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18th September 2014

The Death of David Kammerer

On August the 13th, 1944, David Kammerer was found stabbed to death at the bottom of the Hudson River. Alister Pearson explores the troubled relationship between he and his murderer, Lucien Carr.

New York City has undergone a radical change since the end of World War Two. Once a Mecca for artists, poets and musicians to gather and collaborate on pushing the boundaries of art, New York now appears to be the capital city of capitalism. Property prices are extortionate and yet New York can boast one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Business is a religion there now with millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires around every corner. As for the artists, they are suffering. Patti Smith comments how where there was once a “burgeoning art community” camping and living cheaply in the city, are now “high-end shopping areas” destroying many hopes and dreams for the young artist looking to make it big in the iconic city. The transformation of the city is what makes the story of David Kammerer and Lucien Carr such a fantasy, so unbelievable, with such a complex plot.

The year is 1944. The Nazis occupy Paris, and Europe has seen another bloodshed—the second in just 25 years. The atmosphere in New York is one of relative peace, although ships are present at the docks waiting to take the next batch of willing sailors across to join in the action. On a hot August night, David Kammerer and Lucien Carr are having a furious dispute. Soon Kammerer will be found dead at the bottom of the Hudson River, rocks in his pockets and stab wounds in his chest. The relationship between the two was nothing less than intense, intimate and borderline psychopathic.

Carr met Kammerer before he turned 12. Kammerer was 14 years older than Carr and before long acted as a father figure to him—Carr’s own father had abandoned the family years before. By the time Carr was 21, when the murder happened, he had moved from state to state, each time trying to escape Kammerer but instead followed by him.

Kammerer was a homosexual and it seemed he was determined to win the heart of Carr by any means necessary. Whether Carr was conflicted or simply not a homosexual is unclear but he never gave Kammerer what he desired most. Kammerer became more and more of a problem for Carr, popping up everywhere he went, arguing with Carr’s girlfriends and, if the film “Kill Your Darlings” is true, helping him to commit forgery at Columbia University. Carr had seemingly had enough and attempted to ship out to Paris having heard of the impending liberation but Kammerer soon found out his plan and tried to move out there with him. This would be one step too far for Kammerer and on August 13, 1944 after a night of heavy drinking, Carr ended the years of psychological abuse from Kammerer by plunging a knife into his chest.

The incident has been referred to as “the crime that united the Beats.” Jack Kerouac had recently become a close friend of Carr’s at Columbia University and was the first person Carr turned to after the murder. William Burroughs was the second, but first to tell Carr to go to the police. He felt Carr could get a minimal prison sentence if he told the authorities Kammerer was a homosexual trying to seduce a heterosexual man. Allen Ginsberg was also a friend of Carr’s at Columbia although the friendship was lost after the murder. Ginsberg attempted to dedicate his first published collection of poetry to Carr but in return Carr called for the dedication to be removed from all future copies.

Kammerer’s murder and the story behind it have lead to many of those involved to attempt to put it into words. The most famous of which is the joint collaboration by Kerouac and Burroughs entitled “And the Hippos were Boiling in their Tanks” written in 1945 but only published after Carr’s death in 2005. Kerouac and Burroughs write alternate chapters describing the lives of each character in New York City. Although given different names, it is quite clear who Kammerer is and who Carr is. The book is intriguing and definitely foregrounds the success Kerouac and Burroughs would have later in life. It presents a side of New York that is seemingly lost now but is well worth the read if you want to know what the early life of the Beats was like.

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