Jerry Cimino, director and founder of San Francisco’s Beat Museum, had been searching for a car, specifically a Hudson, for over five years to add to the Museum’s collection but when he finally found it, he had to keep his excitement hushed for a whole year as the vehicle came to him via a film project that was still in progress.
The Hudson in question isn’t an ordinary vintage car. Its pedigree can be found in an American literature classic considered by many to be the most important novel of the Beat generation: Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The cinematic connection comes from Francis Ford Coppola and internationally acclaimed director Walter Salles’ collaboration on the aptly titled film, On the Road (OTR). The film has a star-studded cast that includes Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, and Tom Sturridge, among others.
In December 2011, Cimino was able to publicly share the big reveal when Hedlund (Tron Legacy, Country Strong) personally delivered the ’49 Hudson used in the film, which is one of the most anticipated films of 2012. The project was filmed in 2010 across multiple locations: in the US (New Orleans, San Francisco), Canada (Montreal, Gatineau), South America (Argentina, Chile), and Mexico. A second unit shot took place in Spring 2011 for which Salles, Hedlund and a small crew took the Hudson on an additional 4,000 mile US road trip.
Hedlund, who plays Dean Moriarty (a character modeled after Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, and a powerhouse inspirational source for many of the Beats), brought meaningful company with him on the road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco’s Beat Museum—Neal’s son John and Cassady family friend Albert C. Hinkle, the only living participant of the 1940s trips immortalized in the book.
With this highly anticipated project and its young cast about to propel a whole other generation to re-discover “On the Road” and the Beat movement, I reached out to Cimino in San Francisco, and Salles in his native Brazil, to get their perspectives on this unique occasion. We also discussed the film, its cast and the continued influence of the Beats on today’s society. I’m fully aware of the privilege these men bestowed on me by sharing their experiences and in a good way, it burdened me with a greater sense of responsibility about how I was going to share this information, which I’ll cover in this two-part article. Their responses and reminiscences unveiled these two men are not just experts in a literary movement, they are also passionate spirits determined to keep the Beat legacy alive by taking concrete actions to keep it going.
The genesis of this story takes us to the lively and beloved neighborhood of North Beach in San Francisco where we find former hangout spots of the Beats. This is where the Beat Museum is purposefully located; it has become a popular pilgrimage destination for Beat enthusiasts ever since opening its doors in August 2007.
“I always knew if the Beat Museum was going to be anything, it had to be as close to the City Lights bookstore as possible, the epicenter of the Beats. The Beats met in New York City but they became famous out here in San Francisco and City Lights is where everybody would gather,” Cimino explains. “City Lights published the Beats; it was the place where people would hang out. You have Vesuvio’s, the bar right next door to City Lights and you got the Caffe Trieste, which was the coffee house that everyone would go to and still goes to today. North Beach is the epicenter of the Beats.”
Cimino says establishing a museum to carry on the Beat torch hasn’t been an easy feat.
“We built the Beat Museum on a wing and a prayer. We started at a difficult economic time. We had no funding and at the same time it was something I wanted to do because I felt it was important.”
A minute later, I learned the Museum’s initial location was in Monterey (California) and the “we” Cimino often mentions refers to lifelong friend John Cassady. The Museum’s next incarnation was a mobile unit in which Cimino and Cassady travelled for two years. Taking the project to a permanent location required determination and a dose of that fortuitous Beatnik spirit.
“When we came out to North Beach, we built this place out of nothing. Basically, we took out my own personal collection out of my garage and put it under a glass. We started telling a story of the Beats and people came out of the woodwork to support us,” Cimino exposed with pride. “People would walk in the door and say, ‘Here, this belonged to Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac.’ They would give us artwork, personal effects and mementos. We’re able to tell a story with all the things people brought us. It was magnificent.”
Personally, I can’t think of a more meaningful way for a museum dedicated to the Beats to come together: being showered by openness, inclusion and spontaneity. With Salles’ solid knowledge about the movement and a detail-oriented personality, it’s no surprise he never lost sight of the big picture perspective of things. Nor was I surprised by his decision to donate the ’49 Hudson which, to this day, is the Museum’s largest acquisition (not only physically but also at large, due to its place and meaning in the book and film). I asked Salles how the Hudson donation idea came about and his response was coated in a deep appreciation and respect for Kerouac, Cimino and the Museum.
