We first met Peter Orlovsky six summers ago, as we were embarking on our film based on the 1955 poem “Howl” by Peter's longtime partner, Allen Ginsberg. Peter was the first person we set out to meet as part of our research. He was then living a quiet retired life in a the woods of New England, lovingly cared for by friends arranged by Allen before his death in 1997.
We showed up at Peter's small apartment on the first level of a Victorian house in a peaceful Vermont town. From all the pictures we had seen, Peter had been a knockout as a young man, and he was still a very good-looking older man, with piercing blue eyes, a strong jaw, and a shock of thick gray hair. Though debilitated with emphysema, he seemed big and robust, and he had a ready and happy smile.
He was warm and funny. His mind would wander in the course of our conversation, but he seemed eager to recall his times with Allen. At one point in the middle of the interview he stood up and slowly made his way to the living room to show us a photo of the two of them. There on the wall was a framed black-and-white photo of two bearded middle-aged men in matching white shirts and suspenders. “We both had beards back then ... ” He got a big chuckle pointing out the matching gaudy suspenders — he was wearing one of the pairs as we spoke.
Peter was pretty sure that the title for “Howl” came to Allen during one of their many moonlit walks through the streets of San Francisco in 1955. Walking through the Broadway tunnel that goes from North Beach to Union Square, Peter began singing the recent Hank Williams song “Howlin’ at the Moon.” Peter remembered seeing the manuscript in Allen’s typewriter a day or two later, with the title “Howl” at the top of the page. Allen never mentioned anything about it, but Peter seemed to take great pride in being Allen’s muse at the time. “I never asked him, and he never offered, but there were things he would pick up on and and use in his verse form some way or another. Poets do it all the time.”
In our film we combined Peter’s howling story with a story Allen told about the two of them tripping on peyote in downtown San Francisco at night and seeing the biblical monster Moloch emerge from the overpowering architecture towering above them.
Peter never got a chance to see our finished movie — also called Howl — about the poem that launched the literary movement that came to be known as the Beat Generation and that would inspire many of the counterculture movements that followed. We did write to Peter a couple of weeks ago, to tell him all of the good things that were happening with the movie and its impending release. We enclosed a production still from the film that had been inspired by a famous photo of Allen and Peter on a park bench taken by Harold Chapman in the '50s. We re-created the moment with James Franco as Allen and Aaron Tveit as Peter, trying to capture the sense of sweet contentment we saw in their faces. We thought Peter would enjoy our casting choices.
At least he would get a chuckle out of it.