Roundup: Nonfiction

Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness by David Kastin. W.W. Norton (272 pp.) Kastin tells the story of Kathleen Annie Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild (1913-88), a European aristocrat whose devotion to modern jazz and such musicians as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk made her a legendary figure in American jazz circles. Her New York hotel rooms and suburban home became crash pads for the many bebop musicians she subsidized.  She supported Monk through innumerable crises; Parker’s death in her Hotel Stanhope suite in 1955 caused a scandal.  Kastin describes Nica’s pampered early life, her service with the French Resistance, and her jaunts in her Rolls to 52nd Street jazz clubs where her love of the music and respect for black artists won her many friendships.  An engaging, well-written footnote to an explosive period in jazz.

If I Was a Highway: Essays by Michael Ventura, with photographs by Butch Hancock. Texas Tech University Press (236 pp.) “I would forever associate unbounded happiness with a car and a road,” writes Ventura, a novelist whose “letters at 3 AM” have long appeared in the Austin Chronicle. This attractive, oversized gathering of more than 40 of those columns takes us from Ventura’s home base of Lubbock, in West Texas, to towns across the country, whose land and people he views from the window of his ’69 lime-green Chevy Malibu.  He meets Neal Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, who explains the Beats sought conventional lives; sets foot in Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota; and reflects on personal matters, such as aging (he is pushing 60), meditation, his parents (his mother’s psychosis, his father’s flight at 40), communal living, and the catechism classes of his Brooklyn youth. He quotes the Zen poet Basho: “The journey itself is the home.”

One and Only: The Untold Story of ON THE ROAD and Lu Anne Henderson, the Woman Who Started Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on Their Journey by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos.  Viva Editions (244 pp.) Just when you thought there was nothing more to say about On the Road, Nicosia (Memory Babe) offers a biography of Lu Anne Henderson, the attractive teenager (and first wife of Beat figure Neal Cassady) who was the model for “Marylou” in Kerouac’s classic novel.  Drawing on interviews conducted in 1978, Nicosia upends the traditional portrait of Lu Anne as a mindless slut and shows her to have been a thoughtful woman who “played a unique and irreplaceable” role in Cassady’s life. She coaxed Cassady and Kerouac into the friendship without which there would have been no Beat Generation.  Nicosia succeeds in restoring Lu Anne’s humanity. “We were poor, but we made do the best we could,” she says. “We had purposes and plans, just like everyone does.”

-Joseph Barbato

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