The Battle for Kerouac’s Estate
by David S. Wills
“Money is the root of all evil”
For I will
In my will
“I regret that I was not able
To love money more.”
Jack Kerouac, 238th Chorus, Mexico City Blues
Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver. By the time he died he had become a shell of the man he once was. He lived with his mother, drank himself beyond recognition, and was flat broke.
But as we all know, Kerouac’s fame only grew after his death, and in death came the respect he craved in life. His unpublished works were published, and his out of print books were brought back into print. People began caring about Kerouac again.
Many of the greatest writers, musicians and artists of the latter half of the twentieth century claim that Kerouac was a huge inspiration in their life. On the Road is now required reading in high schools and universities, and instead of Kerouac being loved only by literate fratboys, his work is considered by scholars and published by Penguin Classics. His influence upon Western society has been immeasurable.
In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity surrounding Kerouac’s old work. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road came and brought the release of the original scroll version. And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, co-written with William S. Burroughs, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, and The Sea is my Brother, have all been recently published.
So it is no surprise that Kerouac’s estate is worth a little more than the ninety-one dollars he owned when he died. After fifty years of fame and forty years of posthumous analysis, Kerouac’s estate is now valued at up to forty million dollars.
However, there has been somewhat of a furore over the ownership of that estate, and recently a long battle was ended with the shocking verdict of the American legal system, which deemed the will of Kerouac’s mother to have been a fake.
When Kerouac died, his will ignored many of the people who were expecting to be included. Instead, he left everything to his mother – a woman who had been an ogre-like figure throughout Kerouac’s life. When she died in 1973, Gabriel Kerouac allegedly passed control of Kerouac’s estate to his third wife, Stella Sampas.
Kerouac’s will deliberately overlooked Sampas, against whom Kerouac had allegedly planned upon entering divorce proceedings. In a letter posted to his nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, on October 20th, 1969 (the day before his death), Kerouac said,
I’ve turned over my entire estate to Memere, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you…
I just wanted to leave my “estate” (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is…
I want you to know that if you’re a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we’re of the same blood.
Paul Blake Jnr has spent much of his life in poverty and consequently sold the famous letter from his uncle to art dealer Alan Horowitz, who sold it to the New York Public Library. At present it remains in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The Sampas family, however, claims that the letter is a forgery.
When an attempt was made to make the note public, the Sampas family threatened a lawsuit, claiming that it was part of the Kerouac archive, but that it was also a forgery… One must wonder why they were so protective over something that they so strongly disputed.
In 1990, Stella Sampas died and left control of the estate to her family. Her brother, John Sampas, assumed control of the estate and became Kerouac’s literary executor. With the continuing fame of Kerouac and his work, the family profited by selling the scroll manuscript of On the Road for more than two million dollars to Jim Irsay, and even a raincoat, hat and suitcase to Johnny Depp for around forty thousand dollars.
Whilst the constant passing of ownership seems strange and confusing, the person who was most confused was Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter by Joan Haverty. Having been denied any part in the control of her father’s estate, she called into question the validity of Gabriel Kerouac’s will. Her suspicions had been raised when she noticed, in 1994, that her grandmother had evidently spelled her name wrong on her own will.
Therefore, Jan Kerouac’s charge was that the signature on Gabriel Kerouac’s will had to have been forged, and that neither she nor her son had wanted control of the estate to rest outside the immediate family. The Sampas family’s ownership was thus illegal, in Jan Kerouac’s eyes.
In 1994, Jan Kerouac went to court to prove her argument. She cited the 1969 letter from Kerouac to his nephew that stated he wished his estate to be controlled by his blood family after his death. In the letter ee also discussed the idea of divorcing his wife, Stella, to whom Gabriel Kerouac’s will left the estate. Furthermore, the man who’d allegedly witnessed the signing of the will – Clifford Larkin – admitted to having witnessed no such thing. It was even suggested that Gabriel Kerouac was medically incapable of signing anything. After all, she was a frail old woman with few physical abilities, and the signature was strong and defined – that of someone with significant strength in their arm.
Jan Kerouac died in 1996, naming Kerouac biographer Gregory Nicosia (who wrote Memory Babe) as her literary executor, and her husband – John Lash – as overall executor. Lash, however, disagreed with her charge against the Sampas family and in 1999 Nicosia resigned from his post. The case was dismissed soon after.
