Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet, publisher and bookseller who played a leading role in West Coast literary history as a champion of Beat writer Allen Ginsberg and co-founder of the legendary City Lights bookstore, has died at his Bay Area home.
Ferlinghetti died Monday evening, according to Starr Sutherland, a friend who is working on a documentary on the fabled bookstore. The cause was interstitial lung disease, his son Lorenzo told The Washington Post. Ferlinghetti was 101.
Ferlinghetti and a partner launched City Lights as the country’s first all-paperback bookstore in 1953, when Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other East Coast Beats began adding their woolly voices to the literary renaissance unfolding in San Francisco.
The bookshop — renowned for its bohemian atmosphere and vast collections of international poetry, fiction, progressive political journals and magazines — soon spawned a literary press, which in 1956 published Ginsberg’s controversial epic poem, “Howl.”
Ferlinghetti stood trial for selling “Howl” in a precedent-setting First Amendment case, in which the judge found that Ginsberg’s profanity-laced work had “redeeming social significance” and therefore was not obscene. The victory paved the way for publication of other controversial works of literature, including D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”
Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became famous, as did City Lights, still going strong in San Francisco’s North Beach district more than a half-century later.
In the decades since, Ferlinghetti established himself as a prolific poet with strong populist underpinnings. The author of more than 30 books, he is best known for “A Coney Island of the Mind,” a collection of poems that has sold 1 million copies since it was first published in 1958 by New Directions.
San Francisco’s first poet laureate in 1998, Ferlinghetti was an advocate of poetry as an oral tradition who read his own work with artful vigor.
“Lawrence started probably hundreds of thousands of people reading poetry. They read his poetry first, and then they went on to read more poetry,” poet, essayist and Beat figure Michael McClure, who called Ferlinghetti a master poet, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.
Tall, lean and neatly bearded, Ferlinghetti was the opposite of flamboyant. Not known for public drunkenness like Beat novelist Kerouac or public nudity like Ginsberg, he swam daily, biked to work at City Lights and outlived other major figures of the Beat fraternity. Kerouac died in 1969 at 47, and Ginsberg and novelist William S. Burroughs died in 1997 at 70 and 83, respectively.