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by Christina Diamente
No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering
And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell
And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her
The Subterraneans, p.50
Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.
However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half. The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.
Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.
Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s. However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.
As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.
While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.
It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.
Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.” He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.
Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.
In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.
Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more. In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.
To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.
One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.
But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that period.
This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.
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
Wills, D., ‘Beatdom in San Francisco’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)
I woke up about six and lay and waited for the sun to rise to signal the arrival of seven, when breakfast was available. It was my first night in the Adelaide, my first night in the city. I felt ok, despite not remembering going to bed, or even checking in. I had arrived in San Francisco at about half three the previous afternoon, and had gotten off the bus at Pier 39. Here, I had strolled about the gaudy and awful tourist trap for maybe twenty minutes, before seeking out the innards of the city – the real San Francisco. I wanted to see North Beach, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Haight… I wanted to experience San Francisco for real, and more importantly, I wanted to step in the footsteps of the Beats and hit the beaten streets with hip steps. Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti! All the great poets of the city had wandered back and forth along the North Beach and Haight areas and gained inspiration and dug the whole air of San Fran, and I wanted to follow them and learn. And so I got away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Piers and headed straight and unguided into the residential heart of the city, walking through the privileged streets with no maps, using their straight block formations as reference, knowing I wanted to find Union Square, South, from where I would head two blocks West to Isadora Duncan.
I found Bob Kaufman street near Telegraph Hill and dug them both and took innumerable photos with my digital camera – Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the sign that simply read ‘Bob Kaufman’. I walked about and hit dead ends and steep hills and felt safe and happy to be in the sun in a welcoming city, seeing sights left, right and centre, and climbing to every peak to look around and see every thing, and I did. I dug it all so fucking much it made my heart leap into my throat and choke me.
I found Washington Square and sat staring stupidly at the cathedral – Peter and Paul, people praying outside. I turned and faced that which I worshiped – chicks playing football (soccer) in little shorts and tight tops, coffee shops by the park, bars full of Italians and tourists drinking European beers, and I dug it all. I walked on, hungry and looking for a San Fran eatery. I thought maybe something Italian, or at least sold in an Italian place, and I found a café and bought an iced coffee and a bagel, and sat and ate them at the window, watching the chicks cut by in their mini skirts and little denim shorts. I looked around at all the pizzerias and delis and olde Italian businesses.
Then I continued on down towards the centre, hoping like hell to find the North Beach crossing that housed the Beat Museum, City Lights, Vesuvios, Toscas, Kerouac Alley… all the famous Beat locations. I passed through the streets and streets of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores and every sign and word was uttered and written in Chinese, not in English, like Asian places back in Britain. No, everything was owned and operated and marketed at the Chinese people living in the part of the city that was respectfully theirs. I walked on Southwards to that junction I sought, the meeting place of Little Italy and Chinatown and the Beats. It was somewhere around Broadway and Columbus, I recalled. So I did what I’d realised was a sensible thing to do in American cities and just head in one direction, because the streets just went East-to-West, North-to-South, and I’d cross either Columbus or Broadway somewhere. And I did. I found Broadway and turned left, sticking to Chinatown, and then found the red-and-black front of the Beat Museum and decided I’d see that on Sunday, it being Friday this now. Saturday would be spent in the Haight area of town, seeing the Kerouac Discussion at the Booksmith and digging all the West side had to offer. I turned right and crossed the big junction and found City Lights. City Lights- the haven of the Beat fan, where Ferlinghetti published the seminal works of the Generation and where all Beat books could now be found; a shop I had wanted to visit for years, and was now almost scared to go inside. But I did. I checked my backpack at the door and wandered on in, past all the first floor stuff you’d find in any decent bookstore and up the stairs to the poetry/ Beat section: a small room with two guys discussing Keats in a corner, and chairs littering the floor with signs inviting the customers to sit and read. The shelves were all old and second-hand-looking bookcases full of On the Road’s and Howl’s and Junky’s and collections of all great poets at the other side of the room, and there were posters and postcards of the Beat Generation figures I worshipped as gods, and photos of these legends for sale, but all priced too high for me to consider purchasing.
