Henri Cru (1921-1992) was Jack Kerouac’s friend for more consecutive years than anybody else. His childhood friends he later reconnected with had about a 20 year gap in their relationship. In Jack’s adult life, good ol’ Henri pre-dated and outlasted everyone. They met when they were students at Horace Mann prep school in New York City, 1939, when Jack was 17. In On The Road, Henri appears as “Remi Boncoeur,” and in fact had himself listed as such in the Manhattan phone book until the day he died. He was aka “Deni Bleu” in Lonesome Traveler, Visions of Cody and other books.
Original Author’s Note:
This was written in April 1991 as a present to Jack’s oldest New York friend, Henri Cru, for his 70th birthday. Henri and I had been friends about ten years at this point, and there are endless stories about him, but this is the tale of just one night. It was sort of a written-to-order gift: Henri wanted the girls painted pretty, the jazz described just so, etc., even adding a few brush strokes himself. The title comes from my writing about Henri in the Toronto Star, calling him, “Greenwich Village legend Henri Cru,” and the term playfully stuck for the rest of his life, which sadly ended the year after this night took place.
2010 Author’s Note:
When I read this two decades after he & I last spoke, I could hear his voice again. I hope it works for you — but I’m totally back in his junk-filled apartment listening to Henri tell stories. He had the funniest way of talking. A gracious loquacious preacher, with a little Edward G Robinson, ya-see?
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” And boy, was he ever. I have tons of phone messages he left over the years — many beginning, “You’re not gonna believe this, but …” It would be such a cool project to gather them onto one tape so you could just listen to Henri’s stories for hours. I need an intern.
We lived 3 blocks from each other, and he’d call all hours of the day or night. I was in my primetime 20’s so was out a lot, but my early-‘80s phone machine would record until the cassette ran out, so there’d be these nights I’d get home in the ska-doobalee of half-past-threebee, and the machine would take 5 minutes to rewind …
Henri loved this birthday piece, and gave it out to everyone he met till the day he died. He’d always give away his last copy, and then call me in a panic cuz he “desperately” needed a new one. :- )
Henri was just crazy in the Best way you can be crazy. Boldly himself, eccentric, benevolent, honest . . . loopy as a loon, but joyously in love with people and life — like so many of the characters Kerouac captured in his books and who populated his life. And mine, too.
The Legend Turns 70
An Easter Sunday In Greenwich Village
When I got the birthday invitation phone call to Henri’s House of Cards, on Bleecker Street, Manhattan, U.S.A., I was duly warned – “My apartment is smaller than the last time you were here.” And I knew with all the crap Henri carted home, he didn’t mean he’d rented out a room.
This first invitation was followed a few days later by an urgent midnight phone call. “Why — it’s Henri again! Is the party off? Or we’re getting together a different night? Or, I know, he’s dis-inviting me — his old boozin’ beat buddies are in town and he wants them to have a seat at the Birthday Table.” But noooooooooooo. Not this Cru. He was calling fervently in the middle of the night to simply tell me the rest of his guests would be “just a bunch of real regular fella’s, and I wanted to let you know you’ll be amongst friends. There’ll be no roughnecks or oddballs — just the very nicest people I know in New York.”
“Real salt-of-the-earth types are they Henri?”
“YEEEES,” he bellowed, “You’ve got it exaaactly.”
He wanted me at his sanctuary by 5:00 on Sunday for some afternoon cocktails before an Easter dinner at a local Village establishment, followed by Maynard Ferguson at The Blue Note. “Hot damn,” I thought. “I’ll be hearing a legend, with a legend!”
As I arrived for the mysterious afternoon rendezvous with god-knows-who, I was smiling over Groucho Marx’s commandment about not belonging “to any club that would have me as a member.” There was no telling what colors might be at this Rainbow Gathering.
From the elevator canyon in the Atrium vestibule I peered up through the opening and could see Henri’s be-signed door with what appeared to be bar stools outside. As I bopped out of the elevator, there was Henri perched in his doorway like Santa Claus in summer, waving his big paw in the air and grinning like a retired Buddha. Sure enough the bartender was positioned behind his overflow stools, with the swatches, swirls and shapes of his castle spilling out behind him.
And speaking of his spilling castle, Henri’s stock-piling of supplies dates back to Pearl Harbor: You never know when you might get bombed, so months of supplies are always needed. And for anyone who gets bombed as often as Henri, you can never be too careful.
The party boy was looking great on his birthday I must say. I couldn’t believe how combed and perfect and full his hair was. His face was cheery and his eyes were bright. And you shoulda seen the vest and tie!
