April is National Poetry Month, a time to reflect upon brilliant bards and wondrous wordsmiths throughout the American experiment. For us, the story of one in particular hits particularly close to home.
How a lost boy came to live with the Lawrence family, ultimately to become the country's best-selling poet and icon of mid-century counter culture, was an almost Dickensian episode. Perhaps even more unexpected is that an iconoclast whose writings channeled anarchist leanings and sociopolitical revolution came from a well-heeled village historically known for its pedigreed residents and aristocratic reserve.
Few living people in Bronxville, if any, remember Larry Monsanto Ferling. Down the road at Sarah Lawrence College, his work and the writers he published would be held in only the highest regard.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (right) at City Lights with Bob Donlin, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Robert LaVigne
Born in Bronxville as Lawrence Ferling (anglicized from Ferlinghetti) in 1919, the future Poet Laureate of San Francisco lost his father before he was born, and his mother to mental illness not long thereafter. He was taken in by an uncle and aunt, members of the same Monsanto family chemical after whom the chemical company is named. And then, his uncle left Aunt Emilie—and him with her. The two spent time in Strasbourg, France, until returning to New York, after which time the boy was placed in a Chappaqua orphanage when a social services employee determined Emilie was unable to care for him. That changed when she found meaningful employment as the governess to Pressley and Anna Bisland, and they moved into the Bisland's Lawrence Park West estate, Plashbourne, which Carrère and Hastings had originally designed for artist Violet Oakley. Anna was the youngest daughter of William and Sarah Lawrence, and after losing her first child devoted much of her time building her real estate career, serving as director of her father's business at 4 Valley Road while leading her own successful endeavors.
One day, Aunt Emilie wandered off in a bout of amnesia, leaving a lost boy in a big mansion with a well-to-do family who might not have known what to do with him.
Anna and Pressley Bisland had lost a young son also named Lawrence, a tragedy which affected them greatly. They took to the child, becoming his foster parents. Pressley Bisland was something of a patrician renaissance man, a Southerner who had been one of the last to drive cattle on the famed Chisholm Trail who was also a passionate bibliophile, penning many original compositions. It was in the library of his foster father that Lawrence, a precocious young intellectual who spoke French as his first language from his five years in Strasbourg, was first exposed to the classics.
Ferlinghetti with Carolyn Cassady (right) at his Bixby cabin in 2008, which inspired Jack Kerouac's Big Sur.
The Bislands were older, and Plashbourne was hardly a place for a growing boy. Anna found him a home with a widow across town on Parkway Road with a son near the same age as Lawrence, who became like a brother to him. "Larry" Ferling attended Bronxville schools and became a championship basketball player until getting into mischief, at which point the Bislands intervened and sent him to Northfield Mount Hermon School. He continued his studies at the University of North Carolina and Columbia, with an interruption to serve through WWII—he participated in Normandy and was honorably discharged.
He'd greet Allen Ginsberg at the beginning of a great career, defend Howl successfully through its infamous 1957 obscenity trial for the poem's "redeeming social importance," and own the cabin in Big Sur that was the inspiration and setting for Kerouac's novel of the same name. And at 97, he's still writing, painting and inspiring the world to think outside conventional boundaries and constructs.
Ferlinghetti, now 98, has resided in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood for more than 60 years, but Bronxville and the Lawrence family left an indelible mark on his life and work.
(...and of course, a stone's throw from Plashbourne, Anna Bisland's father founded a world-class liberal arts college with some prolific writing programs).