But I was frantically trying to see the city and keep to some kind of schedule. Part of me fell into my old philosophy of not needing to see everything, because anything is better than nothing, and part of me was captured in the thrills of being a lone traveller in a new city, on some mission to see the sights I deemed necessary to see, and write them up for my little magazine, Beatdom. I cared not for the usual tourist traps, but didn’t rule them out altogether. I wanted to see as much as possible and to move on, getting back to the organic farm, on which I was working, on Monday. Friday was for exploring and checking in, Saturday for seeing the Haight-Ashbury district and the West, and Sunday for thoroughly exploring North Beach – seeking out the Beats’ houses and haunts and living their life for a whole day in some little way.
So I looked around City Lights for half an hour and then skipped outside to Kerouac Alley and took a few photos of the store, and of Vesuvios and Toscas and the poetry and art in the alleyway, on the ground and on the walls, the works of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and a city ready eventually to embrace its cultural past like so few others. Then I went into Vesuvios and ordered a double rum, showed my Scottish driver’s licence as ID, and took the drink upstairs to sit by the windows and look out at the street I’d long wished to visit. I sat and drank and looked at the tourists being lectured of the significance of City Lights on literary history, and at the uncaring Asians that wandered by with some contempt for the tourist idiots, and then in at the bar and at the mini model of a sign saying, “Kerouac Alley-><-Columbus” and had a little nodding-head Beatnik beside it, and posters on the was of Burroughs and his guns, Ginsberg naked with Corso, Kerouac looking handsome… All of it was old and Beatnik, and there was baseball on the TV and the subtitles giving away the muted words of the commentators told me of the departure from the Giants of the only baseball played I knew – Barry Bonds. Down below, at the bar, the barman and bargirl were discussing Bonds’ departure and the end of a sporting era that I tried to comprehend but couldn’t, so I went back to sipping my rum and watching the streets. I explored the painting on the side of the City Lights building, connected to some kind of restaurant, which had been painted by a number of people, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Twenty-somethings kept coming along and taking photos in pairs and couples, and I watched as it became evident that in each pair or couple, only one of them would know about the Beats and the other would be totally ignorant, and I listened as one would explain to the other with glaring errors and omissions, the significance of City Lights. None got the significance of Vesuvios, such as it was.
The bargirl, blonde and skinny and tall and pretty, came by to pick up the glasses from the empty tables and asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said a Guinness, and I got it, paying five dollars and tipping her one dollar. I sipped the Guinness and tried to follow the baseball, and sat watching, not understanding for maybe an hour, until the jazz joint across the way opened and I sat and watched the folks arrive to go there, and I considered crossing the street and listening to the jazz. But nowadays jazz was the music of the middle-aged, and no longer the sound of youth and rebellion. Yes, it still was something one could dance vigorously to, but instead it was the cats that listened to it, but now were too old and mature and sensible to dance like crazed, sweaty beasts, and so sat in their sharp suits, sipping whiskey and wine at tables, and talking city banter and listening to the background music of black sax players and pianists, only really tapping their fingers, or if the sound really got going they might nod their heads and reference the music in conversation before moving on to the next suburban topic.
So I stayed in Vesuvios and tried to dig it. It probably never was a Beat haven, but rather an average bar frequented by the Beats and immortalised in Beat history by the scrawlings in the wall, long since painted over, that declared Kerouac and Cassady banned since having been thrown out for drunkenness. The owners had capitalised on Beat popularity by naming a drink after Kerouac and by covering the walls in Beat art and ads and references. And back in the day, they had hired people to dress in black, wear berets and play bongos in the window. It really was a cool little place, though. A few groups of middle-aged folks came and sat down at tables and I just sat there on my own, ordering another Guinness and watching the crowds, inside and out.