“The passion I have for “On the Road” originates from Kerouac’s writings, but it has also been nurtured by silent heroes like Jerry Cimino, who devoted their lives to keep the legacy of that unique generation alive. The Hudson is a character in a book about a generation in motion. The Beat Museum is where it belongs. It is a way to thank those who have inspired us.”
In similar fashion, Cimino doesn’t hold back in expressing his gratitude for Salles’ donation. “It lends an air of legitimacy of what we do, that we got the seal of approval and a blessing from the people that made the movie.”
As I reviewed Salles and Cimino’s responses, it didn’t take me long to figure out they both see the Museum as the heart and lungs needed to keep the Beatnik spirit alive both for today and for posterity.
The ‘inner guy’ in me was itching to learn more about the ‘49 Hudson’s features. Although it was interesting to learn it’s an eight cylinder car that had an original sticker price of approximately $2000, I soon realized my focus was off when Cimino began relating a story shared by Al Hinkle. It turns out Hinkle had been with Neal on the day he purchased the vehicle and it’s his fault the car didn’t have a heater.
“Neal didn’t have enough money for the down payment. Neal only had like fifty bucks on him and Al gave him an extra hundred. They had to make a choice,” Cimino says as he explains invoices of the era revealed extra features were $50-80 each. “Al said, ‘Neal we got to have a radio.’ At the point they bought the car, I don’t believe they were expecting to make this trip east. They were just buying it as a California car and you don’t need a heater here.”
We moved on to discussing Hinkle in greater detail. “He’s a very interesting guy because Al straddled both worlds. Al was the guy who was running around with Neal, going from city to city but he always had this straight life too,” Cimino explains. “He was the guy in the background helping Neal manage his time with all the women in his life. He was Neal’s buddy.”
That’s the perception I’ve always had about him: Hinkle is Neal’s buddy and a living legend for running around with Cassady and Kerouac during their cross-country trips. But Hinkle is a humble man and the often limited perception we have about him and his role in the Beat movement has been shattered by others. Little did I know that in this process, I was about to be introduced to one of the most beautiful metaphors I’ve heard about friendship in a very long time.
Cimino anchors me back to the time when Al and Neal were school kids about 12 years old. “Al was a big kid and Neal was really nimble. The first thing they ever did together was like in gym class and they were doing the trapeze. Al would be the catcher and Neal would be the guy that would fly. It’s a metaphor for their lives, Al was catching Neal all his life,” Cimino explains. “He protected him; he helped his family when Neal was in prison. Al kept Neal’s family together. He’s just the unsung hero in the background of all of it. None of this would ever come about if it had not been for Al Hinkle.”
The anecdote sheds light on why it was so meaningful to Cimino, Salles and Hedlund to have Hinkle included in the Hudson drop off. Of course, I wanted to know more details about how the trip plans unfolded so Salles explained: “When he heard that the Hudson would have a new home, Garrett insisted to deliver it personally to the Beat Museum. I then heard from Jerry that John would join, which was an incredible treat. News traveled and a few days later, Al’s family heard about the trip and Al, who’s one of the most wonderful and generous guys I had the opportunity to meet during the OTR odyssey, proposed to join.”
Hedlund’s insistence on delivering the car and personally calling to invite John and Hinkle opened the door to some interesting situations.
In late September, John let the cat out of the bag to about 100 people. At that point in time, Cimino had only shared the donation news with a handful of people – all sworn to secrecy- consisting of the Museum’s staff and a few individuals who were involved with designing the space. The day after Hedlund called Cimino to ask for John’s number to invite him and Al on the trip, the Beat Museum hosted a special event with David Amran that John was attending. John was so excited about Hedlund asking him that he blurted out the plans to the audience: “Garrett called me and I want to be in the car.” He looked at Cimino and said: ‘I wasn’t supposed to talk about that, was I Jerry?’”
Knowing his friend well, Cimino could tell John slipped up because he was excited and honored that the people involved with the movie production would include him. Although the audience seemed amused with the reveal, Cimino felt compelled to do some explaining.
