"The blues is very close to Beat writing because it does come from the depths of human feelings and experience and all of the things poor people have gone through."
Gerald Nicosia: Standin' at the Beat Crossroad
Born and schooled in Chicago, Gerald Nicosia is a biographer, historian, playwright, and novelist, whose work has been closely associated with the Beat Movement as well as the 1960’s. He came to prominence with the publication of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac in 1983, a book that earned him the Distinguished Young Writer Award from the National Society of Arts and Letters while it was still a work-in-progress. It was highly praised by writers as diverse as John Rechy, Irving Stone, William Burroughs, Bruce Cook, and Allen Ginsberg, who called it a “great book.” Nicosia spent several decades in both the Chicago and San Francisco literary scenes, making a name for himself as both a post-Beat poet himself and an organizer of marathon literary events, often in conjunction with the San Francisco Public Library and the Friends of the Library. He edited major poetry collections by both Bob Kaufman (Cranial Guitar) and Ted Joans (Teducation).
Gerald Nicosia, Notre Dame, Paris, September 2012, photo by Noemie Sornet
He was also involved in several video and film projects, including the public television documentary West Coast: Beat and Beyond, directed by Chris Felver, and the movie version of On the Road, directed by Walter Salles. A lifelong friend of peace activist Ron Kovic, Nicosia spent decades studying, working with, and writing about Vietnam veterans in their long process of healing from that war. His definitive work on that subject, Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement, was picked by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Best Books of 2001,” and has been praised by notable Vietnam veterans like John Kerry and Oliver Stone and also by veterans of America’s later wars, such as Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead, and leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War. Among his other books on a Beat theme, he has published Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory and One and Only: the Untold Story of On the Road. He has taught Beat literature, the Sixties, and the Vietnam War literally around the world, including in China, where he adopted his daughter Wu Ji. His experiences in China have found their way into a forthcoming book of poetry, Night Train to Shanghai, which will be published by Creative Arts in 2013. He is also working on a book about racism and the death penalty in America, Blackness Through the Land, as well as a biography of Ntozake Shange called Beautiful, Colored, and Alive, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press. He spoke at the First International Beat Conference in the Netherlands, September 5-7, 2012; and most recently, he organized and MC-ed a marathon Beat poetry reading at Bob Weir’s Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California, on January 8, 2013, which went on for almost four hours with over twenty poets and musicians.
When did you first want to get involved with the Beat Generation?
GN: I was a teenager in the 1960’s—I was in the ‘60’s generation. Growing up in America at that time, I was very much influenced by the Vietnam War. I’m now 63 years old, but by the time I was 16, I was very much anti-war, and I still am. Those of us against the war were called the counterculture, the Flower Children, the anti-war generation. I didn’t know too much about the Beats at that time. Lawrence Ferlinghetti came through Chicago, my hometown, and I heard him read at Barbara’s Bookstore, a famous countercultural, hippie hangout. A friend of mine in high school, Chuck Rosengard—he was the hippest kid in our whole high school, he was listening to Bob Dylan before anyone else in Chicago had heard of him—Chuck Rosengard showed me that little black-and-white copy of Howl and hipped me to Allen Ginsberg. The whole thing with the war was so urgent. We were fed up with the society that had created the Vietnam War—that society seemed crazy in its obsession with fighting and killing people in this little Asian country. It felt really important to oppose that. I was already a writer and poet at 16. I was keeping a journal, writing stories, writing poems. But I wasn’t really into the Beat literature. I was probably reading Henry David Thoreau and classic American literature—Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane—and Hemingway. I wasn’t reading Kerouac at that time. It was in 1972, when I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and I was getting my master’s degree in American and English literature, that I discovered Kerouac. But the Beats were not being taught at all in classes. I was a teaching assistant, and I shared an office with a hip kid from Harvard, and he kept taunting me about why I didn’t know Kerouac, why I wasn’t reading Kerouac. So I finally got tired of him taunting me about it, and I went to find a book of Kerouac’s to read. In 1972, there were only two of Kerouac’s books in print in the U.S.—The Dharma Bums and On the Road. I know that in Europe a lot more of his books were in print—in England, France, his books were still in print, but in the United States most of his books were out of print. So I picked up The Dharma Bums, because it was the less popular book, and because I didn’t want to read the famous one, and I was blown away within the first five pages—I was absolutely blown away. Because Ray Smith (the character based on Kerouac) gets off a boxcar in Santa Barbara, and he exchanges gifts with a little bum in the boxcar. The bum gives him a prayer from St. Teresa, and he gives the bum some cheese. He takes the prayer and goes down to the beach in Santa Barbara; he cooks his supper over a little fire; it’s night-time, and he looks up at the stars and he starts to ask these questions: Who are they and who am I? Who put the stars up there, and who put me here on earth? What should I be doing down here on earth? And I thought, Wow! These are the big questions! And I was really blown away, because you know, at that time in American literature classes, they would tell you the great contemporary American novelists were Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth, and none of these guys were asking the big questions about life. You know, Updike was asking who was sleeping with whom in Connecticut. In some rich house, who is committing adultery with whom? And here’s Kerouac asking why we’re on earth, what are we supposed to do here on earth. I was blown away. I had been raised Catholic, and I’ve always been a spiritual-mystical-philosophical kind of person, and I really thought, This is wonderful! This man is asking the profound questions about life. And as I read more of that book, I realized that he had a great compassion for the working class and the poor and the down-and-out and the underdogs. When I was a kid, my father was an Italian socialist. My father used to read me from Jack London’s book The Iron Heel, which is about the oppression of the poor by the rich. And as I read more of Kerouac, of The Dharma Bums, I thought, This is like Jack London. This is someone who is actually writing for the down-and-out in America, writing a book for the poor, for the underclass. And so I was very taken with his work, and I remember going to my professors and asking, Why isn’t this man being taught in the American literature classes? They said he wasn’t a writer, he was a beatnik; he was a leader of the beatniks; he was a cult leader. They were claiming he wasn’t even a writer, and it really angered me. So at that point I decided that someday I was going to write a book that would give this man the credit he was due; and a little over ten years later, I published Memory Babe. Of course, that was the beginning of my induction into the whole Beat scene.