After an hour, I wandered downstairs to the bathroom, and then when I came out I sat at the bar to drink, trying to get more of a feel for the Vesuvios customers. I ordered another Guinness and drank it quickly, and then had a Jack Kerouac – a shot of tequila, a shot of rum and a dash of orange and cranberry. It tasted harsh with the first sip, but then sweet with the second, and after that it barely tasted of anything. I fired it away and had another. Then some old cat came and sat next to me – about sixty years old with a grey moustache and a face that was drawn and tired and experienced beyond any understanding of fairness. I bought him a Guinness and the old guy bought me another when I’d finished my own drink. We both were quickly drunk and talking about Vietnam and America and politics and family.
“I’m fifty-nine years old and I’ll never stop working,” he said. “I can’t. I can’t afford to. This country… I served in a war for this country, and worked from coast to coast, and at my age I know I’m going to have to keep on working ‘til I drop, for no one’ll take care of me. My daughter can’t afford to, though she’d try. The government won’t. They don’t treat their veterans well.”
“A third of all America’s homeless are war veterans,” I said, quoting an appeal advertisement I’d read in San Luis Obispo.
We kept on talking about the injustices and flaws of the American government, about the bullshit of the Christian religion for luring folks into this sense of hope that was utterly useless and no more than a method of social control, about the man’s family, who were all great kids but helpless in the face of a cruel world, about his working all over America… I could remember almost none of what was said the next day, except perhaps saying, “I’m going to have to go, I don’t have any money,” and the old guy replying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get your drinks.” I couldn’t remember leaving the bar or walking to the hostel, but the next morning I woke up where I’d intended to go.
I spent the day in Haight-Ashbury, terribly depressed from the booze and wandering confused through the Buena Vista and Golden Gate Parks, back and forth along the Haight and trying to figure what to do until the Jack Kerouac Conference at seven. It had been about seven in the morning that I’d left my hostel, and I tried and succeeded in killing almost twelve hours with wandering. But eventually I had to stop off at the Booksmith and buy a signed copy of Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way, just so I had something to sit and do. I also hit a half dozen coffee shops along the Haight, and got bored of the overwhelming procession of sixties throwback shops, retailing everything at extortionate prices.
Twenty past six came and I walked the five minute walk from Buena Vista Park to the All Saints Church, certain that the place would be closed, but that people connected to the event would be waiting, and so I’d be able to at least talk to someone, if only briefly, because when it came to Kerouac and literature, I often came out of my shell and faced the world, making friends and acquaintances. So I wandered along and found the place open and a few people inside, mostly setting up a stall selling books by Barry Gifford, Michael McClure, Edie Parker and Jack Kerouac. I spoke to the guy at the door who was there to meet and greet, and told him my name, and the guy went and found another, less timid, guy, who took me to one of three reserved seats right up front.
“You’re from Scotland,” the guy, who had presumably been the owner of the Booksmith, with whom I had spoken via e-mail weeks earlier, said.
“That’s right. I’m here on press duties. From Beatdom Magazine.” I tried my best to sound like Hunter S Thompson, but the owner just smiled, said “yes”, and walked back to his little social group by the book stall.
Now I was happy. Ok, so I’d been happy at times during the day, but now I could hardly wipe the smugness from my fact as I looked around the room, which was large and old and slowly filling up with folks who did not have reserved seats and were not sitting in the front row, and who did not own their own magazine, and were not with the press, and did not know the ins and outs of Jack Kerouac’s life and I did. I was sitting here in the church, early and awaiting the even, like I’d wanted to do since I first heard of the idea, months earlier, and I had arranged to find my way to an unexplored city, battled hellish depression, and managed to make here. I had my camera, too, and intended to take a few shots for the next issue and for the website. I sat and looked around, watching the crowd pour in, scanning the faces for any recognisable ones – Ferlinghetti, McClure, Gifford, even Russell Brand, who was reportedly in town, shooting a documentary about On the Road. But I recognised no one, so I just sat and held my head high, the journalist at the front, no one knowing how tough my day had been or how far into the gory depths of madness I’d fallen only a few hours earlier.
