Meet the Beats: Herbert Huncke

When opportunity literally knocked not long after his return from sea, Herbert was ready for a new diversion. It was 1944, the war would soon end, and change was inevitable, even for an unemployed drug addict for whom change usually meant the spare kind he could spend at the Automat. But little did he know, when William S. Burroughs appeared in his Lower Manhattan doorway, that he and his new acquaintance would be forever linked in a literary movement of worldwide impact. The arrival of the future author of Junky and Naked Lunch would give new direction to Herbert’s life, albeit a direction drawing heavily on the criminal life he already knew so well.

Herbert Huncke

That first meeting between Burroughs and Huncke is a signal moment in Beat Movement history. Many chroniclers have described the former as the alienated young scion of an affluent family in St. Louis, Missouri, and the latter as a small-time crook who comically misjudged Burroughs as an undercover police officer—what Huncke called “heat.” In broad strokes that is an accurate characterization, but Burroughs and Huncke were not as dissimilar as they have been made out to be. Close in age—Burroughs was a year Huncke’s senior—both had grown up at a remove from family prominence, a status that infused their lives with irony and anticlimax. No matter that he would later become a prominent author and celebrity (or that he would kill his wife Joan Burroughs), Bill would always be the grandson of the man who invented the Burroughs adding machine. That was not so bad, especially since it translated into money for Bill. But he was also the son of Mortimer and Laura Burroughs, who seemed to be sliding inexorably down a slope of nostalgia and constrained imagination toward abject ordinariness. That was bad.

Homosexual, possessed of a peculiar wit, repelled by all things banal and bourgeois, Bill cultivated a persona of mordant weirdness. As Neal Cassady wrote in notes about a character clearly based on Burroughs, “By sixteen he was as high-horse as a Governor in the Colonies, as nasty as an old Aunt, and as queer as the day is long.” Burroughs accepted his Harvard education and monthly allowance of $150 as his due and let his parents rescue him whenever he got in trouble with the law. Even if he could not bear to emulate their drowsy suburban ways, he was not going to divest himself of material comforts. For his whole life, he had an air of entitlement about him that matched the weirdness drop for drop.

Although Herbert was far from entitled, he recognized Bill’s type. He did not have an Ivy League education or a generous allowance to carry him through adulthood, but he had grown up in nice apartments on Chicago’s North Side and cherished his memories of elegant luncheons and shopping trips with Grandma Bell, who beguiled him with her tales of life on a sprawling cattle ranch. He knew all about wealth and privilege, which meant so much to his image-conscious parents and the extended Huncke family. But when he began using drugs and spending time with his delinquent pals Johnnie and Donna and the sideshow freak, Elsie John, he was daring the whole Huncke clan to disown him. In seeking out nonconformist, criminally inclined friends who would accept him as he was, he renounced the privileges that came with being a young Huncke in Chicago. To his immense sorrow, his family let him go without a fight. He did not have a safety net to fall back on, as Burroughs did, and the criminal lifestyle he had chosen was now merely his life. When he gazed upon Bill for the first time, he intuitively knew that the stranger before him was exploring one path among a great many while he, Huncke, no longer had any other options.

In retrospect their first meeting at the Henry Street flat seemed inevitable. Bill had come there in search of Huncke’s friend and roommate Bob Brandenburg, who worked at a drugstore Burroughs frequented. In the gun-loving Brandenburg, whom Huncke described as “a friend of mine from Cleveland, a guy like something from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with padded shoulders, a felt hat and a flashy tie,” Burroughs saw the criminal connection he needed. Brandenburg, he surmised correctly, would know how to get rid of the stolen gun and contraband supply of morphine Bill had recently acquired from another crooked friend. With Huncke in tow, Brandenburg liked to get high and go to an arcade shooting gallery on Times Square for target practice. It was as close as these two came to enjoying an innocent pastime.

Huncke’s first impressions of Burroughs were far more detailed and damning than his often-quoted line about the stranger who looked like “heat.” In one of his two published essays about Burroughs, Huncke recalls how Brandenburg presented Burroughs to him and his roommates, Phil White and a man known simply as Bozo. According to Huncke’s recollection, Bozo politely offered everyone coffee and tea while Phil made conversation. Meanwhile, Herbert eyed the newcomer: “I had observed Bill only a moment or two but decided I didn’t feel friendly toward him—sizing him up in my mind as dull appearing and a bit smug and self-opinionated and certainly not very hip.”