“A year ago the production company was here and Walter Salles made the commitment to us that he was going to deliver to us the car so we would have it on display here at the Beat Museum. I want you folks to know that I kept that secret for a year,” Cimino exclaimed, quickly adding, “Now, there’s two different types of people in the world; there’s those of us who can keep a secret -and I hold my hand to my chest- and there’s guys like John Cassady that can’t keep it more than one day.”
I sure hope those audience members appreciated witnessing a moment drenched not only in Beatnik spontaneity but a sense of brotherhood between the two men.
The next logical step was to discuss the delivery of the car as it took a while for the Hudson to journey to its new home. “We had to meet everyone’s schedule and the car was still being used,” Cimino explains, adding that he knows John, Garrett and Al to be busy guys. “I was hoping to get it a few months ago but Garrett told us they had to do some work mechanically and then Walter took it into the studio and was recording engine sounds. For him, it got to be the actual vehicle that was used in the movie. I maintained my cool.”
Next, I inquired about the specifics of the trip from LA to San Francisco. “John flew out that morning and he met up with the guys down in LA. And they drove up into San Jose. They picked up Al and they let me know they were close,” Cimino says. “Getting the car in the building wasn’t hard because we had cars in the building before so we knew what to do. Positioning it into the right place took a bit of back forth.”
The visit led to an impromptu photo shoot with Hedlund and Hinkle which has been recently posted on The Beat Museum website. It involves one of the most robust collections of “On the Road” books that exists in the world today as it includes copies of the book in 25 different languages. It’s owned by Horst Spandler who lives Nuremberg (Germany) and it was part of an exhibit at the Museum.
“It just so happens that we’re shipping that collection back to him very soon and so, given that fact that Garrett was here, and I had just taken down the collection I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got all these copies of “On the Road,” you’re Neal Cassady, what do you think of a photo opp?’” Cimino explains. “We took pictures of Garrett sitting upstairs in the Beat Museum with all these books surrounding him head to toe. It was pretty cool actually. He’s a great sport. We had fun doing it.”
I asked Cimino what John’s and Al’s moods were that day.
“Everybody was electric and I think you can sum up Al Hinkle’s mood by looking at the very last photograph of the ones we just published. He’s sitting in there, in the driver’s seat of the car, with his hand resting on the dashboard and he’s grinning ear to ear like a kid in a candy store. He just loved it.”
I think Salles’ description of the Hudson’s final journey to its new home summarized the experience best. “Needless to say, that drive became the ultimate ride. I wish I could have been a fly in that Hudson.”
Me too, Walter, me too!
The ’49 Hudson is now prominently displayed at the Beat Museum as it remains…unwashed!
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s got me nervous (laughs) because it’s so important to Walter,” Cimino says. “Walter has expressed it to me on more than one occasion, jokingly, but still I know he’s serious. ‘Jerry whatever you do, don’t wash the car!”
But Salles’ request was not a capricious demand; it was a continuation of a tradition he started with his 2004 Academy Award nominated film, The Motorcycle Diaries, which led Francis Ford Coppola to approach him about On the Road. Salles explains it: “We donated the Norton 1949 used for the shoot, known as “La Poderosa” (“The Mighty One”), to the Guevara Museum in Havana. You can visit it there… still unwashed!”
Note to self: Must take trip to Cuba.
I digress. Anyhow, Cimino and I discussed the no-washing policy in detail and his good-humored voice turned serious, alerting me to the seriousness of what he was about to say. “Neal only owned the car for three months and then it was repossessed so it was probably never ever washed. In the book, as I recall, Jack mentions how dirty it was and this is almost like a representation of that for the film. Beyond that, I think Walter sees this as a metaphor for the drive across America. It’s got the dust, the dirt and the grime of the entire continent.”
I shared Cimino’s interpretation of his request with Salles and he commented, “The Hudson bravely transported us several times across America… it carries the dust, the sweat and the traces of that journey on its skin; the traces of every single hand that touched the car, drove it, worked on it. Washing it would be like taking away this memory, and what has been lived with such intensity.”
Is this man a poet too? I’ve always thought Latin American people have a unique way of infusing words with emotions and imagery. If Salles’ answers are wrapped with such passion and care, my mind races with delight at anticipating what he’s done with On the Road.
All photos © 1995-2012 The Beat Museum
Lend your support to the Beat Museum by visiting http://www.kerouac.com/.
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