“Nicosia on Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century”:
An Interview with Gerald Nicosia by Kurt Hemmer
The following interview was conducted via email during the first week of August 2019.
Kurt Hemmer: Gerry Nicosia is a great Kerouac scholar, one of the crucial founders of Kerouac studies, and his book Memory Babe is arguably the best Kerouac biography. Thanks, Gerry, for answering a few questions about Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century, which will be officially released in October, in time for the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s death. I think Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century is a must-read for Kerouac enthusiasts, and unfolds like a mystery novel. Have you heard anything from the Kerouac Estate about your book?
Gerald Nicosia: No, I haven’t heard anything since the book first started circulating a few months ago, but the book is not for sale in bookstores or on the internet yet, so it may be too early. I did get a call from Jim Sampas and John Shen-Sampas last December, telling me they wanted to “bury the hatchet.” I told them that talking about peace was all well and good—but that I was the person who had been hurt. My name and Memory Babe had been taken out of Penguin bibliographies, and for the past thirty years Lowell Celebrates Kerouac had taken active steps to keep me out of Lowell. I told Jim Sampas that making peace would involve restoring my name to bibliographies and making me welcome again in Lowell. He said he would speak to Paul Slovak at Penguin about the bibliographies, and that he would talk to Lowell Celebrates Kerouac about inviting me this fall. To the best of my knowledge, neither of those things happened; or if they did, there were no positive results.
KH: I’m glad to hear Jim Sampas reached out to you, and I hope there will be positive results in the future. I suspect that some readers, myself included, might have a tough time believing that John Sampas had such sway over Viking Penguin that you and your biography were expunged from a number of books. Was it simply money? Aren’t the authors who took you out of their books more to blame than John Sampas?
GN: In the publishing business, the power of money is enormous. Viking Penguin was facing a situation of keeping me and Memory Babe, which had earned a modest amount of money for them, or getting rid of me and my biography and acquiring one of the most lucrative literary estates of the twentieth century. And so they chose, not John Sampas per se, but the whole Kerouac literary archive over me and my biography. But rather than try to prove this, let me ask you to look at this situation from the other end. With Memory Babe, you have a book that had earned worldwide praise and support. When Viking Penguin announced its plan to put Memory Babe out of print in 1993, they received dozens of letters arguing against this decision. These letters were from the likes of National Book Award winners such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Larry Heinemann. Allen Ginsberg even went to the president of Penguin, Peter Mayer, and pleaded with him to keep Memory Babe in print. I still have the letter from Allen, in which he told me about going to see Peter Mayer and speaking in my behalf. On top of all this, by 1993 Kerouac was just entering his biggest commercial boom, and Viking Penguin was getting set to publish many new Kerouac titles. In a situation like that, where an acclaimed biography of a major literary figure is being defended by some of the biggest names in the literary business, and where the literary figure’s best friend, a noted author, is also arguing to keep the book in print, what is the likelihood that a publisher will go ahead and willy-nilly put the book out of print? I would wager that such a thing only happened once, and that the unfortunate book was Memory Babe. And that yes, the reason was money.
As for your question of who is more to blame, I do not hesitate to say, John Sampas. He came up with this strategy, which at the time was part of his campaign to defeat Jan Kerouac’s lawsuit against him and his family. He made it lucrative and/or beneficial to the careers of people who went along with him. But that’s not the only reason people collaborated with him. People are often weak in the face of such blatant aggression; they “go along to get along.” Herman Wouk wrote about this phenomenon very poignantly in The Winds of War.
KH: Having no previous knowledge of the machinations of other literary estates myself, do you believe the messy affair over the Kerouac Estate was unique?
GN: “Messy” is one thing; keeping genuine heirs from their right to an estate is a different animal altogether, and involves a lot more personal injury. In Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century, I try to cover a lot of ground in a short space, and it would have been impossible to give full biographies of Kerouac’s daughter Jan and his nephew Paul Blake, Jr. But it should be clear that both of those people, and their families, were vastly injured by the forgery of Gabrielle Kerouac’s will, their lives shoved off course and driven into a spiral of self-destruction. Jan and Paul would have had difficult personal issues to deal with, in any case; but completely cut off from any acknowledgment, support, or financial aid from their own family, they both received a big push toward the dark end that their lives came to.