His early antipathy, which Burroughs was quick to pick up on, never quite left him. In recalling his first assessment of the man he would live with in rural Texas two years later, he slips into the present tense, as if Burroughs were standing right before him: “Looking at him intently it entered my mind he could conceivably be a policeman or plainclothesman—maybe even FBI—he looks cold-blooded enough to be one. That old chesterfield coat he’s wearing went out of style fifteen years ago, and that snap-brim hat: Don’t he think he’s the rogue. Those glasses—he looks as conservative as they come in them. Glasses without rims must make him feel like he’s not wearing glasses at all. I don’t like him—and if Bob doesn’t ask him to leave, I will.” Without putting his finger on it exactly, Huncke had decided that his new acquaintance was dangerous, and pretentious to boot. There was nothing about the man’s appearance that he liked, nothing to inspire trust.

But Herbert had a hard time resisting a visitor who came bearing drugs. When Burroughs revealed that he wanted to sell a gross of morphine Syrettes—preloaded syringes of morphine designed for speedy, wartime use—Phil perked up, and Herbert snapped to attention as well. Although Burroughs later claimed he did not have the syringes with him that day, Herbert recalled that all three of them sampled the stash and that, as far as he could tell, Burroughs was shooting up for the first time. “Bill was by this time obviously enjoying himself,” he wrote, “and I had to admit to myself just possibly he was a nice person trying to experience something a bit more exciting than what he is usually involved with—and he was apparently honest about his interest in drugs.”

From Bill’s point of view, Huncke was a unique specimen to examine and share with fellow collectors of the perverse and bizarre. Herbert realized this and played along for the next fifty years. “I believe Bill found me interesting and someone he could use as a sort of showpiece to exhibit before his more conservative associates—as an example of an underworld type—and someone he could rely upon to be amusing and colorful,” he wrote. “My storytelling ability had always stood me in good stead, and even then my experience had been varied and considerably out of the ordinary as far as Bill’s friends were concerned.” His knockabout years traveling around the country, his time in prison, and his adventures at sea provided the basis for fascinating stories, and Huncke himself made a memorable impression, which Burroughs recorded in his first published book in 1953.

In Junky, Burroughs describes “the waves of hostility and suspicion” emanating from Herman (the character based on Huncke) “like some sort of television broadcast” the first time they met. “The effect was almost like a physical impact. The man was small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow, and pancake makeup had been heavily applied in an attempt to conceal a skin eruption. His mouth was drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance.” When Burroughs’s autobiographically-based narrator, Bill Lee, presented his business deal to the other two men present, Herman “stuck his head in from the kitchen” and asked one of his friends to join him. Lee heard them quarreling in the other room, and Herman stayed behind when the other man rejoined the group. It was at this point, it seems, that the real-life Huncke warned his friend that Burroughs might be an undercover officer.

With Huncke keeping his distance, it was the violent and volatile Phil White, Herbert’s erstwhile sailing companion, to whom Burroughs initially attached himself. The two men became partners in crime picking the pockets of drunks on the subway, buying capsules of heroin when they could afford to, and cadging morphine scripts off disreputable doctors. In Junky, Burroughs describes Bill Lee and Roy (based on Phil) targeting an inebriated victim: “We would ride along, each looking out one side of the subway car until one of us spotted a ‘flop’ sleeping on a bench. Then we would get off the train. I stood in front of the bench with a newspaper and covered Roy while he went through the lush’s pockets. Roy would whisper instructions to me—‘a little left, too far, a little back, there, hold it there’—and I would move to keep him covered. Often, we were late and the lush would be lying there with his pockets turned inside out.” With his illegal activity on the rise, Burroughs had chosen the same path Huncke was on, but he picked Phil White, who would inspire “the Sailor” in Naked Lunch, as his criminal mentor.

After White died in prison in 1952, the Beat writers heard that he “was a psychotic killer; fueled by a mixture of Tuinal and heroin, he would get into murderous rages, walking into a store and shooting before anyone had time to sound the alarm.” Although Phil’s death was written off as a prison suicide, Huncke told friends that Phil had died accidentally in an escape scheme gone horribly awry. In Herbert’s recollection, Phil feared retribution from a fellow convict he expected to run into once he was transferred to a different prison. To avoid encountering that man (perhaps someone he had informed on to the police), he planned a fake suicide attempt. His self-endangering act would get him admitted to a hospital. Using bed sheets, he arranged a noose and made it look as if he were in the act of killing himself. The guard who responded to a prisoner’s shouts of alarm hit a switch that opened the cell door. When the door swung open, it snagged the rope of bed sheets and fatally tightened the noose around Phil’s neck.

Back in the early days of Huncke’s contact with Burroughs, when Phil was still alive and on the prowl, Herbert was surprised when the two teamed up. “Somehow there was something ludicrous about a man of Bill’s obvious educational background becoming a business partner with knock-around, knock-down, hard-hustling Phil, who had forgotten more about scuffling for money illegally than most people ever learn,” Huncke observed. “Still, dope or junk has created many a strange relationship, and this was certainly no more unusual than many I’d run across.” When Phil proposed a three-way alliance, Herbert signed on without hesitation.

Burroughs was now spending most of his time with crooks, Herbert prominent among them. The character of Herman is among the most memorable in Junky: “I began dropping into the Angle Bar every night and saw quite a bit of Herman. I managed to overcome his original bad impression of me, and soon I was buying his drinks and meals, and he was hitting me for ‘smash’ (change) at regular intervals. Herman did not have a habit at this time. In fact, he seldom got a habit unless someone else paid for it. But he was always high on something—weed, benzedrine, or knocked out of his mind on ‘goof balls.’” By putting street slang in quotation marks, the downwardly mobile Harvard graduate pretended to keep his distance even as he embraced the criminal lifestyle as his own.

Burroughs’s cold reportage on the denizens of Times Square stands in stark contrast to Huncke’s delicate delineations. The flashes of goodness and vulnerability that Huncke saw in his fellow hustlers, addicts, and thieves either eluded Burroughs or simply didn’t interest him. What did interest him was the soul-robbing depravity that went hand in hand with criminal activity. In the same section in which Junky’s Bill Lee turns his probing gaze on Herman, he describes Herman’s friend Whitey (perhaps also based on Phil White), who “combined the sensitivity of a neurotic with a psychopath’s readiness for violence.” Also at the bar is Frankie Dolan, “an Irish boy with a cast in one eye. He specialized in crummy scores, beating up defenseless drunks, and holding out on his confederates.” Then there is Subway Mike, who “had a large, pale face and long teeth. He looked like some specialized kind of underground animal that preys on the animals of the surface.” The scene ends with an unprovoked stabbing: “[Whitey] got behind Slim and suddenly pushed his hand against Slim’s back. Slim fell forward against the bar, groaning. I saw Whitey walk to the front of the bar and look around. He closed his knife and slipped it into his pocket.” Bill Lee never objects to or passes judgment on the acts of violence and cruelty that he frequently witnesses. It seems that he (and by extension Burroughs) is looking to have his faith in man’s inhumanity confirmed. With each passing act of depravity, he finds support for a nihilistic supposition: human society is stupid and evil, and defies redemption.

As for Vickie Russell, the friend Herbert writes about movingly in “Detroit Redhead,” Burroughs depicts her in Junky as a ruthless, possibly deranged creature. The red-haired “Mary” introduces Bill Lee to the dubious pleasures of Benzedrine, a drug extracted from an inhaler tube designed to clear one’s nasal passages. The drug-soaked strips of paper encased in the tube could be removed, crumpled into a ball, and swallowed down with a gulp of coffee or some other drink. Bill Lee and Mary spend thirty hours in the Henry Street apartment. Her monologue is memorably debasing: “‘If you want to really bring a man down, light a cigarette in the middle of intercourse. Of course, I really don’t like men at all sexually. What I really dig is chicks. I get a kick out of taking a proud chick and breaking her spirit, making her see she is just an animal. A chick is never beautiful after she’s been broken. Say, this is sort of a fireside kick,’ she said, pointing to the radio which was the only light in the room. Her face contorted into an expression of monkey-like rage as she talked about men who accosted her on the street. ‘Sonofabitch!’ she snarled. ‘They can tell when a woman isn’t looking for a pickup. I used to cruise around with brass knuckles on under my gloves just waiting for one of those peasants to crack at me.’” This portrait puts a very different face, literally and figuratively, on the vulnerable girl Huncke describes in “Detroit Redhead.” Where Huncke glimpsed beauty and frailty, Burroughs mined violence and rage. Although Huncke witnessed, and participated in, many depressing episodes such as those Burroughs recorded in Junky, his descriptions make room for an unexpected grace and gentleness. Burroughs’s way of presenting criminals in Junky confirms our worst fears and elicits an occasional shocked guffaw. Huncke’s, in contrast, provokes a much more subtle and empathetic reaction. It is not that he ignores the ruthlessness of his friends and associates. Nor does he neglect his own capacity for being petty, mean, and deceitful. But the depravity that thrilled Burroughs was nothing new to Huncke. It was just one part of a larger human drama—and it was not to be overplayed.

