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Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100: War vet turned Beat poet

Stacey Lewis
Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Bookstore

This story first aired on March 19, 2019 and it aired again most recently in the March 25, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Click the play button above to listen to the story

Lawrence Ferlinghetti will always be associated with San Francisco, but he’s originally from the East Coast. He was born in Yonkers, on March 24th, 1919, several months, actually, after his father died. 

Lawrence spent part of his youth in a state orphanage in New York. And in the mansion of a wealthy family in Bronxville, along with some time in France. He was smart. Got into the University of North Carolina. But while he was studying journalism there, he also saw the Nazis gaining power in Germany and decided to enlist.

“All my friends were joining up, and I figured the safest place to be was the Navy,” he says. “Also, I loved being on the sea, because I’d worked on fishing boats in New England. I did it as a matter of self-preservation and social acceptability.”

He says he wasn’t really frightened.

“You know, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’” he says. “So I had joined up that fall, the fall of ‘41.”

Suddenly, the War opened up on another front. Japanese forces attacked a U.S. Naval base west of Honolulu.

“And so I went right out of college into that,” he says. “I was in midshipman’s school in Chicago on Pearl Harbor Day.”

Soon after, Lawrence made an unlikely connection with one of America’s most famous industrial capitalist families.

“The first year, I was a junior officer on J.P. Morgan’s yacht, which had been converted, given a coat of gray paint, and converted into a coastal patrol vessel,” he says.

He spent the War on sub-chasers.

“We were escorted vessels around convoys,” he says. “We were on the North Atlantic run. I was on a convoy where about 120 ships started out and only 70, 75 made it across the Atlantic.”

The others were taken out by German U-boats. The War years continued. And then Lawrence’s ship was off the coast of France on June 6th, 1944. D-Day.

“I was like a mile-and-a-half off the beach,” he says. “We were an anti-submarine screen around the beaches at Normandy. But we didn’t have to land. We could look through the binoculars and see the GIs getting shot up on the beaches.”

Three days later, riding out a storm, his ship was nearly stove in by another as he headed back to England. But it, and he, survived.

Lawrence continued to serve in the Navy for nearly another year. In fact, he was on the ocean during the entirety of the Second World War.

“I didn’t have a desk job the whole four years,” he says. “Just one ship to another.”

Until the War ended.

Lawrence decided to try to do something with his journalism degree. He got a job in the mailroom at Time Magazine in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. That was where he heard about the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 — also known as the G.I. Bill of Rights. It offered him a year of higher education, free, for every year he’d served his country in the military. He’d served a lot.

“Yeah, most of the crew in the mail room at Time, we were all ex-GIs,” he says. “After about eight months at Time I quit and went to Columbia Graduate School, and then I went to Paris, the University of Paris, the graduate school there for three years, and got a doctorate there, and it was all on the GI Bill.”

With a Master of Arts in English Literature and a doctorate in Comparative Literature, Lawrence Ferlinghetti headed west, to the San Francisco Bay Area. He opened up a bookstore and publishing house in North Beach called City Lights.

And the rest is history.

Crosscurrents poetrySan Francisco
Ben joined KALW in 2004. As Executive News Editor and then News Director, he helped the news department win numerous regional and national awards for long- and short-form journalism. He also helped teach hundreds of audio producers, many of whom work with him at KALW, today.