Defended (Or Harry Potter Cares About Allen Ginsberg.... And So Should You!)

There is a new film out in which Harry Potter, AKA actor Daniel Radcliffe, plays Gay poet Allen Ginsberg, whose Best Friend Forever, as the film shows, killed an alleged gay stalker in Manhattan in 1944. The film is called Kill Your Darlings.

I have always been troubled at the reaction of Ginsberg and the other Beats, namely Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, to the murder and especially their defense of the murderer, their friend Lucien Carr, and their collective throwing under the bus of the victim of the crime, David Kammerer, who was also their friend, and whom Carr and his lawyers condemned as an obsessed homosexual stalker.

Countless queer men and women have been the victims of bigotry and abuse, including violence and even murder. Often, the perpetrators of the crimes have undertaken to make the victims "responsible" for the crimes they were victims of.

Why would the Beats, most of whom were queer or bi, perpetuate these homophobic tropes and defend a gay basher and killer?

Nearly as troubling to me was that when I discussed the case recently with friends, several of the younger ones had absolutely no idea who Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and The Beats were.

These were intelligent, well-informed young people I was speaking to, yet somehow, they had never read any of the Beat classics, or even heard of them.

I think it is safe to say that practically any young person in the 1950's, 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, would have been familiar with the Beats, that crazy group of writers and poets who coalessed around Columbia University in New York City in the 1940's. Anyone interested in poetry or prose, especially those who tended toward rebel/Outsider perspectives in politics, lifestyle, culture, and sexuality, would have read the seminal Beat works such as Ginsberg's classic 1956 poem Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, dragging themselves through the angry, negro streets at dawn, searching for a fix well as Kerouac's novel, which launched a million hitchhikers in search of America, 1957's On The Road, and Burroughs 1959 junkie bible Naked Lunch.

How was it that in the past few years, the Beats have slipped from their former prominence in rebel arts and letters? Would it be too trite to blame video gamer culture for these challenging yet highly approachable works being passed over?

There was the hope perhaps, that this new film could reignite interest in the Beats, and maybe even give David Kammerer some of the justice he had been denied since the day of his death, nearly 70 years ago.

The casting of the excellent Michael C. Hall, lauded for his roles in Six Feet Under and Dexter, as Kammerer, was promising, but, sad to say, the film falls far short of the mark. Radcliffe is great as Ginsberg, and kudos to him for taking on such a challenging role, instead of just coasting on his Harry Potter rep. Little known actor Dane de Haan was compelling as the murderer Carr, but Jack Kerouac comes off as a dumb jock, showing none of his sensitivity and insight, and Kammerer is a sweaty, stalk-ey mess throughout the film. We have no idea why anyone in their right mind would want to having anything at all to do with him.

I found myself reading articles online about the case, and decided to read the novel that Kerouac and Burroughs co-wrote in 1945 about the murder And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. It was published for the first time in 2008, in deference to the feelings of Carr, who died in 2005 (and whose son, Caleb Carr, wrote The Alienist, which also features a gay monster who "deserves" to be destroyed - like father, like son).

I found a copy of Hippos on Amazon for under $3 and ordered it. After reading it, I wished they had based the film directly on that book. I also read Bloodsong, the novel Ginsberg (primarily known for writing poetry) started but never finished about the murder, which can be found in the collection of Ginsberg's early journals and poems called The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice. I looked at several Beat bios and studies as well.

Remarkably, they all echoed the Beat party line on the murder, practically verbatim.

The "conventional wisdom" about the case is fatally flawed, so to speak. In my opinion, Kammerer did not deserve to be murdered. Lucien Carr was responsible for his death, and paid the very small price of two years confinement for his crime. Carr spent the rest of his life trying to cover up his crime, and when it was exposed, always tried to place the onus of the crime on his victim, Kammerer. And it was wrong for the Beats to go along with Carr's continued (character) assassination of Kammerer.

I found myself asking, "Why do they keep killing David Kammerer?"

Burroughs and Kerouac

Dane Dehaan as Carr in "Kill Your Darlings"

Actors playing Burroughs, Ginsberg, Carr, and Kerouac in the film

Kerouac and Carr

Burroughs, Carr, and Ginsberg (after Carr was released from jail)

"New York Times" article on the case

Michael C. Hall doing his sweaty, creepy best at playing Kammerer in the film


  1. My question "Does anyone speak for David Kammerer" on google brought me to your blog. I'm still looking for thar answer, did he have a family, friends, anyone that could maybe give the other side of the story? I enjoyed the movie, raised a lot of questions about Lucien Carr, and it's easy to see why he remained friends with the beats. He certainly didn't want them as enemies!

  2. My question "Does anyone speak for David Kammerer" on google brought me to your blog. I'm still looking for thar answer, did he have a family, friends, anyone that could maybe give the other side of the story? I enjoyed the movie, raised a lot of questions about Lucien Carr, and it's easy to see why he remained friends with the beats. He certainly didn't want them as enemies!

  3. I read an article someone posted, documenting his mother's memories of the early Beat/Columbia U/Village scene. She was a big fan of Kammerer and gave a different view of him. I'll try to find a link and send it to you. Also the Burroughs/Kerouac book ("Rhinos"), shows Kammerer at least as an intelligent, engaging individual, which explains why Burroughs would be friends with him in the first place (and keep in mind, Ginsberg met Burroughs in Kammerer's apartment). The person we see in the "stalker" myth and (unfortunately) in Michael C. Hall's portrayal makes no sense as a friend of the Beats in any way shape or form. It's just homophobia, and it's shocking that the Beats all went along with it. Burroughs was the one who suggested the stalker defense to begin with.

  4. Oh here's that article... it's quite interesting... it presents Kammerer, first of all, as a human being, and secondly as an intelligent and interesting human being, which explains why Burroughs and the others hung out with him in the first place... and it proves that Kammerer did not deserve to die, nor did he deserve getting thrown under the bus (in effect killed a second time, death by character assassination...) by Carr, the media, and his alleged friends The Beats, in order to save Carr.

  5. Interesting article, maybe a bit too much praise for Kammerer...but regardless I doubt he should of been killed. To me Lucien Carr was a murderer who got away with it mostly. I watched the movie Beat last night from 2000, a bit odd but interesting also. The more I read of all these characters, the less I like them. I don't see how Lucien Carr became so "respectable" after such a sordid event. Strange days indeed!

  6. I just saw "Big Sur" - it was pretty good! Looking forward to seeing "On The Road"...

  7. So, here I am drinking with someone I have known for about 5 years. I'm 19, the other guy is 33. We are drinking/talking until the wee hours of the morning, and then decide to go for a walk and sit on a grassy knoll of sorts. I stab and kill him because he tried to rape me......he was bigger then me and I couldn't run, but I was able to stab and kill him. Somehow I was able to take the boyscout knife out of my pocket....and open it too.....but I couldn't run! Then I decided I need to sink him in the Hudson River god how the hell do you get away with that!
    An awful lot of money must of been involved to buy people off....and pay for really good lawyers.
    That brings me back to my original question. Who spoke for David Kammerer at the time? Did he have parents? Did someone demand justice? Anyone? How could they except a plea in this case....if it went to trial I think it would of been a totally different outcome.
    I had heard of Lucien Carr before only because of his position at UPI, but never thought much of it. I never connected him to the Beats....never heard his name mentioned with any of them. Not that I did that much research. It's an amazing case in the sense that no one ever seemed to call Lucien Carr on it, and everyone went on with their lives like nothing happened, and now they are all gone.
    Why are there no pictures of David Kammerer? The only pic of him I saw was what looked like a HS graduation picture.
    I think the movie was showing Carr for what he really was....but then of course it ended. Ginsberg must of had some guilt over this as the years went on, or his love for Carr blinded him. Damn what a story!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  9. Read the New York Mag. article....excellent! That must of went over big in the Carr household at the time. Caleb was 21 at the time, i'm sure being a future writer he checked things out. Will read the others tonight. Thanks.....

  10. Other articles I liked online:

    They always make a big deal about Kammerer being bigger than Carr, but I read he was only 2 or 3 inches than Carr, hardly towering over him. Surely a lithe 19 year old could get away and/or defend himself against some weirdo stalker.... That's why there's obviously much more to the story. They had a dysfunctional relationship. They were both impulsive, self-absorbed, violent, suicidal, and prone to substance abuse and alcoholism. That they had an intense relationship cannot be denied. Carr could have gotten away from him at any point, but kept coming back... The trip to France with Kerouac may have brought the crisis to a head... I think Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, besides being fiercely loyal to a friend, which is admirable (Kammerer was already dead, nothing was going to bring him back, so why not save Carr from the electric chair - in "Rhinos", Carr keeps muttering how they're going to fry him for this crime), but it seems that concern somehow morphed into the glamour of being associated with a murderer, a la Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"... and they were all in love with Carr... and Burroughs later killed his wife in a shooting accident... so as a group, they were known to be impulsive and violent... in the end, we can love Burroughs, but admit he was deeply flawed as a person... in "Rhinos", Burroughs portrays himself as enthusiastically heterosexual... he later made anti-female statements... his actions defending Carr and being the architect of the theory of saving Carr by throwing Kammerer under the bus as the older, bigger, scary gay stalker an innocent youth had to defend his honour against by killing him (no other choice) is inherently homophobic, wrong, and an insult to the memory of his late friend.