Gerald Nicosia under chandelier at Shakespeare and Company, 2012. Photo by Noemie Sornet
Where do you think that Beat art and life come from—from the heart, the brain, or the soul?
GN: There’s no question: it comes from the heart. Beat writing is from the heart. That’s the whole essence of it—it comes from feeling, from compassion, from putting aside the rational. Because the Beats felt very strongly that intellect and rational intelligence had gotten us to a point where we are about to destroy the whole planet. The great brains like Oppenheimer and others had created the atom bomb during World War II. Man had learned how to split the atom, learned the secrets of energy and matter, the equation between energy and matter. But this rational scientific thinking had brought us to the brink of annihilation. The next war would bring the end of mankind. So the Beats felt that the only hope was to return to healing—to the healing part of our being, which is intuition, imagination, compassion, and art. A return to caring about other people. It was a reaction against the Cold War and against all the hatred and fears and McCarthyism and all of that. The Beats were saying that we can’t be seeing enemies everywhere; we have to see fellow human souls who are struggling with the same problems that we are. We have to see each person as an angel, a creature of God. That was one of the great concepts of the Beat Generation, to see every human being as an angel. You know, every person is a divine being; every person has the divine flame of God inside them. Therefore, you can’t hate someone because he’s Russian or he’s a Communist. No, every person is equally a child of God, an angel. It was revolutionary at that time. I think it’s still revolutionary.
What experience in your life has made you a good writer and poet?
GN: I don’t know. I was raised in a very poor, working-class family. My father was a mailman; my mother was a secretary. They both came from immigrant families. My mother’s family were poor Czech immigrants from Czechoslovakia, and my father’s parents were poor immigrants from Sicily. I was in touch with the real values of life. When people are poor, they know what counts. You have your family; you have some food to eat; you have shelter over your head; you take care of your friends and neighbors. Those are the basic human values. I think the more money and power people get, they get farther and farther away from those real human values. I think that great poetry, great art and writing, come out of those basic human values. The basic experiences that every human being can relate to—everybody’s hungry sometimes, everybody needs to be loved; everybody needs to sleep at night; everybody needs a shelter, a roof over their head, when it’s raining. When you write from those basic values, you catch some kind of universal mind or energy or wavelength, which speaks to people everywhere. And I think that’s where great art comes from. I think that sometimes poor people or people who have suffered a lot have an advantage in writing or creating art, because their experiences put them in touch with universal feelings. Recently I was in Cannes for the film festival. Everybody’s wealthy there; everybody’s driving a Mercedes or a Lamborghini. The women are all wearing two-thousand-dollar dresses, but my first feeling was, this is so detached from real life. It’s almost like a carnival or something. It’s fun to watch, but then you realize that this is not real life, because most people don’t drive Lamborghinis and wear Dior dresses every day. There’s a whole level of removal from ordinary life. And I think that being in touch with ordinary life is what makes great art.
Gearld Nicosia and Jan Kerouac. Photo by Sylvia Nicosia
Would you mind telling us your most vivid memory of Jan Kerouac?