Kerouac’s nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, has always kept fighting the same battle as Jan Kerouac, and recently he carried the litigation to court again, and won. It is argued, however, that Blake never particularly cared, and that he only took it this far on the advice of Nicosia, who brought him food when he was homeless, and dragged him along in his fight against the Sampas family.
Citing medical evidence and the testimony of a handwriting expert, Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, declared Gabriel Kerouac’s will a forgery. It seems, then, that the ownership of Kerouac’s estate by the Sampas family – aside from the one-third dowers entitlement to Stella Sampas – was illegal, and came to pass only through an act of criminal fraud.
Now, fourteen years after Jan Kerouac’s death, it seems she has succeeded in liberating Kerouac’s estate from its wrongful owners.
The question now, however, is what will happen if Paul Blake Jnr comes to control the estate. Jan Kerouac always said she wanted her father’s work given to a library, but it is argued that the Sampas family rejected numerous offers from libraries. No one even knows what exactly they owned, or the precise value of Kerouac’s estate. Fans of Kerouac tend to gather in opposition to John Sampas because of the sale of so many artefacts, but he argues that he has done Kerouac’s work a great service.
The problem now is that there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Sampas family committed the act of fraud. They were not even involved in the 2009 court case. Kerouac’s estate passed from Jack to Memere to Stella and then to John Sampas. Mr. Sampas can therefore hardly be considered the crook he is portrayed by Nicosia and so many irate Kerouac fans.
Furthermore, it would be impossible to reclaim the sold items and return them to Blake – Kerouac’s only living blood relative. It would be unreasonable, too, to expect Sampas to repay Blake for the items he has already sold, considering he probably acted without knowledge of the forged will.
If Sampas is to hand over the remaining items to Blake, that might only account for a few pieces of writing, as Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection in New York, says “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” Nicosia claims that thousands of pieces of Kerouac’s writing to collectors, although the Sampas claims that it was only fifty or sixty, and that they were sold to generate the required operation capital for the estate. These documents were copied and are presently available to view at the Berg.
Critics, however, posit that there are some major gaps in the collection. While Sampas sold around 2,000 items to the Berg Collection for an undisclosed sum in 2001, there are no complete drafts of The Dharma Bums or Vanity of Duluoz, absolutely nothing on Big Sur, and of course, the most famous piece – the original scroll manuscript of On the Road, one of the most famous documents in literary history – has itself been on the road since being sold to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and close friend of Hunter S. Thompson.
Jeffrey Weinberg – John Sampas’ consultant from 1991 to 1993 – claimed to have negotiated the sale of a hand-illuminated manuscript of Book of Dreams to a Rhode Island lawyer for more than $25,000, as well as many other letters and rarities.
However, the scroll of Big Sur belongs to Helen Suprenant, heir of Stella Sampas. Nicosia eludes to it having been sold to a random collector, but it seems to have been given to Suprenant as an inheritance. The scroll for The Dharma Bums was purchased by the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, in cooperation with a university. The Kerouac House, for those who don’t know, is a former residence of Kerouac that John Sampas helped Bob Kealing find and preserve turn into a literary monument.
As for the On the Road scroll, the fee it commanded and the fact that it is not readily available for study are offset by the fact that it tours the world, allowing people to view Kerouac’s work up close. Furthermore, the Berg Collection has a digitised version available for study, as well as a scanned replica.
Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust claims that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Sampas family sold pieces of the Kerouac archive, because many buyers apparently bought only with the intention of donating to the Berg Collection.
In terms of royalties, On the Road alone sells around 60,000 copies per year. Blake’s lawyers are looking into his claim to some of that money, although Blake claims he is only interested in looking after his uncle’s work. Experts say that Blake may be entitled to a third of the Kerouac estate, but no one really knows what comprises that collection, or what its value may be. Jan Kerouac was added to the list of copyright owners in 1985, when the copyright was up for renewal, after being told in 1982, at a Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado, by John Steinbeck’s son, that she needn’t have prostituted herself and lived in poverty for so long – she was entitled to a share of the royalties.
