Today is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday – Born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born, and his mother was so devastated by the loss that she had to be committed to the state mental hospital. Young Lawrence was sent to live with his aunt in France.
He didn’t learn English until he was five, when he returned to America. As a teenager, he became an Eagle Scout and was also arrested for petty theft, as part of his involvement with a street gang called the “Parkway Road Pirates.” But shortly after, he was inspired by a copy of Baudelaire poems he was given, and became interested in poetry and literature.
He went to college at the University of North Carolina and then joined the Navy during World War II, where he was the commander of 110-foot ship. He said: “Any smaller than us you weren’t a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way.”
After serving in the war, he moved to San Francisco, where he decided to open a bookstore. He named it City Lights after the Charlie Chaplin movie, because he said: “Chaplin’s character represents for me … the very definition of a poet. … A poet, by definition, has to be an enemy of the State. If you look at Chaplin films, he’s always being pursued by the police. That’s why he’s still such a potent symbol in the cinema — the little man against the world.”
In 1958, he also published his own collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which shocked everyone by going through 28 printings and selling 700,000 copies in the United States alone. By the end of the 1960s, it was the best-selling book ever published by a living American poet.
Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never attended an MLA conference. He’s never won a Pulitzer.
Many happy hours browsing City Lights Bookstore, and drinking at Vesuvius, across the alley. Ahh, those 1960’s, San Francisco.