by Jerry Cimino
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919. Let that sink in for a minute.Lawrence’s father died before his birth, and after his mother was later institutionalized, Ferlinghetti was raised by relatives. He lived the first five years of his life with his aunt, Emily, in Strasbourg, France, and spoke French as his first language. Upon his return to New York, he attended various schools, became an Eagle Scout, and later graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in Journalism.
He joined the Navy during World War II, and was present at both the Normandy landings as Commander of a sub-chaser (USS SC-1308) on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and later in the Pacific theater soon after the US dropped the second atomic bomb. It was as he was walking the ruined streets of Nagasaki that he spotted a delicate Japanese teacup on the ground, and as he bent to examine it, he saw that a human finger was fused to the cup. Someone had been drinking their morning tea the instant the bomb exploded. It was at that moment Ferlinghetti became a pacifist.
After the war, the G.I. Bill allowed Ferlinghetti to earn a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University, and further cultivate his lifelong love of literature. Between 1947 and 1951, he continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he met his first wife, Selden Kirby-Smith. Ferlinghetti published his first translations of Jacques Prévert poems in the magazine City Lights (named for the titular Charlie Chaplin film), which would become the name of his bookstore, and whose publisher, Peter Martin, would become his business partner. In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Martin began City Lights Books with a starting investment of $500 each. City Lights was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, and two years later, launched a publishing arm, beginning with Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World, the first of the Pocket Poets Series. The fourth book in this series was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which became a cause célèbre in the battle for free expression when Ferlinghetti found himself defendant in a 1957 obscenity trial over its publication.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the reason I built The Beat Museum. As much as I love the works of Jack Kerouac; as many times as I met Allen Ginsberg; as strange as I knew William S. Burroughs to be; and as much as I enjoyed the antics of Neal Cassady, there would be no Beat Museum had there not been Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And yet Ferlinghetti never considered himself a Beat! If you call Lawrence Ferlinghetti a Beat to his face, he’ll take umbrage at the remark. Ferlinghetti is many things—poet, businessman, publisher, and painter; and while much of his reputation involves his publishing the Beat Generation writers, Ferlinghetti considers himself in the broader lineage of Bohemian writers and artists.
The moment Lawrence Ferlinghetti entered my consciousness it was 1968, and I was 14 years old. I once mentioned this to Lawrence, and he turned to a friend and said, “That’s when I get all of them. They’re all fourteen years old.” It was a joke of course, and an exaggeration, but there is a metaphorical truth there as well. When you’re 14 you’re not quite fully formed, and you’re seeking out exactly who you will become. Lawrence Ferlinghetti answered that call for many of us.
In 1968 the world was exploding. Martin Luther King had just been shot and killed. Bobby Kennedy was on the verge of becoming President when he, too, was shot and killed. There were race riots in the streets across America. The Russians were invading Czechoslovakia with tanks, there was unrest in the streets of Paris, and the Viet Nam War was raging.
Into this mix came an English teacher in Baltimore named Mr. Schneider, who read a poem to a class of unruly, scared and still forming 8th graders in June of 1968. That poem was #5 in Coney Island of The Mind (“Sometime During Eternity”), and you can read it here.
You can also listen to Ferlinghetti reading the poem live in 1956 (beginning at 16:45).
Today, 48 years later, I sit in my office at The Beat Museum a mere 100 steps away from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s office at City Lights. Sometimes I see Lawrence as he walks the streets of North Beach. It is not an exaggeration to say there wouldn’t be a Beat Museum if not for Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Happy Birthday, Lawrence—and thank you for luring me out to California!