Elise Nada Cowen was a poet of the Beat movement, an era in literature that explored the gritty and shadowed elements of the human experience such as sexuality, drug experimentation, and anti-war beliefs, subjects deemed taboo at the time. The legacy of the movement lingers in the stories of its male pioneers Allen Ginsberg (Howl), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road). Even more spoken of than their writing were the men’s lives. They road-tripped across state lines fueled by psychedelics and pens; fell into the Wonderland-esque New York City nightlife of the ‘50s in the pursuit of experiencing life and its spectrum of emotions.
There is little information about Cowen beyond her tragic death and being the last woman Ginsberg dated before he “came out” as gay. Though men of the era, along with present historians, pushed the voices of women aside, Cowen’s poetry, which coincides with her life events, should be remembered alongside the movement’s men.
Born into a Jewish family in the New York City neighborhood, Washington Heights, Cowen’s childhood appeared to be the typical American story of a mother and father raising their only child. Underneath the surface, however, were issues. After inviting her friends to her home, Cowen, then 13, had an accident while trying to bake brownies. Her eyebrows and parts of her hair were burnt off and her father stopped calling her beautiful. This led to self-esteem issues combined with the common issues teenagers tend to go through during their adolescent years that lasted for the remainder of her life.
One of Cowen’s poems, believed to be her last before her death, was introspective and yet emotionally tarnished. It explored her tumultuous and personal relationship with self-love that differed from the typical masculinity-driven Beat poems:
While studying at Barnard, Cowen struggled with confidence, evident in her interactions with those around her. As fellow Beat member and author, Joyce Johnson wrote in her 1983 memoir Minor Characters: “I did not want to know Elise Cowen, who clearly was not collegiate and whom I could tell at a glance was even beyond the effort of trying.”
In a philosophy course, Cowen and several women students developed a crush on their young professor, Alex Greer. The difference—Cowen needed his love.
Cowen’s feelings grew past fascination and into an obsession in which her self-worth was wrapped into if Greer returned the feelings. He did not. Her presence alone could not grab his attention, Cowen turned to a new vice; one that would set forth a toxic dating pattern for relationships to come. She sought to please him through offering her services and became his assistant. Cowen performed tasks such as attending to his two-year-old son, cooking, and cleaning while he and his wife sorted through their tumultuous relationship and extramarital affairs.
Cowen later wrote a poem influenced by her Jewish upbringing and Jane Eyre’s character, Mr. Rochester. It was believed to chronicle her relationship with Greer and the hypnotic wave it brought over her to stay:
The thing about being hypnotized by someone is that it often stems from manipulation, especially with an age gap. Though it has been said that Cowen “seduced” Greer, the reality was the relationship was an abuse of Greer’s power as a professor, a position he used to take advantage of Cowen.
“Abusive relationships come from an empty place in your soul,” said Veronica Demarco, a Southern California marriage and family therapist said to Observer in response to Cowen’s relationship with her professor: Demarco noted how individuals often try to “recreate” their own dysfunctional family dynamics in new relationships, as Cowen appeared to do. Cowen’s father stopped calling her beautiful and she searched for a man who would. This made Cowen vulnerable to being used by others who could identify her pain. Since her family was unable to care for her, she turned to her professor. When he could not reciprocate, Cowen was led to the next, and possibly most notorious relationship of all: Allen Ginsberg.
In the spring of 1953, Cowen met Ginsberg at a party. The two set up a date and Cowen traveled downtown to meet him— a contrast to the etiquette of the time where men were expected to pick up their date.
While the men could get away with breaking from societal standards, the women were judged. By embarking to the date on her own, Cowen established herself as non-conforming to expectations, and yet became a target to those around who would describe her as desperate and needy. In reality, Cowen was revolutionary and shattered gendered boundaries on and off the page like her male counterparts of the Beat generation. The only difference – Cowen received no applause.
When Ginsberg led Cowen into the bar, he brought her into a Gatsby-esque world of literary icons, beautiful women, and powerful fixtures. And while historians see the date from the perspective of Ginsberg trying to cover up his sexuality, they lose sight of Cowen’s experience–the butterflies that came with her anticipation, the rush that followed being seen by someone as assured as Ginsberg. For Cowen, who had low self-esteem, being beside Ginsberg flooded her with the love and healing she craved. That night, the two slept together and dated for the next few months until Ginsberg traveled to San Francisco where he met Peter Orlovsky, who would become his long-time partner. Ginsberg moved into his future, yet Cowen stayed in Manhattan reminiscing about the connection she felt with Ginsberg. Once again, Cowen was alone.
A pivotal element of the Beat movement was the expression of sexual fluidity. As Ginsberg came to terms with his sexuality, Cowen started to date a woman. While many of the male Beat writers had gay and bisexual characters in their work, queer women were not shown. Cowen carved out her own niche of exploring female sexuality while honing in on how heteronormative workplace environments took a toll on one’s identity:
Regardless of her relationship status, Cowen still loved Ginsberg. As Johnson wrote, “…in loving Sheila (Elise’s girlfriend), Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life—loving Sheila as Allen loves men.”
