Neal Cassady: The Monsignor’s Godson

The Beat Museum has recently acquired a collection of correspondence and other documents, including original letters from Neal Cassady to Father John Harley Schmitt, former pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Denver.

Neal Cassady: The Monsignor's Godson

In 1938, during the height of the Great Depression, 12-year-old Neal Cassady spent three weeks at Camp Santa Maria in the hills of Bailey, Colorado, sixty miles outside of Denver. The camp was administered by the Denver Catholic Charities with the financial assistance of a philanthropist, Mae Mullen Dower, who wanted to brighten the lives of 150 disadvantaged boys with a summer adventure.

The record shows it was during the course of this three week stay that Neal asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church and, for reasons unknown, he asked a priest by the name of Father John Harley Schmitt to be his godfather. Father Schmitt was surprised at the request, but he agreed. According to Father Harley, it was the only time he’d ever been asked to be a godfather and Neal Cassady was his only godson.

Though they only saw each other in person a handful of times after the 1930s, Father Harley is an important figure in Neal Cassady lore. Father Harley is mentioned by name in the famous Joan Anderson Letter, wherein Neal tells the story of “Cherry Mary,” a girl who lived on Cherry Street. In 1945, Mary’s mother had asked their Parish priest to come to dinner to lecture young Neal because she disapproved of his intentions for her daughter. Her plans fell apart, however, when the priest, Father Harley Schmitt, who hadn’t seen his godson in years, fell into Neal’s arms, crying “Neal!! Neal!, my boy! At last I’ve found my boy!”

It appears from the documents in the file that Father Harley was made aware of Neal’s notoriety in 1957, whereupon he contacted the Colorado State Department of Parole, inquiring about their records related to Neal Cassady. The letter of inquiry is dated October 8, 1957, about one month after the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The Department of Parole responded on October 14th with an initial one-page letter. A more detailed two-page letter was written on October 16th, detailing Neal’s numerous brushes with the law.

From the streets of Denver to the cells of San Quentin, the files of Monsignor John Harley Schmitt

In February of 1958, Neal Cassady unknowingly gave three marijuana cigarettes to undercover agents in North Beach. He was arrested in April, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison. He served two years, from May 1958 until May 1960, when he was eventually paroled. Neal was first incarcerated in the San Bruno County Jail, then at the Vacaville Medical Center, and finally San Quentin State Prison.

This collection consists of various documents Monsignor Schmitt kept on his godson, Neal Cassady. The file consists of Schmitt’s notes and recollections, and also Colorado Probation Office records from the 1940s and the 1950s. Lastly, there are the six letters written by Neal Cassady to Monsignor Schmitt in 1958 and 1959, during the time he was incarcerated in California for the marijuana offense. Five of the letters are handwritten, and the last one, dated July, 1959, is typewritten on San Quentin letterhead using a portable Royal typewriter, purchased by Allen Ginsberg using money sent to him by Jack Kerouac for the purpose of buying Neal a typewriter to use while in prison.

All six of these letters to Monsignor Schmitt appear in the book Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison 1958-60, published in 1993, along with fifty-six letters to Neal’s wife, Carolyn Cassady.

For the first time ever, these letters will be on public exhibition at The Beat Museum, beginning in August.

This collection is on permanent loan to The Beat Museum, from a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous.