Herbert E. Huncke 1915 - 1996
"More harm is done under guise of goodness than ever realized by foul deed or evildoer. Nevertheless, I wish I was good."
– Herbert E. Huncke
Herbert Edwin Huncke was born in Greenfield Massachusetts in 1915. His family moved to Detroit and soon settled in Chicago. Huncke's father, Herbert Spencer Huncke, spent two years in an Illinois reform school before graduating from a technical high school on Chicago's South Side. He was fascinated with automotive mechanics and was a self-described member of the "nuts-and-bolts crowd". His company H.S.Huncke & Company sold precision tools.
Huncke's mother, Marguerite Bell Huncke, was the daughter of Colonel Edwin Bell, a colorful rancher in Laramie Wyoming. Marguerite Bell was raised on a ranch but sent to finishing school for her education. She learned French and was proficient in horseback riding and shooting a gun. High tea was a common social event for women in Laramie and Marguerite would have been expected to know how to host one.
Her grandfather from Herefordshire England was a world-renowned cattle breeder. Her Father Colonel Bell was of an adventurous disposition, legendary in temper and skilled with a lariat and a gun. He captured and sold wild horses in Texas.
When the Colonel got mad "the air around him fairly crackled. He inveighed against everything and everybody, all creatures great and small, in language that jolted the ears of sensitive listeners and was outstanding only from the standpoint of pure invention . . . There were any number of men who could have thrashed him in one minute but for some reason no one wanted to. Possibly when he got through telling them his opinion of them they were too stunned to act."
A pretty good description of Huncke too.
Huncke's father met Marguerite Bell when she was sixteen. He delivered an automobile to Colonel Bell and was hired as a chauffeur and mechanic. They married after Colonel Bell's death.
The Hunckes settled in Chicago where Huncke's uncle, Oswald Huncke, was an insider in Chicago's notorious political machine. He sold insurance to the Chicago board of Education, was an Illinois state boxing commissioner, and served on the Board of Elections for Mayor Big Bill Thompson. There was tension between him and Huncke's father.
What should have been a seamless marriage between the Bells of Laramie and the Hunckes of Chicago wasn't. Money caused friction between Huncke's mother and father. They were always fighting.
Herbert Huncke was not a "nuts-and-bolts" kind of kid. His father tried to teach him about electricity and how to handle tools, but each lesson ended in disaster and frustration. Huncke was more interested in wandering the streets at night, walking along the lakefront, through the park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and meeting people who wanted to meet him. He also liked cruising the expensive shops on Michigan Avenue.
Grandma Bell had expensive tastes and she encouraged the same in her grandson. As a boy, Huncke always felt closer to his grandmother than his parents or siblings.
Huncke was willful, and at age twelve he ran away from Chicago and headed for New York City. He got as far as Geneva New York, where a motorcycle cop picked him up on the side of the road. What Huncke would never forget was how free it felt to be away from Chicago. The smell of the onion fields. The freedom of the road.
His parents divorced in 1927.
Huncke took to staying out all night, visiting speakeasies with his grade-school sweetheart Donna and her brother Johnny. A cab driver gave Huncke his first stick of pot and Huncke and Johnny tried to turn on. They didn't get high at first but they soon learned to smoke marijuana and they had many laughing fits along the shores of Lake Michigan, in and around the lakefront property where men cruised each other.
Huncke read about Shanghai opium dens and smugglers in a book called ‘The Little White Hag’ and it made a lifetime impression. His Aunt Holga spoke Chinese and had taught kindergarten in Chicago's Chinatown since 1915. Huncke learned he could buy top-quality heroin for twenty-five cents a bag from a Chinese dealer in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Huncke's mother took him to art exhibits. Pablo Picasso had an early solo exhibition at a modest Chicago art society in 1928. Marguerite took Huncke to see the show. He talked of the exhibition in 1996, remembering the last painting mounted in his line of vision as he left the gallery.
Huncke dropped out of high school during his sophomore year but continued to read and write throughout his entire life.
When Huncke was fourteen he met Elsie John, a hermaphrodite who wore her henna-red hair long on one side and short with a sideburn on the other. Elsie John worked at a circus on West Madison Street and sold heroin on the side. She and Huncke took a bust together but Huncke was let go, as he was a minor. He never saw Elsie John again.
