Poet and City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti dies aged 101

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was seen as the spiritual godfather of the Beat movement. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Visitors browsing the books in the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, on March 3, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN FRANCISCO (NYTIMES) - Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers from City Lights, his famed bookstore, died Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 101.

The cause was interstitial lung disease, his daughter, Julie Sasser, said.

The spiritual godfather of the Beat movement, Ferlinghetti made his home base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.

A self-described "literary meeting place" founded in 1953 and located on the border of the city's sometimes swank, sometimes seedy North Beach neighborhood, it soon became as much a part of the San Francisco scene as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman's Wharf.

While older and not a practitioner of their freewheeling personal style, Ferlinghetti befriended, published and championed many of the major Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure.

His connection to their work was exemplified - and cemented - in 1956 with his publication of Ginsberg's most famous poem, the ribald and revolutionary Howl, an act that led to Ferlinghetti's arrest on charges of "willfully and lewdly" printing "indecent writings".

In a significant First Amendment decision, he was acquitted, and Howl became one of the 20th century's best-known poems.

In addition to being a champion of the Beats, Ferlinghetti was himself a prolific writer of wide talents and interests whose work evaded easy definition, mixing disarming simplicity, sharp humor and social consciousness.

"Every great poem fulfils a longing and puts life back together," he wrote in a "non-lecture" after being awarded the Poetry Society of America's Frost Medal in 2003. A poem, he added, "should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song".

Critics and fellow poets were never in agreement about whether Ferlinghetti should be regarded as a Beat poet. He himself did not think so. "In some ways what I really did was mind the store," he told The Guardian in 2006. "When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats."

A life as a provocateur would have been hard to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five sons born in the placid environs of Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919, in the wake of World War I.

His father, an Italian immigrant who had built a small real estate business, had shortened the family name; as an adult, Lawrence would change it back.

His father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a state mental hospital before he was two. Lawrence was taken in by a relative - he called her his Aunt Emily, though the family connection was complicated.

Photos of the Beat movement writers adorning the wall at the City Light bookstore in San Francisco. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ferlinghetti went west in early 1951, landing in San Francisco with a sea bag and little else.

He was surrounded by a politically and artistically charged circle, but he did not buy into the Beat lifestyle.

"I was never on the road with them," he said, noting that he was living "a respectable married life" after marrying Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951. They had two children, Julie and Lorenzo; the marriage ended in divorce. In addition to Sasser, Ferlinghetti is survived by his son and three grandchildren.

Ferlinghetti's life changed in 1953, when he and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, which originally carried nothing but paperbacks at a time when the publishing industry was just beginning to take that format seriously.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Pocket Book Shop, which he opened with Peter Martin in 1953. PHOTO: REUTERS

Each man put in $500, and City Lights opened. "And as soon as we got the door opened," Ferlinghetti later remembered, "we couldn't get it closed."

In 1955 Ferlinghetti, by then the sole owner of City Lights, started publishing poems, including his own.

A year later his City Lights imprint published Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.

Over the years he would work in other mediums, including painting, fiction and theatre; a programme of three of his plays was produced in New York in 1970. But poetry remained the art form closest to his heart.

Age did not slow him down; he continued to write and give interviews. In 2019, Doubleday published Ferlinghetti's Little Boy, a book he had been working on for two decades, which he characterised as the closest thing to a memoir he would ever write: "an experimental novel" about "an imaginary me."

Its publication coincided with Ferlinghetti's 100th birthday, which San Francisco's mayor, London Breed, proclaimed Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day.

In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, City Lights closed and started an online fundraiser in which they announced that they might not reopen. The store received more than $450,000 in four days.

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