After a while Gifford and McClure appeared, alongside some girl called Suzanne, from City Lights, and the author of the new Kerouac biography, John Leland. They stood about and talked, the two old men, the new kid on the block, and the girl from the shop who’d been picked by her bosses, co-sponsors, to read from a book they had published, by the deceased Edie Parker. Suzanne sat with a crowd of artists and poets and new modern bohemian wannabe suburbanites, who sat behind me. They talked as though they knew what they were saying, but they made little or no sense, and were clearly just digging being there and didn’t really know shit all about Jack Kerouac or literature. Suzanne seemed nice, though, and very humble in spite of her privileged position as spokesperson for the women of the Beats, a group of chicks written out by history, but who were held in great regard by the Beat artists themselves back, back in the day… Leland sat on his own, an intelligent and well read fellow, awkward and shy and set apart from the more experienced old guard of Gifford and McClure, who both sat uncomfortably on the edge of the little stage, as a crowded hall of people leered at them and took photos, probably trying to figure out which one was which, or maybe not caring. They looked like the old traditional grandfathers – the grumpy old coot and the sweet old ditherer. McClure had the whiter hair, the constant smile, the twinkling blue eyes, the nervous shakes at the presence of a great crowd of young Beatnik devotees, spurred to attention by the half-century anniversary of a piece of literature of his contemporary. Gifford had the darker hair, slightly younger, looking older more likely because of frowning too much, with piercing dark eyes and a “don’t you dare fuck with me!” kind of stance, though he seemed to enjoy sharing a laugh with McClure.
The man I had talked to, the owner of the Booksmith, took the mike and introduced the speakers, who took their seats. McClure, the oldest, didn’t bother with stairs, but instead rolled on up the side of the stage and stumbled to his feet and sat down in the middle. Leland acted as moderator, and invited McClure to offer a presentation as a starting point, to which McClure responded by joking with the audience about having not known of such an arrangement, and consequently went rambling into some grandfather-like “Jack and me” type story, which had the folks in the crowd laughing, and brought a great grin to Gifford’s face. The whole time, however, McClure shook, and it appeared to me that the shakes came from nervousness and not some disease or illness. The three men then took it in turns to hammer out ideas about Kerouac and On the Road and reassessed ideas of searching for kicks and trips, instead suggesting that perhaps Kerouac and Cassady sought father figures, stability, experience, adulthood and responsibility. McClure kept cracking subtle jokes and Gifford kept name-dropping Hollywood and literary figures with whom he was friends and acquaintances, and Leland kept quoting himself and heaping praise upon his elders. Then Suzanne took her time to stutter her way through a passage, or rather, a series of oddly selected passages, from Edie Parker’s new book about her life with Jack. She kept hitting obvious references and then crowbarring laughter from sections of the audience by shrugging or winking or emphasising things like the notoriety of Burroughs killing Vollmer or Edie’s sexual attraction to Jack. And then she went on about stepping into the shoes of the great women who had been whitewashed over by history and literary critics, even though she was just a lucky random from City Lights picked to read ill-chosen and non-representative passages from what appeared to be a distinctively mediocre text. Gifford sat a grimaced and shook his head, and McClure politely stared into space. All the while, some student-jock type asshole kept whooping in the background, possibly emulating Kerouac himself, who’d get over-enthused at literary gatherings and “yes yes yes” along in the background.
