Peter Orlovsky was a sweet and handsome 21-year-old with a troubled past when he met Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in 1954, and the two forged a relationship that would last for decades and transform their lives.
Mr. Orlovsky, who became a poet in his own right but was always overshadowed by Ginsberg’s fame, died Sunday in Vermont. He was 76 and had battled emphysema and lung cancer.
“When Peter and Allen met, they were both troubled,” said Gerald Nicosia, a Marin County poet and biographer of Jack Kerouac. “Ginsberg was troubled by his homosexuality and afraid to be a poet, and Peter had come from this family defined by mental illness, and he was living in San Francisco and wondering where his own life was going.”
Within a year of meeting Mr. Orlovsky, Ginsberg started writing “Howl,” a poem that was first performed Oct. 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco and published a year later. The controversial poem became a seminal work of the Beat Generation.
“Allen was the brains, and Peter was the heart,” said Nicosia. ” You couldn’t be around him without feeling this love radiating from his eyes.”
With Ginsberg’s encouragement, Mr. Orlovsky, who had been born into poverty, grown up in a converted chicken coop on Long Island and seen his siblings institutionalized, began keeping a journal and writing poems.
Mr. Orlovsky could also be a natural performer, pausing from poetry recitations to break into a yodel, wearing outrageous clothes and growing a ponytail that ran down his back. He also was known for trying to get the hard-partying beat poets of his generation to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Ginsberg and Mr. Orlovsky were notorious early in their relationship for taking off all their clothes at Bay Area parties, and were sometimes invited to parties just for that.
In 1974, Mr. Orlovsky began teaching poetry at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., and in 1979 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. City Lights Books in North Beach collected Mr. Orlovsky’s works. In 1980, Gay Sunshine Press published “Straight Hearts’ Delight,” comprised of the letters and love poems between Mr. Orlovsky and Ginsberg.
Over the years, they became one of the most famous openly gay couples – with Mr. Orlovsky listed in “Who’s Who” as Ginsberg’s “wife.” They split as a couple in the late 1980s, when Mr. Orlovsky had a mental breakdown, but remained close.
Ginsberg died in 1997. Mr. Orlovsky was said to have started in recent years working on his memoir.
E-mail Julian Guthrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle