Herbert Huncke, the Hipster Who Defined 'Beat,' Dies at 81
Herbert Huncke, the charismatic street hustler, petty thief and perennial drug addict who enthralled and inspired a galaxy of acclaimed writers and gave the Beat Generation its name, died yesterday at Beth Israel Hospital. He was 81.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Jerry Poynton, his friend and literary executor.
Mr. Huncke had lived long enough to become a writer himself and a hero to a new generation of adoring artists and writers, not to mention a reproach to a right-thinking, clean-living establishment that had long predicted his imminent demise.
In an age when it was hip to be hip, Mr. Huncke (whose name rhymes with junkie) was the prototypical hipster, the man who gave William S. Burroughs his first fix, who introduced Jack Kerouac to the term beat and who guided them, as well as Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes, through the nether world of Times Square in the 1940's.
They honored him in turn by making him an icon of his times. He became the title character (Herbert) in Mr. Burroughs's first book, ''Junkie'' (1962). He was Ancke in Mr. Holmes's 1952 novel, ''Go.'' He appears under his own name in innumerable Ginsberg poems, including ''Howl'' (1956) with its haunting reference to ''Huncke's bloody feet.''
And if it was the fast-talking, fast-driving Neal Cassady who became Mr. Kerouac's chief literary obsession, as the irrepressible Dean Moriarty in Mr. Kerouac's 1957 breakthrough classic, ''On the Road,'' Mr. Huncke (who was Elmo Hassel in ''On the Road'') was there first.
As Junkey, he was the dominant character in the urban half of Mr. Kerouac's first book, ''The Town and the City,'' and made later appearances as Huck in ''Visions of Cody'' and ''Books of Dreams.''
All this for a teen-age runaway who said he was using drugs as early as 12, selling sex by the time he was 16, stealing virtually anything he could get his hands on throughout his life and never once apologizing for a moment of it.
''I always followed the road of least resistance,'' he said in a 1992 interview. ''I just continued to do what I wanted. I didn't weigh or balance things. I started out this way and I never really changed.''
Actually, he didn't quite start out that way. Born into a middle-class family in Greenfield, Mass., on Dec. 9, 1915, he moved with his family to Detroit when he was 4 and two years later to Chicago, where his father ran his own machine-parts distributing company.
By his own accounts he seems to have had an uneventful early childhood, but his parents divorced, and by the time he was in his early teens he was on the street, acquiring a lifelong passion for drugs and discovering the joys -- and lucrative possibilities -- of sex with men. He was also beginning a life of crime, first as a runner for the Capone gang and later as a burglar and thief.
Hitting the road early, he served for a time with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. He traveled around the country until 1939, when he arrived in Manhattan and found a psychic home in Times Square.
Making his base of operations the Angle bar at 42d Street and Eighth Avenue, he sold drugs at times and himself at others, not always with notable success. Mr. Huncke once confided to a friend that he had not been a successful hustler: ''I was always falling in love,'' he said.
It was in 1945 that an elegantly dressed man in a Chesterfield coat knocked on the door of an apartment where Mr. Huncke was living. The visitor, who was in search of Mr. Huncke's roommate in the hope of selling him a sawed-off shotgun, was Mr. Burroughs. Mr. Huncke would recount that he took one look and told his roommate to get rid of him. ''He's the F.B.I.,'' he said.
Mr. Burroughs proved anything but, and within days Mr. Huncke had introduced him to heroin and sealed a lifelong friendship that included a 1947 visit to a marijuana farm Mr. Burroughs had started in Texas.
It was through Mr. Burroughs that Mr. Huncke soon met Mr. Ginsberg, then a Columbia undergraduate, and Mr. Kerouac, a recent Columbia dropout who became so enchanted with Mr. Huncke's repeated use of the carny term ''beat,'' meaning tired and beaten down, that he later used it as his famous label for the Beat Generation. (Mr. Kerouac later clouded things by suggesting it was derived from ''beatific.'')
An aspiring, Columbia-centered literary crowd was soon learning at Mr. Huncke's feet. Among other things, he introduced them to the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who after meeting Mr. Huncke at the Angle had interviewed him about his colorful sex life and hired him to recruit other subjects.
Though it seemed strange to some people that such a wide array of literary figures found Mr. Huncke so enchanting, he was always more than he seemed. For all his disreputable pursuits, he had elegant, refined manners and a searing honesty. He was also uncommonly well read for someone who had never been to high school, and such a natural and affecting storyteller that he could keep a table of admirers enthralled until the wee hours.
He also had a code of honor. Yes, he might steal from his friends if he needed a fix, but did not inform on them, something he proved on a number of occasions when the police sought his help in developing charges against his celebrity friends.
Mr. Huncke, who spent a total of 11 years in prison, including almost all of the 1950's, was unrepentant, a man whose acceptance of crime as his fate bolstered his friends' views that he was a victim of a rigid, unfeeling society.
If his friends saw him as fodder for their literary work, Mr. Huncke, as he later claimed, saw them as marks. There is, perhaps, a certain paradox in Mr. Huncke's use of his literary friends as literary fodder. Mr. Huncke himself began writing in the 1940's, locking himself in a stall in the men's room in the subway. He described it as the only place he could work in peace, scribbling away in his notebooks.
Taking the Kerouac idea of writing nearly automatic prose even further than Mr. Kerouac did, Mr. Huncke turned out a series of memoirs that have been praised for their unaffected style. Those who heard him regale listeners say his books read as if he were telling a spontaneous anecdote around a table at the Angle.
''Huncke's Journal'' (1965) was followed by ''Elsie John and Joey Martinez'' (1979), ''The Evening Sun Turned Crimson'' (1980) and ''Guilty of Everything'' (1990, Hanuman Books).
The books and Mr. Huncke's role in a brash new literary movement made him famous to a younger generation, and he had several successful lecture tours in recent years.
His books did not make much money, but they didn't need to. Friends contributed willingly to the upkeep of Mr. Huncke, who seemed proud that he had no talent for regular work.
It was a reflection of his continued standing among self-styled counterculturists that one of his most generous benefactors was a man who had never met him: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who is said to have helped with his rent at Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, where Mr. Huncke lived for the last several years.
Mr. Huncke, whose longtime companion, Louis Cartwright, was killed in 1994, is survived by his half brother, Dr. Brian Huncke of Chicago.
(as it appeared on August 9, 1996)