Then came question time. The whooping asshole from the back, who turned out to be black, started jive-talking some typically ineloquently, barely comprehensive, sub-par English version of a half-question, getting at “Did Kerouac kill himself because of the Vietnam war?” to which Gifford practically spat on the table and coldly stated, “No! Next question!” and it looked as though he was ready to leave the whole damn place. A bunch of other inarticulate, border on idiotic, questions were asked, that McClure did his best to address. He basically just told stories about his experiences with Kerouac, weaving these magic old man tales of youth, using his beautiful and quiet old voice to spin a tale like a pro. The audience would shout out corrections regarding dates and times, to which Gifford sneered and McClure laughed, and told about how Kerouac would listen to the sea and write its voice, and then read its voice, for he had the most beautiful sounding voice imaginable and an unparalleled understanding of expression. Gifford name-dropped Francis Ford Copolla, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, and thoroughly drew a map of Beat studies with himself at the centre. Fuck it, I thought, that may not be true, and it may be downright egotistical, but the guy was an intelligent man and had certainly made great contributions to the world of Beatdom.
After getting my copy of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography signed by Gifford, and thanking him for doing an interview for Beatdom, to which Gifford suddenly smiled and stood up and shook my hand vigorously and said, “I remember that!” I left and went back out onto the streets of San Francisco, the time by then approaching ten. I walked out on to the street, smiling from ear to ear, having spoken briefly to each of the four speakers, even if only to say “Thanks for speaking… And oh, by the way, if you want to check out a magazine called Beatdom…” and then leaving. On my way out of the building I slyly grabbed one of the promotional posters as a souvenir. I had done what I’d come to do and I was happy. Saturday had been a hellish rough day, but it was now almost over. Time for bed, and then maybe I’d get a bus home on Sunday instead, or just kill the day away.
I braved the angry streets home to the hostel, standing out terrifyingly as the book-carrying white guy in the waistcoat, wading through the ghetto scum and bracing the shouts and screams.
Sunday morning I woke up and watched the Man Utd v Chelsea game on TV with another Scottish guy and a fat Brazilian dude. I didn’t really want to go out. My feet hurt from walking the city north to south and east to west, all alone and carrying my life on my back. I wanted to get a bus out of the city immediately. I wanted to be back on the farm, with people I knew.
But I had a job to do. I had to tour the Beat-hell out of San Fran before I could leave. I’d done a few things, and I knew I’d never do it all on foot with no money, but I could still see a little more…
I walked out and along Geary, onto Market and up Montgomery. First thing’s first, I thought: before the Beat Museum I would seek out a less easy to find piece of Beat history. I didn’t even know where to start in seeking Russell Street, where Kerouac and Cassady lived, and where On the Road was written. But I could see Montgomery on a map, and knew that I would be able to walk the length of it, which went on up to North Beach anyway, where the Beat Museum was located, and find number 1010, the apartment in which Ginsberg wrote part of Howl. So I walked all the way up, passing the Church of Scientology building, and damn near laughing my head off at a sign inviting randoms to walk inside and take the tour, and getting personality tests while doing so… And I continued up ‘til I crossed Broadway and found the inconspicuous property. There was nothing much to see – no plaque, nothing. So I took a photo of the door and walked back around the corner, onto Broadway, and along to the Beat Museum.
The Beat Museum is in the heart of the adult industry sector, opposite and beside sex shops, porno theatres and other such places that were probably there back when Kerouac and co. walked the streets. The front is a shop, and the museum upstairs, and it’s easy to see the place in spite of the trees outside, for there is a great black and red advertisement on the outside wall, with that famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, arms around one another. I went inside and looked around the shop, which doubled as a kind of art gallery for paintings and photos of Beat and counterculture figures. Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead seemed to take prominence, but from the conversations I overheard between staff and proprietors, it sounded as though the walls frequently changed their décor. There were hundreds of books and posters and movies that opened my eyes to the world of Beat studies of which I knew I should have been aware. Things existed and were sold openly that I had never heard of in spite of my studies into every facet of Beat culture. I looked around for a long time, waiting for the staff to stop discussing the positioning of a Bob Dylan print, and then approached the counter when the youngest guy left the two older ones and returned to his station.
