Up Close and Personal with the Collection of Richard Prince

by Jerry Cimino

Sometimes life leads you to exactly the place you want to be, seeing things you’ve always wanted to see. A few months ago I experienced just such a moment when I made a trip to New York to peruse the greatest collection of Beat Generation and counterculture memorabilia in the world.

Hoods – Richard Prince

I was sitting in artist Richard Prince’s studio awaiting his assistant when the cover of one of Prince’s books caught my eye. It was titled Hoods, and on the cover was a 1970 Dodge Challenger, the original metal hood replaced by a piece of plywood. The hood itself had been removed and turned into a piece of art that hung on a wall along with the hoods of dozens of other muscle cars from the 1970s. That single image released a flood of memories and emotion in my mind that simply took me over.

1970 Dodge Challenger

When Richard’s assistant walked through the door, I couldn’t tell if he noticed the many gears I had turning in my head, but I felt compelled to comment. “You know, while I was waiting, I was perusing Richard’s book with the car hoods. The one on the cover caught my eye, and I’ve got to tell you a story that relates to that car. When I was 15 years old, my older brother Jack, who is a few years older than I am, bought a 1970 Dodge Challenger that looks similar to the one on the cover of Richard’s book; only Jack’s car was fire engine red with a black alligator roof, a 383 R/T with hood scoops and a pistol grip four on the floor. Boy was that a hot car! My mother used to say, ‘Jack, you better be careful with that car and watch out for the police. That car looks like it’s moving fast even when it’s parked!’

Stylized promo for the film Vanishing Point

“Little did Mom know! Not too long after Jack brought the Challenger home, we went to see a movie that had just been released called Vanishing Point. It later became a huge cult classic in the vein of Easy Rider, and of course reminiscent of Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet named Kowalski (Barry Newman), a larger-than-life hero who is paid to drive from Denver to San Francisco, and takes a bet he can do it in one day. Kowalksi’s brand-new Challenger was white, as opposed to Jack’s which was red. Of course, in the movie the cops are chasing Kowalski all over the west as he drives like a maniac toward San Francisco. There is even a blind radio disc jockey named Super Soul (played by Clevon Little) who’s giving Kowalski clues over the radio as to how to avoid the cops. People all across America are hearing about this “Hero of the West” thanks to Super Soul, as Kowalski, a modern-day Dean Moriarty, goes up against the authorities, riding for the underdogs while people cheer him on from overpasses and roadsides.

“After the movie comes to its astonishing ending, Jack and I exited the strip mall movie theatre, and as we made our way out to the parking lot we saw a crowd of about 30 people standing around admiring Jack’s red Challenger. ‘That’s the same car as in the movie!’ one guy is telling his friend. A second guy says, ‘That’s not a vinyl roof, that looks like black alligator skin.’ And then a third guy chimed in, ‘Look at that Hurst shifter. It’s like a gun grip!’

“Jack stood there tall and proud for a few minutes, taking it all in as total strangers admired his brand new car. As his little brother I got to bask in the reflected glory of this magnificent moment. Even today, I treasure the memory.” And then I turned to Richard Prince’s assistant and said, “You’re too young to have seen it in the theaters, and it’s almost impossible to even find today, but have you ever heard of the movie Vanishing Point? It had a huge impact.”

My companion had a bemused expression the entire time I was telling my story, and smiled at the question, replying “Richard owns the original screenplay to Vanishing Point by Guillermo Cain. It’s sitting in a custom-made case in the next room right now.”

Thus began my hands-on examination into the world of Richard Prince, where I quickly realized his influences aren’t limited to just the Beat Generation and the muscle cars of the 1970s, but much of the same stuff that influenced so many of us who grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s. Curator and collector Robert M. Rubin published with Richard a book titled Cowboy, examining the myth of the American West, the West of John Wayne, where young men who grew up in mid-century America learned how to be a man. Through Westerns we learned the values our culture wanted to teach us, like turning the other cheek when you can, but realizing you can’t always run from a fight, especially when there’s someone more vulnerable than you in danger.

Over the years, Richard Prince has found a way to incorporate all these influences into his daily work, making art that is meaningful to him and reflects the culture he grew up in. Prince’s art mimics the progression of 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s America, where a generation of boys progressed from cowboys to femmes fatales to muscle cars.

