A novelist finds 'the Mexican girl' from Jack Kerouac's book On the Road

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: We move on now to another love affair. This one lasted two chapters.

Jack Kerouac: I had bought my ticket and was waiting for the L.A. bus when all of the sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks. Her hair was long and lustrous black and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside. A pain stabbed my heart as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too big world.

Schachter: That’s Jack Kerouac reading from his novel On the Road and that Mexican girl named Terry in the book was in real life a women named Bee Franco. More than 50 year after on the road was published, author Tim Z. Hernandez tracked down Bee Franco in his new novel, Manana means Heaven. Hernandez revisits the affair and this time we hear the Mexican girl’s point of view.

Tim Hernandez: I discovered that there were letters at the Kerouac archives at the New York Public library. Letters that Terry or Bee Franco actually wrote Kerouac and so I wanted to see the letters and when I went and saw those and held them in my hand it suddenly became real to me in a way that it hadn’t before. Before she was simply a character in my mind and holding those letter I realized it was a real person and I wanted to find out more about her.

Schachter: And these were letters that went back and forth between Bee and Kerouac after he’d gone back to New York?

Hernandez: Right, they wrote about five letters back and forth to each other until December and that was the last letter.

Schachter: OK, so you saw the letters. What happens next? How did you continue the search?

Hernandez: Well I actually ended up asking the archivist there how do I get permission to publish these letters? He said you have to ask her family, and I said well can you give me the number, very naively, you know can you give me the number? And he said…

Schachter: What’s her email?

Hernandez: Yeah exactly and he kind of chuckled to and he said a lot of biographers have tried and no one’s found her good luck. So I returned to Fresno California where I lived at the time and very naively started looking for her. I actually hired at one point a private investigator to no success, but certainly the private investigator she said to me before we parted ways she said, you know, in all of my years of my experience Tim dead people are very easy to find. It’s the people who are alive that are very difficult to find. Have you ever thought she might be alive? I said no that never crossed my mind really. I thought I’d be looking for her children or something.

Schachter: So you were looking for a dead person?

Hernandez: That’s how…right exactly. I was calling up cemeteries all in the San Joaquin valley I mean I must have called over a dozen cemeteries asking for Bee R. Franco and about a year and half to two years of work of research trying to find her, or her family. At the end of it I finally sort of surrendered and said OK I think I have enough now to move forward. I don’t have to find her family. I’m just going to write the book based on what I do know. That was when I actually ended up finding her was when I sort of gave up on and I discovered that she lived only about a mile and a half down the street from my house in Fresno.

Schachter: And how did that happen?

Hernandez: My mother actually was invested in this story by then. She said you can’t give up looking for her. I’m retired; I’ve got nothing better to do. Give me your files, I’ll find her. My mother 24 hours later called me and said I have an address for you.

Schachter: 24 hours later after nearly a two year search.

Hernandez: That’s right. A day later, yep.

Schachter: Describe the scene when you first approached her house.

Hernandez: Sure, I think it’s important to put it into context that essentially her relationship to Kerouac was an affair. She was a married woman in 1947. She was actually leaving her husband, he was an abusive man so when I was knocking on the door, and they weren’t expecting me by any means and when I went and knocked on the door and her daughter opened it I basically just started to spill my guts as quickly as I can. Tell the story of this whole legacy.

Schachter: Before she slammed the door in your fact

Hernandez: Yeah, exactly. I had to kind of get the words out really quick and she said to me I think you have the wrong family. My mother would have never been around those kinds of people. She’s just been here, a farm worked most of her life and she’s been here in the valley, between here and LA. I said, ok well before you kick you off my porch let me ask you a few questions, do you mind? She said sure. So I started to go down my list of questions about her family members and whereabouts of her mother in 1947 and all of that fit to a tee and it kind of scared her frankly because she said who are you again and what’s your name and can you show me. I kept telling her I’m an author and look, here are my books and I’m legitimate and finally I said to her, let me just show you one thing here and then I’ll leave. She said sure. So I gave her the letters, she wouldn’t open the door I had to slide them through the screen door. Through the crack in the door. She finally passed the letters back to me after a few minutes and she said to me, why don’t you come back on Thursday and speak to my brother Albert. The long story short is that I ended up getting to finally meet Bee Franco and interview and speak with her about all of this.

Schachter: So did her daughter or her son who is mentioned in Kerouac’s book. Did either of them know about this?

Hernandez: No. They never heard of the name Kerouac, Jack Kerouac, no.

Schachter: Wow, and so you meet Bee Franco. Do you walk in and say hey Bee what about Jack?

Hernandez: I did. I opened; the first sort of things out of my mouth were tell me about Jack, what do you remember about him? This was very naïve again. She’s sort of shuts down because I’m asking these questions that she’s uncomfortable answering clearly. I shift gears, my next visit I just say forget about Kerouac. I have to close that kind of door to my mind. Just ask her about her life and after all as another author friend of mine would tell me later you know we know his story already. There’s millions of books about him but we don’t know her story, ask her about her story and then started to open up and that’s what we spent most of our time, was talking about her life.

Schachter: Tim Z. Hernandez, the author of Manana Means Heaven. A real pleasure, thank you so much

Hernandez: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.