“Hey, how’re you doing? Can I get a ticket for the museum, please?” I asked.
“Yeah, are you a student?”
“Not anymore, unfortunately. Just graduated.”
“Oh yeah? From where?”
“Dundee, Scotland. I’m over here doing the Beat tour for a magazine I own and edit: Beatdom.”
“Cool, cool. You know Russell Brand? He was in here the other night, doing some recording for this documentary about On the Road.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard he’s touring San Francisco. One step ahead of me, by the sound of it.”
“We went over the road for a drink after he did his recording.”
“Hey, if you want, we’ve got a bunch of DVD documentaries and stuff, and a TV through the back. I’ll put something on for you, if you want?”
“Yeah, cool. Now or after?”
“No problem, let’s go.”
The guy led me through to a room in the back, next to the stairway leading up to the museum. The room was small and smacked of disused boiler-room, but had a few comfortable-looking chairs and a widescreen TV with DVD player.
“How about The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?” he asked.
“Sounds great,” I replied. And it was. I sat and watched the film for ninety minutes until it ended, at which point I walked upstairs to check out the museum proper.
The stairs took me up and past the usual posters of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, plus a sign taken from Kerouac Alley, over the road. There was also a sign saying that the use of photography was allowed, which surprised and delighted me, as I was usually too shy to take photos indoors, in case someone told me I wasn’t meant to and I’d get all embarrassed. I walked through to the large room, which was the museum. It was basically just one room about the size of my parents’ living room, which bookcases, displays and a few partitions, which seemed to hide more displays under the guise of being separate rooms. To my left as I entered was a bookcase, protected by glass, of numerous Beat books, mostly first editions. To my right was a display case full of bits and pieces from and about Kerouac’s life – cheques made out to liquor stores, licence plates reading “KEROUAC”, guides to Lowell, newspaper cuttings announcing his death, a typewriter like the one he used… The walls were covered in blown up photos of him and Cassady, him and his parents, him and Carolyn. Around the corner there was a Bukowski section, comprising of photos and poems on the wall, and prints of the newspaper “Fuck Hate”. Around from that there was the Dharma Bums display, made up of Kerouac and Snyder stuff, photos of mountains, and a golden Buddha. In the corner was one of the more impressive exhibits – Allen Ginsberg’s organ. It was the one he used to write the awful album he made as a tribute to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. There was also a section devoted to the women of the Beat Generation, whom the men largely considered their equals, but to whom history has not been so kind. There was a little alcove next to that that seemed to house ‘the rest’ section, comprising of Kaufman, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure and all the great poets who were missing from the Kerouac dominated landscape of the Beat Museum’s primary displays. In a raised section of the room next to this was what appeared mostly to be the Ginsberg area: with a telling of the Six Gallery reading, the history of the publication of Howl! and photos of him, Orlovsky and Corso butt naked.
I left the Beat Museum and went for dinner in some coffee shop of little note. I was done with Frisco now and ready to leave. There was a bus out at six the next morning, and so I went back to the hostel and crashed ‘til then, not knowing that the next day would see me struggle with Bay Area transport systems for over seven hours before getting back into San Luis Obispo.
Wills, D., ‘Beat Books’ in Wills, D., (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)
Some good books written about the Beat Generation, Beat literature and counterculture life.
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Caveney, G., Screaming With Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg (Bloomsbury: Verona, 1999)
Screaming With Joy is epitomised by a photo of Ginsberg carefully watching Bob Dylan sit playing guitar. There are so many photos of Ginsberg and his legendary contemporaries interspersed with the sort of stories that make Ginsberg such a loveable figure.
Consequently, the text flies along at some speed, moving from story to story to story with seamless endeavour. Little is really elaborated on in great depth, but such fleeting references and brilliant statements evoke greater feeling, although they may lack the facts and ideologies of other Ginsberg biographies. It also creates a matter-of-fact narrative of Ginsberg’s life, which makes the book read more like fiction, and recalls the autobiographical nature of the poet’s work.