The Greatest Beat Generation Collection In Private Hands In The World

Seven years ago I was doing some research on Kerouac’s novel Big Sur when a random internet search yielded what appeared to be a photograph of an original scroll not unlike the first draft of On the Road, except the title Big Sur was sketched across the top of the scroll, drawn in Jack’s own hand in blue and red pencil. The color scheme and rough imagery is reminiscent of the cover of the first edition of Excerpts from Visions of Cody, published in 1959.

Left: Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript of Big Sur with its custom case.
Right: First edition of Visions of Cody with titling hand-lettered by Kerouac.

I started digging deeper, and soon found myself astounded by the photographs I was looking at on Prince’s website. There are hundreds of images of counterculture-related items, along with dozens of Beat Generation images. Some I had never encountered before included original manuscripts of seminal Beat documents; signed association copies of important books (e.g. numerous copies of Howl inscribed by Allen Ginsberg to his very closest friends, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac, among others); various ephemera including original letters and source material; even a breast pocket notebook that turned out to be the original source document for Big Sur, which Jack carried with him on his last trip to California in August 1960.

Kerouac Highlight Includes Rejected Big Sur Manuscripts

Prince’s collection contains a lot of unpublished material. There is Jack’s original Big Sur notebook, some of the pages coming loose with age. Jack had used a razor blade to cut a tiny window the size of a postage stamp in the center of the notebook’s front cover, and on the first page, showing through the window, is a colored pencil drawing representing Big Sur. 

Then there is the Big Sur scroll itself. I saw prospectus documents created by book dealers, most importantly John McWhinnie, that refer to the scroll and scraps of paper as “Rejected Manuscripts” (the implication being they were rejected by Jack himself prior to submission as opposed to rejected by the publisher). 

There is a note written by Kerouac, attached to dozens of individual handwritten pages, and stored in the same handcrafted black leather-bound box as the Big Sur scroll. The note states: “The actual beginning of Big Sur was written by hand, originals attached here —>.” Jack also wrote, “There had to be connectives to attach it to the ‘fresh start’ scroll which begins below.”

There’s a telling personal note by Jack attached to the papers, “I still don’t understand what happened to me at Big Sur.”

Most hauntingly, written in pencil on the scroll itself in Jack’s own hand: “The night Nirvana ended.”

Well, a lot of people have asked me
why did I write that book or any book…

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show, 1959

Another highlight during my visit that day in New York was to hold in my hands the actual copy of On the Road that Jack read on the Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which Jack had taped a hand-typed portion of Visions of Cody to the inside front cover (“Anyway I wrote the book because we’re all gonna die…”).

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show, 1959
Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show, 1959

Debate had raged for decades within Kerouac circles as to what might have happened to that copy of On the Road. It was the greatest recorded reading Jack ever gave in his entire life, and it wasn’t just audio, it was on television. Most every Kerouac fan is familiar with it because it features in so many documentaries. Steve’s spontaneous piano, Jack’s mannerisms, his rhythm and cadence shine forth, capturing the essence of the entire Beat Generation in a single five-minute video clip.

On the Road – "Kerouac's Own Copy Prepared for The Steve Allen Show"
On the Road “Kerouac’s Own Copy Prepared for The Steve Allen Show”

Conspiracy theorists on the internet insisted that John Sampas had secretly sold this particular copy of On the Road to some unknown collector for a small fortune and never told anyone. Others opined that it belongs in a museum, next to a video screen with Jack reading from it, as opposed to residing on someone’s bookshelf at home.

It turns out Jack himself had given that book to Steve Allen after the show in Los Angeles on November 16, 1959. Jack even inscribed it to Steve in red pen in a very firm hand, with his classic Jack Kerouac signature fans all over the world know and love: “To Steve, from his good buddy, Jack Kerouac.” 

Original Dot Records pressing of Poetry for the Beat Generation at the Beat Museum

Also in Richard Prince’s collection are some letters from Steve Allen to Kerouac. One is related to the LP they collaborated on, Poetry for the Beat Generation. Recorded in 1958 and originally slated for release on Dot Records, that arrangement fell apart when Dot president Randy Wood objected to some of the content, calling it “in bad taste” and “off-color.” Vowing that “his diskery would never distribute a product that’s not clean family entertainment,” Wood withheld the album from receiving a full pressing, beyond the handful of copies already sent to reviewers and DJs. It is estimated there are fewer than a dozen copies of the Dot version of Poetry for the Beat Generation left in the entire world. The Beat Museum has had a copy in our collection since 2011. Richard Prince owns a copy as well.

