On a Sunday afternoon in December of 1997 I hooked up with the poet Jim McCrary at a Greenwich Village saloon. I’d come down from Boston to cover a fight at Madison Square Garden the previous evening, and Jim was visiting from Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked as an editor for William Burroughs Communications, still a thriving concern despite the death of its eponymous patron four months earlier.
After brunch and a leisurely afternoon passed watching football games on the pub’s TV, Jim suggested that we ring up James Grauerholz, a mutual friend (and, as Burroughs’s literary executor, McCrary’s boss) who was also in New York on business.
Grauerholz was still in the process of wrapping up his meeting, but suggested we take a cab over to meet him at Allen Ginsberg’s loft on East 13th Street. The poet had preceded Burroughs in death earlier that year, but somebody was evidently still paying the rent.
When we arrived, I was somewhat startled to find myself in the midst of what appeared to be a convocation of the Capos of the three Beat Families. The company included Grauerholz, Burroughs’s agent Andrew Wylie, Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas, Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord, Allen Ginsberg’s secretary Bob Rosenthal, his protégé and posthumous editor Peter Hale, and Bill Morgan, the Beat archivist Ginsberg had entrusted with the disposition of his effects. The only significant heir not represented at the kitchen table that day was the estate of Jan Kerouac (Jack’s unacknowledged daughter who had died a year earlier).
Since our visit was purely social, we didn’t pry into the nature of the conference that had consumed the better part of the day, but McCrary’s speculation that the subject was “Okay, who’s got what left and how much can we get for it?” probably wasn’t far off the mark.
In October of 1999, a Sotheby’s sale entitled “Allen Ginsberg & Friends” fetched $674,466. The auction lots included everything from original manuscripts to Ginsberg’s writing desk and Uncle Sam top hat to an original copy of Lady Windermere’s Fan, signed by Oscar Wilde (it had been a gift to Ginsberg from Bono), to Kerouac’s 1939 football letter from Horace Mann, the Bronx prep school where he had been stashed to further hone his gridiron skills by Lou Little, the Columbia University coach.
At another auction, at Christie’s two years later, the original “scroll” manuscript of On the Road was sold for $2.4 million to Jim Irsay, the owner of the NFL Indianapolis Colts. After restoration at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, the scroll was dispatched on a celebrated national tour before being published, verbatim, in 2007.
And even after the residue of Burroughs’s literary output had been exhausted, William Burroughs Communications continued to prosper posthumously. To this day, collectors from England, Germany, and Japan jostle for position in the queue to purchase, at $10,000 a pop, an apparently inexhaustible supply of Burroughs’s “shotgun paintings.”
The aforementioned were all direct byproducts of that kitchen-table summit conference I had stumbled into more than a decade ago. So, too, is And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, the last known unpublished manuscript by any of the Founding Fathers of the Beat Generation. Although the rights were jointly held by the estates of its two authors, the publication of the long-anticipated 1945 Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration would have to await one final piece to the puzzle — the death, in 2005, of Lucien Carr.
Over his dead body
At the time of his passing, he was known (to those by whom he was known at all) as “Lou Carr,” a respected newspaper lifer who logged nearly half a century with United Press International and wound up the chief of that agency’s news desk in Washington.
But in 1944, Lucien Carr IV was a 19-year-old Columbia undergraduate, the central figure of a small cadre of literary-minded friends he had introduced to one another over the previous year. Ginsberg, a bookish 18 year old from New Jersey, was a member of Carr’s freshman class. Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac had dropped out of Columbia by then, after breaking his leg in a football game, but returned to New York between trips on wartime Merchant Marine vessels, and, as did Carr, lived with a girlfriend near Washington Square. The 30-year-old William Seward Burroughs, the group’s learned guru, dispensed his wisdom from a walkup flat on Bedford Street. A graduate of Harvard and the scion of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, he was a fount of knowledge on everything from philosophy to French poetry, but spent many of his waking hours studying the Daily Racing Form, delighted in the company of low-level mobsters, and occasionally himself packed a gun.