My whole life has been one long waiting to gain entrance.

—Alene Lee

I never expected to find her in this unlikely place, “sitting on the fender of a car in front of the Black Mask bar on Montgomery Street.” And yet, here she was. Lingering within the first few pages of a sleek black paperback, taking up space, “saying something extremely earnestly,” setting ideas afloat.

This was my first glimpse of Mardou Fox, one of a constellation of urban intellectuals dubbed “the subterraneans”—night dwellers, “ ‘hip without being slick…intelligent without being corny…they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.’ ”

I wasn’t sure where I’d wandered, but I locked into its frequency.

At the time, the early 1980s, I was a quiet yet intensely restless English major, working shifts as a bookstore clerk in a fading shopping mall in Los Angeles. One slow weeknight, my hand lingered over a stack of slim paperbacks on our to-be-shelved cart.

The 1981 Black Cat edition of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans featured a high-contrast black-and-white cover image offset by highlighter-yellow and green type. Beneath the title, bodies crowded together, suggesting a cellar-like setting.

I read on.

“Do you know this girl, the dark one?”


“That’s her name?”

The exchange both gave me pause and nudged me forward.

I had gone a round with Kerouac. I knew about the impact of his work. A few years before, I had visited my local library looking for On the Road. One copy remained. The others, the librarian speculated, had likely been filched, a testament to the book’s general scofflaw message.

I snatched it up. I don’t recall where I hit the brakes, but I do remember why. I couldn’t get past the mile-a-minute carnival show that was Dean Moriarty—the exclamations, the tumbling headlong after “chicks” and “kicks.” It wasn’t for me—wasn’t meant for me.

I might have returned it early.

This book, this tone, was casting a different spell.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

By the second page, Kerouac reveals that the book’s beguiling central character, Mardou, is “a Negro.” That ignites a flare of ambivalence in the novel’s narrator, Leo Percepied—Kerouac’s thinly veiled fictional persona—who is a self-described “Canuck.” Mardou is not set dressing. She is standing in the “warm summernight” trading questions, theories, poetry. She is vivid, even in her muted affect and cool tones. She becomes, in a lightning-strike moment, this “unself-confident man” ’s object of desire. A muse. And, looking back, she becomes mine, too.

While Mardou was not a figure I expected to find in Kerouac, neither was she someone I had encountered in other fiction—a woman of color as compelling counterculture figure, self-scripting a sometimes-messy version of independence. She was my way in—to Kerouac and to something beyond.

alene lee, illustration, james ransome
James Ransome

The Subterraneans recounts the brief love affair between Mardou and Leo. Kerouac boasted he’d written it in three days and nights, during the fall of 1953, on a Benzedrine high. It wasn’t the romance that pulled me in; it was the milieu and mood. The blasting bebop, the boisterous bars, the breathless conversations expanding deep into the night—and here was a woman, Black and Native, centered in the narrative: a key figure, the prize lost.

Those early, drifty pages make for a magnificent montage: I could hear Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, and Charlie Parker through a scrim of warm radio static and eavesdrop on the ragtag revelers discussing the same poetry I was studying. The backdrop was San Francisco’s North Beach—a location already magic in my mind. Even though nothing was happening, paragraph to paragraph, everything seemed about to.

Then there was the enigmatic Mardou: “She sat in the corner, by the window, she was being ‘separated’ or ‘aloof’ or ‘prepared to cut out from this group’ for her own reasons.—In the corner I…tried silent communication, then quiet words…North Beach words, ‘What are you reading?’ and for the first time she opened her mouth and spoke to me communicating a full thought.”

I snapped the book closed; those subterranean scenes vanished. Our little bookshop began to fill with post-workday customers—attorneys, stockbrokers, film-industry types—looking for thrillers, romances, and diet books. But I’d already gleaned something. That evening, I purchased my first Kerouac. I took it home, absorbed it. It became part of the new library I was building; it became part of my library of self.

It was Mardou, the sophisticated big-sister figure, who held the door open for me—to these books, to their worlds. I hurried after, as if slipping into the secret entrance of a club. Over time, I found myself pulled into some of Kerouac’s other work: his later novels and, too, the wide-ranging writing experiments, scattered with delicate vignettes about the sacred earth, the dreams that change us, the energy of jazz, and the condition of the heart.

I discerned that Kerouac’s fiction was memoir; his characters, part of the “legend” of his life. So, from the beginning, I wanted to find Mardou. Early biographers referred to her only by the fictional name Kerouac had given her. Later, some swapped in “Irene May,” her alias in his Book of Dreams. For decades, I combed memoirs, journals, letters, and later online forums, hoping to learn her identity. Eventually, I counseled myself to let it go.

