Life in the Hospital


This collection of objects reveals the manifold challenges—physical, verbal, and personal—of Woody’s life in the hospital. The T-shirt is one of the few surviving articles of clothing he wore and may reflect weight loss from Huntington’s. The “yes” and “no” cards were used by Marjorie to talk to her ex-husband once he became verbally noncommunicative. And Arlo’s letter beautifully expresses the pathos of a child unable to see his father.

T-shirt worn by Woody Guthrie at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, 1956–61
Courtesy Nora Guthrie

“Yes” and “no” cards, ca. 1966
Courtesy Nora Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947)
Letter to Woody Guthrie, undated
Arlo and Jackie Guthrie Family Archives


Steve Earle: In the 1950s Woody began showing symptoms of Huntington’s disease, a neurological condition he inherited from his mother Nora Belle. His behavior became more erratic, and his slurred speech, combined with emotional outbursts, mimicked signs of alcoholism. Once diagnosed, Woody committed himself to the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, in 1956. Marjorie and the kids visited every weekend, making the four-hour round-trip journey from their home to the hospital. To make the visit more enjoyable, Marjorie would bring Woody outside for family picnics, playing in the “magicky tree”—a weeping birch tree whose branches created a magical, secret fort. When Woody could no longer speak, Marjorie made “Yes” and “No” cards for him to touch, proving to the doctors that although he was losing control of his body, his mind was still intact. Although the years Woody lived with Huntington’s were hard, the family made sure to keep him in their lives, sometimes bringing him home on the weekend and having friends over to visit.

Arlo Guthrie: There were people that came over all the time, there were first of all, some of the friends of my dad, every once in a while Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, those kind of people would show up. And then there were people who were not peers of my dad, who were in that sort of Ramblin’ Jack era, but Ramblin’ Jack was one of the guys of that era who was also one of my dad’s sort of partners in crime. Then there were the young people who were coming to the house, the Woody Guthrie wanna-be’s, the people that dressed like Woody Guthrie, people that talked like Woody Guthrie, and it wasn’t like Woody Guthrie, it was like what they imagined Woody Guthrie would walk like and talk like and play like and write like and dress like and all of that. And there would always be some of those guys showing up, and they showed up more and more as the years went by. It probably started with Bob Dylan in 1961 and escalated to all these other people that wanted to be if they didn’t want to be the next Woody Guthrie, they wanted to be the next Bob Dylan, as if there were some kind of hierarchy that if they got close to it, they could touch it that it would rub off on them in some way and you know, they turned Woody Guthrie into a, like a stone that if they knelt before it right, or something like that, that it would give them the powers to do what it is they wanted to do. It was kind of interesting and I just kind of looked at all these guy like, well there was something about them that was kind of cool, I mean they did wear cool clothes, they did play guitars, and they did write and sing their songs. I didn’t get the whole, I didn’t understand what they were trying to do or why they were there, I just knew that they came to sort of make a pilgrimage and we were like the monks of the monastery. It was our job to entertain them, to take care of them, to be inviting, or at least to get out of the way so that my mom could do all of that. I never had any problems with any of those guys. I think some of them sort of faded off into the sunset and others went on to do incredible things.