Here, Herbert writes of his life during his drug partnership with Burroughs and Phil White: “My life at the time was in the usual state of chaos with three- or four-day periods of no sleep—making it in a Benzedrine haze—hallucinating—walking along the edge of Central Park peering intently into each clump of bushes, the shadows alive with strange shapes and formations—or of sitting many hours at a stretch in some cafeteria talking with the people of my acquaintance who made up the majority of the Times Square population—a varied and rootless group, frequently homeless and alone, existing from day to day, lonely and oddly frightened, but invariably alert and full of humor and always ready for the big chance—the one break sure to earn them security and realization of the ever-present dream.” Few others would have recognized the transient population of Times Square as a community of dreamers, each of whom awaited a big break that would in all likelihood never come. But a sensitive spirit could recognize that yearning in others. Even in a drug-soaked haze, Herbert felt a spiritual kinship with his homeless brethren.

This was the Huncke that captivated Jack Kerouac, who teased symbolic meaning out of his new junkie acquaintance’s life just as he did out of Herbert’s frequent use of the word “beat.” But the future author of On the Road did not greatly impress Huncke. When he first glimpsed Kerouac walking with Burroughs in Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon, he saw a wide-eyed newcomer rather than a sophisticated young man. In his view, “Kerouac looked like a typical, clean-cut young American college boy. He was as green, obviously, as the day is long. His eyes were flashing around. He was taking in everything and making little comments to Bill, mostly about just the scene in general. You would’ve thought he was about sixteen or seventeen.” Kerouac was actually twenty-three when he met Huncke, but he still clung to the persona of poet-athlete that he had cultivated during his stint as a Columbia football player several years earlier. “I thought of him as a typical Arrow-collar-ad type,” Huncke continued.

He didn’t try to trade on his association with Kerouac, who would later command the largest following of all the Beat authors. In a 1973 interview, he said, “Kerouac was on the scene, but we weren’t nearly as intimate as I was with the others. I saw him but not as often, nor in as friendly circumstances.” Asked whether he thought of the young Kerouac as a writer, he replied bluntly, “No, I didn’t. It never occurred to me that he would ever write.” Although he later seemed pleased that Kerouac based the character of Hassel on him in On the Road, it was Kerouac who copied down Huncke’s words and called him “the greatest storyteller I know” rather than the other way around.

The day he met Kerouac, as Huncke recalled the occasion, he accompanied Jack and Bill back to Bill’s room. Bill had a new drug (possibly peyote, in Herbert’s uncertain recollection) he was curious about. “He wanted to find out if it had any kick to it. Would I try it? I thought to myself, ‘What have I got to lose?’ So I took a skin shot, or a muscular shot, not very large.” He experienced no effects, good or bad, but Burroughs was still hoping to get high. Herbert watched closely as he prepared his arm: “Bill had his own way of shooting up, which consisted of him making sure that his sleeve was rolled up as high as he could get it, that there was a bottle of rubbing alcohol nearby, and cotton. He’d dab the cotton into the alcohol and clean off a little spot on his arm, and he’d look at the point on the end of the dropper to make sure that the point was good and sharp. And he’d sort of feel around his arm until he’d located the spot he thought he wanted to use.”

For his troubles, Burroughs got a headache. Kerouac wasn’t interested in trying the dubious drug. When he and Bill decided to go out for coffee, Huncke declined to join them: “I had a habit at the time and I knew I was just wasting my time talking to them, because I had already sounded them down for money. Bill said he was broke, and Jack didn’t have any bread, so I went on about my business. I went back up to the Forty-Second Street area, the area that I knew the best. The area I’d be the most apt to accomplish something for myself in the way of finance.”

The encounter was typical of Huncke’s contact with the young men who would soon be known as the Beats. In those early days, he saw them as marks rather than friends. They were worth his while only if they had drugs or money to spare, and he was quick to pick up on their mixed signals. On one occasion, fairly early in their acquaintanceship, Jack and Herbert took the subway to Jack’s home in Ozone Park. “On the way out we enjoyed ourselves immensely, talking and laughing about things,” Huncke recalled. “After we got there and the mother took one look at me, Jack’s attitude changed almost immediately.” Gabrielle Kerouac didn’t want Herbert in the house, and Huncke never forgave her for it: “She dominated [ Jack’s] life to a terrific extent. She didn’t approve of Ginsberg. She didn’t approve of anyone that I knew of. I couldn’t even tell you what she looked like. She was so evasive and so absorbed in Jack that it was almost impossible to get any kind of picture of her at all. She might as well not have been there, except for the effect she had on him. So I made a long trip back to New York. He stayed on there at the house. He was very apologetic.” Incidents of this kind reminded Huncke he was still persona non grata no matter how much he amused his new acquaintances. A novelty, a tattered mascot, he would never be their social or intellectual equal, even though he made a point of reading Dostoyevsky and Jean Genet and other authors his friends admired.

An excerpt from American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, the Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Generation, by Hilary Halladay, from Sensitive Skin #13.

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