The Beat Hotel

| July 17, 2012

The Beat Hotel is a documentary about a time during the mid to late 1950’s when many members of American intelligentsia lived in too tight confines in a walk-up hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris. But with struggle and sacrifice came great artistic and cultural works, which are very much pertinent even during the first part of another century.

While the accommodations were sparse, with light bulb wattage being monitored and most times no furniture to speak of, the living couldn’t have been easier for writers and poets, among them William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Perter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. Their time in Paris, working solo or collaboratively, became known as the Beat Era, and they became known as the Beat Generation.

An account of the fruits of their efforts—along with firsthand interviews—is available in a new documentary called The Beat Hotel, which is available July 17 on DVD.

This cheap 50-cent-a-night hotel was rich in activity and became a haven for a new breed of artists who struggled to free themselves from limitations and the censorship they experienced in theUnited States. The Beat Generation, which produced many iconic books, along with them tests in the form of obscenity trials, can now be considered the prologue for other free-spirited generations that came afterward.

The documentary shows that when Corso, Burroughs, Ginsberg—who had left the United States following obscenity trials around his book Howl—and others hung out, the climate for always ripe for productivity, creativity and alternative lifestyles. Burroughs’ well known book, and “One of the landmark publications in the history of American literature,” The Naked Lunch was written in July 1959 and created a firestorm of controversy, because it reeked of obscenity. The title’s definition means, “A frozen moment when all see what was at the end of everyone’s fork.” However, this wasn’t the original title, which was Naked Lust, but Ginsberg misread the title during editing, and experts quoted on the documentary implied that the title had more to do with an affection that Burroughs had for Ginsberg than what others may have thought was a reference to Frenchmen having affairs with their mistresses.

This book of loosely connected vignettes was designed by Burroughs to be read in any order—how cool is that—and was narrated by a junkie named William Lee, who adopted many aliases in his travels around the world, but it was said to mimic the author’s personal drug addiction. Because of U.S.obscenity laws, an American edition titled Naked Lunch wasn’t available until many years later. The narrators noted that 1958 Paris was the right time and place for Burroughs, and that The Naked Lunch was a book that hasn’t aged.

After the University of Chicago’s student-run publication The Chicago Review featured sections of The Naked Lunch, the outcry and outrage forced editors to resign, after which Ira Rosenberg helped to establish Big Table magazine.

In addition to The Naked Lunch, the Beat Hotel is where Ginsberg began his poem Kaddish; Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin invented the Dream Machine; Corso wrote some of his greatest poems; and Harold Norse wrote a novella, aptly called The Beat Hotel.

The Beat Hotel’s rich history was commemorated years after the hotel was closed by its owner Madame Rachou and opened under new management; in 2008 a tribute was erected on the front of the building.

The Beat Generation has been described as Bohemian living at its best, and its combined legacy is that you don’t need a lot of money, luxury or comfort to create. The Beat Hotel, a film by Alan Govenar, with superb photos by Harold Chapman and illustrative drawings by Elliot Rudie, is available now on DVD. Visit

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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