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The New Cat

Who: Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky

When: December 1954

Where: 1403 Gough Street, San Francisco

ginsberg.jpg
Hep cats. Ginsberg (left) and Orlovsky (right).

In 1954, the best mind of its generation wasn't destroyed. It was working in marketing for $250 a month and living with a blonde named Sheila Boucher on Pine Street. Poet Allen Ginsberg had relocated to San Francisco not to lead a Beat Bohemia but to become a Yuppie.

The straight eventually grew too narrow. He and Boucher fought, especially over his attachment to Neal Cassady, his muse, friend, and sometime lover.

Following one such dustup, Ginsberg, 28, walked to Foster's Cafeteria in the Russ Building to cool down. That December day, he fell into conversation with painter Robert LaVigne. The artist invited him back to his Gough Street studio to see his work.

Inside the first-floor apartment, a portrait of a naked blond youth with a sly smile stirred Ginsberg. Who was this man? LaVignes roommate, it turned out. Just then the subject, 21-year-old Peter Orlovsky, walked into the roomand into Ginsberg's life.

Somewhere a muse began to stir.

"Im happy, Kerouac, your madman Allen's / finally made it:" Ginsberg later wrote in a poem called "Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo," addressed to his friend Jack Kerouac. "Discovered a new young cat, / and my imagination of an eternal boy / walks on the streets of San Francisco."

Ginsberg put his queer shoulder to the wheel. He left Boucher and got an apartment in North Beach, and in February Orlovsky moved in. The poet quit his job at the ad agency, arranging for an IBM computer to replace him, and began writing Howl, the poem that made him and his fellow Beats famous just months later.

Orlovsky eventually moved to Potrero Hill, but their relationship which began in front of LaVigne's portrait continued at varying degrees of intensity, spanning continents and decades, and ending only with Ginsberg's death in 1997.


Andrew Nelson lives and writes in San Francisco.

Copyright 2001 - 2002 Andrew T. Nelson. All rights reserved.