The Teenage Boyfriend of the Beat Generation
To hear him say it, Marcus Ewert was a young man on a mission. In 1988 he was living in suburban Atlanta, just another isolated gay teen who spent much of his free time dreaming of a way out. Unlike other boys in his predicament, though, the then-17-year-old was ambitious and strategic. He was desperate to immerse himself in the literary scene, and being a fan of the beat writers, he zoned in on two of its most prominent figures: Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
“Allen and Burroughs were still alive and they were both gay, and in their work it was pretty explicit that they liked teenage boys,” says Ewert, now 43. “Allen has all these poems about sleeping with boys in Naropa, which is where I realized I could go to meet them. So, I was like, Perfect, I know what to do. …Allen and Burroughs teach there? You don’t have to tell me twice.”
Every year since 1974, the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado—then known as the Naropa Institute—has flown in scores of guest faculty for a month-long summer program of lectures, workshops and readings. Though he had attended many years previously, Burroughs sat out the summer of ’88. But, luckily for Ewert, Ginsberg was still slated to appear. Having stashed away the Christmas and birthday money he’d received from his relatives, Ewert ignored his father’s concerns and paid for his own tuition and plane ticket to Colorado.
As was custom, there was a party the first night so that students and staff could mingle and get to know one another. Working under the assumption that “hordes of gay teens” might have had the same idea, Ewert was surprised to find that he was the only one who appeared ready to make a move on the then-62-year-old Ginsberg. He spotted him among a sea of less-amorous devotees and waited patiently to approach him with a pickup line he had prepared.
“I’d worked out this little phrase that I wanted to say to him: ‘Hello, Mr. Ginsberg, my name is Mark Ewert, and I would like to make you breakfast, lunch or dinner sometime,’” he says. “The idea was, Oh, that’s cute, I’m going to be making him a meal. That’s nice, everyone likes that. It sounds very sweet and devoted, and kind of implies that I’m going to make you a meal the morning after.”
When he finally delivered his proposition, Ginsberg blinked and asked Ewert to repeat himself. He did. The poet then asked him if he could cook, to which Ewert sheepishly replied that he could not. “I hadn’t thought it through that far, apparently,” he says. “When I said that he did a double take and looked at me, like, What is this kid’s deal? I think he was kind of charmed that I was being so direct.”
His receptiveness shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Though there were 45 years separating them, in a 1994 essay Ginsberg controversially declared he was an active member of NAMBLA, or North American Man/Boy Love Association—a group that advocates for the abolishment of age of consent laws. And Ewert, at the time a slim, eager teenager with long, boyish brown hair and a light dusting of freckles across his cheeks, was just the type likely to enchant the critically lauded poet.
And charmed he was. Ginsberg took his young charge by the hand and led him to a bank of tables specifically reserved for star faculty. In the dimly lit gymnasium that housed the party, beams of the few available lights intersected at this row of tables, and Ewert took it as a sign. “It was very metaphorical that he was holding me by the hand and taking me into the light, into the rarified realms of the faculty tables,” he says. “In my head I was like, Awesome, this is what the whole rest of my life is going to be like. It’s done, my fate is sealed and I made it. Phew.”
In a way he was right. This was just the beginning. Though they only talked that night, the two agreed to meet the next morning at Ginsberg’s sparsely decorated apartment at Varsity Townhouse—glorified dorms that housed the participants of the summer program. Ewert’s own room was just three floors down. Ginsberg made him a breakfast of oatmeal with chopped bananas, and they sat eating while he quizzed Ewert on his love life: Was he into women? Men? Both? They agreed to meet back up and continue the conversation after the day’s classes.
Later that afternoon, Ewert arrived and was led to the upstairs bedroom. Though he’d fooled around with one or two neighborhood kids when he was 12 or 13, it would be his first “adult” time; this underage boy direct from the Bible Belt was about to lose his virginity to a much older Allen Ginsberg. “I was happy to find that I saw him handsome in a certain light,” he says. “I was never super physically attracted to him, but he’s got this Grecian, bearded Poseidon profile, you know? That’s kind of handsome, I think I can go with that.
“Basically he blew me; that was a big part of it. And he was really good at it. He did this thing where he had his hand and his mouth working at the same time, and he’d take time out to explain to me what he was doing. He was like, ‘See, you do this with your hand so that way your partner’s penis is always being touched, and when your mouth is off it, your hand is there and it keeps it warm and it keeps the sensation constant, and that shows real consideration to your partner.’ It’s very Allen that he’s always peppering anything he’s saying with little tutorials. But I was totally down for that—it was what I’d signed up for. I wanted the tutorial, I wanted to understand how the fucking world worked. I wanted somebody to help me and mentor me.”
