Sympathy for the Devil

Kill Your Darlings

The new film Kill Your Darlings offers the titillating prospect of watching Harry Potter have gay sex. No movie about the origins of the Beats would stand a chance without a star, so the filmmakers cast Daniel Radcliff as poet Allen Ginsberg. But perhaps even more sensational than the world’s most famous boy wizard is the film’s subject: murder.

Kill Your Darlings opens with Ginsberg enrolling at Columbia University in 1943, where he becomes smitten with fellow student Lucien Carr. The New York Times has called Carr the “inspirational muse” and “founder” of the Beat generation. It was Carr who introduced Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and David Kammerer. As Ginsberg later noted, “Lou was the glue.”

So why then is Carr only a footnote to the Beat movement? Most likely because he murdered David Kammerer and dumped his body in the Hudson River. Kammerer had been Carr’s Boy Scout leader back in St. Louis. Kammerer was obsessed with Carr, and followed him from Phillips Academy to Bowdoin College to Columbia. After Kammerer made what newspaper accounts called an “offensive proposal,” Carr stabbed him to death.

At the time, The Daily News portrayed the murder as an “honor slaying,” a term implying that Carr’s only option when faced with Kammerer’s homosexual advances was to kill him. The judge was sympathetic to “young, good-looking Lucien,” as the press called Carr, and sentenced him to 18 months in a reformatory.

The honor slaying defense has a long history in U.S. courts. In 1978 Dan White shot and killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the nation. Jurors at the murder trial wept openly during White’s confession. When he spoke of a city “going kind of downhill,” the jury agreed. Outrage over White’s lenient, seven-year sentence led to San Francisco’s White Night riots.

In 2008, 15-year-old gay student Larry King was murdered right in the classroom. (Specifically, he was shot in the head by the student seated behind him.) After a mistrial that ended without a verdict, many jurors professed sympathy for the killer. If given the chance, would they have entertained the honor slaying defense? Today that question is academic, because in 2013 the American Bar Association formally voted to curtail the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” arguments during prosecutions.

After serving his brief sentence, Lucian Carr sought to wipe away his connection to the Beats, even asking Ginsberg to remove his name from the dedication of “Howl.” When Carr died in 2005 at the age of 79, The New York Times described the murder of David Kammerer without even mentioning the victim’s name: “In repulsing the homosexual advances of a hanger-on of the Beat crowd, Mr. Carr stabbed his pursuer with a Boy Scout knife and killed him.”

Photo courtesy of Everett