Poet whose outlook spanned anarchism, ecology, publishing and the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco
James Campbell, February 23, 2021
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, artist, activist and founder of San Francisco’s famous City Lights Bookstore, who has died aged 101 of interstitial lung disease, was the least “beat” of the Beat Generation. In addition to a political commitment that blended anarchism and ecology – he loathed the motor car, calling it “the infernal combustion engine” – he had an instinctive business sense, founded on the philosophy of small is beautiful. City Lights, which he started in partnership with the magazine editor Peter Martin in the early 1950s, is still among the most welcoming of shops, with its tables and chairs, sheaves of magazines, and signs saying: “Pick a book, sit down, and read.”
Ferlinghetti discouraged interviewers and seekers of personal information. “If I had some biographical questionnaire to answer, I would always make something up,” he once said. Different reference books give different dates of birth, and one published story had it that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the place of the pissoir in French literature. For many years, he listed his dog, Homer, as City Lights’ publicity and public relations officer. The poet recalled that Homer Ferlinghetti received regular mail, but that his public relations career stalled when he peed against a policeman’s leg. For this act of citizenship, he was immortalised by his master in the poem Dog.
Perhaps the facts made Ferlinghetti uncomfortable. He was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, New York, to a French mother, Albertine Mendes-Monsanto, and an Italian father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, an auctioneer, who had shortened the family name to Ferling. His parents were unable to care for him, however (sometimes Ferlinghetti said his father had died before his birth, sometimes after), and he was rescued by an aunt, Emily Monsanto. She took him to France, where they lived for his first six years. Returning to the US, Emily was employed as a governess by a family called Lawrence, a branch of the one that founded Sarah Lawrence College. “Then she left me there,” Ferlinghetti told an interviewer in 1978. “She just disappeared one day, and that family brought me up.”