As he rolled his wheelchair backwards down its track (because there wasn’t room to turn around) the other birthday celebrants started coming into view in the dark recesses of The Cru Cave. There was Beanstock Gorman — who I used to think was quite tall until I met Big Tums who was towering above the refrigerator (which was very difficult to distinguish amongst the mosaic of streetside collectibles). Out from the darkness reached the big greeting hand of Beanstock’s on arms that seemed to stretch like Mr. Fantastic’s. Henri graciously ducked while Tums reached over like a pool cue to do the same.
Just as I was starting to feel very insecure about my height, these two Celtic guards began having some kind of Easter hallucination right in front of me, crying out, “Mary, Mary, Virgin Mother Mary of Christ, you look stunning!” I thought that was an odd thing to say to me, and as I turned around to inquire, out of the darkness sashayed this vixen princess in a tight black miniskirt and thigh-high boots. She was grinning so proudly it looked like she really did just sire Jesus! I started thinking to myself, ‘Now wait a minute, am I in Henri Cru’s apartment? Who is this girl? Maybe she´s in the wrong place. The door is open,” I thought as I looked beyond to see it was closed.
Running beneath the curvaceous soft leather skirt ran a dancer’s bodysuit that marvelously illuminated her finest curves. She was happy and giggling like a shy little girl on her birthday. “You look wonderful Mary,” “Mary, you look great,” “Ou BOY,” the guys were falling all over themselves trying to get a better view and out-compliment each other. She blushed, giggled, shuffled and swayed to the chorus of praise. Finally, as the wave began to subside, she politely said, “Hi, I’m Mary,” and reached out her delicate hand. “Henri bought me this outfit for his birthday. Try to restrain yourself,” she said, giggling again in time with the room.
Just as it was beginning to sink in that Henri actually knew someone this pretty, out from behind one of the columns of boxes popped this petit, long haired angel of about 17. Who are these girls, I was asking myself. The Celtic’s cheerleaders or what? “Hi, I’m Alexandra,” the dainty little face said. “Do you have a light?” Things were definitely looking up.
My old friend Henri has lived in Greenwich Village a long time. Some say too long. Visiting his apartment is like visiting a museum of two-for-one offers, or some collage of consumerism. Piles were supporting piles which became walls upon which more stuff was hung.
It’s kind of like that game Mousetrap, where nudging one item could set in motion an unstoppable string of events that crossed the entire room. So much was balancing on top of so much that the tiniest sneeze could bring down an empire. It was Henri’s House of Cards in more ways than one.
The place ticked with the complexity of Professor Pott’s windmill laboratory in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and mystified with the single light bulb ambiance of a subterranean prohibition bookie joint. There was absolutely no room left to stand, except on Henri’s wheelchair track which ran the width of a chair from the front door to the kitchen. Period.
And of course stalactites of flotsam had begun to drip from hooks in the ceiling, in the form of backpacks and tied-bags with clothes hangers hooked on. The cross-beam poles of sagging hickory were draped with belts, utensils and tools of every contrivance. The two Celtics were continually bashing their noggins on some suspended pot or other, or getting their faces caught in cobwebs of clothing, all the while doing this peculiar sort of ceiling dance as they bobbed their heads around the ever-shrinking cavern. It was sort of like urban spelunking. Or like taking a long trip with six people in a small car where every time you wanted to get something — even if it was out of your pocket — all six people had to re-arrange themselves.
And so it was into this slightly tight madhouse that some old trucking friend of Henri’s, Red Jackman, came stumbling in. Old Red — easy to see from his nose and eyes where he got his name — arrived with the slurring promise of a colorful philosopher. He promptly plopped himself down on the center stool and began pontificating about Christ. “Jesus was the only man who talked sense,” he said about 35 times in a row. Seeing as it was the day of His resurrection, the gracious thing was not to argue. Not that anyone could yell a word in sideways.
About this time, over the din of the droning drunk, Henri announced his most prized birthday present of the day: a box full of pre-rolled joints specially from a friend of his old flame Frankie Edie Kerouac Parker. Edie and Henri definitely fell from the same tree. Seeing them together is like watching two married Nick and Nora’s wise-cracking one-liners off each other in a good-natured battle of one-upmanship. Henri showed us the funny birthday card she’d sent, but it just couldn’t make up for her laughter or her silly asides being there.
That joint may have been one the most enjoyable I ever shared with a seventy year old sailor, a couple of Celtics, and two Miss America contestants. I suddenly began to feel like I’d run away with the circus . . . as the Duke Ellington that was tooteling from some hidden recess began to come into focus.