KH: When did you begin to feel the urgency to tell your side of the story?
GN: In the late ’90s I suddenly found myself playing defense in an internet chat group called the Subterranean List. Several people–some of whom were clearly connected with the Sampas family–were accusing me of having created all this misery by having fabricated the forgery story and then conned Jan into believing it. It’s the oldest strategy in the business–point the finger at the person bringing charges, but it’s often very effective. One of the reasons for the success of this strategy is, people can accuse you of an infinite number of crimes, if they’re not backing up what they say with actual evidence—and so the person newly accused must then expend an endless amount of time and energy defending himself, while the world is distracted from the original bad deed and the person who did it. Follow Donald Trump on any given day and you’ll see him employing this strategy multiple times. The next thing I knew, a self-styled internet journalist, who had been visiting with John Sampas, claimed I had committed eleven felonies in one year, which has to be some kind of record. All this was presented as gospel, despite the fact that I have never been legally charged with anything worse than a traffic violation. And then there was an attempt to enter this supposed biography of me into evidence in the probate court in Albuquerque, where Jan had died—but happily the judge called it “trash” and threw it out.
KH: You mention that Tony Sampas helped introduce you to Kerouac’s Lowell. Do you feel that your trouble with the Kerouac Estate was primarily with just John Sampas?
GN: Tony Sampas was a genuine friend to me in those early days. I felt a lot of warmth and kindness in Tony. For much of his life, Tony’s profession was bookie, so it might sound weird for me to say he was a very decent man, but I think he was. A lot of other very decent people, like Jack’s friend Billy Koumantzelis, loved Tony very much. But Tony was absolutely devoted to his family, and making sure that Jack’s estate came to the Sampases was for Tony an act of protecting his family. It’s also true that Tony protected and took care of Jack for a few years at the end of Jack’s life, kept Jack from getting beaten up, arrested, and so forth. And Tony’s sister had suffered a great deal caring for both Jack and Mémère. I think Tony probably felt Jack owed the Sampases quite a debt for all that–so in his mind I guess it balanced the scales by taking Jack’s estate. He didn’t know either Jan or Paul, and as far as he was concerned, they were in a different world.
But let me make something clear. What’s needed is not a personal reconciliation between myself and the Sampas family. This is not about me versus the Sampases–though a lot of people insist on portraying it that way. This is not a personal grudge–at least on my part. A lot of damage has been done to Kerouac’s own family, and Kerouac scholarship has been seriously skewed in a variety of ways: the breaking up of Jack’s archive to collectors and dealers, the choosing of editors for their loyalty rather than their capability, the censorship of both Jack’s own work and work about him, and much else. I’d like to see some of that damage undone. I’d like to see Jack’s own blood family properly cared for. Those are the things I’m trying to work toward.
KH: I see Kerouac’s rejection of Jan as a consequence of his inability to cut himself loose from his mother’s apron strings, as William S. Burroughs once put it. It seems that Kerouac was unable to tell his mother, even when it became obvious, that he was wrong and Jan was his daughter. Do you agree?
GN: Jack may have initially convinced himself that he had not fathered Joan Haverty Kerouac’s baby, but once he saw Jan, he knew she was his kid. From that point on, he was forced to live with his own lie and to pretend that he believed it, though he knew better. He secretly kept Jan’s photo in his wallet, under some other photos. I was told this by several people, including John Clellon Holmes and Paul Blake, Jr. Paul told me that Jack actually called him over one day, when no one else was around, took out his wallet, and said, “Come here so I can show you your cousin.” Jack felt himself incapable of being financially responsible for a family. To have acknowledged Jan would have forced him into a whole different role, a whole different lifestyle, one that he was not prepared to accept. But I truly believe he felt a lot of guilt for this decision. Jan herself said she saw it in his eyes, the second time they met, when she was fifteen, in 1967.
KH: How do you explain why Gabrielle Kerouac did not make sure that her grandson, Paul, shared in her inheritance?
