Elise Cowen and Allen Ginsberg

Born to a middle class Jewish family in Washington Heights, New York, Elise Cowen wrote poetry from a young age, influenced by the works of Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. While attending Barnard College in the early 1950s, she became friends with Joyce Johnson (at the time, Joyce Glassman). It was during this period that she was introduced to Ginsberg by philosophy professor Donald Cook. The two discovered a mutual acquaintance in Carl Solomon, whom they had both met while spending time separately in a mental hospital. A romantic involvement followed in the spring and summer of 1953. However, within a year, Ginsberg would meet and fall in love with Peter Orlovsky. Despite this, Cowen remained emotionally attached to Ginsberg for the rest of her life.

In February 1956, she and her lover Sheila (a pseudonym) moved into an apartment with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. At the time Cowen had a job as a typist. She was fired and was removed from the office by the police. She later told her close friend Leo Skir that one of the officers hit her in the stomach. When informed she had been arrested, her father said, “This will kill your mother.” She then moved to San Francisco, attracted by its growing Beat scene. While in San Francisco, Cowen became pregnant and underwent a hysterectomy during a late-stage abortion. She returned to New York, and after another trip to California, she relocated to live in Manhattan. A lifelong battle with depression, Elise  committed suicide in 1962.

After her death, the bulk of her writings was destroyed by her parents’ neighbours — as a favour to the parents, who were uneasy with Cowen’s representations of sexuality and drug use in the poems. However, Leo Skir, a close friend, had 83 of her poems in his possession at the time of her death, and saw to the publication of several in prominent literary journals of the mid-1960’s, including City Lights Journal; El Corno Emplumado; Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts; The Ladder; and Things. A short biography and several of her poems are included in Women of the Beat Generation: Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, edited by Brenda Knight. Several of her poems also appear in A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Richard Peabody. Cowen features prominently in Joyce Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters and in Johnson’s novel (as the character Kay), Come and Join the Dance.

Two years younger than Allen, Solomon boasted of experiences Allen could only imagine. A brilliant student, Solomon had skipped four grades in public school and had attended a high school for the academically gifted. At fifteen, he had entered the City College of New York and joined a Marxist organization called the American Youth for Democracy. Two years later, in 1945, he joined the merchant marine, and he spent the next couple of years alternating his time between the merchant marine and school. In 1947, while stationed in France, he left his ship and attended a reading given by French Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud, gaining an appreciation for Artaud’s literature, as well as his distrust in any form of psychiatry….Fascinated by the idea of gratuitous crime, and prompted by an almost suicidal nihilism, he stole a peanut butter sandwich from Brooklyn College cafeteria and showed it to a policeman, hoping his actions would land him in a mental institution….
—  Michael Schumacher on Carl Solomon 
Only in America and from America came the slogan: Freedom.
The slogan freedom meant white supremacy and the suppression of
every movement for human hope on the face of the planet. So the
cold war began.
The men, like Franco of Spain, whom we had been taught to hate
we were now told were our allies in a struggle against the ‘‘Eastern
Men like Dimitrov of Bulgaria who had had the courage to defy
fascism during the Thirties, we were now told were our enemies, a
group of cowardly tyrants.
Who knows what his opinions are amid such nonsense.
—  Carl Solomon, I Was a Communist Youth
who ate fire in paint hotel or drank turpentine in Paradise Valley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night with dreams, with drugs, with walking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls, imcomparable blind streets of shudderring cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illumintating all the motionless world of Time between.
—  Allen Ginsberg