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The Night Jack Kerouac Spent in Arcadia

Jul 14, 2015

 

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The Westerner Motel, Arcadia, circa 1947. (Courtesy of Arcadia Public Library.)

In late September and early October 1947, author Jack Kerouac paid one of his few visits to Los Angeles—a destination he later referred to as “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” He was a penniless 25-year-old in the midst of a cross-country journey that later formed the basis of his most celebrated novel, On the Road.

Kerouac had been staying with a friend, Henri Cru, in Marin City, California, but had left for Los Angeles hoping to sell a quickly-written screenplay. “I think I’ll like L.A. a little better,” he wrote in a letter to his sister, Caroline, before departing. “It’ll be more like Times Square, if anything.”

After hitch-hiking from San Francisco to Fresno to Bakersfield, Kerouac caught a bus to Los Angeles – but not before spying “the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks,” as he later wrote of her in On the Road. Her name was Bea Franco but he called her “Terry.” As it turned out, she was going his way.

As the bus pulled out of Bakersfield, Kerouac sat down next to her and struck up a conversation. “I got up my courage, the courage necessary to approach a strange girl, and acted,” he wrote. Franco, he discovered, was from a family of Mexican farmworkers in the Central Valley, and was traveling to Los Angeles to escape an abusive husband.

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Jack Kerouac (1922-1969).

With nervous charm, Kerouac convinced her that after spending a few days in Los Angeles, she should hitch-hike to New York with him.

Franco, somewhat skeptical, was nonetheless intrigued by this “college boy,” though also she thought he might be a pimp. What followed was a timid romance that lasted several weeks.

Staying in a cheap motel in Los Angeles, they looked for work, stretching the $20 they had between them. They ate in “a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto” where “people ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls”—probably Clifton’s at 618 South Olive Street.

They hung out in L.A.’s Central Avenue neighborhood, then an African-American enclave where the jukeboxes in clubs played “nothing but blues, bop, and jump.” When their money dwindled, they borrowed money from Franco’s sister.

Kerouac’s romance with Bea Franco caused him to forget his original reason for coming to L.A.—to try to sell a screenplay to Columbia Pictures, where Kerouac had briefly been a script-reader at their New York headquarters in 1944.

Eventually their money ran out, and they skipped out on the rent. “Before the daily room rent was due again we packed up and took off on a red car to Arcadia, California, where Santa Anita is located under snowcapped mountains,” wrote Kerouac in On the Road. “It was night. We were pointed towards that enormity which is the American continent. Holding hands we walked several miles down the road to get out of the populated district. It was Saturday night.”

Latinos were not a common sight in Arcadia at the time, and soon Kerouac and his girlfriend found themselves harassed by the locals.

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Bea Franco, at left, with her sister in 1947. (Via Los Angeles Times.)

“We were standing under a road lamp thumbing when suddenly cars full of young kids roared by with streamers flying,” he wrote. “They yoo-hooed us and got great glee out of seeing a guy and a girl on the road. Dozens of such cars passed full of young faces and ‘throaty young voices’ as the saying goes. I hated every single one of them […] Who did they think they were making fun of a girl reduced to poor circumstances with a man she wanted to stick with?”

Things got even worse when they walked into a local soda fountain to get a cup of coffee. “All the kids were there and remembered us,” wrote Kerouac. “Now they saw the added fact that Bea was Mexican. I refused to go on another minute. Bea and I wandered into the dark. I finally decided to hide from the world one more night with her and the morning be damned. We went into a motel court and bought a comfortable suite for about four dollars—shower, bath towels, wall radio and all. We held each other tight and talked. I loved this girl in that season we had together, and it was far from finished. In the morning we boldly struck out on our new plan. We were going to take a bus to Bakersfield and work picking grapes.”

Where Kerouac and Franco stayed that night is a matter of historical conjecture. In 1947, there were several motels in Arcadia, including the Santa Anita Motor Inn at 101 West Huntington Drive, the Westerner Motel at 161 Colorado Place, and Eaton’s Santa Anita Hotel at 1130 West Colorado Blvd.

The “soda fountain” where they were hassled could have been any number of local restaurants or diners. A 1948 city directory lists “The Fountain” and “Pines Coffee Shop,” both on East Huntington Drive, as well as “Wiltse’s Fountain Grill,” on South Baldwin Avenue, but the true location will probably never be known.




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