Jacket Copy on the Road: The Jack Kerouac house in Orlando
The good news is I found the Jack Kerouac house in Orlando. The bad news is I didn't get to see inside.
I know: Florida? Jack Kerouac lived in Florida?
In 1957, when "On the Road" was published, Kerouac came to live with his mother in Florida, in her Orlando bungalow in a quiet neighborhood called College Park. He stayed less than a year, but there, during a short and intense stretch not all that different from the one in which he composed "On the Road," he wrote "The Dharma Bums." The original manuscript of "The Dharma Bums" can be found in Orlando's Orange County Historical Museum.
To get to the house I drove around a small lake fronted by lovely older homes in beautiful condition, many two stories tall, one with a vintage car and a Porsche out front. People in boats were fishing. Then I went across a two-lane commercial road onto gridlike streets with houses that were more modest, mostly one-story midcentury concrete block houses and older bungalows. A few of these houses had been torn down for brand new two-story mini-mansions that stretched to the edge of their lots (ugh), but mostly the neighborhood gave the sense of being a community that values its existing structures. People tended gardens, spruced up paint jobs and walked with their kids and dogs under green trees.
Not everyone in College Park knows the Kerouac house. One man told me I should go to a nearby Starbucks and ask them my questions about authors. Another, however, nodded to the gray bungalow where I was standing and said, "That's the writer's house." The detailed "Do Not Disturb" note on the front door confirmed it.
The sign hadn't been posted by a private citizen tired of Kerouac hunters knocking on the door (although they do). It was put there by the Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence Project -- informally, the Kerouac Project -- a bootstrap nonprofit that keeps the house up and, just as important, funds three-month writers residencies in the house.
"I sit in the room where Kerouac wrote 'The Dharma Bums,'" said Ellie Watts-Russell, the writer who's been living in the house since March. She'd been leading a writing workshop while I was there and called me a few days later. "There’s a picture of Kerouac working on 'The Dharma Bums' in that room where I get to write. I think one of the previous writers in the goodbye book, she felt like Jack had her back when she was working."
Watts-Russell, a Brit who is amazed by the support offered writers in the U.S. with residencies like this one -- twice she marveled at not having to look at a utility bill during her three-month stay -- says there is "a real sense of passing the baton between writers." She meant that the Kerouac House has a tradition of each resident welcoming and encouraging the next, but it applies in a greater sense, too -- they're all passing the baton that launched from Kerouac's typewriter in that back room.
Because the front of the house, above, isn't exactly where Kerouac lived. Where he did is after the jump.
Kerouac's mother lived in the bungalow's back apartment, at 1418 1/2 Clouser Avenue. It's at the right in the photo above. "There’s the famous picture of Jack sitting at the back of the house with a lapful of oranges," Watts-Russell said. "There is something quite wonderful sitting on the same step."
But for decades, people had no awareness of the house's literary legacy. Watts-Russell says that at one point, the house was overrun by squirrels.
Mike Robinson told me via email, "I had lived in the house myself from 1975-79. I was blown away by the fact Kerouac, one of my favorite authors, lived where I once lived." Robinson, who is now a Kerouac Project board member, found out about Kerouac living in the house in the book "Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends" -- he calls it a "must-read" -- by Bob Kealing.
Kealing, an Emmy award-winning journalist, calls Kerouak's Orlando legacy "hidden Florida history." His work brought the Kerouac connection to light -- and the Kerouac Project into being around 1997. Now, the nonprofit makes sure the house is in good shape, pays its bills, hosts writers in residence for three-month stays and serves as a literary hub. Visitors have included poets Billy Collins, Frank Messina and Ron Whitehead, writer Carolyn Cassady (Neal's widow), actor Michel York and musician David Amram.
"Being able to select the writers and getting to know them is a special thing to me. The readings that take place are fantastic fun," Robinson wrote. "We're all volunteers. We're always fundraising to keep the house sound and standing and pay the bills. If anyone reads this and wants to contribute to the cause, feel free. Had to throw that in."
Many writers' houses have been preserved so that enthusiastic readers can visit; the Writers' Houses website maintains a complete list. I would have liked to go inside Kerouak's Orlando house, but the Kerouac Project seeks to do something different. "So many of these writers houses are just glorified museums, where the writer once ate their breakfast cereal," Watts-Russell said. "This house is living and breathing."
Maybe next time I'm near Orlando I'll be able to take a look around; or maybe it's better to hope that I'll have a chance to see the documentary "Jack Slept Here."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Black and white photo: Jack Kerouac, location unknown, from "Angelheaded Hipster: A Life of Jack Kerouac" by Steve Turner. Credit: Viking. Color photos: Jack Kerouac's Orlando house. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times