Poetry Project


If Allen Ginsberg were alive today, he probably would be busy writing anti-Giuliani polemics and thinking back to the day in 1957 when the courts unbanned his famous ‘howl.’ But he’s dead, and his Levi’s jacket, his meditation beads, his Medic-alert bracelet, and other relics of his Lower East Side life are sitting on the fifth floor of a building on the Upper East Side, ready to be auctioned to the highest bidder on Thursday, when Sotheby’s presents its Allen Ginsberg and Friends auction.

“This typewriter is supposed to have a sticker! A City Lights sticker!” a frantic curator clucks in the center of the crowded gallery on the Friday before the event, nearly in tears at the prospect of the now stickerless manual Royal (lot 56, estimate $1000 to $1500), the machine on which Lawrence Ferlinghetti typed A Coney Island of the Mind in the basement of City Lights Bookstore in San Fransisco.

“Perhaps the Kerouac painting here?” an immaculately turned-out auction house employee wonders, motioning to a beige wall in the newly renovated salesroom. “Look at this lovely box!” a woman from the press office trills in a posh British accent, caressing Ginsberg’s beat-up harmonium case, which the poet decorated with stickers, the way
people used to personalize suitcases in the 1920s and ’30s, when he was growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. “Look at the lovely labels! Here’s one from the Rolling Thunder tour! And a lovely backstage pass for Carnegie Hall!” (Could this be the same harmonium of which Ginsberg wrote in his 1966 poem, “Bayonne Entering NYC”: “Humm, Macdougal I lived here,/Humm perfect, there’s empty space/Park by the bright-lit book store— /Where I’ll find my mail/& Harmonium, new from Calcutta/Waiting I come back to New York & begin to Sing.”?) She opens the case, pulls off a piece of Indian bedspread fabric that could have come from the old Azuma store on 8th Street, and carefully lifts out the instrument (lot 86, $3000 to $5000). “It still works!” she exclaims, though she doesn’t press any keys.

“These things will look so much better tomorrow, when they’re organized,” the press woman assures a visitor. “Well, actually, this is the way it looked in Allen’s apartment,” chimes in Bill Morgan, one of the people Ginsberg designated to deal with his effects and who has arranged the sale. “Allen always lived in cluttered apartments. He kept the art people gave him under the bed.”

The exhibit is opening for public inspection the next day, and the salesroom is indeed a mess: A 1943 painting of a cigarette-smoking Jack Kerouac, by the novelist’s first wife (lot 10, $1000 to $1500), is propped up against a showcase, directly across the aisle from Graham Nash’s 24-by-37-inch blowup (lot 27, $600 to $900) of Ginsberg’s famous 1953 photo of Kerouac at the Staten Island Ferry dock (lot 27, $1200 to $1500). There’s the Rolleiflex that Ginsberg may have used to take that picture (lot 160, $500 to $700) and a packing crate containing a bunch of sad shirts (lot 171, $150 to $250). Three Uncle Sam hats (lot 94, $3000 to $5000), one of which Ginsberg may be wearing in the famous Fred W. McDarrah poster (lot 95, $500 to $700), are languishing next to a cardboard box that contains Jack Kerouac’s conga drum (lot 20, $3000 to $5000). A pair of loose-leaf notebooks holds a collection of letters, penciled notes, and assorted paper ephemera, including a 1959 California arrest record, from the estate of Neal Cassady (lot 21, $15,000 to $25,000), a fellow Ginsberg likened to Johnny Appleseed and whom the Sotheby’s catalogue calls “the spirit and the muse behind the Beat generation.”

Sotheby’s certainly isn’t treating the event like any old sale. They’ve arranged a promotional poetry reading that they’re not embarrassed to call a Human Be-in, featuring people like Gus Van Sant and Lou Reed and Winona Ryder, to take place on Sunday, which they plan to broadcast over the Internet. (“The Beat Goes On . . . Line!” according to the flyer.)

On Saturday, the viewing is open to the public, and things are in much better shape: there are dress forms for the shabby clothes and a cute little pedestal for Jack’s drum. A visitor is struck by items she didn’t notice the day before: Kerouac’s varsity letter (lot 8, $3000 to $5000) from Horace Mann (it comes with a letter from that institution: “This document is intended to confirm the authenticity of the object herein described as ‘Horace Mann Football Letter’ awarded to Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac . . . “); the desk that Ginsberg inherited from his father (lot 7, $500 to $800); and the photo of Walt Whitman that Ginsberg kept on display in his home for 26 years (lot 120, $500 to $1000). Against one wall of the showroom, a woven wool meditation mat, two cotton pillows, a small screen with a flower-and-pond print, and other artifacts are arranged facing a makeshift altar (lot 128, $400 to $500).

“That’s the part of all this that reminds me of him the most,” confides Bob Rosenthal, another organizer of the sale, nodding toward the shrine. “It’s set up exactly like it was in Allen’s apartment.” When he is asked what Ginsberg would make of his possessions so lovingly arranged in the glittering halls of capital, Rosenthal is emphatic. “Allen said, ‘Don’t make a museum out of me!’ He wanted his work to be remembered— not Allen Ginsberg the man. He wasn’t into the cult of the person at all.”