“Here you go Mr. Jackson,” Beanstock said, passing the number to the drunk.
“That’s Jackman,” he protested, and was so pleased to be smoking a joint with two beautiful young girls that he took the occasion to fall off his throne. On the way down he tried to grab two separate stacks of Henri’s Building Blocks, bringing entire mountains of cigar boxes and fishing tackle cases cascading down on top of himself in a Chaplinesque whirlpool of drunken helplessness.
Beanstock and Big Tums cast their fishing pole arms over and hoisted the hoser back onto his stool for another round (even though it should have been stopped with a TKO). Verbally, or slurbally, Red didn’t loose a beat (or the floor, unfortunately) throughout his compromising collapse. He was still ranting on about Jesus, the joys of speaking Hebrew, and his fancy for Alexandra’s, uh, affections.
With one man drowning, the cru began to think about rations and fresh air. Showtime was nine o’clock, and we were thinking —— Chowtime.
Beanstock suggested, “A little Mexican place I know on Third Street — Senor McDonalds.” No argument. It seemed the plan was to leave Mister Jackman in a slumbering daze and high-tail it out of there. Nobody wanted to test his dexterity inside the Blue Note. But just as we were in that ocean of motion, ol’ Jack started to come around, and Lord knows he was out the door with us. A helluva cru we were to look it, lemmi tell ya.
So this highly charged group hit the pavement with Beanstock driving Henri. He took off with the girls down the Bleecker Street sidewalk that Kerouac once described old newspapers blowing along as his idea of “fame.” I was hanging back with staggering Red, when suddenly the cru cut straight across Bleecker through a temporary lull in the river traffic.
It was the old Village Dash, with Beanstock and the girls taking the early lead. Without conferring, the plan went in effect — using Beanstock’s long sober legs to motor Henri in a high-speed chase away from the Collapsing Clown. Tums and I gave Red the sense he was still with the Cru, while Beanstock wheeled a hard right and shot straight up the center of Sullivan Street between the lines of parked cars.
We lollygagged with the loopin around a bluff of flowers at a corner deli, and distant spied the royal procession snapping their quick left into the mayhem of Third Street. With the Jack of Reds bent at the corner sniffing the daisies, we darted off like fish through the sea of Sunday people. I think I heard the Batman theme playing somewhere in the background.
We managed to safely disappear into the sanctity of Senor McDonalds, and promptly sat as far from the windows as possible. Henri backed in between two tables and we all crowded around with our backs to the window for coverage.
It was a grand Easter supper at America’s most famous restaurant — and I was at the Captain’s table! We had a full encampment, and a glorious feast amid wrappers and shakes and salty language. With Big Tums in front of me, Birthday Henri to my left, and my bag with the journalist’s tape recorder to my right, I felt we had the enemy at bay — until I looked and saw the chair was empty where my bag used to be! The horror! The emptiness!
I immediately dashed for the door — and just as I got there, coming out the restaurant’s other doors was some guy holding something in his winter coat. I lunged at him without even seeing his hands — grabbing for the grey backpack he was holding as cover, still not seeing anything that indicated he had mine. I just knew I wasn’t going to let anybody leave until I’d searched them.
Then I suddenly saw my black strap dangling behind his and grabbed with both hands, catching the strap with one and my bag with the other. He offered only guilty resistance, and I pulled my life back into myself.
I pulled the bag to my chest and stormed back into the restaurant, never even looking into the face of my thief. But I’d foiled New York crime once again.
Inside the suddenly bright fluorescent restaurant everything had stopped and everyone was starring at me. Apparently I’d yelled, “My bag!” fairly loud and a jaw-dropped audience was waiting. I just rushed to my encampment in the shock of a loss reclaimed, and the collective silence didn’t help one bit. I high-fived Big Tums — and Beanstock wanted to know what was in the bag — which allowed me to bless and give Easter thanks to the resurrection of each of my lost lifetools.
The Sunday Supper ended peacefully after that, and in no time our cru was on its way across the street to the crowning performance of the evening — Maynard Ferguson’s closing night at The Blue Note Cabaret in New York City.
One of the pivotal trumpet voices of American Jazz was about to give a command performance in the Village of its birth. Henri was bubbling and bouncing like a little kid on his way to Disneyland. Hearing Maynard was to bring back the euphoric swing era of the 1940s for one more night. “He’s one of the last authentic old time jazz players around,” Henri was telling me as we crossed the street. “You can count all the great living trumpet players on one hand,” he went on, “with two fingers amputated.”