Only the Sampas family know for sure what remains of the Kerouac estate. Douglas Brinkley has been allowed to view the collection for what he planned on being the first official Kerouac biography, but when he failed to deliver the manuscript in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the project appeared to be cancelled. Sampas himself claimed that there are no decent biographies of Kerouac in existence – something that Beatdom would vehemently deny. One only has to look at Paul Maher Jnr’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography or Barry Gifford’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac to see that Sampas’ claim is absurd. They may not be perfect, but perhaps Sampas is guilty of a little hyperbole.
One might well wonder what Kerouac’s contemporaries thought of the situation… After all, it seems unusual that for so long the battle raged between Jan Kerouac, Paul Blake Jnr and the Sampas family. Why didn’t Kerouac’s friends enter into the debate?
Well, the case was never exactly obvious. There was no way of knowing what Gabrielle Kerouac wanted, and so the words of Kerouac’s own friends are hardly worth much. Jan Kerouac was never a part of any circle of Beat Generation writers. She barely knew her father, and whilst Paul Blake Jnr and his uncle shared a close relationship, Blake was never as driven as Jan Kerouac in pursuit of the settlement of the estate.
Jan Kerouac’s godfather, Allen Ginsberg, waded briefly into the argument, examining the debate in the early ‘90s. He apparently studied the case for a few days before deciding the Jan Kerouac had no particularly strong claim to the estate. By all accounts, he was never particularly fond of his goddaughter, whom many consider coldly ignored by the otherwise loveable Ginsberg.
According to Aram Saroyan,
Nicosia had… been organizing a fund raiser to help Jan with her medical bills and told me Allen had called friends like Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and discouraged their participation and later about the Kerouac conference in Manhattan: With some of the participants having a claim to be there far less valid than Jan Kerouac’s, she along with Gerry Nicosia were thrown out of the conference by campus police when she attempted to get on the podium and speak about her father’s archives.
Gregory Corso, however, disagreed, and signed a petition to allow Jan Kerouac to speak at the conference in New York in 1995 that was held in honour of her father. But as Nicosia later claimed, “John Sampas was calling for the university police to arrest her, and Allen said, ‘Yes, take her out, she’s irrelevant.’ I stood up from the audience and started yelling at Allen: ‘Allen, you’ve got to let her speak! She’s Jack’s daughter!’ Sampas said, ‘Get rid of him, too!’”
William S. Burroughs seems to have sympathised somewhat with Jan Kerouac’s claim, and gave her several of his paintings to sell. One of those paintings was sold sight-unseen to a bidder for $3000. The money went to pay for her dialysis, which she required four times a day.
Brenda Knight, the author of the fantastic book Women of the Beat Generation, said that Kerouac’s friends “were worried about getting ‘blacklisted’ in an unofficial way.” Such was the power of the Sampas family that other writers were afraid of speaking against them. Gerald Nicosia speculated that perhaps they were afraid of aligning themselves with Jan Kerouac, who only met her father twice. He claimed that the Sampas family had spread rumours about her that had damaged her reputation, and that scared away members of the Beat Generation.
Nicosia himself claims to have been stopped in numerous endeavours by the apparently wicked Sampas clan. For one thing he claims that John Sampas forced his Kerouac biography out of print.
Michael Lally – a writer and friend of Nicosia –claims that a book he wrote that was in preproduction with Penguin books, was scuppered after he aligned himself against the Sampas family.
John Sampas, however, replied by saying: ““I’m a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character. I’m just Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law… Nicosia is a well known ‘nut case’ who has been stalking the Kerouac estate for years.”
Recently, a debate has been raging between two Kerouac scholars that may lend credit to Sampas’ remark about Nicosia’s integrity. Although it has no real consequence for the estate of Jack Kerouac, the argument throws a shadow of doubt over Nicosia, who supported Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jnr. It also casts a dark shadow over the past forty years of Kerouac studies.
At Litkicks (a fantastic website devoted to all things literary) Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr took their personal and professional differences and exposed them to the world on the discussion board of a page titled “Kerouac Estate Battle Again”.
The author of the brief update regarding the news announcement was Levi Asher, a member of the well known Beat-L community in the 1990s. The Beat website was a target of Nicosia’s incessant spamming for his cause, and eventually the group disbanded after the flame war became too much for members to cope with. Nicosia would respond to arguments against him with ten page point-by-point retaliations. In the end, Nicosia went as far as to file a half a million dollar defamation suit against one of his detractors, Dianne de Rooy. The group founder, Bill Gargan even attempted to ban discussion of the Kerouac estate, but in the end Nicosia threatened him with legal action and forced the group to shut down.
