Corso’s mother, Michelina Corso (née Colonna) was born in Miglianico, Abbruzzo, Italy, and emigrated to the United States at the age of nine, with her mother and four other sisters. At 16, she married Sam Corso, a first generation Italian American, and gave birth to Nunzio Corso the same year. They lived at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the heart of Greenwich Village and upper Little Italy.
Corso spent the next 11 years in foster care at at least five different homes. His father declined to visit him. Corso went to Christian parochial schools, was an altar boy and a gifted student. In order to avoid the military draft, his father brought Gregory home in 1941. His father was nevertheless drafted,.
Corso became a child on the streets of Little Italy. For warmth, he slept in subways in the winter, and then slept on rooftops during the summer. He continued to attend Catholic school, not telling authorities he was living on the street. With "permission", he stole breakfast bread from Vesuvio Bakery, in Little Italy. Street food stall merchants would give him food in exchange for errands.
In 1944 during a New York blizzard, Corso broke into his tutor’s office for warmth, and fell asleep on a desk. He slept through the blizzard and was arrested for breaking and entering and booked into the Tombs a second time, with adults. Terrified of other inmates, he was sent to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital Center and later released. Corso was again arrested in 1946 at 17, for stealing a used suit worth less than $50. He was tried, without legal representation, as a "Youthful Multiple Offender", which could receive penalties commensurate with adult offenders, and sentenced to 3 years in Clinton Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum-security prison. Clinton, located in deep forest near the Canadian Border, was reserved for New York’s most hardened criminals and was the main location of New York’s executions by electric chair.
At Clinton, Corso fell under the protection of powerful Mafia inmates, and became something of a mascot because he was the youngest inmate in the prison. Ironically, Corso was jailed in the very cell just months before vacated by Charles "Lucky" Luciano . While imprisoned, Luciano had donated an extensive library to the prison . Corso read after lights-out thanks to a light specially positioned for Luciano to work late.
Corso began writing poetry. He studied the Greek and Roman classics, and consumed encyclopedias and dictionaries.
Meanwhile in uptown New York City, a group of Columbia College students, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr, along with an older, Harvard graduate, William S. Burroughs, envisioned themselves as future literary figures.
Corso met Allen Ginsberg in the Pony Stable Bar, one of New York's first openly lesbian bars. Corso, only 20 and recently released from prison, was supported by the women of the Pony Stable as an "artist-in-residence". Corso was writing poetry there the night Ginsberg arrived. Ginsberg, cruising bars, was immediately sexually attracted to Corso. Ginsberg later said, "The Pony Stable was I think a dyke bar... I just wandered in and I remember he was sitted at a table, and he was a very nice looking kid. Alone... So I thought, was he gay or what was it? Maybe not." Ginsberg was even more struck by reading Corso's poems, immediately realizing Corso’s talent. "One he showed me... blew my mind instantly... and it struck me instantly that he was... spiritually gifted." Eventually Ginsberg introduced Corso to the rest of his inner circle.
In their first meeting at the Pony Stable, Corso showed Ginsberg a poem about a woman who lived across the street from him, and sunbathed naked in the window. The woman turned out to have been Ginsberg's girlfriend during one of his forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg introduced the young and virginal Corso to the sunbathing woman, and in a panic, Corso ran from her apartment. Ginsberg and Corso remained lifelong friends and collaborators.
In later years Ginsberg’s initial assessment of Corso held. During a 1996 interview for the documentary film Corso – the Last Beat, Ginsberg claimed, "I think Gregory is the poet's poet. Certainly the one poet I learned from most now. Gregory, I think, in some respects is a poet superior to myself."
In late 1958, Corso reunited with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. They were astonished that before they left for Europe they had sparked a social movement, which San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called, "Beat-nik", combining "beat" with the Russian "Sputnik," as if to suggest that the Beat writers were both "out there" and vaguely Communist.
In later years, Corso disliked public appearances and became irritated with his own "Beat" celebrity. He did however agree to allow filmmaker Gustave Reiningerto make a cinema verite documentary, "Corso - the Last Beat", about him.
After Allen Ginsberg's death, Corso decided to go "on the road" to Europe and retrace "the Beats" early days in Paris, Italy and Greece. While in Venice, Corso expressed on film his lifelong concerns about not having a mother, and living such an uprooted childhood. Corso became curious about where in Italy his mother, Michellina Colonna, might be buried. His father's family had always told him that his mother had returned to Italy, a disgraced woman. Filmmaker Gustave Reininger quietly launched a search for Corso's mother's Italian burial place. In an astonishing turn of events, Reininger found Corso's mother Michelina not dead, but alive; and not in Italy, but in Trenton, New Jersey. Corso was united with his mother on film. He discovered that his mother at 17 had been almost fatally brutalized (all her front teeth punched out) and was sexually abused by her teenage husband, his father. At the height of the Depression, with no trade or job, Michellina explained the she had no choice but to give her son to Catholic Charities. After she had established a new life working in a restaurant in New Jersey, his mother had attempted to find him, to no avail. The father had blocked even Catholic Charities from disclosing the boy’s whereabouts. Living modestly, she lacked the means to hire a lawyer to find her son. Eventually she remarried and started a new family.
Corso and his mother quickly developed a relationship which lasted until his death, which preceded hers.
In Corso: The Last Beat, Corso claimed that he was healed in many ways by meeting his mother and saw his life coming full circle. Ironically, shortly thereafter, Corso discovered he had irreversible prostate cancer. He died of the disease in Minnesota on January 17, 2001. His ashes were deposited, just as he wanted, next to the grave of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Cimitero Acattolico, the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. He wrote his own epitaph:
Corso's first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle was published in 1955 (with the assistance of associates at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes). In 1958, Corso had an expanded collection of poems published as number 8 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series: Gasoline & The Vestal Lady on Brattle. His notable poems are many: "Bomb" (a "concrete poem" formatted in typed paper slips of verse, arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud), "Elegiac Feelings American" of the recently deceased Jack Kerouac, and "Marriage", a humorous meditation on the institution. A passage from that poem:
Ted Morgan described Corso's place in the beat literary world: "If Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were the Three Musketeers of the movement, Corso was their D'Artagnan, a sort of junior partner, accepted and appreciated, but with less than complete parity. He had not been in at the start, which was the alliance of the Columbia intellectuals with the Times Square hipsters. He was a recent adherent, although his credentials were impressive enough to gain him unrestricted admittance ...
"...It comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within." - Gregory Corso, How Poetry Comes to Me (epigraph of Gasoline)