Relationship issues between Cowen and her girlfriend only worsened when the two couples — Cowen and her girlfriend and Ginsberg and Orlovsky — moved in together upon Ginsberg’s return to New York. During this time, Cowen typed up what would later be one of Ginsberg’s most famous poems, “Kaddish.”
Cowen did not mind assisting Ginsberg in any way she could, similarly to how she took care of Greer in college. Cowen lived for Ginsberg, though the feelings were not mutual. According to Johnson’s memoir, to Cowen, Ginsberg was her “intercessor… the holy figure who could intercede in her behalf.” Cowen could not love her girlfriend to the same degree and the two broke up.
Though Cowen’s idolization of Ginsberg put a strain on her mental health and identity, there had been signs of her mental health’s deterioration dating back from before their relationship.
Before dropping out of college, Cowen went missing for a week. She stopped contacting peers and attending work. When Johnson eventually came to check on Cowen, she found Cowen living in an unkempt apartment with bandaged wrists.
As Cowen’s mental health worsened, she was fired from her typist position at a news station. She knew the decision either stemmed from her obsessive drinking or her sexuality. She returned to the office to learn the reason for her termination and the police were called on her. After refusing to leave, she had her glasses broken, was punched in the stomach by an officer, and was arrested.
Around the time of her job dismissal, the Beat movement formed a strong niche in San Francisco. Cowen moved to the West Coast where she struggled to fit into the San Francisco culture and could not form strong relationships with those around. She experienced financial difficulties and later discovered she was pregnant. She received a hysterectomy.
After the procedure, Cowen returned to New York where she was admitted to a psychiatric institute for psychosis and hepatitis. When released, she fell into drug use and was later re-admitted to the hospital.
After Cowen’s release from the hospital, Skir noted a change within her in his essay, “A Brief Memoir of the Fifties”: “…she was mad, quite mad. Paranoid. She felt the City had machines trained on her, could hear all her thoughts and also that she could hear them, the New York City workers, foolish, bored, boring, mean-souled people.”
There were bitter themes of melancholy and depression within Cowen’s poems that expressed her views of her mental illness. While men writers of the Beat movement used themes of freedom whether through sexual exploration or travels, women were not given the same experience. As Cowen tried to comprehend where her struggles came from, the men never seemed to question their own sanity because mental illness had always been biased – a way to diminish the feelings of women, therefore a women’s issue. During an era where men were free to howl, women were told to remain silent; Cowen broke tradition and turned to writing to express the gaslighting inflicted upon women who did not behave as expected:
After her hospital stay, Cowen moved back in with her parents where they planned a family trip to Miami Beach. It is unclear what she brought with her back to her childhood home — years of neglect, untreated mental illness, drug abuse, grooming? Regardless of the mental baggage, Cowen would never make it to the trip.
On February 27 1962 Cowen died at 28 from injuries sustained after jumping from her family’s window in her childhood home. Cowen left behind notebooks filled with her poetry, most of which were never seen:
After her death, her neighbors destroyed most of her work believed to protect her family’s reputation from its taboo themes of sexuality and drug use. However, it remains unclear why her neighbors would suspect anyone would have access to Cowen’s notebooks outside her family; how would her neighbors know to look for Cowen’s poems if not having been instructed to do so by someone within the home? And at that point, one can suspect that Cowen’s work might have reflected more about her family life and its secrets than it did about her own personal life.
Fragments of Cowen’s poems were retrieved by Skir who helped publish her work in “City Lights Journal” which was later edited by Tony Trigilio and turned into the collection, “Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments,” though it is no longer sold.
Cowen’s middle name “Nada” which translates in Spanish to mean “nothing” might be the most telling of Cowen’s treatment from the time of her birth—an existence of being treated like nothing. Constrained by gendered expectations, a lack of mental health services, and preyed upon by those in positions of power; ultimately, the men betrayed the sole purpose of the movement by not extending the Beat’s dynamic and revolutionary concepts to include women.
When famous Beat writer, Gregory Corso was asked during a 1994 panel at the Naropa Institute where the women of the Beat generation were today, he responded, as recorded by Stephen Scobie:
“There were women, they were there. I knew them. Their families put them in institutions. They were given electric shocks. In the ‘50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up. There were cases, I knew them, someday someone will write about them.”
Cowen’s writing continues to be ignored for the trope of a woman who loses herself to madness—for the desire of a man. Vice even created a photo spread called “Last Words” with the theme of women writers who killed themselves. Vice used Cowen’s suicide— along with notable writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath — as art rather than using the work of art they created as a muse.
While Cowen’s work, like the other members of the Beatnik, tells a grand story, the greatest of her stories exists off the page: the life of an artist who loved whole-heartedly and possessed a level of intellectual and emotional depth not tended to by society. For the woman who constantly supported those around her yet did not receive the same treatment in her life, and even in death could not escape the misogynistic boundaries of the glass ceiling she was forced to watch, but never break through. A life of extreme highs and lows, and yet even in the eyes of the Beat meant nada when beside a man.