April 5, 1997, in the early hours of the morning, Allen Ginsberg’s physical form departed from this Earth (tho’ his spirit most assuredly lives on). Strange to think it’s been almost a quarter of a century!
The undoubtedly definitive account of his final hours is by his long-time friend Rosebud Feliu-Pettet:
April 4, Friday evening – Peter Hale calls and asks me to come quickly, Allen is in a coma, dying. Pull on my sneakers and taxi down, trying to keep calm breathing, trying to arrive in a state of peace. Fifteen minutes after Pete’s call he opens the door to the loft and I go in to join those already gathered. I went and embraced big Peter Orlovsky, and Eugene, Allen’s brother. About twenty friends, talking in low voices, looking lost, comforting each other. After being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer the previous Friday at Beth Israel Hospital, Allen had been told he had maybe two to five months to live. When I heard the news, for some reason, I felt strongly that it would not be that long – I felt that he would go very soon. He had come back home Wednesday in good spirits, organizing things as ever, making plans for the coming days. But someone (I forget who; perhaps it was Bob Rosenthal) had said that Allen personally felt that he had very little time left. A month or two, he thought. So Wednesday he was busy, writing and making phone calls to his friends all over the world, saying goodbye. Amiri Baraka said Allen called him and said,”I’m dying, do you need any money?
But Thursday he was much weaker, he could hobble from bed to chair only with difficulty. There was a phone call from Italy [Editorial note – from Fernanda Pivano], in the middle of it Allen begins to vomit, throws up right there on the phone! “Funny”, he says, “never done that before!” Said he was very tired and wanted to go to sleep. He fell asleep and later that night had a seizure and slipped into a coma. He was alone.
In the morning, Bob Rosenthal discovered him unconscious and called the Hospice doctor who came and told him that Allen had most likely had a stroke and hours to live. The task of notifying family and friends began.
Everybody feared that, as word spread, there’d be a huge throng appearing at the loft, but that wasn’t the case. People came and went quietly during the afternoon. Bob, Pete Hale, Bill Morgan, and Kay Wright, [the accountant], the office-staff, were busy constantly at the phones, making and receiving calls. Shelley Rosenthal and Rani Singh helping with everything that needed doing. Eugene and several neices and nephews of Allen’s consoling each other. Larry Rivers, down from his apartment upstairs, wandering around forlornly in his pink white and blue striped pajamas. George and Anna Condo and their little girl. Francesco and Alba Clemente. Beloved friends of Allen’s. Patti Smith sitting in tears with Oliver Ray and her young daughter, Bob and Shelley’s sons, Aliah and Isaac. Marc Israel and David Greenberg,two of Allen’s young boyfriends, Philip Glass and June Leaf, Robert Frank, Simon Pettet, Andrew Wylie, Roy Lichtenstein, Steven Bornstein,who had flown up from Florida. A few others. I don’t remember who all was there.
I went to the back of the loft and Raymond Foye stood looking pale and so sad. I told him he must be very blessed, he had spent so much time giving support and love to the dying – Henry Geldzahler, (Herbert) Huncke, Harry Smith. “Yes, but this is the big one, the hardest”, he said. Allen lay in a narrow hospital bed beside the windows overlooking Fourteenth Street. There were two almost invisible tubes coming out of his nose, attached to a portable small oxygen tank on the floor. His head was raised up on a couple of big striped pillows and he looked tiny and frail, thin arms with bruised veins from hospital tests sticking out from his Jewel Heart t-shirt. Head to the side, slight shadows under the eyes. I had walked through the loft, people whispering greetings, hugging, telling me all that had happened. But still not really prepared for the sight of him. The windows were open, curtains waving softly. His breathing was deep, slow, very labored, a snoring sound. “Hey, Allen, wake up!” Joel Gaidemak, his cousin and doctor, was there constantly, and a young lady nurse sat in the corner reading, occasionally getting up to check on heart and pulse, or administer morphine for congestion. Gelek Rinpoche said he thought Allen might last the night. Joel didn’t think so.
A few chairs were set up nearby, and there was a big white leather Salvation Army sofa, of which he was so proud. People sat, or at intervals went to sit beside the bed and hold his hand or whisper to him and kiss him, his hand or cheek or head. An altar had been set up along one side of the loft and Gelek Rinpoche and the other monks sat chanting and praying, the sound so soothing constantly in the background, bells tinkling. A faint scent of flowers and incense hung in the air.
I had a little throw-away Woolworth’s camera and Gregory Corso asked me to take a picture of him with Allen. He knelt beside the cot and placed his arm over Allen”like that picture, or statue, of Adonais, right?”
There was a medical chart, a picture of the human skeleton, hanging over the bed. Bob said Allen had put it there, half as a joke, half as a reminder. And Allen’s beautiful picture ofWhitman (that had hung in the kitchen on 12th Street) gazing down from the wall at the other dear bearded poet in the bed below. As it got late, many went home to try and catch a little sleep. It was around eleven. Bob and Pete were just playing it by ear, deciding that anyone who wanted to stay would find a place, on the floor if necessary. Peter Orlovsky was taking photos and I felt a little uncomfortable, the idea of taking pictures at this time, but I figured, hey, if it was you, Allen would be the first one through the door camera in hand! Eventually, Eugene leaned over, held Allen’s hand, whispered “Goodbye little Allen, goodbye little Allen. I’ll be back later. See you soon”. He kissed him and left. And Gregory – Gregorio! – too, telling us to call him at once if there was any change.
Joel had said that there was no way to know how long it would be, minutes or hours, surely not days. I had felt from the minute I saw Allen there that it would be very soon. I sat at the foot of the bed where I had spent the last few hours, holding his feet, rubbing them gently from time to time . An occasional cigarette break – the little guest bathroom by the office area was set up as the smoker’s lounge. Bob and Pete and Bill were as strong and remarkable as ever, supporting everyone, keeping a sense of humor, and constantly dealing with the dozens of phone-calls, faxes, and the visitos as they came and sent. They’d had a few days for the news to sink in, but they were dealing with – literally – hundreds of people over the phone or in person who had just found out and were in the first stages of stunned, disbelieving grief.
I had remained at the bedside and it was now after midnight. I could not believe he still hung on, the breathing so difficult, the lungs slowly filling with fluid. Labored breathing (gulps for air – like those gulps he’d made when he was singing – almost like he was reciting poetry in his sleep). Those who had ben there all day were exhausted. It was down to a few now. Bob and Pete and Bill Morgan. Peter Orlovsky ao bravely dealing with his pain, strong. Beverly [Isis] holding his hand. David and Mark. Patti and Oliver, there together all day trying to be brave and sometimes giving wat to red-eyed tears. Simon Pettet sitting beside me for hours.
Allen’s feet felt cooler than they had been earlier. I sat remembering the thirty-three years I’d know him, lived with him, my second father.
And still he breathed, but softer now.
Around two o’clock, everyone decided to try and get some rest. Bob and Joel lay down in Allen’s big bed near the cot where he lay, everyone found a sofa, or somewhere to stretch out.
Simon and I sat, just watching his face. Everyone was amazed at how beautiful he looked – all lines of stress and age smoothed – he looked patriarchal and strong. I had never seen him so handsome. The funny-looking little boy had grown into this most wonderful-looking man.(He would have encouraged photos if he had known how wonderful he looked!) But so tiny! He seemed as fragile as a baby in his little t-shirt.
The loft was very quiet. Most were resting, half-asleep. Suddenly Allen began to shake, a small convulsion wracked his body. I called out, and Joel and Bob sat up and hurried over. I called louder, and everybody else came running.Iy was about two-fifteen. Joel examined him, pulse, etc., and said that his vital signs were considerably slower, he had had another seizure. The breathing went on, weaker. His feet were cooler. Everyone sat or stood close to the little bed. The loft was dim and shadowy; only a single low light shining down on him. It lent a surreal, almost theatrical, look to the corner of the loft. Peter Orlovsky bent over and kissed his head, saying “Goodbye Darling”.
And then suddenly a remarkable thing happened. A tremor went through him, and slowly, impossibly, he began to raise his head. He weakly rose until he was sitting almost upright and his left arm lifted and extended. Then his eyes opened very slowly and very wide. The pupils were wildly dilated. I thought I saw a look of confusion or bewilderment. His head began to turn very very slowly and his eyes seem to glance around him, gazing on each of us in turn. His eyes were so deep, so dark, but Bob said that they were empty of sight. His mouth opened, and we all heard as he seemed to struggle to say something, but only a soft, low sound, a weak “Aaah,” came from him. Then his eyes began to close and he sank back onto the pillow. The eyes shut fully. He continued, then, to struggle through a few more gasping breaths, and his mouth fell open in an O. Joel said that these were the final moments, the O of the mouth the sign of approaching death. I still continued to stroke his feet and thin little legs, but the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is to not touch the body after death, so I kissed him one final time and then let go.
At two-thirty-nine, Joel checked for vital signs and announced that the heart, so much stronger than anyone knew, had stopped beating. A painless and gentle death. The thin blue sheet was pulled up to his chin, and Peter Hale brought over a tiny cup and spoon, and placed a few drops of a dark liquid between Allen’s lips. It was part of the Buddhist ritual – “the last food” Bob put his hand over Allen’s eyes, and said the Shema. We all sat quietly in the dim light, each withour own thoughts, saying goodbye.
Peter Orlovsky, on that night, (from Jonas Mekas‘ film, “Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit’)