Kerouac’s Lowell: A Life on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Photographs & Text by John Suiter

Hand-colored photograph of Mary Carney (ca. 1939) held by her sister Imelda, May 1993  ©  John Suiter

Mary Carney, the girl in the photograph-within-the-photograph above, was the life model for Kerouac’s title character, Maggie Cassidy. When I met her in the fall of 1992, she was still living in the house where Jack had wooed her in 1939, when he was a senior at Lowell High—81 Billerica Street (”31 Massachusetts Street” in Maggie Cassidy).

…..Mary lived her whole life—seventy years—in that old Carney family house on the east bank of the Concord River. She had dropped out of Lowell High at the end of her sophomore year, and had no job when Jack knew her. She was living at home, helping her mother run the Carney household. By 1992, she’d been married twice and outlived both of her husbands in that house. When I met her she’d been a widow for fifteen years.

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Maggie Cassidy

Mary showed me this great photograph of herself—taken around the time of her romance with Jack—on one of our meetings in early 1993. She was clearly very proud of it, and seemed to feel that it spoke for itself when it came to Kerouac’s attraction for her.

…..At the same time, Mary was well aware that Jack’s image of her was something in his own writerly mind, not in the “real world” of Lowell. She hardly recognized herself, she said, when people brought his books for her to read. Maggie Cassidy and “that stuff he wrote later” (passages in Desolation Angels) had embarrassed her, and caused problems for her around Lowell. For years a rumor circulated that she and Jack had a love child in the 50s. “There was never any sex,” she said. “We were good kids…And I never kissed anybody that way, not like he wrote it.”

…..One night I had a dream of Mary’s portrait—saw her holding it in her leathery hands, saw her sungrooved cheeks and riven lips musing over her former beauty. The dream seemed so stage-directed, so dictated, that it woke me up. I made a rough sketch in my notebook—the old photo, the exact placement of her hands, one atop, one a-bottom, her lower face at the top of the frame—and went back to sleep.

…..In the morning I called her and described what I’d dreamed. I asked her if she would pose herself that way, holding the old picture. She got it exactly, and readily agreed. “By the tree—” she said. “Down by the water.”

…..But then she got sick, and we had to put off the shoot a couple of times. Finally, during a few warm days in May, she said she could do it. I drove up to Lowell late one afternoon, hoping to get a picture in the warm low light that came across the Concord’s water at that time of day. When I got to the Carney house, though, her sister Imelda met me at the porch. Mary, she said, had died the night before. “She told about what you were planning—the picture,” she said. “I could hold it for you if you want…I’ve got nothing else I have to do now. She’s already at the undertaker’s.”