Huncke began having experiences with men along Chicago's lakefront. He was molested (see Huncke's story 'In the Park') and learned about his own capacity for treachery, having trysts with lonely men ('Youth').
After the start of the Great Depression, Huncke left Chicago again, heading west, traveling with Steinbeck's Okies to California. On his return he rode the rails to Chicago, picking up his first freight out of Reno.
"I tried to pass myself off as a schoolboy," he said. "I carried a cigar box. In it I kept a clean set of shorts, socks — a toothbrush, toothpaste. A comb. A bar of soap."
Arriving back in Chicago around 1930, Huncke learned that his father had remarried. His new stepmother had a baby grand piano and was expecting. Huncke's mother had an upright and was living with Grandma Bell.
Huncke went back on the road, heading west ('Ponderosa Pine'). He also traveled south to Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans ('New Orleans 1938'). He hitchhiked to Detroit to hear a jazz singer, only to be asked to leave, as white people were not allowed in the bar. "Just let me stay for one song," he asked. The bouncer complied.
In 1939, Huncke arrived in New York City. He was twenty-four years old. The man he hitched a ride with dropped him off at 103rd Street and Broadway. "Where do you want to go?" the driver asked. "I've always heard about 42nd Street," Huncke answered. "I'd like to go there." "Walk straight down Broadway," the driver said. "You'll find 42nd Street."
Huncke bought a carnation for the lapel of his jacket and started walking down Broadway. He found 42nd Street and became quite familiar with it over the next eleven years.
Throughout the 1940s, Huncke lived on or near 42nd Street. He had started hustling sex while living in Chicago, but he honed his skills on 42nd Street. ‘Spencer’s Pad’, ‘Russian Blackie’, ‘Detroit Redhead 1943-1967’ and ‘Whitey’ all document his life at the time. Lunch hour would find Huncke at Bickford’s Cafeteria or in Bryant Park behind the library, where closeted businessmen met him and took him out to lunch.
“It wasn’t until I reached my late thirties,” Huncke explained regarding his own sexual preference, “I succeeded in combining the two in a manner of being heterosexual today and homosexual the next—allowing neither to influence me more than the other.”
Years later, another Beat icon, Neal Cassady, confided to Huncke that he had (despite his legendary libido) never been a hustler. “I was afraid I might enjoy it,” Cassady explained. “That’s what you hope for,” Huncke responded.
Huncke had always been close to music and New York was no different. He frequented the jazz clubs on 52nd Street and socialized with both Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. He was close enough to the scene to pull several small burglaries with jazz great Dexter Gordon. Together they broke into cars, stole fur coats and sold them to prostitutes they knew in Harlem.
During World War II, Huncke shipped out with the merchant marine. Going to sea was a relief from the rigors of 42nd Street. His ship was shelled off the coast of England, and he scored morphine on the beach at Normandy three days after the invasion.
He always returned to New York.
In the early 1940s, Dr. Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University, who was conducting research for his groundbreaking study of American sexual behavior, approached Huncke. Dr. Kinsey was interested in the sex industry of 42nd Street, and he asked Huncke to be his liaison. Huncke agreed, with one important proviso: “It’ll cost you.”
Huncke “confessed” his sexual history to Dr. Kinsey and developed a friendship with the man. Soon he was recruiting local hustlers who’d agree to talk with a stranger about their sex lives. Kinsey paid him two dollars per recruit.
During this time Huncke met many Barnard and Columbia University students and their associates who were exploring 42nd Street and learning about life outside of the academic world and America mainstream. They liked Huncke’s ability to tell a story and thought he must possess some kind of secret knowledge.
It cost them as well.
They paid Huncke back by making him into characters in their books and poems. See Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, William S. Burroughs’s Junky, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and John Clellon Holmes’s Go. Pretty soon, they too were telling their sexual histories to Dr. Kinsey.
In the 1950s, Huncke lived almost exclusively in New York State prisons: Sing Sing, Dannemora and Rikers Island. When a junkie runs out of luck, the legal system starts eating away with “prime–time” jail sentences. One wrong move—one clerical error—can take ten years out of a person’s life, and those ten years for Huncke were the 1950s.
