Bonnie Bremser

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Yesterday we spotlighted Ray Bremser, today we spotlight his sometime-wife Bonnie (nee Frazer) Bremser and the extraordinary document Troia-Mexican Memoirs (1969) (published in England as For Love of Ray (1971)), a “lost classic of Beat experimental writing.”

Heike Mlakar, in her 2007 book, Merely Being There Is Not Enough – Women’s Roles in Autobiographical Texts by Female Beat Writers, notes:

“The male-dominated Beat circle offered women only restricted freedom. For The Love of Ray, as well as the memoirs of other Beat women, criticizes the fact that women were doubly suppressed, by “square” society at large and by their lovers and husbands who left them behind earning money and caring for the children. Even though male Beats rejected white middle-class conformity, Beat men had quite traditional views of women, wanting them to lead ordinary lives as mothers and financial supporters.”

Mexican Memoirs/For Love of Ray,  long out-of-print and reissued in 2007 (though it appears to have disappeared off the radar again), is, both as sociology and literature, a remarkable achievement.

Mlakar again –  “(It) stands apart as a memoir that in form and content may be the most shocking, troubling, horrendous and provocative of all female Beat life stories.”

Brenda Frazer’s autobiographical account was never, at first, conceived of as a book. It was, as she recalled, “composed in a series of two-page writings that were sent to Ray, who was in jail (at the time), on a weekly basis. By claiming it was business correspondence, we side-stepped the one-page-a-week rule on correspondence. It was an effort to communicate with (him) over the difficult experiences (of the previous year) in Mexico. We never talked much before and then the limitations of jail made communication more urgent..”

Elsewhere in her interview with Nancy Grace, she recalls

NG: So the truth was always at the center for you as you wrote Mexican Memoirs ?

BF: Trying to get at the truth, and if there was some humor in it, if it was amusing to Ray, if it was sexually titillating, then that too. But my purpose was to improve the relationship between Ray and me…..  It was difficult, there was so much pain. I found I could focus out of the pain by writing.. People would come into my place and look at the writing in piles and enjoy reading it. But through that time when I wrote, a period of one year, I was as much in isolation as if my apartment were a cell. I was just sort of weeping, trying to make things ok between us. That was what I was writing for…”

And again: “I was trying to sort things out for myself. So the truth was essential to me then. Proper memory, and if I rhapsodized a little bit that was just because I had all this poetic background to tell me that transcending is what you wanted to achieve in writing….”

The dominance of, and subservience to, the male muse. It was Ray who gave it its contemptuous title – Troia  (whore), and who pushed, in 1969, for the book’s publication, and it was Ray, who, along with the book’s editor, Michael Perkins, arranged the letters into a narrative.

Not to mention, the dramatic, disturbing nature of the content. The nineteen-year-old Brenda (Bonnie) had met Ray at a poetry reading in March of 1959, (Allen and Gregory Corso were among those present), and had married him three weeks later. When Ray fled to Mexico in 1961 to escape incarceration for a crime that he claimed he didn’t commit (armed robbery), Bonnie followed him with Rachel, their baby daughter (who was later, shockingly, given up for adoption). Similarly shockingly, Bonnie resorted to prostitution (with Ray as her pimp on occasion) in an effort  to maintain their “free-spirited” life.                                                                           All of this is graphically recounted (one reason for the book’s “underground” status, and also, perhaps, for its lack of immediate popular or critical success)

Further indicators of male chauvinism and erasure? – except it’s not so simple. Frazer’s narrative “I” demands no simple patronizing (sic) bourgeois sympathy (on the contrary, she outright rejects it). Her absolute embrace of her own bohemianism (not to mention her complicated response to her own sexuality, and her literary transformation) makes her an unlikely but nonetheless proto-feminist figure, Readers of the book since its publication have come to see it as a tragic (obviously), flawed (obviously) but, paradoxically, bravely assertive text. There is, quite literally, nothing like it.

From the Nancy Grace interview again (retrospectively, looking back, from 1999):

BF: I wrote Mexican Memoirs every day. Get up, had my little ritual routine, and write my two pages in the morning. And then the rest of the day I spent all of the time reconstructing in my mind, going over things, and feeling things evolve about what I would write the next day. I was a recluse then. So I was able to say, “All I have to do is sit down and write two pages a day and that’ll be that”.

NG: You were living it, re-living it, re-creating it every day. Your reasons for writing now [1999] are different aren’t they?

BF: I have a lot of reasons for writing. I want the full story to be available, and there’s also something about a jail experience for the people who are in there – it’s never-ending, even after  you’ve  served your time. You don’t ever really get a clean slate.You never get absolved of what happened. If by chance it was a misunderstanding, the misunderstanding never ends either. So I thought maybe I could gain some absolution by writing about it. But then, there’s another reason for writing too. I adored Ray, and I was very young and naive, and I had a hard time seeing things realistically. Now [1999] I have to balance the good with the bad. Because even though I still do care for Ray, I wouldn’t live with him. I wouldn’t now go through any of the things that he goes through. I wouldn’t want to spend probably more than half an hour with him, but I still have the same tenderness…”

And one more excerpt.  Nancy Grace asks Brenda (Bonnie) about  “Beat”  (“..what does the term “beat” mean to you?”)”

BF:  “Beat” is, like (Herbert) Huncke said, a carnie term. It’s a leftover from the ‘thirties and ‘forties Depression years, of the wandering vagrant. That (Jack) Kerouac romanticized it was wonderful because it was the tone of the time, an offspring of anarchism and bohemianism that went before, all of which I studied before I’d ever met Ray. The social antagonism of being seen as beatniks, or even as hippies, is a little skewed because we were in a lower divison of the counterculture, criminally affiliated with the streetwise aspect of things. So I always resist that discussion. It seems out of place. I loved the way Allen would talk about ordinary people as “angels'” and bum cigarettes just to talk to common folk on the street. It was somehow an attitude like that.”

Katie Stewart’s article, “A Negative Score on the Happiness List – The Economics of Hustling in Bonnie Bremser’s For Love of Ray” can be read (in its entirety) –  here

Ronna C Johnson‘s exemplary work on Bonnie – “Beat Transnationalism Under Gender – Brenda Frazer’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs”  can be read as Chapter 3 of the Nancy GraceJenny Skerl 2012  Transnational Beat Generation anthologyhere

Mention should also be made of Brenda Knight‘s account of Bremser’s life and work in her groundbreaking Women of The Beat Generation (1996)

Bonnie and Ray’s sojourn on Allen’s farm has been memorialized and evoked in Gordon Ball’s lively memoirhere

& Bonnie Bremser can be seen and heard in amateur footage from 1997 –   here

One comment

  1. Love this great little Ginsberg reference near the end: “The social antagonism of being seen as beatniks, or even as hippies, is a little skewed because we were in a lower division of the counterculture, criminally affiliated with the streetwise aspect of things. So I always resist that discussion. It seems out of place. I loved the way Allen would talk about ordinary people as “angels’” and bum cigarettes just to talk to common folk on the street. It was somehow an attitude like that.”

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