Inside, just after we squeezed into our table for six, Paul Schaffer arrived with his parents and sat beside us. Shortly, Maynard himself came swaggering past to pay his regards. There was quite the feeling of anticipation in the air: the glittering mirrors of the famous nightclub; the closing night of a trumpet legend; the attendance of a TV band leader; and the jazz-jumping revisitation of Remi Boncoeur in Greenwich Village. Which, not incidentally, Henri still had himself listed as in the Manhattan phone book!
Maynard’s set was smokin’. He had four horn players with him, an excellent pianist, a 19-year-old upright electric bassist, and drums. All the arrangements were pure horn — no guitar or keyboard solos that had no part of Maynard’s sound. It was just the real thing in the club where other musicians come to hear what you’re up to. This ain’t the road show in Poughkeepsie.
The big guy blew for over an hour, which was pretty great for lungs about Henri’s age. “He doesn’t face the floor or the back of the stage like some novice,” Henri pointed out. “He holds his horn high and proud and in-your-face, confident of hitting the notes, and not burying his instrument like some others.”
Maynard let his young players load up the bases early in the song, and then right when it was climaxing he’d step to the plate and blow the home run solo. He’d wait till the mood was just right then lift you away on one intergalactic joyride of a soul, slingshotting it into Masterspace, and Henri would cry out, “Strat-o-spheric!” The pure brass voice of scatological American history blasting loud and screeching clear — over the fence and into the Mississippi. True and free. Maynard on Closing Night!
He even announced a nice howdy-doo to honorable Canadian Paul Schaffer and his lovely parents from Thunder Bay, Ontario. He regretfully overlooked the mighty Henri, but he coulda been bucking for that shot on Letterman.
The night ended with a bopping version of “Birdland” that blew the napkins right off the tables. All the hornmen were letting fly in one climactic scream of brass-driven magic. It was the “Johnny B. Goode” of jazz — and Henri was rocking back and forth in his seat and hollering something about the “20th century Gabriel.”
And all of a sudden it was over, and the saxophone player was hanging at our table ordering a beer. Henri was quick to snatch a yak, a laugh, a shake, and a birthday autograph to which the hornman grinningly obliged.
We were one big, glowing band as we poured back into the buzzing Village street scene that was just hitting its evening stride. The lights and the street people were blinding our eyes like coming out of an afternoon movie into the sunshine. I thought back to my bag thief lurking in the shadows, hitting on other civilians. Mary was lookin so hot she had to keep bashfully beating away all the boys on the block. Once again our Cru was cookin’.
The evening ended, as all good birthdays should, with a comfortable debriefing back in the host’s living room. Or in this case, wheelchair track. We gathered ‘round the old maestro and sang “Happy Birthday,” and everybody made their testaments to how Henri had changed their lives. The King held court and told stories of wayfaring adventures. Then he sparked up another number for the band. The Cru was in rapture. Beanstock began channeling Lenny Bruce . . . entertaining The Rat Pack in the pack-rat’s maze . . . with background be-bop blasting the soundtrack and setting the tempo . . . and Henri riding it all on a wise-cracking flow, ya-see . . .
The joint was jumpin’.
And he was only 70.
For an excerpt from my book about the ’82 Kerouac Conference in Boulder — “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac” — check out Meeting Your Heroes.
For more from the “Hitchhiker’s” Beat Book — check out Who All Was There.
Or you can check out and buy the book online here.
For some of these stories told in video — check out Making Movies.
For another riff that includes the mighty Henri Cru — check out Famous People Who Don’t Have Kids.
For my keynote essay from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” on the decade that birthed the Beats — go here.
Or also from “The Rolling Stone Book of The Beats” — here’s my riff on The Power of The Collective.
For a vivid account of being at the historic “On The Road” scroll auction — check out The Scroll Auction.
For a story about the London “On The Road” premiere at Somerset House — check out this sex & drugs & jazz.
For a great story of the world premiere of the new shorter final version of “On The Road” — check out this Meeting Walter Salles Adventure!
For a complete overview of all the Kerouac / Beat film dramatizations including clips and reviews — check out the Beat Movie Guide.
For a beautiful poem to Carolyn Cassady on her birthday — check out the Carolyn Cassady Birthday Poem.
For an account of the historic Beat show at the Whitney Museum in New York — check out Wailin’ at the Whitney.
For the time The Merry Pranksters descended on Yasgur’s farm — check out The Pranksters at Woodstock.
For an inspiring and colorful description of being at a Beat jazz-&-poetry reading in Greenwich Village — check out Be The Invincible Spirit You Are.
by Brian Hassett