But I couldn’t seem to.

This year marks the novel’s 65th anniversary. A new Grove edition, published in late 2022, has been updated with a reading group guide, exploring questions of race, gender roles, and the book’s blurred genre lines. I have, of course, added it to my collection, next to numerous editions in hardcover and paper, in English and French.

I’ve reread The Subterraneans more times than I can count, always finding something new—an image, a phrase, a question to hold up to the light. But if Mardou had been companion and muse for Kerouac, she fulfilled those roles in a different way for me. In the novel, as things shatter, she coolly proclaims, “I want to be independent like I say.”

In so doing, she sets herself free.

I needed an example, that example.

She’d had to retain her autonomy, her equilibrium. As a Black woman at the threshold of my 20s, in spaces that weren’t always welcoming, I understood that so would I.

It’s giving nothing away to say that Mardou and Leo’s relationship is ill-fated. His fear and ambivalence cloud his ability to see things as they are.

Yet back in the 1980s, I was listening for something else: a young woman who could read the territory and who refused to contort herself to so many worldly men’s parochial thinking—from wincing essentialism to not-so-casual racism and misogyny.

When the book was published in 1958—just a year after the cultural event that was On the Road—it received some withering reviews. Kenneth Rexroth lacerated Kerouac in the San Francisco Chronicle: “I sincerely hope that the Negro girl of this sad, lost, marijuana-clouded, ‘therapist’-bedeviled story never actually existed, or at least that Kerouac himself is not the hero, because seldom has a man understood a woman less.”

Rexroth was correct about Kerouac’s inability to see Mardou and to convey her inner life. But somehow, her quintessence shines.

After publication, the real Mardou Fox assiduously avoided attention. For decades, she didn’t just desire but also demanded privacy. Kerouac had rummaged through her intimacies to write a book. She felt safer in silence.

In that silence, there has been room for creative speculation. I’m still trying to settle for myself the enigma—who she was, yes, but even more why she matters so much to me. Academics (Harryette Mullen, Baz Dreisinger) have studied the space around her absence; musicians (Carleen Anderson) have adopted her persona as a signal and a vibe. Kerouac set a captivating ambience in motion, but for Mardou herself, a full story has yet to be told. Whether or not I wanted to cop to it, I was like a Kerouac figure, shambling after her.

alene lee, illustration, james ransome
James Ransome

Growing up, I was never drawn to princess stories. I wasn’t looking to be rescued. The world told me to be ready. I was looking for open doors, room to create—laboratories where things happen, transform. There was something beguiling about Mardou, in her black velvet pants and “mad long scarf,” matching pace. Even then, I knew I wasn’t looking for a person exactly, but a plan.

I launched myself, making pilgrimages to North Beach, City Lights Bookstore, nosing around the cold, echoey rooms, finger tracing spines and jackets, hoping to find a biography or memoir, or, better, some sort of collaged glance-back at that gone world through the eyes of a Black female bohemian.

Later, as a reporter, I wrote essays, profiles, and features about the arts and literary life—often exploring the Beats. I interviewed figures of the era, attended readings and conferences. It was not lost on me that, like Mardou, I was often the only Black woman in the room. A curiosity. I always hoped for an anecdote. Or, better, that she might be in the shadows, prepared to speak her piece.

Eventually, a suggestion of a form took shape. She was there in fragments, quotes, asides, descriptions. Who was this woman who held her own? Who pushed back, who walked away to save herself? I drank up what I could find—not about what is now an antique affair, but about what it meant to survive.

As books about the Beats appeared, I would, unfailingly, turn to their indexes. I watched her aliases change, tracked the erasure.

Fox, Mardou.

Mardou Fox.

Irene May.

Aileen Lee.

And finally: Lee, Alene.

It was peeling the skin to get to the fruit, careful not to harm it: Alene Lee.

Learning her name elevated my hopes. Perhaps she was ready to speak. As a participant and observer, Black and Native, she would be positioned to tell a story from a unique region of the Beat generation, unfiltered, in full voice.

But just as my excitement crested, I learned devastating news.

Lee had died in 1991.

I’d assumed there would be time.

She was 60 years old.

Throughout his life, Allen Ginsberg documented his many chapters and coconspirators in lyric lines, vivid journal entries, and intimate black-and-white photographs. Because of his prescience, we have a vital visual record.

About the time Lee’s name surfaced, in the early 1990s, images, too, emerged. Aside from an elegant three-quarter headshot, cropped close, that played up the symmetry of her face, there was a series by Ginsberg: a candid of her, foregrounded, in a group in the poet’s Lower East Side living room; another, casually posed, of Lee with William S. Burroughs seated on a rooftop—above where much of the real-life action of The Subterraneans took place.