Huncke didn’t have a drug habit in prison, but he could not write there either. Until then, Huncke had always written in small notebooks he carried in his pocket. As he moved from one semi–legal apartment to the next, most of his writings were lost, left behind with roommates or landlords.
He didn’t hear from his Columbia student friends when he was inside—he read about them in the newspaper. He read about Joan Burroughs, one of his favorites, shot and killed in Mexico. When she lived with Edie Parker (who later was briefly married to Kerouac) he had helped decorate her apartment with presents from the heists he performed on Staten Island. It was also in prison that Huncke saw a letter from his father to the warden in regard to parole recommendations.
“He’s always been a weak sister,” H. S. Huncke wrote. Parole denied.
By the time Huncke was released from prison he was relatively clean, no habit. His old friends were published writers and political activists. He moved in with poets Janine Pommy Vega, Elise Cowen and John Weiners and the musician, artist and magician Bill Heine. Huncke’s masterpiece of descriptive drug consciousness, ‘Easter’ describes these times.
In the 1960s Huncke went corporate. Fewer burglaries. He switched to more calculated, and sometimes possibly legal, scams. Relying on his reputation as a thief, Huncke would sell pawnshop claim tickets for fictitious tape recorders. It wasn’t necessary for him to steal one; he could just tell someone he’d stolen a tape recorder and then sell the customer a bogus pawnshop ticket to claim it. He was always in the midst of life’s con—busy pulling innocent listeners in—holding their ears—sounding for the depths of their souls—and their wallets, if necessary. And often it was necessary.
For the most part, Huncke lived on his ability to tell stories. Everyone was good for a touch. Ten dollars here and ten dollars there. Occasionally he would hit the jackpot and have a place to stay for a couple of years, sometimes as briefly as a night and other times for decades. His ability to know people, almost immediately, was legendary. He was a keen judge of people and remarkably apt at contributing to the intellectual growth of his friends. He kept good company.
The Poets Press published Huncke’s Journal in 1965. Irving Rosenthal, former editor of the Chicago Review, founder of Big Table and star of Huncke’s story ‘Irving, in Part’, spent a great deal of time helping Huncke organize his work for publication. Eila Kokkinen, also from the University of Chicago, typed Huncke’s manuscripts after finishing her day job at the Museum of Modern Art. Huncke would come by her apartment at night and retrieve the handwritten originals to sell to booksellers and collectors. Rosenthal tried to interest an editor at Grove Press in Huncke’s writings, but the editor thought the stories too sad. Harvey Brown (poet Charles Olson’s patron) was interested in publishing Huncke with his Frontier Press, but changed his mind, deciding the prose was too childlike.
In 1968, long before the mass emergence of tabloid TV, Huncke gained considerable notoriety through his appearance on The David Suskind Show as an authentic, self–proclaimed heroin addict. Susskind liked Huncke and helped him place a story, ‘Alvarez’, with Playboy, his first mainstream publishing credit. R’lene Dahlberg, another University of Chicago alum, became one of Huncke’s closest friends throughout the 70s. In 1978, she published an exquisite letterpress edition of two of Huncke’s best stories, ‘Elsie–John’ and ‘Joseph Martinez’, through her Pequod Press. It wasn’t until 1980 that Cherry Valley Editions published a full collection of Huncke’s stories, The Evening Sun Turned Crimson.
Huncke went on the methadone program in the late 60s. His legal dose was 100 milligrams a day. Enough to kill. Huncke had a very high tolerance for drugs and was constantly re–investigating his drug use. When Huncke had extra money he purchased drugs on the street for himself or others. He shared his money and he shared his drugs, particularly if someone had just given him a twenty. He didn’t understand the accumulation of money for a rainy day. The rainy day was yesterday; today was sunny—particularly if he could score.
Just shy of his eighty–first birthday, Huncke’s urine turned up “dirty” at the methadone clinic. He tested positive for heroin, cocaine, methadone, marijuana, and Valium. His doctor looked at him and seemed about to cry. “Why do you do it?” she asked. “I’ve been doing it my whole life,” he replied. “Why can’t you just let me be me?”
Huncke could talk the wings off an angel. Rules were made to be talked around. Before entering the hospital for the last time, he decided to move into a nursing home. “I do very well in institutions,” he explained.
— Jerome V. Poynton