The Beat Hotel

27 Mar

A couple of years ago, I was ravaging the shelves at the New York Public Library, when I came across Barry Miles’ The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963.  It was around Memorial Day, and I remember sitting by the fountain in the East Harlem section of Central Park, marveling at the ingenious writing methods of my favorite writers and their fascinating lives.  While Burroughs was making his cut-ups and Ginsberg was writing poetry at night and typing them up in the morning, Corso was off wooing girls into buying him dinner.

Here’s what the overview of the book says:

Called “a vivid picture of literary life along the Left Bank in the late 1950s and early 1960s … [and] fun reading” by Library Journal, The Beat Hotel is a delightful history of a remarkable moment in American literary history. From the Howl obscenity trial to the invention of the Cut-up technique, Barry Miles’s extraordinary narrative chronicles the feast of ideas that was Paris, where the Beats took awestruck audiences with Duchamp and Celine, and where some of their most important work came to fruition — Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and “To Aunt Rose”; Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death; and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Based on firsthand accounts from diaries, letters, and many original interviews, The Beat Hotel is an intimate look at a place that “gave the spirit of Dean Moriarty and the genius of Genet and Duchamp a place to dream together of new worlds over a glass of vin ordinaire” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Wikipedia gives a little background on the Beat Hotel:

The Beat Hotel was a small, run-down hotel of 42 rooms at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter of Paris, notable chiefly as a residence for members of the Beat poetry movement of the mid-20th century.

It was a “class 13” hotel, meaning bottom line, a place that was required by law to meet only minimum health and safety standards. It never had any proper name – “the Beat Hotel” was a nickname given by Gregory Corso, which stuck on [2][3]. The rooms had windows facing the interior stairwell and not much light. Hot water was available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The hotel offered the opportunity for a bath – in the only bathtub, situated on the ground floor – provided the guest reserved time in beforehand and paid the surcharge for hot water. Curtains and bedspreads were changed and washed every spring. The linen was (sometimes and in principle) changed every month.

The Beat Hotel was managed by a married couple, Monsieur and Madame Rachou, from 1933. After the death of Monsieur Rachou in a traffic accident in 1957, Madame was the sole manager until the early months of 1963, when the hotel was closed. Besides letting rooms, the establishment had a small bistro on the ground floor. Due to early experiences with working at an inn frequented by Monet and Pissarro, Madame Rachou would encourage artists and writers to stay at the hotel and even at times permit them to pay the rent with paintings or manuscripts. One unusual thing that appealed to a clientele of bohemian artists was the permission to paint and decorate the rooms rented in whichever way they wanted.

The Chelsea Hotel is kind of like New York’s answer to Paris’ Beat Hotel.  Patti Smith brings the Chelsea Hotel to life in Just Kids, where she also talks about meeting Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg and about the idea of improvising in writing.  But I digress….

If you follow me on Twitter, you may remember my recent post lamenting Barney Rosset’s death.  Rosset didn’t shy away from experimental work, publishing the revolutionary works of the Beats at Grove Press. Upon his death, Regina Weinreich wrote an article about his involvement with the Beat Hotel.

Alan Govenar is directing a new 82-minute documentary, with First Run Features and produced by Documentary Arts,  called The Beat Hotel.  Here’s the press release:

1957. The Latin Quarter, Paris. A cheap no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur became a haven for a new breed of artists fleeing the conformity and censorship of America. The hotel soon turned into an epicenter of Beat writing that produced some of the most important works of the Beat generation. It came to be known as the Beat Hotel. Opening March 30 in New York City, to be followed by a rollout to other cities across the country, Alan Govenar’s feature documentary THE BEAT HOTEL explores this amazing place and time.

Fleeing the obscenity trials surrounding the publication of his seminal poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg, along with Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, happened upon the hotel on rue Git le Coeur and were soon joined by William Burroughs, Ian Somerville, and Brion Gysin. Run by the indefatigable Madame Rachou, the Beat Hotel was a hotbed of creativity and permissiveness, where Burroughs and Gysin developed the cut-up writing method; Burroughs finished his controversial book Naked Lunch; Ginsberg began his poem Kaddish; Somerville and Gysin invented the Dream Machine; Corso wrote some of his greatest poems; and Harold Norse, in his own cut-up experiments, wrote a novella, aptly called The Beat Hotel.

British photographer Harold Chapman‘s iconic photos and Scottish artist Elliot Rudie‘s animated drawings capturing Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Corso, Burroughs, Gysin, Somerville and Norse just as they were beginning to establish themselves on the international scene bring THE BEAT HOTEL to life on the screen. The memories of Chapman and Rudie interweave with the first-hand accounts of French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, British book dealer Cyclops Lester, and 95 year old George Whitman. Together with the insights of authors Barry Miles, Oliver Harris, Regina Weinreich, and Eddie Woods, among others, they evoke a time and place where Chapman, mentored by Cartier-Bresson, roamed around Paris photographing nuns, bums, and the idiosyncrasies of street life; Corso took scissors to Marcel Duchamp’s tie in a Dadaist statement while Ginsberg kissed his knees; and Burroughs, with the help of Somerville’s lighting, learned to disappear before an audience’s eyes.

Director Alan Govenar is a writer, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker. He is president of Documentary Arts and has a Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of 23 books, including Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, which won first place in the New York Book Festival (Children’s Non-Fiction), among other prizes. The off-Broadway premiere of his musical “Blind Lemon Blues,” co-created with Akin Babatunde, received rave reviews in The New York Times and Variety. Govenar’s film Stoney Knows How, based on his book by the same title about Old School tattoo artist Leonard St. Clair, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and was selected as an Outstanding Film of the Year by the London Film Festival. Govenar also has produced and directed numerous films in association with NOVA, La Sept/ARTE, and PBS for broadcast and educational distribution, including The Voyage of Doom, Le Naufrage de la Belle, The Devil’s Swing, Texas Style, Everything But the Squeak, The Human Volcano, The Hard Ride, Dreams of Conquest, and Little Willie Eason and His Talking Gospel Guitar.

Judging from the trailer, The Beat Hotel looks like it will be a documentary not to be missed by any fans of the Beats.

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2 Responses to “The Beat Hotel”

  1. JHaeske March 28, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    Good post, that. Thanks.

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