GN: Before Jack died, Paul and his grandmother had an active correspondence going. She would often dictate to Jack, and he would write down her words, then mail the letters to Paul. Paul let me xerox about six of her letters to him, when I met him in Redlands, California, in 1978. Mémère would address him as her “darling blond grandson.” She clearly loved him very much, and worried about him when he went into the military service. I put these letters into my Memory Babe Archive at the Mogan Center in Lowell, but they were later stolen. Many autograph letters to me from famous writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs were stolen too; but those autograph letters were worth a lot of money. The xeroxes were worthless, except, I believe, to someone who wanted to keep Mémère’s love for her grandson hidden.
After Jack died, Paul kept writing his grandmother and sending her what he called “little checks.” The checks were always cashed, but no letters came to him in return. When he’d phone the house in St. Petersburg, Stella would always answer the phone and tell him it was impossible for his grandmother to talk. Pressured by him to know where his grandmother was, Stella finally admitted she was dead at Christmastime, 1974, over a year after Gabrielle had actually died.
I suppose it’s possible that Gabrielle became upset with Paul if she thought he’d stopped communicating with her, but I think it’s more likely that Gabrielle was in a deep depression after Jack’s death; and there was even a letter from Stella to a priest in Quebec indicating that Gabrielle had had a second, even more debilitating stroke during that period. In any case, I don’t think she was in any shape, or in any practical position, to permit her to “make sure” Paul inherited Jack’s literary estate.
KH: You did a great job editing Jan’s Baby Driver and Trainsong, and helped get them back into print in 1998. You mention that Jan’s first book, The Instrument, was coauthored with her first husband, John Lash. Whatever happened to this manuscript?
GN: Jan let Lash keep the only copy. Eventually Lash had the handwritten text typed up, and then left it with his family in Maine. Some copies were made for professors at the University of Maine, possibly in an attempt to find a publisher for the book. Lash called me, in 1979, when Jan was staying with me in Chicago, and asked if I could find a literary agent for him. In any case, I was given one of those copies that had been circulating in Maine, and I still have it. It’s surprisingly well written—sort of a prequel to Baby Driver, when Jan was living with a drug dealer named Michael in the same Lower East Side building where she met Lash.
KH: Will Jan’s novel Parrot Fever ever be published?
GN: I would like to see both The Instrument and Parrot Fever published, as well as Jan’s letters and notebooks. Then, finally, people might begin to appreciate what a truly important and original writer she was. But I’m not optimistic about that happening. First, we would need to see a major change of heart in Jan’s estate. And part of the problem is—from what I hear—that her two heirs, John Lash and David Stuart (who used to be David Bowers) are at odds with each other over what needs to be done with her literary properties.
While I was still her executor, I hired a really fine writer named Phil Cousineau to assemble and edit as complete a draft of Parrot Fever as possible–from a multitude of drafts in a variety of forms, everything from typescript to taped chapters to an actual radio play. Phil did a marvelous job of putting together a publishable book, and filling in the reader on how she intended to end it. And I sold this draft, on behalf of her estate, to Thunder’s Mouth Press. The book was advertised on Amazon, but it never came out. I finally got TMP’s editor-in-chief Neil Ortenberg to admit to me that the reason the book was cancelled was opposition from Lash.
KH: You talk about Jack Kerouac as “a progenitor of New Journalism.” Do you think there needs to be a reevaluation of Kerouac as an ur-New Journalist?
GN: What really interests me—having read and studied the full Joan Anderson Letter—is the fact that Neal Cassady is clearly the father of the New Journalism, without really realizing what he had accomplished. It was Kerouac who picked up on the revolutionary nature of what Neal was doing. The JAL—as the Cassady family likes to call it—is not only proto-New Journalism because Neal is writing about real-life events as if they were fiction, developing character, dialogue, and so forth, but his text is continually commenting on itself. He is continually re-evaluating his story and the way he is telling it, as the story itself unfolds. There is a sort of hyper-consciousness—an attempt to bring in consciousness from multiple points of view—that I think is postmodern, and also the quintessence of New Journalism. Kerouac has the eyes to see what’s there, but he doesn’t find a way to fully embody it in a literary work until Visions of Cody. You needed both Kerouac and Cassady to get to the New Journalism—they’re kind of the Crick and Watson of this revolution in American writing.
If we could get academics to see that lineage—from Cassady to Kerouac to Truman Capote to Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and beyond—yes, I think it would go a long way in helping academics to see Kerouac as the major literary innovator that we know he is. My impression is that Kerouac and the Beats are at least talked about a lot more in academia than they used to be, but I’m not sure their popular appeal has fully translated into academic respect and understanding. My sense–and I admit I could be wrong–is that for a lot of academics, the Beat writers are still a freak show, colorful but lacking real substance.
KH: What essential work still needs to be done by Kerouac scholars?
GN: I think a lot of work still needs to be done on Kerouac’s methodology, what he was striving for in his writing and how he went about trying to achieve it. Joyce Johnson certainly did some valuable work in that direction in The Voice Is All. But I think we are still a long way from fully understanding how Kerouac arrived at his style, his methods, his variations in approach and tone, and so forth—the kind of mechanics that have been scrutinized with many other great writers, such as Hemingway and Joyce. The type of literary analysis I’m talking about has been greatly hindered by the breaking up and selling off of Kerouac’s archive. One of the first things John Sampas sold off was Kerouac’s own library, his own annotated books. These would have been invaluable in studying his influences and how he brought them into his own work. Those sales can’t be undone, but one thing the Estate could do now would be to lift all forms of censorship on who can study Jack’s papers and what can be written in making use of them. The field should be thrown wide open to everyone. Right now I know several scholars who are fearful that what they write or say about Kerouac might prevent them from getting the permissions they need to publish their scholarly work. That kind of situation–censorship by fear–simply should not exist.
The other essential work that needs to be done is separating Kerouac’s real life from the artfully-tailored persona he presented in his books. I don’t mean the kind of sensationalism that Ellis Amburn practiced in his attempt to reveal Jack as a flaming queer. But as I suggest in Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century, I think there was an enormous amount of anguish driving Jack’s life and work. I have been reading a lot lately about the connection between a big loss, often a death, in early childhood—which the death of his brother Gerard certainly was for Jack—and the combination of self-destructiveness and self-aggrandizement later in life, a pattern which in my opinion also fits Jack. These are areas that I think could be richly explored, especially now that more of his material has become available in library collections, especially the Berg in New York.
KH: I met you at the 1995 Kerouac Conference at NYU shortly after you were escorted out of the auditorium with Jan by university police. You can see me just over your left shoulder in a picture on page seventy-six of Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century. Our mutual friend, Mary Emmerick, can be seen between Jacques Kirouac and Jan. I didn’t know Mary then, but now we are great friends with a mutual interest in James Dean. Mary was actually at Dean’s funeral in 1955, and she worked at Vesuvio and met Neal Cassady in the 1960s, among other remarkable escapades. You’ll be with Mary this coming October for a legacy event in Lowell. Can you tell me how you met Mary and something about the Kerouac event in October?
GN: I met Mary at the On the Road twenty-five-year-anniversary conference at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado in 1982. She told me she was a journalist from Chicago—she actually did an interview with me then that I don’t think was ever published—but the thing that really intrigued me was that she said she was a friend of Eddie Balchowsky, a one-armed piano player in Chicago who was a mentor of everyone from Studs Terkel to Tom Waits. Balchowsky needs a book written about him. He was a Jewish piano virtuoso who at twenty-one years old volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascists in Spain, where he got his right arm blown off. He came back to Chicago and his piano career was finished, but he became a painter and graphic artist, and still played the piano sometimes with his left hand. He worked as clean-up man at the Quiet Knight, a folk club in Chicago that gave a start to some of the greatest musicians of the day, including Waits and John Prine–and Balchowsky touched all of them. He was a mentor to me and to just about every young writer, musician, and artist coming up in Chicago in those years. Having Balchowsky in common started a lifelong friendship between Mary and myself, and then when Mary also became a close friend of Jan Kerouac’s, that friendship was cemented.
I am renting Edson Hall at St. Anne’s Church in downtown Lowell, as I have done in the past, to hold my own legacy event on Saturday, October 12, 3:30-6:00 p.m. I will read from and discuss my book, but also have some notable poets and writers talking about how Kerouac has touched them, and I’m also hoping people like Mary will tell us what Kerouac and the Beats mean to them. One of the poets who has already committed to come is Louise Landes Levi, a friend of Ginsberg and many of the Beat writers, who has spent most of her life as an expatriate in Europe. She actually made a cameo at the EBSN conference in Paris in 2017. The event is free, and all are welcome.