Civil Liberties

Jack Kerouac Wrote Marlon Brando a Letter, or Maybe He Just Typed It


By 1968, Jack Kerouac realized that hating hippies was cooler than going on the road.

Collectors Weekly's always fascinating Fresh Copy blog has a typewritten gem of 20th Century culture in the U.S.A.: author Jack Kerouac "praying" that actor Marlon Brando might "buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it." 

Helen Hall, a memorabilia expert who liquidated Brando's estate for Christie's in 2005, posted the letter last year, but the find is still fascinating even if you're lukewarm about Kerouac's writing: 

I spent around 10 days at [Brando's] house. By my last trip out there, we had gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb. We had discovered all his movie memorabilia in a bunker in the garden, including his annotated "Godfather" script. I really doubted that there was anything left at the house that would top that…

And then, tucked inside a file of unexciting correspondence, was a letter that appeared to be much older than everything else. I pulled it out, trying not to get excited, but there it was, a typed letter signed at the bottom in bold blue ink, "Jack Kerouac." I nearly fainted. As I read the letter, it became clear that it must date from at least the late 1950s. 

On the scale of might-have-beens, unmade movie adaptations of beloved of-their-moment novels rank pretty low. Still, there's something moving in Kerouac's Mount Nebo vision: "I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak." 

Hall is also moved by Kerouac's hopeful "You play Dean and I'll play Sal." But the real poignancy is in a parenthesis that immediately follows this sentence, shimmering with Hollywood's casual lies and willing self-deceptions:  "(Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal)."

Brando doesn't appear to have replied. Both men became fabled as icons of vigorous and beautiful youth who turned into hideous middle-aged blobs, as you can see in this must-watch episode of Firing Line, wherein William F. Buckley has a good laugh about Kerouac's obvious drunkenness right after he himself drops a critical bomb that could only have come from an inebriated mind: saying Kerouac's late novel Vanity of Duluoz was "widely regarded as his best." 

If Brando had supported this project, it's likely a film equal in greatness to One-Eyed Jacks or Teahouse of the August Moon might have resulted. It also possible that having had the movie jones taken care of, Kerouac in his pickled premature senescence would not have tried to sue Stirling Silliphant – the actual greatest writer of the 20th Century – over the knockoff TV series Route 66

Title explained

And what do you know: There actually is a star-studded movie version of On the Road on the Beats: