Pull My Daisy is the Ocean’s 11 of underground movies, an all star lineup whose names–Jack, Allen, and Peter–are as recognizable among the literati as are Frank, Dino, and Sammy among the denizens of Casino Heaven.

     Daisy was the brainchild of Alfred Leslie, a painter and underground (i.e. amateur) filmmaker and Robert Frank, a Swiss born photographer, who had left Europe after the war and whose newcomers eye caught the poetry of day to day America.

     The duo hoped to make a film of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel that had created a sensation with its celebration of bop and hitchhiking and had shaken the polite literary drawing room world of John Updike and Truman Capote.

     Unfortunately, for the filmmakers, Jack’s agent was holding out for big dollars, and Jack himself wanted the movie to be made with Marlon Brando whose films he admired. Frank and Leslie were forced to rummage through the large stash of unpublished material Kerouac had accumulated during the seven years it took for Road to find a publisher.

     According to biographer Gerald Nicosia, one afternoon the two visited Jack in Northport, a working class town on the Long Island Sound, where the author was living with his mother in a house he had bought for her. Memere had supported Jack for years by working in a shoe factory, and she was enjoying a respite from her hard life, watching Sunday Mass on television and sipping her favorite whiskey.

     Although Jack’s bohemian friends were seldom welcome in Memere’s home, and Leslie was no exception, he stumbled upon a tape Jack was working on and found his story.

       On the tape was a play, called The Beat Generation, in which Jack acted all the parts while jazz from a local radio program played in the background. The scene that Frank and Leslie decided to film was based on an actual incident that had happened years before Jack and his entourage had become famous.

     At the time, Jack and his friend from Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg (1927-1996) were vising Neal Cassady (1926-1968) who was living in Los Gatos working on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Neal, the inspiration for On the Road and the object of Allen’s love poem, “The Green Automobile,” was interested in comparative religion, and he and his wife, Carolyn, had invited a liberal Episcopal bishop to their home for tea. The bishop arrived with his mother, but the afternoon was not a success.


Delphine Seyrig

          Allen sat on the sofa and asked the ecclesiastic about his sex life. Jack, who became sentimental when he drank, sipped from a wine bottle and told the bishop: “I love you.” Finally, the good man departed with his mother. (Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, University of California Press ed., 1994)

     Frank and Leslie began filming in 1959 in the latter’s art studio. They raised $15,000, most of it from a Dreyfus Fund executive named Walter K. Gutman who had a crush on Frank’s wife, a sculptress. A well-known stock analyst, Gutman (1903-1981) liked to describe himself as “a Proust on Wall Street.”


     In attempting to recreate the scene at Neal’s, Allen Ginsberg played himself, as did Peter Orlovsky, a photogenic poet, and Allen’s long time companion who had been present at the creation in Los Gatos, the day of the bishop’s visit. Gregory Corso, a young Italian American poet, who had taught himself the trade in reform school by reading Keats, played Jack who was to provide the narration for the silent movie. Larry Rivers, the painter, stood in for Neal, a railroad worker who comes home to find his house crowded with his strange friends, and a clergyman dressed out of Trollope. The sweet faced bishop was played by Richard Bellamy, a non-Beat, but local art gallery owner. The role of Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s long suffering wife, went to Delphine Seyrig, a French actress, the only cast member who actually went on to a film career.

     Al Leslie directed; Robert Frank, with his primitive equipment, was cinematographer.

     The film’s lively score was written by David Amram who also appeared in the movie. The young jazz musician had played with bands in Germany after discharge from the army, then returned home to study composition. In 1957, he and Jack had organized the first New York jazz poetry jam session with Howard Hart and Philip Lamantia. Moreover, David had the distinction of being one of Jack’s few friends that his mother approved of. Memere knew that though he was Jewish, Amram sometimes accompanied his three Catholic friends to mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Manhattan. In Daisy, Amram played Mezz McGillicuddy, a screwy French horn player. To dress the part, he wore an old turtleneck sweater from his days jamming with Lionel Hampton in Paris.

    The film was shot over a chaotic six week period; then edited down to a manageable twenty-three minutes. Jack did his voice-over narration at Leslie’s studio without notes or script–putting into action his technique of spontaneous prose.

    There were echoes of his favorite boyhood radio show, “The Shadow.” It was “a strange and interesting evening,” Kerouac says, and, as the characters wander on screen one step ahead of the camera, riffs about Hart Crane and “old Ma Rainy dying in an ambulance.” Then Jack adds: “Is the origin of man holy? Is time holy?” “Come on, bishop, tell us?” That’s what “hanging out with Jack” was like, David Amram later said of this banter.

    The film premiered at Cinema 16 in the fall of 1959 and was immediately taken up by Jonas Menkas who reviewed it in The Village Voice. In the grainy photography, the critic recognized “visual beauty and truth,” and in the plot he found an escape from the “frozen...midcentury senility of our art” and a return to the pioneering work of the Lumiere brothers and their (1895) masterpiece of a train chugging into the station.

    In the usual course of events, Daisy would have disappeared, as, in fact, Cinema 16 did a few years later, had the film not been seen by another critic, Dwight Macdonald, one with a lot more firepower.

    Macdonald (1906-1982) was a curmudgeon, a H.L. Mencken, full of prejudices against those who rubbed him the wrong way: earlier there was Stalin, later would come Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism.

    But Macdonald flipped over Jack, or his narration anyway. The “...surprise for me,” he wrote in Esquire, “was the narration by Jack Kerouac, which kept things rolling along on a tide of laughter and poetry.”

    After passing over the “tireless lip movements of Corso, Ginsberg et al.,” the critic proved he was no square in noting: “...only the voice of the kerouac is heard in the land.” The review carried the day, and, if the film did not quite realize Al Leslie’s boast that his crew would show Hollywood “how to make movies,” Macdonald’s rare praise did help Daisy to achieve cult status, and even make it into the film archive at the Museum of Modern Art.

    Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, conducted over the telephone in 2014 and 2016 and edited by Ron Martinetti, David Amram recalls the making of Pull My Daisy.

AL: Like the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955, where Ginsberg read “Howl,” the making of Pull My Daisy, seems one of the seminal moments in the Beat Movement.


DA: If I can say something without ruining your day, I seriously question the word “movement.” Frankly, the one thing all of us had in common was that everyone was an individualist, nobody was a joiner. None of us were Shriners, in the CIA, or members of the Trilateral Commission.



But the Beats opted out of 1950s Eisenhower America.


Joyce Johnson’s great book, Door Wide Open, was titled that because that’s the way we lived. We literally didn’t lock our doors. Anytime there was a jam session or sitting out in the park playing music, everyone was welcome. There was no in or out crowd. It wasn’t like Woody Allen who has a separate table so people don’t disturb him. Even the great painters like de Kooning or Franz Kline didn’t act like rock and roll stars. If you did what was known as “coping an attitude” in the jazz world, you would be called out. There was a wonderful sense of brotherhood and sisterhood


AL: According to some accounts, Alfred Leslie barred Jack from the set of Pull My Daisy for being drunk.
DA: Jack came to a rehearsal. He was distressed. Everyone was partying up a storm and showing off for the camera. Jack said, “They’re not following anything I wrote.” He decided that he didn’t want to come to rehearsal anymore. With that, Alfred Leslie said Jack wasn’t allowed to come anymore. It was ridiculous because without Jack no one would have done a film like that at that time, and he had gone through so much to get recognition. It was the 1950s where they wanted a successful writer to look like John Updike: very tweedy with elbow patches on his sleeve. Jack came stumbling in with his lumberjack shirt and hanging out with people on the Bowery. He would get drunk with them. Anybody was his best friend. Jack was a real spiritual person, in a Catholic tradition, like St. Francis. He really believed in that stuff and that was so out of the loop of what a big time novelist was supposed to be.



How did the film come to be shot in New York?



They didn’t have the funds to go to California so they decided to transpose the location to New York. They had Al’s studio for nothing. To get enough light to shoot, Frank put washers in the fuse box.



Larry Rivers, the painter, was in the movie.



His character, Milo, was supposed to be Neal Cassady. Larry played the saxophone as a hobby, and he appeared to be playing it in the film. Actually, the alto sax on the sound track was played by Sahib Shihab who was in Oscar Peterson’s band. Sahib had just done a fantastic concert at Town Hall with Thelonious Monk who was trying to make a comeback. Sahib watched how Larry played and arranged his fingers in the same position. Later, Larry said, “I have never sounded better.”


AL: What was Alfred Leslie like as a director?

On the set, Al Leslie was very calm. He was like a hostage negotiator, and a very good sport because we were wrecking his studio and not doing anything we were supposed to do. He was trying to direct all these people who were showing off because they finally got a chance to be in the movies, which was everybody’s fantasy in the 1950s, especially if you couldn’t act. 


AL: Robert Frank had done a photography book, The Americans, for which Kerouac wrote an introduction. How was he as a cinematographer?



He was like a saint. As I mentioned in my book [Vibrations], Robert had his little wooden tripod and 16 mm camera mounted on it. Most of us felt it was our job to make him laugh so hard that the camera would shake. Robert would have tears running down his cheek, he was laughing at the ridiculous stuff that people were doing. Allen dropping his drawers, Gregory leaping all over the place. Everybody behaving like a kindergarten food fight. But Robert managed to film it and somehow came up with these wonderful shots. His eye for the beauties of black and white, dark textured stuff, really captured the true grunge feeling way before that term existed.



Delphine Seyrig had trained as an actress in France.



When Delphine tried to work on a scene, Gregory would say, “Come on. This is supposed to be real and poetic, not some show business bullshit.” Later, she did [Alain Robbe-Grillet’s ] Last Year in Marienbad.



You were there when Jack taped his narration.



It was at Jerry Newman’s studio. I played the piano. Jack just sat down, saw the massacring of what he had written and did this phenomenal narration to make it look like what it was supposed to be. When you see Pull My Daisy, close your eyes and just listen to Jack talking. That’s the whole value of it right there. If Jack hadn’t narrated it, it would have been just another home movie.



Al Leslie told you that he intended to make an “epic.” Did the movie make any money?



No. It was produced by Walter Gutman. He was one of those unsuccessful Bernie Madoffs, part Wall Street entrepreneur of the bottom level. He saw the art scene, which was burgeoning, as something that could be exciting. So he put enough money in it to get the thing started. I think we saw him once in the very beginning. He came to a party probably to get a date, which is why so many people became investors in the theater or art. All that changed after Andy Warhol took it further and said, Who needs these artists who are a pain in the ass? Let’s just get all the hustlers together and eliminate the art, the artists, everybody and go from the Factory to the customer.



Did Neal see the movie?



I think he did, at the very end. It was hard for Neal. He was not in a good place. When On the Road came out, no one knew it was even Neal. His book had been written by someone else. Neal’s intelligence was underappreciated. Maybe that will change when the Joan Anderson book is published. His raps were spectacular. He would talk about Charlie Parker, Rimbaud, [Erik] Satie [the Parisian café pianist].



You saw Pull My Daisy at the Museum of Modern Art with Jack. What did he think of it?



He liked it, but I’m sure he would have been happier if we stuck to his script.


(Ron Martinetti would like to thank Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum in San Francisco for helping to arrange this interview. Background information was obtained from: David Amram, Vibrations, Thunder’s Mouth Press ed., 2001, Bill Morgan, The Beat Generation in New York, City Lights, 1997, Barry Miles, Ginsberg, Simon & Schuster, paper ed. 1989)


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