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Helen Weaver, chronicler of an affair with Kerouac, dies at 89

Weaver, who fell in love with Jack Kerouac months before ÒOn the RoadÓ rocketed him into the literary stratosphere, and who 53 years later made a record of their romance in an enduring book of her own, died on April 13 at her home in Woodstock.

By: New York Times |
Updated: April 27, 2021 11:45:47 am
She was 89. (Source: Alex Traub/ New York Times)

Written by Alex Traub

Helen Weaver, who fell in love with writer Jack Kerouac months before “On the Road” rocketed him into the literary stratosphere and who 53 years later made a record of their romance in an enduring book of her own, died April 13 at her home in Woodstock, New York. She was 89.

Her niece Sally Weaver confirmed the death.

Helen Weaver, who by profession was a translator from French and a writer on astrology, spent nearly 20 years on her 2009 memoir, “The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.” “Kerouac’s soul lives on through many people,” Tara McKelvey wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “but few have been as adept as Weaver at capturing both him and the New York bohemia of the time.”

Weaver began the story of her life with the Sunday morning in November 1956 when the doorbell of her Greenwich Village apartment rang. She and her roommate looked out the window and saw a band of Beats, including Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, amid drifts of snow.

The two men — friends of Weaver’s roommate, Helen Elliott, since college — had just finished a week of hitchhiking from Mexico. Elliott threw down a sock containing a key to the building, and the lads tramped upstairs.

Weaver sat on the floor with Kerouac. He showed her his unpublished manuscripts, and they debated the relative merits of Thomas Wolfe and Henry James. Weaver’s windowless living room was “like a stage set that had finally found its play,” she wrote.

The group spent the day together, walking around the Village and dining at the apartment of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s Beat compatriot Lucien Carr. That night, Weaver peeled Kerouac away by suggesting the two of them return to her place to listen to the “My Fair Lady” cast album. They sang together and climbed into Weaver’s bed. Kerouac quoted the biblical Song of Songs: “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.”

The Beat rebel charmed Weaver with gentleness. He agreed to attend a dinner party with Weaver’s parents in New Milford, Connecticut, and began the evening by asking whether they believed in God.

Kerouac moved in, but his sweetness did not sustain their relationship. He would show up three hours late for dinner, or not at all. “Nothing matters — it’s all a dream,” he said in response to Weaver’s complaints. She wrote, “I was beginning to feel that his Buddhism was just one big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.”

He said, she recalled, “If you’re a Buddhist, it’s no disgrace to be a bum!”

At 25, Weaver admired his liberated lifestyle — and his industry in cranking out seven novels in the previous half-dozen rootless years. But Kerouac was now 34. The trips that inspired “On the Road” were receding into the past, and the homelessness, penury and substance abuse of his youth had begun to exact a price.

“My handsome lover had disappeared,” Weaver wrote about one of Kerouac’s drunken bouts, “and in his place I saw an old wino with haunted eyes.”

In January 1957, after two feverish months, Weaver had had enough. Kerouac came home late to her apartment with Carr “drunk as lords, yelling at each other and crashing into the furniture.” Weaver got out of bed, ran into the living room and beat Kerouac, ripping out a chunk of his hair. She asked him to move out.

When Kerouac memorialized their affair in his 1965 novel “Desolation Angels,” he wrote that Ruth Heaper, the character on whom he based Weaver, broke up with him after advice from her analyst.

“I asked Jack to leave not because my analyst told me to,” Weaver wrote, but “for the same reason America rejected him: He woke us up in the middle of the night in the long dream of the fifties. He interfered with our sleep.”

Helen Hemenway Weaver was born June 18, 1931, in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father, Warren Weaver, was chairman of the mathematics department at the University of Wisconsin, and her mother, Mary (Hemenway) Weaver, was a schoolteacher and later a homemaker.

Weaver grew up in Scarsdale, New York, where the family had moved when her father began working as an executive at the Rockefeller Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. She described her upbringing as “repressive,” but she had Scarsdale to thank for her high school French teacher, from whom she gained the fluency that enabled her career as a translator. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1952.

Weaver wrung all she could from Greenwich Village. She cut her hair short, wore dark glasses at night, maintained a list of hip expressions and smoked pot, keeping her stash in the back of her desk drawer at publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where she worked in production. She counted Ginsberg among her friends and stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce among her flings.

By 1972, she no longer felt safe walking alone to the corner store at night. She moved to Woodstock and found a community of people who shared her interest in astrology. Her work on “Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings” (1976) was nominated for the National Book Award for translation.

Weaver’s marriage to a college classmate, James Pierce, lasted from 1952 to 1955, when it ended in divorce. She leaves no immediate survivors. Her brother, Warren Weaver Jr., a politics reporter for The Times, died in 1997.

During the last years of Kerouac’s life, he sometimes drunkenly called Weaver late at night. She would tell him to call back the next day. He never did.

Yet, as she aged, Weaver “fell in love with Jack all over again,” she wrote. She assisted the Kerouac archives of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and attended festivals and academic conferences devoted to the Beats.

In her memoir, Weaver wrote that she still remembered cooking breakfast for the gang that Sunday morning in 1956: “I’d never made scrambled eggs for six people before.”

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