At Santa Clara in the late ’50s and ’60s, Carolyn Cassady was known for her costume design for theatre productions. She was elegant and quiet and sophisticated. She was a painter. She raised three kids on her own. But to much of the world, she was the Grande Dame of the Beat Generation. In fact, a few of those Beats came to San Francisco because of her.

She was married (a few years) to Neal Cassady, and they inspired characters for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Allen Ginsberg once wrote, citing Kerouac: “Jack is full of Carolyn’s praises and nominates her to replace Joan Burroughs as Ideal Mother Image, Madwoman, chick and ignu.” A wild time, not always in a good way. She tried to hold family together and pick up the pieces when Neal came home.

On Sept. 20, 2014, Carolyn’s three children held a memorial at San Jose’s Café Stritch, one year after their mother’s death. They played jazz and oldies; friends paid tribute. “She was more than a Beat’s wife,” said granddaughter Becky Locatelli. “She was a strong truth.”

Born April 23, 1923, in Lansing, Michigan, Carolyn Robinson moved with her family to Nashville at age 8. She studied at Bennington College, then went to the University of Denver to earn a master’s in fine arts. She dreamed of Hollywood. In 1947 she met Neal; he was a man—married—of voracious appetite. One day Carolyn found him in bed with his 16-year-old wife, LuAnne, and Allen Ginsberg. Carolyn left Denver for San Francisco.

He divorced, followed. They wed April Fool’s Day, 1948. Their first child was born. They moved to the South Bay. Neal was sent to prison for peddling marijuana. To support her family, Carolyn began designing costumes: for Santa Clara and other dance, opera, and theatre troupes. Her kids reveled in the time on campus.

Carolyn Cassady dressed James Walker ’63 for stage roles, including Richard III. “She was a gifted artist, a soft-spoken yet tough survivor of maltreatment and misunderstanding,” he said.

She wrote her myth-dispelling account of her years with Neal in Off the Road: “The stars dissolved into the pearl-grey dawn, and with it came a chill.” Her children grown, Carolyn moved to London at age 60. She built her dream house and planted a garden and lived there to age 90.

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