GN: I knew Jan from 1978, when she was 26 years old, until she died in 1996 at age 44, so I knew her for 18 years. We spent a lot of time together, in a lot of different cities—New York, Boston, Lowell, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities too. She lived with me at Lil Dodson’s house on Long Island for a while in 1978. I also visited her in Kittitas, Washington, where she was living with her mother. So we were amazingly close for a long period, and I was really lucky, blessed, to have the friendship of this beautiful, brilliant, and amazing woman—a genius with words, just like her father, and also, at times, funny as hell! We went to New York City a couple of times in the 1990’s, to fight NYU when they were holding those big Beat and Kerouac conferences, when they didn’t want to include her because the Sampas family was controlling things. So we did battle in New York City. We were together when we went to Lowell to speak about Kerouac a couple of times. Jan and I had a lot of experiences together, and I guess my most vivid memory maybe still until this day is from early in our friendship, 1978. We first met in San Francisco, at her friend Carol Shank’s apartment on Russian Hill, and then we both went to Kittitas to be with her mother Joan for a while; and a few months later we met in New York City and she wanted to show me where she had grown up on the Lower East Side, the tenement building. She took me up to the roof-top of her old tenement building, where she told me she had made a painting with tar on the roof. She wanted to see if the painting was still there, but the paintings were gone—and she seemed very disappointed, though this was maybe 18 years later! So we walked around the streets of the Lower East Side, Tompkins Square Park, and she showed me places where she’d grown up. She showed me where Gem Spa had been, where she used to go for egg creams and to steal comic books. And afterward, I offered to take her to lunch at a nice restaurant. I had just gotten a grant from the National Society of Arts & Letters, for my book Memory Babe, while it was still a work in progress, so I had some money in my pocket. She didn’t; she was almost always broke. So I took her to a fancy Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village for lunch. The meal was great. After we had eaten, we were sitting on the terrace sipping our coffee or having wine or something, and she asked me about my destiny. I said my destiny was to become a great writer or famous writer or something like that. Then I asked her, “What is your destiny, Jan?” And she said, “My destiny is to be pulverized.” And it just shocked me. I almost fell off my chair. I was just stunned, because you have to understand, she was such a beautiful woman. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s daughter. People said he was as handsome as an actor, and Jan was as beautiful as an actress. She had black, long, thick hair, beautiful blue eyes, and she was very gifted, very brilliant. And the last thing you would expect her to say is, “My destiny is to be pulverized.” Pulverized means to be destroyed, like taking a hammer and smashing something. I was so shocked that my first thought was that she was joking. But she was very serious. Jan would often like to joke, to put people on, but she was not joking that time. She was dead serious, and I couldn’t believe it. But of course she was right—her destiny was to become pulverized. She was taken advantage of by the Sampas family. They robbed her of her inheritance. Of course, her father hadn’t recognized her, so he had begun the process of terrible things happening to her. She suffered in enormous ways, and she died very, very young. She already knew what was going to happen to her; but for me, I couldn’t believe it. What she said didn’t make any sense to me then. It was only later, and now, in my older life, that I can look back and realize how prescient that was, what she said.
Which memory from Jack Kerouac’s life makes you smile?
GN: Very interesting question, because of course a lot of his life was very sad and very tragic. I may have to circle back to that question. It’s a hard one because so much of his life was tragic. He was so driven to be a great writer; he almost didn’t have time to have fun. People have said that he didn’t even have a relaxed laugh; they said that if he did laugh, it was like a demonic laugh, like the Shadow’s laugh: mwee hee hee ha ha! It wasn’t the laugh of someone who is relaxed and just having fun. He was a very intense and very driven person. From a very young age, he felt that he had to become a great writer, and he had to do everything he could to become a great writer. And I think that, in some respect, it took some of the fun out of life for him. He was never able to have a happy relationship or marriage with a woman. Even his friendships were often troubled. Let’s move on to some other questions, and maybe something will pop into my unconscious. I’m sure there were some happy times in his life.
What was the happiest moment in his life?
GN: Well, happy, I would say the happiest time would be when Jack was living in Mill Valley with Gary Snyder, when they lived in that little shack on the hilltop, in 1956. It’s funny, because I visited that place very recently. There was a film crew from France out here three or four weeks ago. They were from French national television, and they were doing a special on Kerouac, which is supposed to run, I think, this weekend, because of the release of On the Road. They wanted to see the place where Kerouac had lived. So I called the man who had owned the property at that time; he’s in The Dharma Bums. His real name is Locke McCorkle. Jack calls him a “Buddhist carpenter”; he gives him the name “Sean Monahan” in the book. Locke McCorkle is still alive; he’s 82 years old, and he’s hardy and strong. I called him up, and he took us, me and the film crew, to the place where Jack’s cabin had been. The house at the bottom of the hill is still there; that’s the house where Locke lived with his wife and children. But we had to hike up about 1,000 meters; the cabin had been high up in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais. We hiked up there, and we saw where the foundation had been. The cabin is gone, but you could see where it sat. It was wonderful; it was funny. It was wonderful because you could feel the peace there. We stood in the very spot where Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder had lived—where they’d written and read little scriptures and made honey tea for each other. We stood in that place, and you could feel the magic and the peace and the joy. I think that was really the happiest time for Jack, but he couldn’t sustain that. That kind of quiet Buddhist meditation. For a few months, he had had a little bit of fun, a little bit of happiness, poetry, writing, peacefulness. And maybe he would have lived longer if he could have sustained it. But that was in the spring of 1956—when he lived like a Chinese wandering poet in the mountains, in that little cabin in Mill Valley. Which is not far from where I am right now, as I talk to you on the telephone. Because I live in Corte Madera, which is the next town over from Mill Valley. I go down for coffee every day in Mill Valley, to what is called the Book Depot. It’s now a café and bookstore, but it used to be the Greyhound bus station. It’s the exact place where Jack arrived, when he first came to Mill Valley, which he wrote in The Dharma Bums. I go down there for coffee every day, and sometimes I think about it; I picture him getting off the bus there and walking down Miller Avenue to the property on Montford where the cabin was. Happiness was in front of him. At that point, there was a lot of happiness in front of him.
Gerald Nicosia on rue Bivouac Napoleon, Paris, photo by Noemie Sornet
What motto of the Beat Generation would you like to remain forever?