So began an on-and-off relationship that lasted for the next eight years. After moving into his apartment for the rest of the month in Colorado and joining him as his date at faculty events, Ewert returned to Atlanta. And though Ginsberg had a long-term partner in Peter Orlovsky and enjoyed the company of many young men, he took a shine to his latest conquest.
The following year, Ewert moved to New York to study at Columbia University. Whenever he wasn’t in class, he would travel from Morningside Heights down to Ginsberg’s apartment on the Lower East Side, where he also spent his weekends. Slowly ingratiating himself in the city’s art scene, it was there he met the second name on his two-man hit list: William Burroughs.
He had laid the groundwork the summer before at Naropa, asking Ginsberg to call his longtime friend and suggest a meeting. According to Ewert, Ginsberg was into the idea and said it would be good for his 74-year-old pal—who was by then living in Kansas—to get laid. After telling the Naked Lunch author that his new lover was “straight out of one of your books…pure, uncut boy stuff,” he put him on the phone and they agreed to try and hook something up.
One afternoon the next year, Ginsberg called Ewert at his dorm and invited him to a party being thrown by the poet and Warhol Factory regular John Giorno. Burroughs was in town and Giorno and a few friends, including painter Francesco Clemente and Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, were having a dinner in his honor. It was being held at Giorno’s apartment at The Bunker—a semi-converted YMCA on Bowery, and Burroughs’ former digs.
When Ewert arrived he was introduced to his idol, who was wearing a $5,000 Freddy Krueger glove that Stein had commissioned; it was made of soft, gray leather and had actual blades attached to it. In his trademark gravelly voice, Burroughs lunged at Ewert and made roaring noises, like a lion toying with its prey. The other guests gave them a wide berth and they spent much of the night in conversation, sitting together at dinner and discussing their favorite animals.
At Ginsberg’s apartment the next day, Ewert urged him to call his friend to see if the poet had enjoyed the evening as much as Ewert had. Burroughs’ assistant, James, answered the phone and said his boss was quite taken by the curious youth and asked if he could come by the next day, around 2 p.m., for a visit. James and Giorno would be leaving shortly thereafter and they could spend time alone. Ewert, then 18, was elated.
Ewert turned up on time and, as promised, soon found himself alone with one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation. His earlier excitement gave way to anxiety as Burroughs took him to the bedroom and showed him one of his shotgun paintings and the various knickknacks he had on his dresser. But it in that moment, Ewert realized the king of postmodern literature was actually nervous of him.
“I couldn’t quite understand why he was so invested in telling me these little stories. And then I was like, Oh my god, he’s nervous. He’s nervous of me,” Ewert says. “That totally switched everything around in my head because it’d never occurred to me that anyone could be nervous of me—I was nervous of everyone and everything. So the idea that here this cultural icon wants to please me and is worried that I’m going to lose interest if he’s not showing me something interesting, it was such a heady rush…the idea that I had any sort of power.”
Suddenly having the upper hand turned Ewert on. When Burroughs ran out of things to show him, they sat down on the bed, side by side. The walls of The Bunker were made of thick concrete and Ewert remembers the deathly silence most of all; sitting a foot apart, Burroughs placed his hand in the space between them, eventually working up the courage to put his hand on Ewert’s knee. “It really felt like he was very much testing the waters, very much wanting to make sure that I wasn’t going to run screaming, or that I’m not going to laugh at him,” he says. “I really had the feeling that how I react here could really hurt somebody else.”
And Ewert didn’t flee, but rather returned the gesture, putting his hand on Burroughs’ knee and giving it a light squeeze. Even through the thick jeans, the poet’s leg felt bony and frail, which only turned Ewert on more. A skinny young thing himself, the idea that somebody found his frame attractive, even someone 57 years his senior, was an aphrodisiac. “It was like hugging my doppelganger, and that totally turned me on,” he says. They found themselves naked on the bed, engaged in what could be described as chaste, fumbling sex. No kissing, but a sweetness despite the absence of overt affection.