It should be noted that John Sampas was also a member of the Beat-L group, although he never posted. He admits to giving encouragement to Nicosia’s detractors offline, but maintains that he liked to read only because he enjoyed seeing what people thought of Kerouac’s work.
Many comments on the Litkicks board were left in admiration of Nicosia, but several alluded to or charged him with certain morally dubious actions. Asher himself pointed out that Nicosia acted on behalf of Jan Kerouac when Asher published one of her short stories. Nicosia didn’t care that Asher had Kerouac’s permission to do so.
Attila Gyenis – editor of Dharma Beat – argued that Nicosia had misrepresented certain facts, including saying that Jan Kerouac received no money from the Sampas family, when she did in fact receive a yearly payment.
It didn’t take long for Nicosia to pass comment on the topic, and on the other members of the group. He denied the accusation that he misrepresented Jan Kerouac’s royalties, explaining that she was nonetheless lied to be the Sampas family, who tried to pay her nothing, and then less than she was entitled to, and finally paid her $50,000 per year only when her medical expenses exceeded that amount. According to Jeffrey Weinberg, Sampas “did absolutely nothing to help Jan Kerouac, which I think is despicable. It was legal, but it wasn’t moral.” Sampas denies this, claiming that he offered more money, but that the offer was pointedly rejected.
Nicosia then posited that John Sampas heavily censored Kerouac’s writings, citing Rod Anstee’s study that showed 300 deletions that were never marked. If true, that would be an astonishing blow to Sampas’ credibility.
He also repeated the claim that Sampas had distributed Kerouac’s work to collectors around the globe, and that the Berg Collection was woefully lacking the scrolls, on which Kerouac wrote between eight and ten of his novels, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris, Vanity of Duluoz, and Mexico City Blues.
One might wonder why exactly Nicosia levels his complaint at Sampas and not at, for just one example, the Ginsberg Trust, who auctioned his personal effects at Sotheby’s. Or the countless girlfriends and Kerouac associates who sold their personal Kerouac-related effects for personal gain, rather than donating them generously to the public interest. Indeed, according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.
Finally, Nicosia claims that the Sampas family forced the closure of his Memory Babe archive at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He says that it took him eleven years of legal action and that John Sampas kept pressuring the university to keep the archive shut.
After these arguments, Paul Maher Jnr jumped into the fray with some crude personal insults and some questioning of Nicosia’s work in comparison to his own efforts, which were apparently made with the blessing and supervision – although not too much supervision, he states – of John Sampas.
Maher also claims that the Berg Collection’s inventory refutes Nicosia’s claim that Sampas is selling off the Kerouac archive irresponsibly. He also claims that if Sampas were to auction off the estate piece by piece it would be perfectly legal, and that other authors have their work distributed across the world.
It seems as though Maher is missing the point a little, with Nicosia’s argument being that the scrolls (or rather, as he would call them, “the rolls”) are not available for study, and that it would be easier to have everything in one public collection. He does, however, make a reasonable argument by stating that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to be gathered in one place. He says that the Berg Collection is a phenomenal resource as it is.
After this, the two scholars get down to arguing matters surrounding their respective books. Nicosia asks why Maher used his work without crediting him – citing a witness from the University of Massachusetts. Maher argued back that Nicosia had profited from Xeroxing Kerouac’s unpublished writings – an act of obvious copyright infringement – and sold it to a university, therefore it was never Nicosia’s to begin with and that he need never have credited Nicosia. In fact, Maher claims, since the Sampas family was in control of the Kerouac estate, he could well have credited John Sampas.
Next, he offered the fact that Nicosia had sent threatening, paranoid e-mails to Maher’s publishers, and to Douglas Brinkley – whom the Kerouac estate had asked to write the official Kerouac biography – with insults about Maher.