GN: I’m not sure they had any mottos, but they did have beliefs and values. Jack would say, “We’re all in heaven now, but we don’t know it.” There’s profoundness to that. Because what it means is that we don’t have to be striving. All these people that are bound up with capitalism and fiercely trying to save the economy in America—Jack would see them all as deluded. We’re trying to save our economy, and the bankers are trying to make more money, while everybody else is broke. The bankers are trying to get richer, striving for all these crazy goals, while everybody else is trying to survive. America is trying to conquer the people in Afghanistan, and Jack says we’re all in heaven already. What that means is we have everything we need. The peace in our heart, the love we have for other people, we can have all of that and it’s free! It doesn’t cost you anything to love other people. It doesn’t cost you anything to look at nature, to see the beauty of God’s world. We have all of that already. If people could only realize we already have everything we need, there’d be an end to all wars. Yeah, we’re going to have some bad days. Yeah, we got to have a roof over our head, but that’s just a temporary need. You work a little bit, and you make that happen. But we don’t need all this crazy striving, striving, striving—because it just ends up destroying the planet and destroying other people. I like that saying of Jack Kerouac’s: we are all already in heaven. We have it all already. If we just realize that God has given us everything and enjoy that. Enjoying the consciousness of the moment is all we have. People think, “Oh, I have to have a billion dollars in the bank!” It’s really nothing, you know? An atom bomb explodes, and where is your billion dollars? It’s gone! But the consciousness of the moment, you and I are talking here on the phone, Mixalis … this is all there is for us right now. What if I had a million dollars in the bank? It means nothing this moment—it’s not here with us. But you and I, we’re connecting right now—we’re talking, right? Our voices are connecting; our minds are connecting—that’s all there is. And that’s what Kerouac means by “we’re all in heaven already.” The other stuff doesn’t even exist. It’s all fantasy. Consciousness right now each moment, we have that, God gave that to us. We don’t have to make crazy wars and try to take over Wall Street and all of this other crazy stuff.
How would you characterize the philosophy of the beatniks?
GN: You live for the moment right now; you live by the heart, by your feelings. It’s anti-materialism. You don’t try to achieve a million dollars, five houses, and ten Lamborghinis. You live for your friends, for loving other people and being creative and writing poetry and making paintings or somehow being creative using the life that God gave you. To live a creative, full life—not to amass things, not to amass material things. It’s anti-war, anti-materialism; it’s peace and brotherhood, love, acceptance of other people, tolerance for other people, tolerance for other religions, tolerance for other races, tolerance for different kinds of sexual behavior. We have to embrace one another; it’s the only way we can survive on this planet.
Artwork by Alex Bustillo
What do the blues mean to you? How close is the Blues to Beat culture?
The blues is an original form of American music, which came from the southern life of black people in this country, who were brought here as slaves, and even after slavery had a very difficult existence, oppression and poverty and discrimination and so forth. And out of that suffering—art always comes from suffering, I think I said that earlier—out of that suffering black people created an original music which comes deep from their feelings, deep from the heart. To sing the blues, you have to feel the blues. You can’t just sing the lyrics; it’s not like taking a pop tune and anybody can sing it. You can have ten different singers interpreting a pop tune. To sing the blues, you have to feel it, it has to come from your heart. You have to feel the pain, the suffering and sometimes joy too. So the blues is very close to Beat writing because it does come from the depths of human feelings and experience and all of the things poor people have gone through. Beat writing and the blues are very similar. And the thing about the blues, if you know the music and you hear a blues, you know right away if it’s authentic or not. If you hear an imitation blues you can tell it’s not authentic, but if you hear someone singing a blues and really feeling it, you know right away, this is authentic. It’s the same thing with Beat writing. Lots of people are trying to imitate Beat writing, but it isn’t Beat writing. Because it doesn’t have the same depths; it doesn’t come from the depths of suffering and feeling. But if you look at all the Beat writers, they all suffered enormously. Kerouac was in a madhouse during World War II. His father died a painful death of cancer. His brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of ten. Ginsberg was struggling with his homosexuality; Burroughs was struggling with a lot of things, not the least his lifelong addiction to hard drugs. They were all suffering profoundly, and their art came out of that. That was the genuine ground of the Beat art. Gregory Corso was in jail at a young age. Jack Micheline was in a madhouse for awhile. All of these people experienced enormous suffering, and like many of the blues singers were also on drugs or in the madhouse. The suffering is where the art comes from, so that why the blues is so very close to Beat writing.
At the end of Jack’s life, he was so quiet. Everybody knows Allen Ginsberg’s opinion about the Vietnam War, but what was Jack’s opinion about Vietnam?
GN: It’s been very much misunderstood, because he’s been portrayed as a right-winger. I don’t think that’s true. I mean, I think he felt very rejected by the New York intellectual world at the end of his life. A lot of the critics there, so-called good liberals like Norman Podhoretz, really attacked Kerouac. They called him anti-intellectual and a sponsor of juvenile delinquency. Because he was so attacked by the world of literary intellectuals, Kerouac put on the armor of pretending “I’m just a mill-worker from Lowell.” He would say, “You guys can make fun of me, but I’m a good hard-working American like my father.” He would adopt some of the prejudices of his parents—the anti-Semitism, for example—as a kind of protective armor. Or call it a protective coloration, so that people couldn’t see what was really in his heart. He was afraid of being attacked for his sensitivity, so he pretended he was a tough, crude mill-worker. He did not believe in the war in Vietnam. In fact, he said it was a conspiracy between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese to get American jeeps—and he wasn’t so far from wrong! Of course, the U.S. government was pouring American machinery and products into that country, and Vietnam’s economy was getting boosted by all the stuff we were bringing them, a lot of which ended up getting sold on the black market. People made billions of dollars on that war—while millions of people were dying. In fact, Kerouac coached his nephew, Paul Blake, Jr., to avoid the draft. Paul told me that. In World War II, Kerouac had served in the Merchant Marine. He felt that was a just war, but he told his nephew: “Don’t go to Vietnam.” He showed him how to avoid the draft, so I don’t think he was pro-Vietnam War. And the thing is, he was working-class, and so he identified with the soldiers, the draftees. He called in to a radio show that was on the air in Boston—and this is mentioned in my book Memory Babe—where Noam Chomsky, the famous anti-war activist, was being interviewed. Chomsky is a great intellectual; he taught at MIT; he created transformational grammar. He was and still is a very anti-war person, very brainy. Anyway, he was on the air, and he was spouting out, preaching against the war. Jack Kerouac called in to the radio show, and he said, “It’s fine to talk against the war, but somebody has to say a word for the poor grunts that are fighting the war and slogging through the mud in Vietnam.” Because, you see, Jack was working-class, and the guys fighting the Vietnam War were almost all working-class. Because if you were drafted, and you were rich enough to hire a doctor or a psychiatrist, you could get a deferment. That’s basically the truth. The working-class fought the Vietnam War; mostly, the rich kids did not go and fight that war. It was mostly the sons of factory workers who went and did the dirty work and got killed over there. And so Jack said, “Whatever you say about the war, say a good word for those poor kids, those young guys that are slogging through the mud fighting the war.” He felt the pain of those working-class kids that had to go to Vietnam and fight the war. That’s what he was thinking about—not that he was a warrior, or that he loved warriors. He was never pro-war. He didn’t believe in killing anybody; and in World War II, he laid down his rifle on the drill field in the Navy, and they put him in the Navy madhouse because he couldn’t kill anybody.
Jack Kerouac was more of a ghost or a human?
GN: He was a mystic. He read a lot of mystical texts like Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa. He believed in Buddhism to some extent too. He believed that human life was not real. That it was insubstantial because it was always passing away—people were always dying, things were always changing and of course transient. It’s a fact in human life that that things keep passing away. A lot of people don’t want to think about that because it is not pleasant to think about death or dying. But profound people, philosophers and mystics, often think about death. It is an absolute reality that we do, our flesh does pass away. The room where I’m sitting won’t be here forever; the room you’re sitting in won’t be there forever either. And so Kerouac had an awareness of that, and in some ways it made him somehow inhuman, because you know it isn’t easy for us to be around people like that. We want to be with somebody who says, “Oh, let’s go drink, let’s go and eat, let’s go and have a big meal, Mixalis! Let’s eat, drink, and be merry!” But if you’re around someone who’s saying, “Think about death. Look at death. We’re going to pass away”—we don’t want to hear that, you know! So many people felt like, well, Jack is somehow inhuman because he keeps on talking about death. But he was a prophet. He was a mystic, and that’s his role in life. Naturally it did take away from some of the joy, some of the humanness of this life. He was on a mission, and he said that many times: “I’m here on this earth to write books—that’s all I’m here for. I’m here to tell you the truth; then I go, then I leave.” It’s a hard way to live, a hard way to be. But all writers and prophets have some degree of that sadness about them, but he had more than most. I knew Gregory Corso very well, and Gregory Corso was a great poet, but he also spent a lot of time just getting laid with women and drinking and having fun and being out on the street getting his kicks, hanging out with people he liked, and so forth. You know, you could see Gregory going from bar to bar; he would be laughing and joking with the women, and he liked to live too. And he lived longer than Kerouac; he lived to 70. You know, I think that maybe the ones who joke, who take life a little easier, they live longer. Kerouac was so intense, because he was so focused on the reality of life, which is death, mortality, and it made it hard on him to live.
What happened with Stella Sampas?
GN: It’s a sad situation, you know. The only woman in Jack’s life—meaning, the only woman he really cared about—was his mother. He was totally tied to his mother; he was totally dominated by his mother. It affected him in terms of the fact that he never had a good marriage with anybody. And when his mother had a stroke in 1966, which paralyzed her, left her unable to walk, she refused to go into a nursing home. She said, “Jackie, you have to take care of me at home.” Jack was the King of the Beats; he’s a wild man, he’s a drunk, and he knew he couldn’t be at home changing bed pans for his paralyzed mother. So he went to see Doris Kerouac, who was the wife of his cousin Harvey, and Harvey was the son of his Uncle Joe, who was his father Leo’s brother. He went to see Doris, and he asked her, “Can you please take care of my mother?” Doris’s daughter Colette has told me this story—Doris is now dead, but Colette is still alive. Doris had one son and several daughters. Jack told her, “I need you to take care of my mother—I don’t know what to do with her.” And Doris Kerouac had four children of her own, plus she was also taking care of her elderly mother-in-law, Jack’s favorite Aunt Leontine. She had a whole house full of people. She said, “Jack, I’ve got too many; I can’t take care of your mother.” And he said, “But I’m desperate! I don’t know what I’m gonna do! I can’t take care of her myself. She won’t go into a nursing home; she’s refusing.” And so, as a last resort, he went to see Stella Sampas, who was the older sister of his best friend Sammy Sampas, who was killed in World War II. Stella had never gotten married; she was a virgin at 51. She’d had a crush on Jack since her youth, since the days when Jack used to come to their house on Stevens Street to visit her brother Sammy. She was not a smart woman; she had worked in a laundry for much of her life, and had also cared for both her ailing parents before they died. But she was a decent person, and when he asked, “Would you take care of my mother?” she said, “Yes, but only if you marry me.” So he married her to take care of his mother, which is the wrong reason to marry somebody. Anyway, it didn’t work out. She didn’t understand him. She wanted him to stay home and write every day from 9 to 5, and he couldn’t do that. He was used to going out on five- and six-day benders—just roaring all over town, getting drunk, sleeping a few hours on somebody’s floor, and then hitting the bars all over again. She would hide his clothes to keep him from going out, but he’d go out anyway in his pajamas—he got arrested a couple of times for that. Then she tried hiding his shoes, but he’d go out barefoot and have somebody buy him shoes. The guy who told me that story, Ronny Lowe in Florida, still remembered the size of Jack’s shoes—8 ½ triple E, and he preferred Thom McCann’s. It was like escaping from jail—he’d find a way to get out, no matter what. In Lowell she had her six brothers, and she would send them out looking for him, and when they’d catch him, they’d bring him back to her. Finally, down in Florida, he tried to divorce her, but he died before the divorce went through. His lawyer, Fred Bryson, testified to that (Bryson later became a judge in Florida). But he did live long enough to disinherit Stella. He changed his will, and left everything to his mother Gabrielle, “Memere,” who was still alive at that time (1969), but was lying paralyzed in a bed. Stella and her Greek brothers held on to the old lady for four years, till she died in 1973. Then they filed a forged will, which left Gabrielle’s whole estate, which included all of Jack’s literary properties, to Stella. It’s now been proven in court in Pinellas County, Florida, that that will was a forgery. The first decision of forgery was made in July 2009, and the final appellate ruling, affirming that the will is a forgery, was made in August 2011. The handwriting analyst couldn’t say for sure, but he said it was probably Stella who had made the forgery. He said it looked like Stella’s handwriting. In other words, they filed a forged will to leave everything to themselves. In the meantime, Paul Blake, Jr., Jack’s nephew, the son of Jack’s deceased sister Caroline, had come down to Florida to try and take custody of Gabrielle, who was his grandmother. The Sampases chased him off, and threatened to call the police on him. He was barely 20 years old, was already drinking heavily, and didn’t have the stamina to fight them. And so the young kid went back to Alaska, where he was in the Air National Guard for a while. They didn’t notify him or Jan Kerouac, the other grandchild of Gabrielle, when the old lady died. They got away with it for a long time, because neither grandchild saw the will until late in 1993, when I got hold of a copy of the will and showed it to Jan, who noticed that her grandmother’s name was misspelled! Now it looks like they’re going to get away with it again, because the people who currently control Jack’s estate inherited it through Stella’s will, a good will, and not through the forged will of Gabrielle. Stella died in 1990 and left everything to her brothers and sisters. It turns out that Florida law says you can inherit and keep anything, even stolen property, if no one complains within two years. It’s called a “non-claim statute.” Stella died in 1990, and Jan didn’t see the forged will till almost 1994, so the two-year period for her to complain had already passed. That means John Sampas, the youngest brother, who was voted by the other brothers and sisters to be the executor of Jack’s estate, will continue controlling all of Jack’s literary properties, even though the court now designates them as having been stolen! It’s outrageous, especially since Jack’s nephew, Paul Blake, Jr., still lives in a trailer in Arizona, with his own large family, who are all really poor. His son, Paul Blake III, has back problems and can’t work. Paul III’s wife and son have medical problems. It’s an absolute tragedy, and Sampas is so greedy he won’t even hand over a little of the money, from an estate valued at over thirty million dollars, to help them.
The Sampases are still reaping in millions and millions of dollars, and now that On the Road is being distributed as a movie, I’m sure the book will sell another million copies, and all that money will go to the Sampas family, the robbers. Understand, that’s not just me saying that, calling them “robbers.” It has now been established in court that Jack Kerouac’s estate was stolen. And Paul Blake, Jr., will continue living in his trailer with his son and his grandchildren, with no money for his own health problems and nearly starving to death. Something is wrong in a country where law miscarries so badly. Justice has not been served. As far as Stella, she was the good Greek daughter, the good Greek sister. You’re Greek, so I don’t have to tell you that in a Greek family, the women serve the men. In this family, you had a family of really tough Greek men; the men ran Nicky’s Bar. Nicky’s, where I spent many nights when I was working on Memory Babe, was the dirtiest dive you could imagine. It was a center of prostitution in Lowell, a center of bookie operations and other small-time crimes. A guy named Pancho Gonzales, a famed Brinks robber, was just one of the people who hung out there. There was topless and bottomless dancing every night. These guys, the Sampases, were tough guys who ran a criminal operation. I knew some of them. I knew Nick Sampas, who owned the bar, and Tony Sampas, who was the biggest bookie in Lowell. I can still see Tony with a cigarette dangling from his lips, counting money after the bar closed. They were not big-time mafia; they were small-time mafia. But they were tough guys, and I’m sure that Stella was the dutiful sister. As I said, she had taken care of her mother and father most of her life. (The Sampas father, by the way, had gone to prison for killing a man in a Greek dice game in Lowell; when he got out of jail, he was a broken man.) And I’m sure that the brothers told her, “Look, Stella, we need to have a way of keeping all of Jack’s stuff. You gotta sign this will.” And I think, being a good Greek daughter and sister, she went and did what her family asked her to do. I don’t think that she was an evil person. I think that those brothers who were engineering this crime were doing some evil. But somehow they justified it to themselves that they were, you know, more deserving than Jack’s daughter or Jack’s nephew.
If Jack Kerouac could go back and relive his life, what things would he do better and what things would he avoid doing again?
GN: I think if he was able to go back in his life and redo some things, he would not have let his mother dominate his life so strongly, because that really prevented him from having a happy marriage. It kept him from being a father to Jan Kerouac. I think he would have been a better father. I think he felt very guilty about not taking care of her, felt guilty that he wasn’t a father to Jan, because he used to carry her picture secretly in his wallet, and he showed it to certain people. He showed it to Paul Blake, Jr.: “Look, you have a cousin … but shhh!!! Don’t tell anyone!” He also showed it to his friend John Clellon Holmes. Holmes told me many years ago, when I interviewed him, that Jack pulled out the photo of Jan, which was hidden behind some other photos in his wallet, and said, “Here’s my daughter.” So he knew, even though publicly he said that Jan was not his daughter, he knew that she was his daughter. And I think he felt great guilt that he had not taken care of her. I think if he had his life to do over again, he would have said, “Mom, you have your own life. I’ll pay your rent, but you know what? I gotta get married, I gotta have a family, I gotta have my own life. I’m gonna take care of my daughter.” Part of it I think came out of his depression. I think he was a very depressed man. He had seen too much suffering early in his life—you know, the death of his brother, the death of his father. He saw a lot of death in World War II. A lot of his friends were killed in World War II. He had a very dark feeling about life and felt that life was all unhappiness, and that depression affected all his relationships. He didn’t reach out to other people. He stayed alone; he didn’t reach out to his own daughter. Because I know that Jan loved him, and if he had reached out, she would have been overjoyed to be able to help him, to spend time with him. I think if he could do it all over again, he would maybe believe that life was not so bad and try to have a little more happiness and a little more connection with other people. He gave us very great books, but his own life was not a happy life. It’s not a good life for us to model our lives on; it’s not a good life to imitate.
For you, Gerald, which was the best moment of your career, and which was the worst? Gerald at Shakespeare & Co, photo by Noemie Sornet
GN: Well, first, Mixalis, let me say, my career is not over—so I hope there will be a lot more moments to come! The worst moment—that’s easy. It was when Jan Kerouac and I got dragged by police out of NYU, during the conference on Jack Kerouac in June 1995. They told us ahead of time that they didn’t want us to come there. The Sampas family was controlling that whole conference, because they controlled the Kerouac copyright permissions, and Jan was in the process of suing them for having forged her grandmother’s will. But she was his daughter, and it was outrageous that she was banned from a conference about her own father! And I was his biographer—his best biographer, as many people have said. So we each bought $140 tickets; and then at the very beginning of the conference, when Allen Ginsberg took the microphone, Jan stood up and said to Allen, who was on stage, “You know, we need to talk about preserving Jack’s papers”—because at that time, the Sampases were selling them off piecemeal to collectors and dealers all over the world. John Sampas was sitting in the audience next to Helen Kelly, the programs director of NYU; and as soon as Jan asked Allen for a chance to speak, John Sampas stood up and said, “Get her out of here!” NYU needed his permission to put on the conference. And so the police grabbed her and started dragging Jan out. And I stood up and said, “You can’t take Jack Kerouac’s daughter out of a conference about Jack Kerouac!” Sampas pointed his finger at me and said, “Get him out of here too!” So we were both dragged out of the conference. And Allen Ginsberg was on the stage, waving the police on, encouraging them to take us out. “They’re irrelevant!” said Ginsberg. Jan never forgave him for that—because in 1983, at a ceremony in Boulder, he had become her Buddhist godfather. And I had a hard time forgiving him too. Jan had been hurt deeply once, by her own father, and now her Buddhist godfather was stabbing her in the heart too. And of course, the ironic thing is that now we know who the real criminals were. But it was a terrible moment. Jan was devastated, and I was of course devastated. As far as the happiest moment personally in my life, it was when I adopted my two children; those were the happiest moments in my life. My daughter Amy is from China—her Chinese name is Wuji, and she’s almost 18. I went to China to adopt her. My son is African-American. He’s from Texas, and he is now 15. Those were my happiest personal moments. My happiest career moment was when I was in Cannes, France, for the premiere of On the Road. This was in May 2012. After the premiere of the movie, I was invited to the after-party, which was at a club in Cannes called The Magic Garden Meets the Baron. It’s a funny name, because the club has a rooftop garden, but it’s also apparently trying to imitate a famous club in Paris called The Baron. Several hundred people were there celebrating the movie. Of course the women were wearing the most beautiful gowns and dresses that you can imagine, and the men wore tuxedos. Kristen Stewart was there. At first I mingled with people, but then I went and sat by myself, off to the side of the dancefloor, and I watched all these beautiful people talking and dancing and drinking at a bar which adjoined the dancefloor. Jack would often sit to the side like that too, at parties and big events. So I guess I was playing Jack a little bit. But as I sat there watching all these beautiful people dancing under the strobe lights, flinging their bodies about to the pounding music, having the time of their life celebrating his work, I thought, Jack should have been alive to see this! He died in poverty; he died in sadness; he died alone. And now we have all of these beautiful people here dancing and celebrating his work. It was a moment of ecstasy, but I felt a little bit of sadness that he wasn’t there. It was a triumph for Jack Kerouac. But it was also a little bit of a triumph for me too, because I’ve pushed for his work and promoted his work all of my life. Because I’ve worked for all these years for people to recognize him as a great writer. When I first started writing about Jack Kerouac, as I told you, nobody was teaching him. There was almost no college in the United States in the 1970’s that was teaching Jack Kerouac. Of course there was Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa Institute. And there was a Lowell guy named Jay McHale who was teaching Kerouac at Salem State College in Massachusetts. But other than that, nothing. And I know that my book, Memory Babe, helped push that recognition forward. Walter Salles even used my book when he was making the movie of On the Road. And he used me as an advisor, so this was partly my triumph too. I felt a sense of triumph to realize that now Jack Kerouac has broken through—his work has finally broken through to the mainstream. And it will break through even further as this movie circulates and becomes distributed to other countries. The movie is going to bring Jack Kerouac’s name all over the planet. It was a great moment of celebration and happiness and joy.