“I don’t think there was any oral at all, I think it was just hand jobs and humping. At one point I felt this little splash of fluid against my leg and, you know, he’d cum, and then I probably jerked myself off and came. And then we’re lying in bed in this post-orgasmic peace and after a while he goes, ‘Ah, that was great. That was the first time this has happened in years,’” Ewert recalls. “And I’m super happy because I had enjoyed it. Also, the little calculating, crusty 18-year-old part of me was excited by the fact that he hadn’t had sex in a long time. He’s already 70-whatever, and I’m guessing he’s not going to have a lot of sex besides me going forward—he’s not going to live that much longer. I was like, That’s awesome, I’ll go down in history as the last person to have had sex with William Burroughs. I don’t know if that’s totally true, but it gives you a sense of my mind-set at that time.”
Sleeping with Ginsberg and Burroughs concurrently, Ewert felt he had arrived. He didn’t consider himself a groupie, citing a kinship he felt with both as well as a precocious intellect that allowed him to hold his own in conversation. The fact he was 18 and sleeping with a 63-year-old and 75-year-old was beside the point; Ginsberg was a skilled lover, and sex he had with both men became only more intimate and loving as things progressed.
Being in New York, Ewert spent most of his time with Ginsberg, going to art shows and meeting people like Keith Haring, Robert Frank, Philip Glass, and John and Caroline Kennedy. But he’d also fly to Kansas and spend time with Burroughs. Starting with Thanksgiving that year, he would return on long holiday weekends—visiting the following Valentine’s Day and Fourth of July—and then one more time a year or so later. During these jaunts they would paint together in the morning, go target shooting in the afternoons and then talk over dinner in the evenings before retiring to bed. He remembers those weekends as enjoyable, but felt the charm start to wear off with each successive visit.
“He had this very calcified persona and, at first, that was kind of fun and glamorous, ‘Oh, this is just like in his books.’ But then after a while, I got really tired of it. I was like, Dude, interact with me,” he says, adding that though he preferred the more “cordial” sex with Burroughs, his connection with Ginsberg was stronger. “Allen I could really talk to. I feel like I had some of the most real conversations with him than I’ve had with anyone in my life, really. Allen, I definitely had a deeper relationship with. He also pissed me off a lot more. Burroughs was always very kind and courteous, but Allen could be a crotchety dick a lot of the time—really insensitive and kind of insufferable.”
Though he stayed in contact with both until their deaths, which were two months apart in 1997, things began to wind down in the later years. The interactions were warmer with Ginsberg, and Ewert says speaking to Burroughs eventually started to feel like a chore—akin to dutifully calling a relative out of guilt, and then being glad when it was over. Yet Ewert could not deny the mark the latter had left on him. And clearly, the feeling was mutual. In Burroughs’ last novel, My Education: A Book of Dreams, he mentions by name his once teenage lover:
“Mark Ewert left yesterday after a three-day visit. I feel now very much merged together. His face emerged quite clearly in a painting I did the last day he was here. He is an extraordinarily sweet and beneficent presence.”
A year before Ginsberg died, he came to see Ewert in San Francisco. Then 25 and living a life of his own, Ewert was asked to speak on a panel about the queer side of the Beat Generation. So with Ginsberg in the audience, he read a story about meeting Burroughs for the first time.
To his surprise, his longtime lover and mentor kept saying how much he liked the piece—a complete turnaround. Just days after they’d met in 1988, Ewert had shown Ginsberg some of his writing, who then proceeded to completely eviscerate it. Ginsberg had always been dismissive of his literary ambitions, so this newfound validation meant a lot.
What had started as an infatuation eight years earlier finally came full circle. His time with two of literature’s greats had disabused him of the idea of a whole and complete genius. Living with these men and being part of their day-to-day cycles, spending days with Ginsberg and visiting Burroughs at his house in the middle of nowhere—watching him feed his cats, shaving, making hash browns for breakfast—deflated their magical aura and recast greatness as contextual. Despite their talent, they weren’t always smart or profound and, like everyone, could be prone to arrogance and pettiness, but he had come to love them as equals despite the vast differences in age.
“That’s why I call these guys my boyfriends, because I feel like I really was there with them, body and soul, and they were there with me,” he says. “In the bedroom alone, all the things that could look like big power imbalances, a lot of that stuff kind of dissolves. It’s hard to say this without sounding cocky because of who they were as literary figures and all that, but I did feel like I really had, with each of them, a truly one-to-one relation, imperfect as that was.”
Marcus Ewert is now a children’s book author living in San Francisco. He wrote 10,000 Dresses, the first kid’s book to feature a trans character.