The rooftop photo captivates: an animated Burroughs, in horn-rimmed glasses and houndstooth blazer; Lee with an easy smile, hair covered with a long scarf. They lean toward each other; her hand rests on his.

In tight cursive, Ginsberg captioned the moment: “William Burroughs and Alene Lee, rooftop near Thompkins Park [sic] and Paradise Alley. Bill and I assembled Yage and Queer letters, Alene typed up the collaged manuscripts, Fall 1953.”

Something tangible: a name, a face, a role, but more, a light in the eyes.

alene lee, jack kerouac
Photo by Allen Ginsberg, © Allen Ginsberg Estate, 2023

Born Arlene Garris in Washington, D.C., Lee spent her early years in New York City’s Staten Island. Restless, she was drawn to Greenwich Village, its pace and energy. According to Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s oral biography Jack’s Book, she picked up jobs as a telephone operator and worked for a time at a social services agency near Astor Place. Then she found employment with a health-book company, run by a former editor at New York’s daily newspaper PM.

Lee met Kerouac in 1953, when she was typing those manuscripts for Burroughs and Ginsberg. Their turbulent affair, detailed in Kerouac’s “tearbook,” was sabotaged by the author’s unaddressed equivocations and fixations—heavier than any rucksack he’d ever carried. “Jack was terrified of getting emotionally involved,” writes Barry Miles in Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats; A Portrait. “The problem arose when Jack began to fall in love with [Lee], which in turn activated his neurotic urge towards self-destruction. He began drinking heavily.” The dissolution was ineluctable.

He also deceived her: “When Jack asked her to sign a release form against libel,” Miles continues, “he lied to her that his work was being published by Evergreen Review,” which she assumed “would only be seen by other writers and literary people.” Reading the manuscript, Lee recalls in Jack’s Book, “I went into shock. A lot of it was still raw.… These were not the times as I knew them.”

Lee wasn’t prepared for how “thoroughly autobiographical [Kerouac’s] fiction had become,” writes Gerald Nicosia in Memory Babe, or for the liberties he had taken with her thoughts and motivations: “the ridiculous speeches he had put in her mouth.”

Well past their breakup, they went together to the Village Vanguard, where Kerouac was performing a set of jazz poetry. This was just after the publication of On the Road, which sent a generation on ecstatic journeys of mind, body, and soul. “[He] was speaking on stage, and he was drunk,” Lee recalls. “…It was all out of kilter and awful.” The sobering surprise came later, when Kerouac updated Lee on the status of The Subterraneans. “I asked: ‘Which magazine?’ ” she tells Gifford and Lee. “He said, originally a magazine was publishing it, and now he tells me it’s a book. I said, ‘You said it was coming out in a magazine on the West Coast.’ He said, ‘That’s what you wanted to hear.’ ”

One more unmooring turnabout. Past and present, taken together, make it clear why Lee might choose silence at the risk of erasure.

Not unlike the tattered copies of On the Road disciples carry, The Subterraneans has been my accompanying text. Mardou, like Leo, is a wayfarer, who has to regroup time and again to pull herself from chaos. In a hierarchical America, their freedoms are two-tiered, discordantly defined.

Within the space Lee left, I began imagining: Speculative vignettes. Essay fragments. I pictured Mardou dreaming at her writing table, pencil in hand, striking out and inserting, a caret between two phrases, a query in the margin—opening up new words, new worlds.

I was beginning to accept that whatever tale was left to tell, she might have died with it. Then, a number of years ago, I happened upon something that felt too good to be true—an essay, “Walking with the Barefoot Beat,” by Christina Diamente. It appeared in Beatdom, a journal dedicated to Beat studies, edited by David S. Wills.

In the piece, part corrective, part manifesto, Diamente revealed that she was Lee’s daughter and that she had made a deathbed promise to her mother to “keep [her] alive.” Because Lee had “fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity,” she had become a secret—an omission with consequences beyond the absence of a name.

In a pair of pieces, Diamente unveiled fragments of her mother’s writing. Finally, her voice, the world through her eyes. Staten Island in the 1930s and 1940s, Lee wrote, still hinted at “the wilderness that once existed there.” She recalled “the Dutch Huguenot section where we used to fish and wander. The organ grinder man and the monkey who picked your lucky number for a nickel…the West Indians who were the first blacks to own their homes, and the hatred between them and the southern Negroes.” Diamente alluded to unpublished journals, letters, drafts. “Excerpts from a woman, who never stopped writing.”

I waited impatiently for the next installment.

Months, then years, passed.

A full decade.

