by: Hilary Holladay
How Herbert Huncke talked his way into the Kinsey Report…
During the years before he met William Burroughs and Burroughs’s intellectual friends, Herbert Huncke (rhymes with monkey) was having the adventures that would gain him admission into the Beat Movement’s inner circle and become the basis for many of his stories. He couldn’t know that at the time, however. As a boy, he had wanted to pursue a career as a writer – or perhaps as an actor or dancer – but his activities on 42nd Street weren’t helping him achieve any immediate artistic goal. “I finally decided that I couldn’t write. The way I was living, well, there wasn’t any time to – although I would make occasional attempts to write in a notebook. But a lot of that stuff was lost. I don’t know if it even matters any because it wasn’t until I was about thirty years old that I felt I was able to evaluate sensitivity, responsiveness, or perceptions at all correctly.”
It is no coincidence that Herbert began to trust his powers of judgment around the same time that he met Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, the emerging Beat authors who found him so interesting to listen to. Never mind that he was reminiscing about selling morphine to prostitutes rather than running with the bulls in Pamplona or wooing socialites at lavish parties. Though they had read Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among many other authors, they connected on a more visceral level with Dostoyevsky, Celine, and Genet. The river of criminality running through Crime and Punishment, Journey to the End of the Night, and Our Lady of the Flowers seemed to bubble up before their eyes in the person of Huncke. He was really quite a find.
They were not the first educated people to think so. Alfred C. Kinsey, the sex researcher from Indiana University, also viewed Huncke as an essential source of information. Huncke later introduced Kinsey to several of the future Beat writers, who obliged the professor by providing him with their sexual histories. If the idea of sharing their most intimate secrets with this tweedy stranger struck them as odd, they quickly got over it. Talking to Kinsey fell into the broad category of sexual experimentation, which the Beats sanctioned in both word and deed. The connection between Kinsey and this circle of writers was to become one of the touchstones of Beat lore, and in retrospect it seems inevitable. But Kinsey had set his sights on Huncke before Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac had come together as the core of a nascent literary movement. Like them, Kinsey intuitively recognized that this impoverished hipster could be instructive.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1894, Kinsey was the son of a shop technician who eventually became an engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. With a deep interest in science and the natural world, fed by his years as a Boy Scout, young Kinsey didn’t want to study Engineering as his father insisted that he should. After two unhappy years at Stevens Tech, he transferred to Bowdoin College to pursue degrees in Biology and Psychology. From then on, he had little contact with his family. He completed his doctorate at Harvard and began his professional career in Indiana University’s Zoology Department in 1920.
Kinsey’s exhaustive research and publications on the gall wasp earned him promotion to full professor at age thirty-five and the respect of his zoologist peers. But it was only after he turned his full attention to the study of human sexuality – seemingly the only subject that could tear him away from the wasps – that Kinsey became a public figure. He and his wife, Clara McMillen Kinsey, were in the habit of talking openly about sex with Indiana University students seeking advice and guidance. In response to popular demand from students and with the blessing of the university president, Alfred Kinsey launched a non-credit sex education class staidly labeled the “Marriage Course” in 1938. Around the same time, he began interviewing people about their sex lives. Under pressure from area clergymen, Kinsey resigned as instructor of the marriage course after two years, but the university administration encouraged him to continue his sex research. In 1942 he established the Institute for Sex Research on the campus of Indiana University and hired a staff to help him interview people. Six years later, he published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, based on thousands of detailed interviews that he and his associates had conducted all over the country. The pioneering study indicated, among its many revelations, that homosexuality was much more common than previously believed. Its dry title notwithstanding, the book became a bestseller and made Kinsey famous. The inevitable companion work, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, appeared in 1953. Other scientists questioned his research methods, and his homosexual affairs with male staffers, once they were revealed in biographies, further damaged his credibility. But Kinsey’s landmark studies nevertheless gave post-World War II Americans the opportunity to reflect more openly on a subject that consumed much of their thought.
In preparation for his volume on male sexuality, Kinsey went out of his way to track down gay hustlers who would share their stories with him. His search led him to New York City and in short order, to Huncke, and Times Square. In Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research, Kinsey’s associate Wardell B. Pomeroy writes about the professor’s first contact in Times Square, who was almost certainly Huncke:
As early as 1942 Kinsey had heard something of [the gay sex trade in Times Square] from inmates of the Indiana State Penal Farm, and decided to explore it. He came to Times Square with no contacts whatever, and hung around the bars on Eighth Avenue that he recognized as gay. Observing for hours at a time on different occasions, he noticed a man who also seemed to be constantly hanging around. Going over to him, he said, “I am Dr. Kinsey, from Indiana University, and I’m making a study of sex behavior. Can I buy you a drink?”
That the man accepted is a testimonial to Kinsey’s personality and the persuasion he could put into the simplest statement. I suppose, too, that such an invitation coming from someone who looked like the squarest of the square to a Times Square denizen had the ring of authenticity. No one would be likely to make it up. Still, the man was skeptical until he was having his drink and listening to Kinsey, who had turned on the full power of his persuasion. It was impossible, one must believe, to doubt this clear-eyed, earnest, friendly man from the Midwest. In the end, the man agreed to give his history, which proved to be filled with drugs, prostitution and prison terms. From then on, he became a valued contact and persuaded other male prostitutes to cooperate.
This man’s rooming house, which was full of others engaged in the same kind of work, was a gold mine for Kinsey, who had no such histories up to that point. The word got around in the Times Square underground and soon Kinsey was as well known in the area as its habitués.
