Elise Cowen - Background

Background

Born to a middle class Jewish family in Washington Heights, New York, Cowen wrote poetry from a young age, influenced by the works of Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas.

While attending Barnard College in the early 1950s, she became friends with Joyce Johnson (at the time, Joyce Glassman). It was during this period that she was introduced to Ginsberg by philosophy professor Donald Cook. The two discovered a mutual acquaintance in Carl Solomon, whom they had both met while spending time separately in a mental hospital. A romantic involvement followed in the spring and summer of 1953. However, within a year, Ginsberg would meet and fall in love with Peter Orlovsky, his eventual life partner. Despite this, Cowen remained emotionally attached to Ginsberg for the rest of her life.

In February 1956, she and her lover Sheila (a pseudonym) moved into an apartment with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. At the time Cowen had a job as a typist. She was fired and was removed from the office by the police. She later told her close friend Leo Skir that one of the officers hit her in the stomach. When informed she had been arrested, her father said, "This will kill your mother." She then moved to San Francisco, attracted by its growing Beat scene. While in San Francisco, Cowen became pregnant and underwent a hysterotomy during a late-stage abortion. She returned to New York, and after another trip to California, she relocated to live in Manhattan.

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