Allen Ginsberg and Elise Cowen, ca. 1956.
Photograph by Sheila, courtesy of Leo Skir.
Little-known Beat Generation poet Elise Nada Cowen '56 was born in 1933 in Long Island, the daughter of wealthy Jewish parents. The family later moved to Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights. Admitted to Barnard College in October 1951, Cowen began her studies the following spring. While at Barnard, she took up French and "wanted to read Rimbaud in the original." It was at Barnard that she first earned the nickname "Beat Alice," having fallen in with a loose-knit group of anti-establishment artists and visionaries known to outsiders as Beatniks. One of her first acquaintances at college was the Beat poet and novelist Joyce Johnson '55, who later depicted Cowen in two of her books: Come and Join the Dance, which told of Johnson and Cowen's experiences in the Barnard and Columbia Beat community, and Minor Characters, Johnson's memoir of the Beat generation. In the latter work, Johnson introduces Cowen as follows:
"During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts immediately told me to avoid. ... Her dark hair was ungraciously scraped back with a rubber band, and acne flared under the ragged bangs on her forehead. Behind her black-rimmed glasses, eyes looked out at you sorrowfully and fiercely. ... I did not want to know Elise Cowen. ... I resisted friendship with her for about a month. ... We became friends. ... We went and had coffee. ... We ended up cutting [class], unwilling to tear ourselves away from a conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years that we knew each other, so that even now it's sometimes a shock to remember Elise is dead and I can't pick up a phone and speak to her."
Cowen's close friends all marveled at her morbid brilliance and comic irreverence, which she expressed not only through poetry but also with countless gestures and passing remarks. For instance, Leo Skir recalls an instance when, after spending one day at his apartment during one of her rootless periods, Cowen announced her intention to pack her bags and go out to look for a job. Skir noticed that she was wearing toreador pants. "I don't think you should wear toreador pants for a job interview," he told her. "I'll change in the ladies' room in the subway," was her reply.
Cowen's years at Barnard were apparently turbulent; Skir and Johnson both recall that she was in and out of mental hospitals during that time, receiving treatment for depression and anxiety. Her poems speak of intense psychological and emotional suffering:
A skin full of screams
'Roselle under the bludgeon'
Red Queen of back-of-the-office
Who stares at space into me
Roselle de Bono
A confusion of tears over the Royal typewriter
The Lady is a humble thing
Made of death and water
The fashion is to dress it plain
And use the mind for border
During her freshman year, Cowen lived alone in a women's boarding house near the Barnard campus, where she read and wrote poetry tirelessly. Her favorite poets at the time were T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas, all of whom she could recite from memory. Skir recalls that she stole books from libraries and bookstores because she said it was "the only moral way to get books." After taking time off due to mental illness, she returned to Barnard, taking up residence in the back room of a Russian woman's apartment.
Like many women on the male-centered Beat scene, Cowen became a public figure through her relationship with a male poet—in this case, Allen Ginsberg. After meeting through Cowen's philosophy professor, Alex Greer, Ginsberg and Cowen dated throughout the spring and summer of 1953. Ginsberg later referred to her as an "intellectual madwoman." Later that year, as their romantic relationship tapered off, Ginsberg embraced his homosexuality and gave Cowen the fame of being his "last" girlfriend.
The memory of this brief relationship with Ginsberg plagued Cowen for the rest of her life. Suffering the anguish of a love for him that could not be reciprocated, she continued to desire his attention long after their affair had ended. As Joyce Johnson puts it, "Elise was a moment in Allen's life. In Elise's life, Allen was an eternity."
One of Cowen's poems illustrates this gulf:
Sitting with you in the kitchen
Talking of anything
I love you
'The' is a beautiful, regal, perfect word
Oh I wish you body here
With or without bearded poems
After graduating from Barnard in February 1956, Cowen and her lover "Sheila" (a pseudonym) moved into an apartment with Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky. Cowen worked as a typist in New York for a time, and after she was fired, moved to San Francisco to become further immersed in the fertile Beat scene that was beginning to develop there.
She lived with an alcoholic Irish painter in a rooming house in San Francisco and supposedly spent a lot of time in a bar called "The Place." She became pregnant, and, unable to get an early-term abortion, underwent a hysterotomy and returned to New York City, where she lived briefly with Leo Skir. After another trip to California with a new partner named Keith, she returned permanently to New York, where Ginsberg helped her find a new apartment.
As her prolific writing continued to go unknown and unpublished, Cowen suffered ever more severe psychological breakdowns, ending up at last in Bellevue Hospital for two weeks of treatment for hepatitis and psychosis. When she checked herself out (against doctor's orders), she returned to her parents' apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights. On February 1, 1962, she committed suicide by jumping out of her parents' sitting-room window.
After her death, Cowen's parents destroyed a large portion of her writings. Skir, however, preserved a number of her poems and submitted them over the years for publication in The Evergreen Review and Women of the Beat Generation. Among them was the following, believed to be her last poem:
Twenty-seven years is enough
Mother too late—years of meanness—I'm sorry
Peter—Holy Rose Youth
Berry—Such womanly bravery
Joyce—So girl beautiful
Howard—Baby take care
Leo—open the windows and Shalom
Carol—Let it happen
Let me out now please—
—Please let me in
The Cosmic Baseball Association. "Elise Nada Cowen... Beat Generation Poet / 1933-1962." Last updated December 24, 1996. Retrieved October 17, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.cosmicbaseball.com/cowen7.html>.
Filreis, Alan. "Elise Cowen (1933-1962)." Retrieved October 17, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/cowen.html>.
Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996.
Skir, Leo. "She Was Beat with Allen Ginsberg: Elise Cowen: A Brief Memoir of the Fifties." Evergreen Review, October 1970. Retrieved October 17, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://gaytoday.badpuppy.com/garchive/people/041497pe.htm>.
Report of Barnard College Committee on Admissions, October 1951 and The Mortarboard 1954 (Barnard College Archives).
— Contributed by Rachel Greer '02