What’s the legacy of all these legendary Jack’s adventures? Mostly spiritually.
G.N: The legacy of Kerouac—if writers can have a legacy, since the politicians dominate the world more than the artists—I think it is to break through the wall of hype, advertising, political slogans, social dogma, and so forth, and to let the human heart speak and be heard again. Also, to encourage others to let their own heart speak. When the heart speaks, we do not kill one another—we don’t make wars, we don’t have death penalties. The only hope for the human race is to build a stronger community, more love between all people. This cannot happen without the heart being heard and listened to. Jack Kerouac helps us in that direction—that is all. He could not do it all by himself. But to do it, even a little, is a great accomplishment, and only the greatest artists have done this for us, generation after generation. Think of Beethoven. Think of Picasso. Think of Lorca. Think of Kerouac.
Gerald Nicosia with the cast of movie "On the Road" at Beat Boot camp, Montreal, July 2010.
What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the Beat “family”?
G.N: Many of the Beats are dead. Many of the still-living ones have “sold out” to become rich and famous, to “play the game,” as my friend poet Jack Micheline used to say. I won’t name names. If Kerouac were still alive, I don’t think he would have sold out. I think he would still be down at the local sports bar, talking about art and music and politics with his fellow workingmen. The Beat family is not so close together any more. It used to be, I could call any one of them (Gregory Corso, Harold Norse, Bob Kaufman, Janine Pommy Vega, many others) on the phone any time of day or night, and they would talk to me. Now I call, and their secretary says, “So-and-so is busy—they will get back to you.” But they don’t get back. I miss that closeness. The heart is shutting down again—it is part of the cruelty and materialism of our age. We need for Jack Kerouac to be alive again among us—or a new Jack Kerouac!
What are some of the most memorable interviews (over 300 people who knew Jack Kerouac) you’ve had?
G.N: Oh, there were too many memorable interviews. It would take me hours to tell you this. Since I finally got all the interviews back from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where I put them for study, but where they locked them up instead (because of threats from John Sampas), I can listen to them again, and maybe I will publish them as a book. Let’s say the interview with Lu Anne Henderson (“Marylou”) was the most memorable, or at least one of the top ones. You can read the whole interview in my new book ONE AND ONLY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF ON THE ROAD (published by Viva Editions in Berkeley. Please buy a book and help me out!)
Do you remember anything funny or interesting from Gregory Corso?
G.N: Again, too many memories to tell them all here. I remember how, in North Beach one evening, Gregory Corso had no money (as usual) and asked me to take him to dinner. We went to Little Joe’s on Broadway, and Corso was riotously funny, as he always was. He brought his own golden tequila into the restaurant, and the waitress tried to take it away from me. “You can’t bring your own alcohol into the restaurant!” she admonished him. “This isn’t alcohol, it’s ichor!” Gregory replied, and kept drinking. After dinner, he told me, “I’ll stay with you all night, and keep teaching you things, as long as you keep paying the bills.” So we spent several hours together, one of the greatest times I ever had, as Corso gave me his impression and wisdom about everyone and every place we went, and told me a nonstop stream of colorful stories from his life. Then, when I had paid for the last drink, and my pocket was empty, maybe about two in the morning, Gregory said, “Okay, I gotta go now!” and he left! This was in about 1980. I was only 30 years old, but in one night I had learned more about people and life than I had learned in many years before.
How you would spend a day with Jack? What would you like to ask Jack? What advice would you give to him?
G.N: I would like to spend a day with Jack at a baseball game, and the night with him at a jazz club. He loved sports and he loved jazz, and most of all he loved being with ordinary people. I would like to ask him what in his life made him the happiest, because often he did not seem very happy. The advice I would give him would be to take care of himself—to not drink too much, to try to stay alive. But he probably wouldn’t have listened to me. He was following his own destiny—as we all do.
Gerald Nicosia - Official website
Gerald Nicosia reading in the library, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, August 31, 2012. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare and Company
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