Herbert Huncke was one of the chief inspirations for the Beat Generation of writers. His life experiences as the "Mayor of 42nd Street", hustler, drug addict, and storyteller made him a natural reference point for many authors including William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.
Born in 1915 in Massachusetts to a middle class family (like many of the Beats) and raised in Chicago, Huncke dropped out of high school after his parents' divorce and began living as a hobo, jumping trains and doing odd jobs to make ends meet. He spent his early twenties in and out of jail before arriving in New York City in 1939.
He quickly used his charm and debonair attitude to commune with the regulars of 42nd Street - the sailors, the pimps, the bartenders, and the like - and was crowned "The Mayor of 42nd Street." After a brief stint in the European theater during World War II, Huncke returned to a post-War America brimming with the seeds of counterculture and rebellion. His first interaction with the Beats came when he bought morphine from William S. Burroughs. The two became drug buddies, and Huncke is fictionalized in Burroughs's JUNKIE as a result (he was ever after nicknamed "Huncke the Junkie" by critics and friends alike.) He grew marijuana with Burroughs in Texas, traded amphetamine pills with hustlers, and took part in Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking research into homosexuality. A lifelong bisexual himself, Huncke never married.
Over the years, other Beats who visited The Big Apple came to see Huncke as a patron saint of their cause. He was often involved in their hi jinks, famously going to jail in place of Allen Ginsberg when the latter attempted to run over a motorcycle cop. In 1964, he released his private journal of writing at the behest of Burroughs and others, and in it he coined the term "beat living" as someone who lives off the grid and without a consistent means of supporting themselves.
By the end of his life, Huncke was living off other people's money (Jerry Garcia put him up in a Chelsea hotel for a year, no strings attached), and despite his hard living, he died in 1996 at the age of 81. His autobiography Guilty of Everything is surprisingly urbane and eloquent, and shows only meager signs of the Beat influence in his life.