  11. The New Yorker article was largely based on "Rhinos"... Apparently Carr hated it when it came out.... Many of his UPI colleagues had no idea they had worked with an affable murderer all those years... The article (and Ginsberg early journals, which were published) hinted at not only Carr being surrounded by gay and bisexual men but that he also experimented himself, which kind of shoots holes in his "heterosexual defending his honor" theory. There is also the hint that Ginsberg may have had relations with Kammerer as well. As for your original question about family or friends sticking up for Kammerer at the time, since he was from St. Louis, he may not have had family in New York, only friends, all of whom seemed to turn their backs on him and defend his killer, Carr, with whom they were enamored.

  12. By the way, thanks for writing. I intended this blog to be a dialogue, not a monologue, but very few people bother writing. Remembered an anecdote of Carr (after getting out of jail) going to Mexico with Ginsberg to visit Burroughs... and Ginsberg being terrified of Carr's wild drunk driving on unfamiliar, windy Mexican rural highways, with Joan Burroughs and her kids in the car. This impulsive, careless, and potentially homicidal and suicidal behavior seems to define Carr, not an aberration...

  13. The trip to Mexico was by Carr & Ginsberg was in Beat 2000. Burroughs & Joan was a whole other story. He also got away with murder. The story of his son is quite sad...died at 33.
    I assume Carr had many questions asked of him over the years, esp. after that New York Mag. article. I hope you don't mind my writing, just haven't found anyone else to discuss this with. BTW, I read Daniel Radcliffe will be playing Washington Roebling in The Brooklyn Bridge.

  14. By the way, they celebrated what would have been Kerouac's 92nd birthday at The Beat Museum in North Beach (San Francisco) this week. The film "Big Sur" brings home the point that Kerouac was depressed, lost, and drinking heavily 3 − 4 years after his incredible success with 1957's "On The Road".... and that he died in 1968, 8 years after "Big Sur"... so Kerouac and Cassady died young, but Ginsberg and Burroughs had long lives...

  15. Oh, and sorry for repeatedly saying "Rhinos" when I meant "Hippos"....

  16. Thank you Michael,
    I think I have exhausted my Lucien Carr obsession...great articles! I have now moved on to the Chelsea Hotel, and Inside The Dream Palace....which I suppose is somewhat connected to the Beats. I don't think Lucien & David ever went there. ;)
    P.S. Tried to join your site but it wouldn't let me.

  17. This is wonderful. This whole discussion. I hadn't known about this murder until the film Kill Your Darlings, and when the story unravelled, I couldn't believe that *that* defense ("honor slaying"? are you kidding me?) a. was accepted at the time and b. continues to be condoned, swept under the rug, or read as the "truth" today. Nobody talks about Lucien Carr. I had never heard of him. Ginsberg and Burroughs and Kerouac, sure; but how on earth are we supposed to respect a man/group of men who condoned a murder? Ginsberg himself was gay; how could he watch this defense? Self-hatred? Someone wrote about the "glamour of being associated with a murder" a la Truman Capote. If that factored into the Beats' psychology over David Kammerer's murder, then that's almost sicker than issues of gay self-hatred.
    I found this blog from searching "david kammerer victim".
    There seems to be no literature on him as a victim. And it's damned unfair.

  18. Amen, Rhiannon! I think I can still respect The Beats, but with these caveats. In the end, respecting them while acknowledging their flaws seems somehow more real than mere unquestioning hero worship.

  19. I finally found a post describing and matches what I felt and thought when I finished watching "Kill Your Darlings".

    I am glad to find other people who think that David was not completely the bad guy among his friends, but also not think Lu was the saint, maybe he just was scaried about real life? We cannot completly blame both of them for what happened, we'll never know and the world is not just white and black.

    At the end, I believe (in my humble opinion), that all comes down to everything was a misunderstanding and that they were in the wrong moment, saying (perhaps) the wrong words and making (very unfortunate) wrong decisions.

    Now I can closure about what I believe about the tragic David Kammerer's death.

  20. You know... what I noticed when I google the movie or the real case is, that TOO many people seem to defend David Kammerer. No one knows what happened, but I DO think David Kammerer was not innocent in ANY way and wouldn't call Lucien a "gay basher". What happened on this particular night - who knows. But I was under the impression Kammerer did something horrible to Lucien before that night.

    Still, it's always good to let people have different insights, so good post, even though I personally have a different opinion :)