Captain Midnight

Gordon lish came to california looking for Dean Moriarty. He was taken by the idea of Jack Kerouac’s wild hero (the freest spirit in On the Road) and believed that a figure so raw and so pure must have been drawn from real life.

He drove into San Francisco on the rolling coastal highways, saw the Bay open up before him just as Kerouac described it, and entered the city, its “long bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog whiteness.” It was 1959, and he was 26 years old, a grown man compared to his young hero Moriarty, and past the supposed age of adventure; his wife and young daughter were traveling with him. He was late to the party, too: Kerouac had moved to Orlando and the Beat scene was dissipating.

Starry-eyed and ignorant, Lish pulled into North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood the Beats had seized ten years before. He had imagined a seaside village full of poets; instead he found a crowded, noisy city district. The center of gravity was shifting, for those who knew how to find it, from North Beach to Haight-Ashbury. Lish and his wife, Frances, parked their car and carried their daughter up and down Broadway. They were looking for some sign of the life they had expected.


Lish was small, solid, blond, impulsive, and temperamental. For a man from a wealthy Long Island family, he possessed a surprisingly tempestuous history. Someone was always treading on him; he was plagued by severe psoriasis that made him so uncomfortable he wanted to jump out of his own skin. His father, a hat manufacturer, had sent him to several prep schools. He was sometimes beloved by the faculty but always kicked out for insubordination. He left Andover without a diploma and began a career as a radio announcer: he got his first job in Texas near a spa he had stayed at with his parents and soon after relocated to a station in New York.

He naturally worshipped J. D. Salinger as a truthteller and defender of failures. Like Holden Caulfield, he did a stint in a mental hospital and was forever talking around that story. Lish’s began when he was working in New York and took steroids to calm his raging skin. The steroids triggered a hypomanic episode and he raced down to Florida in pursuit of an equally manic girl. Police found them driving the state’s northern back roads, and he was sent to a mental hospital in Florida, then one in upstate New York, where he remained for the next eight months.

Lish was 18 when he left the hospital for New York, then New York for a radio job in New Haven, where he talked and played jazz records under the name Gordo Lockwood. Then his psoriasis flared up again, and his only recourse seemed to be to leave for a drier climate. He moved to Tucson, Arizona and started trying frantically to make up for lost time. He found work as an insurance salesman, graduated from the University of Arizona in two years with honors, and married Frances Fokes, a Wellesley graduate whose life so far had been as wayward and intense as his. They had a 2-year-old daughter and were expecting another child when, seduced by the Beats, they packed their bags for San Francisco.

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