Rather than letting the situation stand, Steve Allen and engineer Bob Thiele left Dot and took the original tape with them, forming their own record label, Hanover, and Poetry for the Beat Generation was one of their earliest releases. One letter from Steve to Jack is stored in the same slipcase as the book, and dated February 27, 1959. It reads, “Album should be out ‘soon’ at least that’s what Dot Records is telling me,” adding that “Millstein did write the notes and they’re fine. I don’t know what the hell is holding things up.” This letter was mailed to Jack’s address at 34 Gilbert Street in Northport, Long Island.

“Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”

Walt Whitman

Then there are the Allen Ginsberg items included in Prince’s collection. When I was doing my research years ago, I was flabbergasted to find references to copies of Howl that I didn’t know existed. As many Beat fans are aware, Ginsberg had quite an acumen for marketing. If you’re familiar with the history of the publication of Howl by City Lights, you might be aware Allen sent off about fifty inscribed, pre-release copies of the book in 1956. Allen’s notes indicate these went to Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, among other celebrities.

Other copies of Howl were inscribed by Allen to his closest friends. If you look at the copy of Howl on your bookshelf, you’ll see it is dedicated to three of Allen’s closest friends: Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. If you’re fortunate enough to own a copy of the very first printing (only 1,000 copies were printed) you’ll see the dedication originally included a fourth person: Lucien Carr.  

After the publication of Howl became such a big hit, Lucien contacted Allen and requested his name be removed from the dedication page. Because of his legal troubles related to the murder of David Kammerer, Lucien was forbidden from associating with known troublemakers—and Allen and Ferlinghetti were certainly stirring up some trouble!

Richard Prince owns a copy of Howl and Other Poems inscribed to Lucien Carr, a City Lights first edition, and so fittingly Lucien’s name appears on the dedication page. The inscription reads, “For Lucien, to whom this poem was written, after decades. Love, Allen Ginsberg.” William S. Burroughs also signed this very book. “William Seward Burroughs Is everybody mad? Christmas 1978,” no doubt a reference to Ginsberg’s description of Naked Lunch in the dedication as “…an endless novel which will drive everybody mad.”

There’s another interesting signed copy of Howl. This one is not a first printing, but an 8th printing from 1959. It is inscribed to Jack Kerouac as follows:

For Jack, Howl, 1959’s end’s near

my heart thumps in

my underwear

on Sunday morn again.

                              Allen

In addition to the two books described above, Prince owns two early copies of “Howl,” 8.5″ x 11″ loose-leaf early versions Ditto-printed on a spirit duplicator, prior to its publication by City Lights:

One, stored in its original envelope marked “Printed Material,” is a true first printing, one of the original 25 copies printed by Marthe Rexroth on May 16, 1956. Kenneth Rexroth mailed it from 250 Scott Street, San Francisco, to Richard Eberhart at 190 Prospect Ave, Princeton, New Jersey. Eberhart made an extremely important contribution to the growing interest in the Beat Generation when he wrote a favorable article about Howl, Ginsberg, and the Beats in general for the New York Times that ran on September 2, 1956.

The second copy is actually an unauthorized third printing; one of several impressions made from the original Ditto masters at Gotham Book Mart, and inscribed variously by Allen Ginsberg, Marthe Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snydeer, and Philip Whalen. About six copies were acquired and sold by Peter Howard, who founded Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California in 1963, and continued to run it until he died in 2011. There is a statement by Marthe Rexroth indicating this is a Ditto using the original master. Allen Ginsberg himself hand wrote on the document, “The original master ditto sheets were typed by the poet Robert Creeley & printed off by Marthe Rexroth at SF State College as she says below. Allen Ginsberg.”

Prince owns an amazing number of other highly significant Beat Generation artifacts. There are numerous custom made leather cases containing personal items of many of Jack and Allen’s friends. Some of these cases contain countless letters, notes and photographs, all original source material. One such case includes numerous photographs and notes used in the publication of The Beat Scene by Fred McDarrah in 1960. McDarrah worked for the Village Voice and knew everyone in the New York scene. 

