Beatnik poet Bob Kaufman dies at 60


An S.F. original who heard the 'beat between the beats' in North Beach heyday



By Larry D. Hatfield



Bob Kaufman, the original beatnik whose poetry labeled him a mad genius and his behavior, a madman, is dead.

Called variously a "black American Rimbaud," a common drunk,  "the original be-bop man," and a neighborhood nuisance, Mr. Kaufman died In a San Francisco residential care home yesterday morning.

He was 60.

The listed cause of his death was emphysema, from which he suffered for years. He also suffered from cirrhosis of the liver which purportedly ended his legendary drinking several year's ago, but not his regular visits to various North Beach bars.

It was in one of those bars, Gino's and Carlo's, where Mr. Kaufman delivered one of his more immortal, though unpublished lines. According to Examiner columnist Warren' Hinckle, another habitue, Kaufman delivered this line in the stentorian tone that used to draw, cops from blocks around:

"Why turn a perfectly good frog into a princess?"

Mr. .Kaufman and his hangabouts, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, William Margolis and the ilk, created the Beat Generation in their North Beach hangouts.

It was Mr. Kaufman, if one believes legend, who inspired Herb Caen to coin the phrase "beatnik" after, in a fit of poetic and/or alcoholic ecstasy, he kicked the window out of the Co-Existence Bagel Shop while commenting on current events: "Sputnik! Sputnik!"

Born in the Louisiana Bayou to a , black Catholic mother and a German Jewish father, Mr. Kaufman was first urged to writing by a first mate in the merchant marine and to publishing by one of his two wives, Eileen.

He and his cohorts changed poetry and society from their North Beach haunts by, as Mr. Kaufman put it to a biographer once, listening to the beat between the beats.

He and they were disdainful of the traditionalists, and said so, as in his "Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness," In which he described them as:


"Assuming the posture of frogs, croaking at appointed times,

Loudly treading the plastic floors of copied temples

In creeping cardboard creatures, endlessly creeping,

In and out of time, eating the clock by the hour,

Poets of the gray universities in history suits,

Dripping false Greek dirges from tweedy beards,

While all the Troys are consumed in mushroom clouds."


In the process of exposing the public to his art, Mr. Kaufman had an ongoing relationship with the San Francisco Police Department, logging dozens of arrests for drinking, drugging and disturbing the peace.

In one of the more memorable police attempts to quell the beatnik scourge, a young officer named William C. Bigarani stormed into the Bagel House and tore down poems by Mr. Kaufman, writing under the name of Bomkauf and Margolis, using the nom d'needle Bimgo.

Bigarani, who was to tangle with the beatniks for years and dismissed Kerouac's offerings as "drivel," was this time offended by a poem of Mr. Kaufman's which said Adolf Hitler, bored with burning Jews and fooling around with Eva Braun, had moved to San Francisco and become a cop.

"What do they think a policeman is, a robot?" stormed Bigilrani, who was fired from the force three years ago after pleading no contest to a charge he kept $50,000 from a check-cashing and bill-paying operation he ran at Woolworth's.

He was not available today to comment on Mr. Kaufman's death.

A North Beach fable is that Mr. Kaufman did not speak from the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated until the end of the Vietnam War.

People like Hinckle say he did in fact talk, but he did not publish during those years.

And he was mostly silent. Some said it was because his voracious appetite for booze, drugs and outrage had nudged him over the edge; more friendly sorts said it was because his spirit had died.

Former. wife Eileen said once to an interviewer: "He thought Kennedy was going to be able to help the world and especially help his people... He had a lot of faith and then the assassinations began (Kennedy, King, Kennedy, Malcolm X, George Jackson, etc.) and one by one, they were all cut down."

It was with Margolis, and fellow poets Ginsberg and Kelly, that Mr. Kaufman started Beatitude magazine here in 1959.

At the urging of wife Eileen, he was published frequently after years of reciting his poetry in North Beach coffeehouses. Along with the revered "Solitudes," his major works included "Golden Sardine" and " The Ancient Rain."

In his later years, Mr. Kaufman was still seen in North Beach bars, but a dwindling few recognized him or cared about his genius.

He was 86'd (barred) from almost every bar in North Beach, according to longtime barkeeps there, because when well-served, he liked to deliver his poetry to young customers who no longer listened to the beats between the beats.

Before he entered the convalescent home, he lived in the old Swiss American Hotel in North Beach, nursing his cirrhosis, his body become like the line in one of his poems, "a torn mattress."

But he was still active toward the end. He received a $12.500 grant by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981 and did a few readings in the later years.

But to the end, he remained the figure he often wrote about, the lonesome, even tortured, artist, striving to:

"Swing higher -

Defiant into a challenge key

Screamed over a heartbeat

Shouting to all beat seekers

To vanish into soft sound of jazz

And walk into him to smokey ends

While his jazz walks forever

Across our parched hearstrings. "


Mr. Kaufman is survived by a son, Parker; a daughter, Antoinette; two former wives and eight

brother and sisters.

Memorial services are pending.


San Francisco Examiner * * * Monday January 13, 1986