Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, painter and pivotal figure to the Beats and about every other counterculture literary movement in San Francisco, has died at 101.
Ferlinghetti died Monday evening in his second-floor walk-up apartment in North Beach, where he lived for 40 years under rent control. Cause of death was a degenerative lung condition, said Nancy Peters, co-owner and retired executive director of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers.
"It was my good fortune to have worked closely with him for more than 50 years," Peters told The Chronicle on Tuesday. "We've lost a great poet and visionary. Lawrence was a legend in his time and a great San Franciscan."
In his memory, City Lights on Columbus Avenue in North Beach was closed until 2 p.m. Tuesday, then open until its usual 8 p.m. closing time. Supervisor Aaron Peskin concluded Tuesday's regular meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with a memorial sermon for Ferlinghetti.
He left behind dozens of books of verse, most prominently "A Coney Island of the Mind," which was published in 1958 and has never gone out of print, with a million copies released in a dozen languages. His final book, a novel titled "Little Boy," was published a week before the author's 100th birthday.
Ferlinghetti was a veteran both of D-Day, in World War II, and of the left-wing intelligentsia that arose after the war. But his greatest contribution to the world of letters was as co-founder of City Lights, a paperback bookstore in North Beach and propeller of the San Francisco Renaissance in poetry.
"I'm there in spirit all the time," Ferlinghetti said of the world-renowned bookstore, in a 2018 interview with The Chronicle. As for how often he was at the shop late in life, in reality, the ever-lighthearted bookseller replied, "As a poet, I don't deal in reality."
Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco in 1951 and asked a stranger to point him in the direction of the bohemian quarter in the city. He moved in and was struggling to make it as a painter when he chanced upon an opportunity that was to change his life and the life of North Beach.
"I was coming up from my painting studio and I drove up Columbus Avenue," he said in a 2012 interview. "It was a route I wouldn't normally take, and I saw a guy putting up a sign where City Lights is now."
The man with the idea was Peter Martin, a student at San Francisco State.
"I said, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'I'm starting a paperback bookstore, but I don't have any money. I've got $500.' I said, 'I have $500.' The whole thing took about five minutes," Ferlinghetti noted. "We shook hands, and the store opened in June 1953 as City Lights Pocket Bookshop."
Two years later, City Lights became a publishing house. The first release under its Pocket Poets Series imprint was his own "Pictures of the Gone World." It was followed by "Howl," the incendiary work by Allen Ginsberg, introduced at the famed Six Gallery reading on Fillmore Street in October 1955.
Ferlinghetti himself did not read at Six Gallery, but the next day he sent Ginsberg a telegram offering to publish Ginsberg's graphic poem. "Howl & Other Poems" was released by City Lights in 1956, and Ferlinghetti stood by it during an obscenity trial that gained North Beach national exposure as the home of the Beats.
"When the trial began, I was young and stupid and thought a few months in jail would be OK. I'd have a lot of time to read," Ferlinghetti told The Chronicle in 2012.
Ferlinghetti never got that reading time, but he did get the publicity. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem couldn't be deemed obscene because it had "redeeming social significance." The case was covered by a photo spread in Life magazine.
City Lights, on a triangular lot at Columbus Avenue and Broadway, was the first independent bookstore in the country to deal exclusively in the inexpensive paperback form. Although it eventually came to deal in hardcover books as well, it still focuses on paperbacks in its poetry room, which is up a creaky set of stairs that predates current building codes.
Anyone interested in bohemian San Francisco came to City Lights to look for Ferlinghetti, who was invariably dressed in a button-down professorial manner, compared with the Beats and musicians who hung out there. The front sidewalk under the awning and the alley alongside were the locations of two of the most famous group photos in San Francisco lore, both taken in 1965. One is Larry Keenan's "The Last Gathering of Beats, Poets, and Artists," the entire bohemian tribe, including Richard Brautigan in a stovepipe cowboy hat. The other is of ultra-cool Bob Dylan with Robbie Robertson, McClure and Ginsberg.
The storefront is known for its row of clerestory windows showcasing radical political messages, all hand-painted by Ferlinghetti on butcher paper.
"His particular brand of highly reasoned, highly intelligent but witty political activism ... he has carried that in his life and in his poetry effectively but lightly through his whole career career up until now," poet Gary Snyder said in the 2009 documentary film "Ferlinghetti," directed by Christopher Felver.
Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, N.Y. His father, Carlo Ferling, had shortened the family name when emigrating from Italy, but Lawrence later returned to the original. His father died before he was born, and because his mother, Clemence, had a nervous breakdown, he was sent to live with his aunt in France.
When the aunt could not handle him, he was put in an orphanage. (Only later did Ferlinghetti learn that he had four older brothers.)
"It was right out of Dickens," Ferlinghetti said in recalling that he reached out to his beloved aunt by mailing her a letter when he was 12.
"That was when I first discovered I could really write," he said in the documentary. His aunt never responded to the letter and he never saw her or heard from her again.
He was then raised by a family in Bronxville, N.Y., with a great library, and went through Bronxville public schools, where he made Eagle Scout the same year he got caught stealing pencils.
From the library shelves, he pulled down Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," which inspired him to both become a writer and do it at Wolfe's alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He earned his bachelor's degree in journalism at the university and served in the U.S. Navy as a ship commander in World War II. He was in the armada at the D-Day invasion in Normandy, serving as skipper on a submarine chaser. He later sailed to Japan and saw Nagasaki after the blast, and "it made me into a lifelong pacifist," he said. "No doubt about it."
On the G.I. Bill, he earned his master's at Columbia University in 1947, with a thesis on critic John Ruskin and painter J.M.W. Turner. From there he went overseas for the second time to earn his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950, where he studied comparative literature and delivered his thesis (in French) on "The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry."
While on a ship headed to France, Ferlinghetti met his future wife, Selden Kirby-Smith, who went by Kirby. She was the granddaughter of a Confederate general and had earned her master's degree from Columbia.
In the early 1950s, Ferlinghetti wrote many reviews of poetry books in The Chronicle, using the name Ferling; his first byline in the paper was on July 22, 1951. He reclaimed his original family name in 1954.
As the first poet laureate of San Francisco — a position he held from 1998 to 2000 — he called for the city to replace the "ugly" Central Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, with a boulevard. The freeway is now long gone.
"The norm is that when people get older, they get more politically conservative," Ferlinghetti said, "but it's been the opposite for me."
This was reflected in the bookstore and in the work he chose to publish.
"City Lights isn't stuck in the past. It isn't just a '50s or '60s institution," author Dave Eggers said in the 2009 documentary. "It's always looking for the next voice. It's as alive as anything."
In 1994, an alley in North Beach was renamed Via Ferlinghetti in his honor. At the dedication ceremony, Ferlinghetti mentioned that the dead-end alley was once used by bootleggers and undertakers, and that a poet could hang with that crowd.
"I was 30 before I saw San Francisco for the first time, and I've spent most of the last 40 years walking up and down the streets of little old wooden North Beach," he told the audience at the dedication.
One of his last poems, "Trump's Trojan Horse," was published in the Nation magazine in 2017. It began: "Homer didn't live long enough/ To tell of Trump's White House/ Which is his Trojan horse/ From which all the President's men/ Burst out to destroy democracy."
Though he no longer went into City Lights regularly, Ferlinghetti remained its co-owner with Peters, and "his political and cultural viewpoints still set the agenda for City Lights," said Stacey Lewis, publicity director for City Lights.
Ferlinghetti will be buried in the family plot in the Druid section of the Bolinas Cemetery, beside his late ex-wife, Selden Kirby-Smith. Survivors include a daughter, Julie Ferlinghetti Sasser of Thompson's Station, Tenn.; a son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti of Bolinas; and three grandchildren.
No memorial will be scheduled until after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.
"For now, we're asking folks to remember the huge 100th birthday celebration, which was a fantastic tribute to his life and work," said City Lights publisher Elaine Katzenberger.
Former Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie contributed to this report.
This article is written by Sam Whiting from San Francisco Chronicle and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.