The poet and the pol
Freeholder Pat Sebold donates keepsakes of cousin Allen Ginsberg
As a veteran Essex County Freeholder and board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Pat Sebold is one of the most widely known public figures in the region’s Jewish community.
But there is a private aspect to her life that is known to far fewer people. Sebold is a first cousin of the iconic American Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg. Allen’s father, Louis Ginsberg, was the brother of her mother, Clara.
Although he was 12 years older than her, Sebold treasures not only warm memories of her cousin but a voluminous collection of Ginsberg memorabilia. On July 1 she donated all of it to the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey.
The trove includes signed copies of hardbound and paperback versions of her cousin’s poetry, as well as personal letters, postcards, family photographs, and yellowed newspaper clippings about the Newark-born poet, anti-war protester, gay-rights activist, counter-culture muse, and “nonviolent social bandit,” as he was once described by the critic John Leonard.
“I am compulsive,” Sebold confessed to the society’s executive director, Linda Forgosh, as they sat at the kitchen table recently in Sebold’s Livingston apartment. “Through the years I have saved everything.”
One postcard he sent to her family from Amsterdam reads like a Ginsberg poem:
Cheese, canals, windows, bridges, dog s—t, Indonesian restaurants, red light district, youth clubs with rock’n’roll and earth dope, friendliness on street and in newspaper stories, tiny cars on tiny alleys, salty soup, good clean toilets, pancake desserts, tram cars, bricks, love, I think of you fondly, Allen G.
Although the poet’s official archives are located at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., “they don’t have his personal stuff,” said Sebold.
“It is better it should go someplace where it will be treasured,” she added. “What are they going to do? Sit in a bookcase for the rest of my life?”
“That to me, of course, is like gold,” said Forgosh, who plans to “become a devotee of Allen Ginsberg. I will read it all and study it all” before mounting an exhibition of the society’s new collection.
“When I learned that Pat had a collection of personal papers, newspaper articles, and photographs pertaining to the life and times of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, I wasn’t able to rest until these valuable items were acquired by the JHS for preservation and exhibition. As of now the exhibition of Ginsberg’s papers will be titled ‘Ginsberg and Ginsberg,’ meaning the poetry and papers of Allen Ginsberg and the poetry and papers of Louis Ginsberg, who was Allen’s father and an important poet in his own right,” Forgosh said.
“They will have a good home,” she promised Sebold.
Their discussion over stacks of poetry books and file folders of photos and correspondence triggered Sebold’s memories of her cousin, who died of liver cancer in 1997 at age 70.
“Whenever we had a Jewish holiday he would come,” she said. “The whole family would get together and the discussion was always about politics. Although I am the only one who ever ran for office, they were all very much involved in politics.”
Her mother’s parents had fled czarist Russia in the late 1800s. “My family was a very, very liberal Jewish family, and when the communists came to power my family thought that was good because the czar was going.”
But such attitudes had changed by 1960, when Cuban President Fidel Castro visited New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. Ginsberg was a guest of the Cuban leader at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem.
“My Uncle Leo Litzky and Allen got into a vicious fight about Castro. Allen’s attitude was that [Fulgencio] Batista, the right-wing dictator Castro’s forces overthrew, was horrible, and Castro was going to be better for Cuba.
“I can still remember — my cousin Larry and I were kids and we sat on the steps listening to the argument.”
Ironically, five years later, Ginsberg was deported from Cuba for publicly protesting its persecution of homosexuals.
“Everybody in the family knew that Allen was gay, but they didn’t care,” she said.
One little-known fact about Ginsberg was that in 1945 he joined the Merchant Marines so he could earn money to continue his education at Columbia University. “Nobody could understand why,” Sebold recalled.
Around 1950, when he first hooked up with such other noted Beat Generation writers as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg became interested in Buddhism and the Hare Krishna movement. But Ginsberg — among whose best-known poems is “Kaddish,” dedicated to his mother, Naomi — retained a strong connection to his family’s secular Jewish roots.
“Allen was very comfortable with the Jewish part of him,” she said. “He was a very spiritual guy, and he never rejected Judaism.
“I knew Allen’s friends. They would come by train to visit us and we would pick them up. They were friendly and they all talked to me but they were so much older.”
Among those friends was poet, jazz critic, and playwright LeRoi Jones, who abandoned his white contemporaries of the Beat Generation for the Black Power movement and changed his name to Amiri Baraka.
“I heard from Allen that for years he and Baraka never spoke. Then, about two years ago, Baraka came to a freeholders’ meeting. I went up to him and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember who I am.’ He said, ‘Of course I do. You’re Allen Ginsberg’s cousin.’”
Although the poet’s body was cremated and a memorial service was held in his honor at a Buddhist temple in New York, Ginsberg’s ashes were divided between at least two urns. One was given to the Buddhists and the other was interred at the historic B’nai Israel Jewish Cemetery on McClellan Avenue in Newark, near the graves of Sebold’s parents and Ginsberg’s father, a poet and English teacher at Paterson High School.
“When Allen and Lou read their poems together I went to see them at the JCC in West Orange and the library in Paterson,” she recalled. “They used to fight over poetry. With my Uncle Lou, everything rhymed. Everything had an order. But Allen was freewheeling. Lou would say, ‘You’re wrong.’ Allen would say, ‘You’re wrong.’ But there was a lot of love between them, absolutely. His father and the rest of the family were very proud of him.”
“Although there was a tremendous age difference between us, I really looked up to him as a talented poet,” said Sebold. “When I talk to people I don’t always say, ‘Did you know my cousin was Allen Ginsberg?’ But if it becomes part of the conversation, some people will look at me like ‘I’ve never heard of him. Who’s he?’ and others say to me, ‘You’re Allen Ginsberg’s cousin?’” in a tone of disbelief. “They are amazed.”
A previous version of this article referred incorrectly to the location of a headstone erected in memory of Allen Ginsberg. The headstone is located at the B'nai Israel Cemetery in Newark, not at the Gomel Hesed Cemetery nearby. Both cemeteries are located on a triangle formed at McClellan St. and Mt. Olivet Ave., but various Ginsberg biographers and web sites either ignored or were not aware of the distinction between the two cemeteries. NJJN regrets the error.