Another case contains original release letters signed by the people upon whom Kerouac based major characters in On the Road. The letters are pure legalese and are stamped 1955 and 1956. Kerouac, at the behest of his publisher, had asked Allen Ginsberg, Henri Cru, and Neal Cassady to sign the letters, which Kerouac then forwarded to Malcolm Cowley at Penguin. Another release letter for The Dharma Bums a year later is signed by Gary Snyder. These are standard legal releases, signed by the real-life personalities acknowledging their character names. There is also a copy of On the Road signed to “Ti Nin and brother Paul” and a prerelease copy of The Dharma Bums which features a mocked-up cover with no words printed on it.

Of course Richard Prince’s collection isn’t only limited to literature. It’s movies, it’s television, it’s rock & roll, as well as punk. It includes original documents by Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and many others. It’s the Marlboro Man and Larry McMurtry. When it comes to collecting counterculture memorabilia, Richard Prince doesn’t do anything by half measure. His collection has elements that include a little bit of everything that has made American culture what it is today.

Myth and Myth Making

The Legend and Lore of the Beat Generation and Richard Prince

I only met John McWhinnie once. It was around 2008 or 2009, shortly after we moved the Beat Museum from Monterey to San Francisco. He was visiting San Francisco with an associate, Glenn Horowitz, and they stopped into the Beat Museum on the recommendation of a mutual friend who was also a rare bookseller. I knew them by reputation only, Horowitz being the older of the two and the more established. The three of us had a very pleasant conversation, they took their time viewing the displays and exhibits and as they were preparing to leave I noticed John drop a $100 bill into our donation box. I was impressed, and grateful too, because at that time we were struggling financially and at that point $100 would have been the single largest donation we had ever received.

John McWhinnie

Numerous items in Richard Prince’s collection were procured through John McWhinnie. It appears from supporting documents that Prince and McWhinnie had a close and productive association until McWhinnie’s untimely death at age 43 in 2012. McWhinnie not only sold Prince’s own art and procured one-of-a-kind counterculture items (including books) but he also collaborated closely with Prince, most significantly to my mind, with an exhibition and a book titled American Prayer, also in collaboration with Bob Rubin as curator/editor. It was this book (with a portion of the text written by McWhinnie) that helped me understand how and why Richard Prince has made it his mission to collect and preserve the works of some of the most important and culturally significant literary personalities of the 20th century.

When Jack Kerouac was writing his Duluoz Legend he knew he was building a mythology around his own life. Part of that mythology, to which many of those new to Kerouac subscribe, is that On the Road was written in a spontaneous and frenzied three-week burst of benzedrine energy (it was actually coffee) and that his books were published exactly as he wrote them because Jack never revised. “First Thought, Best Thought,” after all. Forget about it. Jack was constantly editing and rewriting his work. If he hadn’t, he would never have been published. It took seven years to get On the Road accepted for publication. In point of fact, Jack had already written millions of words before that, but in the minds of much of the public, he became an “overnight success.”

Richard Prince knows, arguably better than most Beat fans, the backstory behind Jack Kerouac’s self-created myth. Richard has spared no expense seeking out the original documentation, and he owns the very scraps of paper that were instrumental in shaping some of the greatest works of modern times. He knows Kerouac was constantly honing and refining his writing because he’s got Jack’s own rejects in his leather-bound cases.

This is the West, Sir. When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend

Anyone who has ever seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford’s movie starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt it is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. I once needed to school one of my friends, who had the temerity to try to make the case that Tombstone was better. After I “spit forth intelligence and bloodied his nose with fact,” he came to realize: you don’t mess with John Ford. 

One of the reasons John Ford was such a magnificent movie director in mid-century America is because he came out of the silent era of film-making, where the imagery alone needed to carry the drama. John Ford could tell a story with no dialogue and no music if he so needed, because his soaring imagery alone was enough. Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, The Searchers. Movies don’t get any better than this. 

John Ford painted with light on a movie screen. Jack Kerouac painted with words on a page. Richard Prince blazed his own trail in his own unique way and his success in the art world has enriched him to the point where he’s been able to build something that, in my mind, is absolutely magnificent: he’s been able to assemble the most important collection of counterculture memorabilia on the planet, and preserve it for posterity.