Herbert Huncke born 9 January 1915 (d. 1996)
Herbert Huncke was a rare blend of sub-culture icon, writer, homosexual pioneer (he participated in Alfred Kinsey's studies), drug addict, common criminal, friend and enemy to America's most important social movements of the 20th century. He lived a remarkable, and yet all-too-human life, spending decades incarcerated and decades more writing and contributing to the Beat Generation among other artistic endeavours.
Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts and reared in Chicago, Herbert Huncke was a street hustler, high school drop out and drug addict who lived the lifestyle described by Jack Black in his autobiography You Can't Win. The book — and Huncke's life — was centred around living as an outlaw hobo, jumping trains across the vast expanse of the United States, bonding through a shared destitution and camaraderie with other hoboes of all walks of life. Although Huncke later came to regret his loss of family ties; in his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, he states his lengthy jail sentences were a partial result of his lack of family support. Huncke left Chicago as a teenager after his parents divorced. Despite the fantasies the largely college-educated beat generation had about Huncke, he was from as much of a middle-class background as they were.
Huncke arrived in New York City in 1939 and headed immediately for 42nd Street. For the next ten years Huncke was a 42nd Street regular and became known as the 'Mayor of 42nd Street'.
At this point, Huncke's regular haunts were 42nd Street and Times Square, where he associated with people of all kinds including prostitutes (both male and female) and sailors. During World War II, Huncke shipped out to sea as a United States Merchant Marine to ports in South America, Africa and Europe. He landed on the beach of Normandy three days after the invasion.
Aboard ships, Huncke would kick his drug habit or keep it up with morphine supplied by the ship medic. When he returned to New York, he returned to 42nd Street, and it was after one of these trips where he met then-unknown writer William S. Burroughs, who was selling a sawed-off shotgun and a box of morphine syrettes. Huncke took an immediate dislike to Burroughs and thought he was 'heat', slang for undercover police or FBI. Assured that Burroughs was all right, Huncke bought the morphine and, at Burroughs' request, immediately gave him an injection.
Thus began a long career of drug use by Burroughs, and Huncke became a lead character in William Burrough's first pulp novel, written under the pseudonym Bill Lee, JUNKIE: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. After Huncke first exposed Burroughs to both jive talk and morphine, these elements became central to Burroughs' writing. In the late 1940s Huncke was invited to Texas to grow marijuana on the Burroughs' farm.
Huncke was a bisexual hustler, drug user, thief and burglar. His autobiography, titled Guilty of Everything, was lived in the 1940s and 1960s but published in the 1990s.
During the late 1940s, Huncke was recruited to be a subject in Alfred Kinsey's research on the sexual habits of the American male. He was interviewed by Kinsey, and recruited fellow addicts and friends to participate. Huncke was a writer, unpublished, since his days in Chicago and gravitated toward literary types and musicians. In the music world, Huncke visited all the jazz clubs and associated with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon (with whom he was once busted on 42nd Street for breaking into a parked car). When he first met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, they were interested in writing and also unpublished. They were inspired by his stories of 42nd Street life, criminal life, street slang and Huncke's vast experience with drugs. Huncke told them stories of life on 42nd Street, his life on the road prior to New York City and, obligingly, turned them on to drugs.
Although it was his passion for thievery, heroin use and the outlaw lifestyle which fuelled his daily activities, ultimately, when he was caught, he never ratted out his friends. In the late 1940s, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Melody and 'Detroit Redhead' flipped a car in Queens, New York, while trying to run down a motorcycle cop. Although Huncke was not at the scene of the crime, he was picked-up in Manhattan because he lived with Ginsberg, and Huncke received the heavy prison sentence.
'Someone had to do the bit.' Huncke said years later.
Huncke himself was a natural storyteller, a unique character with a paradoxically honest take on life. Later, after the formation of the so-called Beat Generation, members of the Beats encouraged Huncke to publish his notebook writings, which he did with limited success in 1964. Huncke used the word 'Beat' to describe someone living roughly with no money and few prospects. Huncke was considered to have coined the phrase that eventually came to describe an entire generation. Jack Kerouac later insisted that 'Beat' was derived from beatification, to be supremely happy. However, it is thought that this definition was a defence of the beat way of life, which was frowned upon and offended many American sensibilities.
Huncke died in 1996. He had been living for several years in the basement of a building on East 7th Street near Avenue D in New York City, supported fiancially in old age by his many friends. Prior to this, his rent at the Chelsea Hotel came from financial support from Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whom Huncke never met.
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