Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, publisher, painter and political activist who co-founded City Lights Bookshop, San Francisco alongside his friend Peter Dean Martin. The man who became an icon to the city sadly passed away aged 101 on 22nd January 2021.
Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. Following the death of his father and his mother’s being committed to a mental health facility, he was raised by his aunt until the age of seven, when she ran off leaving him in the care of his aunt’s employers.
He attended university in North Carolina, become a journalist in 1941 and then joined the US Navy, serving during the second world war. It was while he was studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris , that Ferlinghetti began to write poetry.
When Lawrence Ferlinghetti returned to the USA in 1951 he felt drawn to California to make a fresh start. He told the New York Times, “San Francisco had a Mediterranean feeling about it. I felt it was a little like Dublin when Joyce was there. You could walk down Sackville Street and see everyone of any importance in one walk.”
It was in 1953 that Lawrence Ferlinghetti co-founded the City Lights Bookshop and publishing company with his friend Peter Dean Martin – who left soon after it was founded. The bookshop and publishing company’s mission was to make literature more accessible to all. At the time, most bookshops in the US closed early on weekdays and didn’t open on weekends at all. City Lights, however, broke this trend, staying open seven days a week and late into the night. As a result, they created a counterculture community, attracting writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Initially, the bookshop focussed on selling paperbacks which were a lot cheaper but were often looked down on by the literary circle.
In 1955, Lawrence Ferlinghetti heard Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, read for the first time at the Six Gallery in North Beach. The very next day, he sent a telegram to the writer, requesting the manuscript of the poem and suggesting that it would mark the beginning of a great career for Ginsburg. The poem was printed in Britain and then shipped to San Francisco where the copies of Howl were seized. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were then arrested in 1957 on obscenity charges for printing the poem.
“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there forever. And, anyway, it really put the book on the map,” Ferlinghetti told the Guardian.
Thankfully, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had already sent the poem to the American Civil Liberties Union “to see if they would defend us if we were busted”. A trial regarding the obscenity charges lasted months, however, the ACLU did successfully defend the poem and the verdict set a pivotal precedent for reducing censorship, while at the same time both Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg became internationally famous.
In 1958, Ferlinghetti published his own first collection entitled A Coney Island of the Mind, which sold more than 1 million. In the years that followed, he wrote more than 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals. Meanwhile, as a publisher, he continued his lifelong focus on poetry and books which were being ignored by the mainstream.
In 1978, when the inhabitants of San Francisco were rocked by the double assassination of the city’s mayor, George Moscone, and city supervisor and LGBTQIA+ icon Harvey Milk Ferlinghetti wrote a poem called An Elegy to Dispel Gloom, that ran two days after the murders in the San Francisco Examiner. In 1994 a street was named after Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and then in 1998, he was named San Francisco’s first poet laureate.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti remained active at his bookshop, City Lights, through to the late 2000s where he could be found chatting with customers, fans and tourists who had popped into the store just to meet the man who had become something of a legend.
In his later years, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was nearly blind and mostly bed-bound, however, this did not stop him from staying busy, publishing his final book – Little Boy, a loosely autobiographical books – on his 100th birthday.
That same year, San Francisco name the 24th March – his birthday – Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day with celebrations that lasted all month to mark his centennial.
When asked whether he was proud of his achievements, Ferlinghetti said: “I don’t know, that word, ‘proud’, is just too egotistic. Happy would be better. Except when you get down to try and define the word happy, then you’re really in trouble.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s son Lorenzo reported that the city’s beloved icon had passed away on Monday night in his home and the cause was interstitial lung disease.