by David S. Wills
In Issue Two of Beatdom, we ran a story about the women of the Beat Generation, and we obviously talked a little about Joan Vollmer. However, we didn’t say enough to do her justice, for she was a fascinating character who became famous for all the wrong reasons.
Vollmer took a bullet in the head from her husband, William S. Burroughs, on September 6th, 1951, and went down in literary history as no more than a wife and a victim of a drunken attempt at William Tell…
But Vollmer was the embodiment of Beat. She was ferociously intelligent and an incredible rebel. She loved drugs and sex, philosophy and chaos. She was privy to the creation of the Beat Generation, as her apartment in New York was the centre of the pre-history of the movement.
Ginsberg wrote ‘Howl’ after dreaming of Vollmer and Burroughs claimed to have only ever written because of her death. Every major participant of the movement agrees upon one thing – that she was intelligent and witty. Her influence upon the Beats was undeniable.
In histories of the Beat Generation, Vollmer is afforded far more importance than any other female member of the group or its associated movements and circles. She is treated almost like the men… But not quite. She is still denied her place.
Indeed, she was never the artist her male counterparts were. She was a muse and more, but she never wrote a book or a poem. Consequently, her memory continues through the literature of her contemporaries, who for some reason seem to deny her the respect we know they had…
We will take a look at some of the more significant references here, to get a grip on how she was viewed by her contemporaries.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Alias – Jane Lee
His relation with his wife was one of the strangest: they talked till late at night; Bull liked to hold the floor, he went right on in his dreary monotonous voice, she tried to break in, she never could; at dawn he got tired and then Jane talked and he listened
Here Kerouac describes an interesting relationship between Burroughs and his wife, as well as inferring her importance to the rest of the Beats. Vollmer is seen as an active participant, and keen study. She listens and shows respect, but is ultimately allowed to speak, and has the attention of Burroughs, and of Kerouac.
However, in On the Road, Kerouac is describing Vollmer after the period of time she spent in New York, when her influence could be greater felt, and whilst in the sad and pathetic state of her addiction to bennies.
Although this is sadly the most famous reference to Vollmer in the Beat canon, it does her the least justice.
Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City
Alias – Mary Dennison
There's no doubt about the fact that Mary Dennison is mad, but that's only because she wants to be mad. What she has to say about the world, about everybody falling apart, about everybody clawing aggressively at one another in one grand finale of our glorious culture, about the madness in high places and the insane disorganized stupidity of the people who let themselves be told what to do and what to think by charlatans -- all that is true! …There's only one real conclusion to be drawn. In Mary's words, everybody got the atomic disease, everybody's radioactive.
Here Ginsberg’s character is speaking about Joan Vollmer. Despite her never getting a speaking part in this novel, her ideas are not only mentioned, but described. Her opinion so valued by Ginsberg and Kerouac, that it deserves a single paragraph. We can see in her paraphrased idea, that she shared the Beat principals and world perception.
Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz
Alias – June
In this nearly non-speaking role, Joan is again referenced as a silent intellectual. Her home is the hangout, her intelligence is acknowledged, but she only gets one brief and dramatic paraphrased line:
I can never forget how June’s present husband, Harry Evans, suddenly came clomping down the hall of her apartment in his Army boots, fresh from the German front, around September 1945, and he was appalled to see us, six fullgrown people, all high on Benny sprawled and sitting and cat-legged on that vast double-doublebed of ‘skepticism’ and ‘decadence’, discussing the nothingness of values, pale-faced, weak bodies, Gad the poor guy said: ‘This is what I fought for?’ His wife told him to come down from his ‘character heights’ or some such.
Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
Alias – June
Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans
Alias – Jane
This novel proves of little use in highlighting the role of Vollmer in the Beat Generation, except that she appears in memories that Kerouac has. Her ghost remains with him, a spectre of the past.
William S. Burroughs, Junky
In this novel, we barely get a reference to Burroughs’ wife, and she isn’t even mentioned by name. We are introduced to her when Burroughs is arrested, and he tells the police he has a drug-addict wife.
Later, Burroughs slaps her across the face twice for throwing his heroin on the floor. She tells him the drug is making him boring, but then backs down and tells him to do whatever.
John Clellon Holmes, Go
Alias – Liza Adler
Unhappily married to an officer still in Japan, she had an integrated insolence toward everything which made her insights seem the more brilliant and audacious,and her insistence on the fragility of all human relationships profound. Liza was… a fascinating and sickly plant that thrived on the stifling atmosphere of argument over coffee and the student's tendency to analyze everything and reduce it to a "manifestation" of something else. She was, on top of this, a violent Marxist with a quick, destructive tongue and a mental agility. She battled with him in class, mocked him to his face, asked him openly to have meals with her, attacked him for his "unconscious fascism," doused all his ideas in the cold water of logic, and finally made a class confederate of him.
Here we see the depiction of Joan Vollmer that is recognizable as the intellectual only briefly referenced by Kerouac. We see her charm the narrator with her brilliance. This is a character that one can imagine being held in high regard by the other Beats, rather than the silent girl in the shadows, portrayed by too many of her contemporaries.
Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw
Though through his own writing, one barely notices he has a wife, the biography of William Burroughs, by Ted Morgan, presents a view of Vollmer that is more balanced and fair that that found in Kerouac or Burroughs. He presents Vollmer as an equal to Ginsberg, and as a truly revolutionary thinker. His depiction of Vollmer is drawn from the views held by Burroughs and Edie Parker.
Edie thought Joan was the most intelligent girl she had ever met. She had an independent mind, always questioning what anyone said, including her teachers at Barnard. In one of her marginal notes in her copy of Marx's Capital and Other Writings, there are echoes of Burroughs’: "Maybe Marxism is dynamic and optimistic, and Freudianism is not. Is one more serviceable than the other? Why does it always have to be either/or?"
Indeed, from reading about Vollmer’s notes, one does see the influence of Burroughs… Or perhaps it is not so much the influence of Burroughs that we note as the influence of Vollmer upon Burroughs… If Burroughs respected and listened to his wife so much, perhaps some his wit and cynicism came from her. It sounds like that is a possibility.
Morgan also notes that Vollmer was remarkably well read. She seems to have similar influences to the men in the Beat circle, and seemed to enjoy reading and talking about these books and theories whilst in the bath. She also loved classical music and talking about philosophy whilst on 110th Street and Broadway.
But perhaps the most valuable quote comes from page 123:
Burroughs saw Joan as a woman of unusual insight. She was the smartest member of the group, he thought, certainly as smart as Allen, in many ways smarter, because there were limits to Allen's thinking, but none to Joan's. She started Burroughs thinking in new directions, got him interested in the Mayans, suggested that Mayan priests must have had some sort of telepathic control. She had an odd and original way of looking at things, and a great insight into character. For instance she said about Jack that he had a natural inborn fear of authority and that if the cops ever questioned him his mouth would fall and out would come the name they wanted.
Here is what we’ve felt but been denied through the works of the most famous Beats: a glimpse of the true estimation of Joan Vollmer. She was not a silent outsider, nor was she denied recognition. She was admired as an intellectual heavyweight, someone smarter than Allen Ginsberg. She even had opinions about the so-called King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac.
But if Vollmer was so highly thought of, then why do her aliases take a side role in Beat literature?
Sadly, it seems that Beat literature may have stemmed from the deep and dark thoughts of brilliant young minds, but it sold because of the wild antics. Vollmer was a woman, and she was above much of the juvenile delinquency that made the others famous. When she is referenced as a mysterious figure in Kerouac and Burroughs, it is because talk only carries so far. The action was carried out by the men, and consequently Vollmer was relegated to the history books.
Her untimely death didn’t help much, either.
Neal Cassady, Collected Letters, 1944-1976
Joan is brittle, blasé brittleness is her forte. With sharpened laughs and dainty oblique statements she fashions the topic at hand. You know these things, I need not elaborate. But you ask for an angle, well, Julie’s hair is matted with dirt I told; oh fuck it, disintegration of continued habit patterns (child raising here) has Joan laboring in a bastardized world wherein the supply of benzedrine completely conditions her reaction to everyday life. ETC. I love her.
In his Collected Letters, which was of course not published during his lifetime (Cassady published nothing whilst alive), there are many references to Vollmer. Mostly, she appears as another character in the early days of the Beats, as she does in Kerouac’s books. But the above quote shows a little more depth. It paints a sad portrait of Vollmer, but alludes to her intelligence.
Herbert Huncke, Guilty of Everything
The clique consisted Joan, Bill, Allen, who had a place of his own but spent a great deal of time there, myself, and later, Jack Kerouac… They were very witty with a terrific bite, almost vitriolic with their sarcasm. They could carry on these extremely witty conversations… I couldn’t always understand them, and it used make me feel sort of humiliated because I obviously did not know what they were talking about.
Huncke was a close friend of Vollmer’s. He was frequent visitor to her apartment in New York, and even came to visit her when she lived with Burroughs in Texas. He thought she was stunningly beautiful and extremely intelligent.
In 2000, Gary Walkow made a film called Beat that sounds as though it adds to the memory of Joan Vollmer, but rather perverts and distorts the story of her life. Walkow was happy to do an interview with Beatdom for Issue Three… until he realised that our questions all revolved around his shockingly poor filmmaking and truth-telling abilities. The interview never came to light…
James W. Grauerholz wrote an enlightening document on the infamous ‘William Tell’ incident, that shows Walkow’s representation as not so much a distortion or artistic interpretation of the facts, as a flat-out lie.
Grauerholz commented upon the film and the statement on the production company’s website that claims the film to be utterly true and based upon hard research and a collaboration with Burroughs.
Funnily enough, Grauerholz recalls when he and Burroughs were approached by Walkow at an airport, but dismissed him as ‘a creep.’ The film was surrounded by false representations, and exists only as a perversion of the history of the Beat Generation and an unfair portrait of Joan Vollmer.
Unfortunately, one has to dig deep to find a fair representation of Vollmer.