Screaming With Joy is one of Beatdom’s in-house reference manuals. It is essential reading, as far as we are concerned, although there may be more thorough sources available. But as with Dylan’s music, the genius is that the words reflect more than they say, and that you never doubt their significance. Ginsberg knew it, and Caveney knows it.
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Caveney, G., The Priest They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs (
Another book by Graham Caveney, this Burroughs biography is as great a piece of art as a study of his life. Beautifully laid out and illustrated, with images and words blending together like the writing and the stories that were, in fact, Burroughs’ true legacy after his death, The Priest They Called Him is not a book for squares. No, friend, this book is as stylish as the subject and almost as entertaining. Scholarly, it may not be, but interesting and wild, it certainly is.
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Maher Jr., P., Kerouac: His Life and Work (Revised and Updated) (Taylor Trade Publishing: Maryland, 2004)
Shortly after Beatdom’s creation, following the completion of my book, Who Is Rodney Munch?, and the return to a life lacking creativity and productivity, I decided that one way to motivate myself to write about the Beats was to purchase an informative and substantial book about the subject… An investment in my writing and in the magazine… Something to inspire me to write, to study, to get my act together.
A trip around Borders bookshop, out by the Reading Rooms on the edge of town, resulted in my purchasing of Paul Maher Jr.’s Kerouac: His Life and Work. I needed something about a specific Beat figure that could be used as research for a variety of articles and features, and there was a lack of anything about Burroughs or Ginsberg or anyone else.
And Kerouac has served its purpose. The book details the Father of the Beat Generation’s life beautifully and in frightening depth. There’s not much worth knowing about Jack Kerouac that isn’t in there somewhere, backed up by meticulously sought references and loving analysis.
But had I known more about Paul Maher Jr., I wouldn’t have been so pleasantly surprised. Firstly, he has the same degree as I do: in American Studies and English; the sort of blend of study that inevitably leads one to modern and controversial, as well as politically and culturally significant, American literature. Secondly, he is the author of three additional Kerouacian studies: Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (2004), Home I’ll Never Be: Jack Kerouac and On the Road (2007) and The New Vision: Jack Kerouac in the 1940s (2009); as well as of Miles on Miles: Collected Interviews with Miles Davies (2007) and a forthcoming book scheduled for 2009 about the life of Henry David Thoreau.
Maher can therefore be considered as a bit of a Kerouac expert, with an appreciation of related musical and literary influences.
Originally entitled Kerouac: A Definitive Biography, this book certainly lives up to both of its names. ‘Definitive’ is right, although concerning his works in addition to his life.
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Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography (St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 1978)
Now a bone-fide Kerouacian classic, Jack’s Book takes oral interviews with friends and associates of Jack Kerouac and combines them to draw a distinctive biography of the Beat legend. Gifford and Lee interviewed numerous figures in Kerouac’s life, from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Hunke, to old schoolfriends and relatives.
The result is a superb addition to the volume of Kerouac biographies, and certainly a unique addition at that. It reads more like something Kerouac would have put together himself than some of the heavy-going scholarly books of facts and dates.
Barry Gifford’s work was brought to my attention by an e-mail from a friend, who directed me to the author’s website, where I found his e-mail address and entered into correspondence with him, resulting in the interview later in this magazine.
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Ann Charters (ed.), The Portable Beat Reader (Penguin: 1992)
Anne Charters edits together a collection of Beat texts to offer a literary-historical study of the Beat Generation. Included in this collection are excerpts from On the Road, Howl! and The Naked Lunch, as well as writings by Diane di Prima, Bob Dylan, Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso.
The Portable Beat Reader is a nice starting point in an exploration of Beat literature, though perhaps a little pointless to well-read Beat enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it’s one of those ‘nice-to-have’ books that you’d happily read again and again if you couldn’t find your own full copies of the included texts.