Pomeroy does not divulge the man’s identity, but all signs point to Herbert, to whom Kinsey wrote a letter of thanks in January of 1943. Huncke’s recollection of his first meeting with Kinsey, furthermore, closely matches Pomeroy’s account.
In Huncke’s version of the circumstances leading to that first meeting, he filled in a few pertinent details. He said a young woman, apparently a student, had asked him whether he would meet with Kinsey. Following that, he and Kinsey had a phone conversation in which Kinsey agreed to meet him “at a popular bar on the Square, though not the Angler” since Huncke refused to go directly to the visitor’s hotel room. One can see why Pomeroy would omit these details. The young woman served as an intermediary so Kinsey wouldn’t have to risk rejection, which Pomeroy elsewhere in his biography admits his boss would do almost anything to avoid. Furthermore, Kinsey’s desire to meet Huncke in a hotel room reflects a lack of finesse. It was understandable that Huncke would prefer neutral territory. But he didn’t resist Kinsey for long:
I didn’t have enough money to buy myself a drink, and I sort of kicked around in front of the place until I saw a cab pull up and a man get out. Kinsey had a very interesting appearance, strictly professorial. His hair was cut very short, slightly gray. He had a round face that was pleasant-appearing, and he was dressed in a suit – obviously a conservative man, I thought.
He walked up to me and said, “I’m Kinsey, you’re Herbert Huncke. Let’s go in. You’d like to have a drink.” I said, “Yes, I’d like to talk to you a few moments before we go to your hotel.” He again gave me much the same story the girl had and he assured me that the only thing he was interested in was the discussion, though he did say he wanted to measure the size of my penis. He showed me a card which had a phallus drawn on it. He said he’d like to know the length of it when erect and when soft. Naturally, I was wondering when he was going to get to the point. It was all so strange, and I still did not quite believe him, but I thought, “Well, hell, I might just as well go along with him and see what it’s all about.”
After the interview in Kinsey’s hotel room, Huncke came away feeling that the experience had been therapeutic. “As I got started rapping to Kinsey about my sex life I sort of unburdened myself of many things that I’d long been keeping to myself,” he said. “When I told others of my confessions to Kinsey they all said I was off my rocker, but I must say I was thankful by that time to get it out of my system. I had earned my living from sex at one time and have met all kinds of people, and heard of and had experiences with some very strange fetishes.” Kinsey paid him for the interview, apparently the first of several. His relationship with Kinsey thus provided him with some much-needed cash as well as a sympathetic ear. With a touch of disingenuousness, he remarked, “I wouldn’t have accepted anything from him if I hadn’t needed it very badly at the time.”
Throughout his career as a sex researcher, Kinsey was a punctilious correspondent. He wrote follow-up letters to his interview subjects and often took over the correspondence with persons his staff had interviewed. This was an important way of keeping the lines of communication open with persons who might provide further information or lead him to other interviews. These motives are evident in the letter he wrote to “My dear Huncke,” dated January 26, 1943.
Since he had known so little of the Times Square sex scene before meeting Huncke, Kinsey was understandably thrilled with the exotic butterfly he had bagged for his collection. “I felt confident that you had become convinced by the end of our interview that I objected to nothing, and that I had no interest in attempting to redirect anybody else’s behavior,” he wrote to Herbert. “Your history, on the contrary, contributed definitely to my own education, and for that I am deeply grateful.”
Ward Pomeroy claimed that Prok – as he called his boss – always avoided any reference to his subjects’ sexual activities in his correspondence with them, since his letters could fall into the wrong hands and prove incriminating. That discretion is evident in his letter to Huncke, yet there is no mistaking the reason Kinsey was interested in Huncke. “Did I, by the way, give you a copy of the one paper which we have published on the homosexual?” Kinsey wrote offhandedly near the end of his typed, one-page letter. “I should be glad to send you a copy if I neglected to give you one.” He also requested the address of another New York contact, “who similarly asked me to write him.” Clearly Kinsey wanted Huncke to reply.
Despite the considerable care he put into the letter, it apparently never reached its intended recipient, since it is marked “returned” in pencil at the top of the page. Herbert’s circumstances forced him to move around a lot, and his prison sentences complicated matters as well; his mail did not always catch up with him. The returned letter, on file at the Kinsey Institute, was only a temporary setback for the energetic researcher, however. So long as Huncke lived around Times Square – when he wasn’t in prison – he was not hard to find. As Kinsey had predicted, his relationship with Huncke proved mutually beneficial. Thanks to him, Huncke could count on a small but steady income whenever the sex researcher was in town. And thanks to Huncke, Kinsey met and interviewed the future Beat writers as well as a great many other people. He became friends with Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac and enjoyed dining with them when he came to New York.
As a recruiter working for Kinsey, Huncke earned two dollars for each interview subject he landed. It was the perfect job for someone who was already in the sex trade. “I became a pimp for Kinsey,” he bluntly stated some years later. Since he was paid on commission, Huncke could set his own hours. “It was nice to know that when I was uptight I could get two dollars. All I’d have to do is waylay somebody I knew and say, ‘Hey, man, want to make a couple bucks?’ I sent a number of people I knew up to meet with Kinsey. I think I pretty much made his Times Square study.”
In time, other hustlers began recruiting for Kinsey, and Huncke had to compete with them for interview subjects. But Huncke was discerning and would not send just anyone to meet with Prok. He would warn his more temperamental prospects, “If you’re going to get angry if he asks you if you’ve slept with your mother, don’t go.”
The above is an excerpt from: Herbert Huncke: The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, which is available in print and digital editions from Schaffner Press on August 1st!
Biographer Hilary Holladay lives in Orange County, Va., and blogs about poetry and the Beats at hilaryholladay.com.
Header photography by Magnus Reed.