Maher also claims that he doesn’t care at all about the court verdict and that it makes no difference to anything. However, in his personal blog (the arrogantly titled “You Don’t Know Jack”) he discusses the matter differently, calling it a “botched decision” and defending the Sampas family – with whom he, for posterity’s sake distanced himself from on Litkicks. He offers a portrayal of Stella as a literal saint, deserving of everything Kerouac owed, and eluding to a relationship with Gabrielle that would have resulted in her bequeathing Sampas everything in her will.
Maher also offered several documents – which have subsequently disappeared from the webhost – that show Jan Kerouac’s apparent desire to part company with Nicosia… Indeed, a little digging will show that prior to her death, she was trying desperately to get away from her literary executor. Nicosia was busy suing her relatives and guiding her literary career, and she wanted to get rid of him. But, just like when Kerouac tried to get rid of his wife, his daughter tried to ditch Nicosia and died before she could follow through. Nicosia, however, managed to convince Kerouac to sign a will that left him as her “literary representative”, in charge of all posthumous works. He has used this position to sue her beloved heirs, her brother David and her ex-husband John Nash. One of the documents she wanted to sign before her death was intended to repeal Nicosia’s position as her “literary representative”.
It is claimed that he travelled to Jan Kerouac’s apartment immediately after her death, took all of her possessions, then proceeded to destroy them, store them or hide them, depending upon their value and relation to his actions.
In life and death, Jan Kerouac’s name has been used by Nicosia to make money and to gain a reputation. He uses her sad life story to manipulate journalists and judges. Allegedly, he even managed to sell Jack Kerouac’s name to Levi-Strauss for $11,000, apparently because he copyrighted Kerouac’s name and image in the state of California.
And that’s about all I’m going to write on the subject of Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr. Suffice it to say they continued their petty banter for some time after that. Their argument is fascinating as an example of the turbulent world of literary studies, which many would think dull and uninteresting. But people care. Sometimes they care enough to act like fools. Sometimes they care enough to lie, to insult others, and to bicker in front of bemused on lookers.
But the fact is that they care. Kerouac is still as relevant today as he ever was. His readers and scholars care so deeply about him, and think they understand him because of the intimate, personal nature of his writing, that they are willing to make grand leaps in faith to defend him and his legacy.
Whilst both Nicosia and Maher appear to be incredibly childish, I must say that I am lost in navigating this labyrinth of accusations, facts and lies. Their language is both grandiose and pathetic, with reason and logic largely lost in the midst of a flame war that is more commonly in the domain of the humble, non-professional nerd… We know for one thing that Gabrielle’s will was forged. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was incapable of signing her name, and that control of the estate should never have gone to Stella Sampas. When it comes down to it, money ruined everything. It looks as though the Sampas family cheated Jan Kerouac out of money and profited unfairly from her father’s estate. But under John Sampas’ stewardship the name of Jack Kerouac rose from that of a famous author to that of a literary icon, studied the world over and given the respect he desired. One could try to predict what will happen next on a purely legal basis, but the only thing that is for sure is that Kerouac fans and scholars will be divided and reduced to the level of bickering children for years to come.
This isn’t an easy subject to research… For the basic facts pertaining to the court case, please consult Google News and look through old reports from reputable publications.
For more about Sampas, Nicosia and the debate that has long since raged you might want to prepare yourself. Nicosia’s confrontational information log-jam makes it hard to pick truth from fact. Likewise, Maher’s arrogant style of forcing facts at you makes it hard to take him seriously.
Be prepared to do some digging. Be a sensible reader, too. Don’t believe everything you read. Always remain sceptical. And for the love of god, don’t offend Gerald Nicosia… He might just take you to court.
Asher, Levi, ‘Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again…’ http://www.litkicks.com/KerouacEstateBattleAgain/
Maher Jnr, Paul, ‘Professors of Babylon’, http://kerouacquarterly.blogspot.com/2010/01/professors-of-babylon.html
Maughan, Stephen, ‘And the Beat Goes on’, http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201001/kerouac-1.phtml
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Press Conference Speech, June 5 2007’, http://whollycommunion.blogspot.com/2007/09/gerald-nicosia-press-conference-speech.html
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After his Death’, http://www.geraldnicosia.com/html/geraldframeset2.html?kerouachtml/kerouacreport.html~content
Roadrat, ‘Fight over all things Kerouac’, http://www.roadratroberts1.bravepages.com/JACK%20KEROUAC%203.htm