It did not come.

william s burroughs, alene lee
Photo by © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

March 12, 2022, marked the centenary of Jack Kerouac’s birth. To commemorate the milestone, Wills dedicated Beatdom No. 22 to the author’s short life and long legacy. I reached out. If nowhere else, I hoped that I might find Lee here, that Diamente might have reappeared. “As for the book/thesis,” Wills emailed back, “I don’t know what happened except that it has never been published. The ways she spoke about it implied that at least a draft of it had been completed.” But since then, Wills told me, she had fallen out of touch.

Another ghost.

I had no choice except to keep shadowing Mardou. During a recent search, I landed on a blog titled The Last Bohemians, launched in 2005 by poet Edward Field and journalist Dylan Foley, about the history of Greenwich Village.

Diamente rematerialized here, participating in a wide-ranging telephone interview, posted in April 2022, about her mother’s Village years, her writing, and the complicated afterlife of Mardou.

What struck me were the relentless demands on Lee. “Being involved with Kerouac,” Diamente said, “made her a kind of target. She would walk down the street in Greenwich Village where we lived and total strangers would walk up to her and say ‘I hear you are Mardou.’… What kind of person in New York City stops a stranger to talk about their sexual experiences with a writer?… She spent the rest of her life trying to stay out of the spotlight.”

I was left with a disconcerting afterimage of Lee: not of liberation but of struggle, of sorrow and quick moves and dire consequences. All these years, I had hoped for “wings,” for her to have traveled lightly. I had to ask myself, Despite my antipathy, was I looking for a storybook ending, after all?

Diamente divulged more about her mother’s orbit—her relationship with John Mitchell, Diamente’s father and the founder of storied Village coffeehouses including the Gaslight and Figaro; her friendship with the painter Virginia Admiral; her complicated liaison with journalist and Kerouac comrade Lucien Carr. But reading about Lee’s hard luck and fragile mental health, I began to understand that the cost of reliving and retelling old dreams, losses, and calamities might have been too much.

For so long, even the suggestion of Lee’s presence had filled an essential gap. When The Subterraneans fell into my hands, I was attempting to construct a story outside what was expected of me, as a Black woman with aspirations that were not seen as “practical” or “on track.” I understood her “restlessness,” her “strangeness.”

Those traces only made me crave more: What of her dreams? Her passions? What did she hope to come to know? Now that yearning had been tempered by the toll it had taken, leaving me to detect an unsettling echo.

“I want to ask everything, can’t, don’t know how,” Leo ponders. I’ve become Leo as he presses, cajoles, “What is the mystery of what I want from you?”

Am I asking too much? Is it mine to understand?

Lee’s quest to disappear was at odds with my wish to know.

In the decades that Lee filled journals, started and abandoned stories, she and an editor at Grove Press determined that her “forms” weren’t “commercially viable.” Perhaps the work didn’t confirm or conform. Perhaps it cut a new path.

Lee was of an era when many Black women’s stories were sidelined, undertold, or misconstrued. (The 1960 film version of The Subterraneans erased Mardou’s ethnicity, casting French actor Leslie Caron.) In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman writes of the survival strategies Black women deployed at the dawn of the 20th century. Such women were, symbolically, Lee’s spiritual forebears, reimagining what a free life meant when the world worked to constrain everything about them: “Young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.”

Lee pulled back to protect what was left. I’m grateful she found time—while typing those men’s books and papers and more—to partition off intervals for work of her own. In that gap, that open question, she left me room to shrug off hidebound strictures and write a life; I didn’t need a map, but permission.

Lee’s loose, memoirish “Sisters,” published in Beatdom, reveals her hardscrabble beginnings, the large and complicated family, the Great Migration–traveling North Carolina ancestors. We glimpse the world from which she was breaking free: “I had never belonged to any group…and became more conscious of the world around me.”

We see her, guiding herself through books, through new territory, casting words into a future only she could write for herself. Freer than her grandmother, and her mother, she set forth on her own.

I’m reminded of the Rita Dove poem “Canary,” which takes as its subject a Black woman with whom Lee shared space in the bohemian demimonde: Billie Holiday, who was as fragile as she was strong.

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.

Something similar might be said of Lee. In “Sisters,” she props open another door for me, speaking at last for herself:

One morning I woke up and knew that I could get something and be something that I didn’t have to ask anyone for and nobody could take away from me.
I could feel harder, think harder and take riches from the world that they couldn’t stop me from having cause most people didn’t know they were there for the taking.
And nobody could stop me from having them as long as I didn’t let them know what it was I wanted.
And that became mine, my dream.
And being black didn’t matter, cause…nobody could take from you what they didn’t know existed.
And all I had to do was guard it, and believe in it and it would be mine some day.•
Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles–based journalist and essayist.