Flashback: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Strange New Cottage in Berkeley’

Photo: Dennis Starleaf
Cottage behind 1624 Milvia St., circa. 1958. Photo: Dennis Starleaf

Allen Ginsberg lived in Berkeley from September 1955 until August 1956. I have written about his time here, but, until Labor Day weekend, I had not seen photographs of the cottage he rented behind 1624 Milvia. I now have five photos of the cottage, thanks to Dennis Starleaf, who rented the cottage a few years after Ginsberg.

Jack Kerouac described the place as a “rose-covered cottage.” He wrote: “The old rotten porch slanted forward to the ground, among vines, with a nice old rocking chair that I sat in every morning to read my Diamond Sutra. The yard was full of tomato plants about to ripen, and mint, mint, everything smelling of mint, and one fine old tree that I loved to sit under and meditate on those cool perfect starry California October nights unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Ginsberg wrote “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” about the place, impressed more with “bramble blackberries” on the fence than the mint. The one fine old tree mentioned by Kerouac is possibly the tree “with its rotten old apricots” mentioned by Ginsberg. Ginsberg also started his poem “America” while in Berkeley. In it he writes of reading Time magazine in “the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.” He wrote “A Supermarket in California” on Milvia.

Allen Ginsberg at the Town Hall Theater, March 18, 1956. Photo: Walter Lehrman

In 1956, Cal literature professor Thomas Parkinson organized a reading of “Howl” at the Town Hall Theater at 2787 Shattuck (now home to Sconehenge), five months after his first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. For the first time, Ginsberg read all three parts of “Howl.” At the Six Gallery reading, Ginsberg had only finished Part I and only read Part I. In the intervening months, he finished the poem, working in his cottage on Milvia and at Caffe Med on Telegraph. In “Howl” Ginsberg wrote of “the door of my cottage in the Western night.” This is believed to have been the Milvia cottage.

Ginsberg wrote that the theater was “festooned with Chinese brush orgy drawings by Robert LaVigne.” Kenneth Rexroth was the master of ceremonies. Poets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Whalen shared the stage with Ginsberg. Ginsberg read “Howl,” “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” The earliest known recording of “Howl” is from that March 18 Berkeley reading.

Dennis Starleaf in Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy Dennis Starleaf

Dennis Starleaf lived in that cottage from about May of 1958 through February 1959. In addition to the exterior shot of the cottage at the top of this post, he sent four interior photos:

Interior 1624 Milvia St. (1958-1959). Photo: Dennis Starleaf
Interior 1624 Milvia St. (1958-1959). Photo: Dennis Starleaf
Interior 1624 Milvia St.(1958-1959). Photo: Dennis Starleaf
Interior 1624 Milvia St. (1958-1959). Photo: Dennis Starleaf

Of the interior, Starleaf writes: “Almost all the furniture was in the cottage when I moved in and I left it there when I moved out. The canvas chair was there. The bed was just a matress on a piece of plywood and the plywood sat on wood blocks. The table was there as were the straight back wood chairs. The floor lamp was there.”

The rent was $25 or $35 a month, Starleaf isn’t sure. Starleaf married at the end of 1958 and moved to “a more suitable apartment” the following spring.

Starleaf graduated from Berkeley at the end of the summer of 1959. He earned an MA at UCLA in 1960 and then went to Vanderbilt University for his PhD. All of his degrees are in economics. He was hired by Iowa State University in the fall of 1963 and retired at the end of the 1998. Macroeconomics and monetary economics are his areas of expertise.

I know — these five photos are of greatest interest to those, like me, who geek out about Berkeley’s connection with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Snyder and all. But the next time you drive on Milvia, between Cedar and Virginia, look at the eyesore that is there now and imagine how it was with Ginsberg in the back cottage in the explosion of his nascent success.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means.

For a fuller version of this post with many more photos, see Quirky Berkeley.