a proposed article
The Misadventures of Joan and Bill
William S. Burroughs, the "Gentleman Junky," destroyed the boundaries of
literature in 1959 with his novel Naked Lunch. Stretching and forcing the edges
of prose to rupture into a nonlinear universe of science fiction horror,
addiction, and eroticism. Naked Lunch takes us through the Interzone into a
world where fact and fiction mingle and no one is as he seems. Agents run from
report to report ratting out their fellow junkies and feverishly avoiding the
ultimate in Control institutions waiting around ever corner to eradicate the
concept of "self" and individuality. The relationships between Jack Kerouac,
Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs represent the majority of information
readers have regarding the foundation of the "Beat" movement of the 1950's and
60's. However, this is only part of the story. In 1944, William Burroughs met
the individual that would truly change his life forever, Joan Vollmer. Their
turbulent and tragic relationship spanned a decade ending with Joan's premature
death at the hands of her partner in crime, addiction, and parenthood. This
accidental slaying thrust Burroughs into his lifelong struggle against demons
whose tortures he could only purge through writing.
An old Castagraf radio, circa 1949, crackles and stutters across static
frequencies settling in on tonight's story...
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring
you 'The Misadventures of Joan and Bill!' Brought to you by our friends at Bob
Johansen’s Television Repair in Greensboro, North Carolina. And now, on with
The searing heat of a New York summer, 1944, wrestles the body into
submission. Joan Vollmer sits with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Edie
Parker discussing the newest addition to Allen's collection of poetry. There is
a knock at the door. A thin man darkens the doorway in a suit and tie, donning
a grey, weathered fedora. The man is Bill Burroughs. The room jumps to life as
Bill enters. Joan is introduced to the mild-mannered and intense individual.
"Pleased to meet you Joan." Bill responds politely. Bill comes from the
remnants of the socially unacceptable heirs to the Burroughs Adding Machine
fortune. He grew up in St. Louis Missouri and moved to New York City on a whim
with longtime friend Lucien Carr in 1938. Bill recently made the acquaintance
of a young hoodlum and heroin addict by the name of Herbert Huncke. As a result
of this friendship, Bill began experimenting with Morphine and other opiates.
By this time he had developed quite a habit, especially for Heroin. Jack and
Allen were openly behind Bill meeting Joan. Allen felt that Bill and Joan,
"were a match for each other. Equally funny, tuned, witty, well read, and
intelligent." Joan and Bill shared an instant rapport, and when Jack and Edie
left the apartment, Bill took the spare room. He and Joan became lovers.
Joan hailed from a prosperous family in Albany, New York, and had returned to
Columbia University the following year after giving birth to her daughter Julie.
She met Jack and Allen at the university, and their influences on one another
had prompted the three to begin individual pursuits in poetry, prose and art.
With Jack, Joan, Allen, and Bill living under the same roof, the foundations of
the Beat Movement began to take form.
Joan began a romance with Benzedrine inhalers, a form of amphetamine, and was
soon completely dependent on them. You see, addicts have a bond between them.
They understand each other and tolerate each other's actions on a level that
non-addicts usually never reach. For most, love is the tie that binds, for Joan
and Bill it was addiction. It takes an addict to love an addict. Bill and Joan
were steeped heavily in their subjective prisons of addiction, sharing each
other's pain and understanding it, as most cannot.
The shenanigans of the 115th St. group began drawing attention from the police
and the living situation slowly deteriorated. Bill took to shooting up
unabashedly in the living room. Herbert used the apartment as a storehouse for
stolen property, while Jack danced with his own Benzedrine demons. Joan took so
much Benzedrine that she hallucinated for an entire week that their downstairs
neighbor was plotting to kill his wife, and that all of their surrounding
neighbors were suspicious of the rampant drug abuse occurring in the apartment.
As you can see, the unity of creative ideas in this household was quickly
falling prey to its occupants’ vices.
Bill was arrested for forging prescriptions and after posting his own bail,
began robbing drunks in the subway with Herbert. When his hearing came in June
he was released into the custody of his father. Quite a shameful condition for
a man in his late thirties. Bill returns to St. Louis with his father, leaving
Joan and Julie behind in New York. With Bill away, Joan is left to attend to
the rent on her own. The loneliness caused by her lover's absence drove her to
frenzied abuse of Benzedrine inhalers and Joan collapsed under amphetamine
psychosis. She was hospitalized in Bellevue and was the first female case of
amphetamine psychosis in the hospital’s history. Julie is sent to stay with a
relative while Joan is held for ten days of detoxification. Allen packed in the
115th St. apartment just short of being evicted. Allen wrote a desperate letter
to Bill expressing his concern for Joan, and Bill immediately left for New York.
He and Joan spent a week visiting art museums and galleries, as if on vacation,
having the time of their lives. Perhaps enjoying, for the first time, an
intimate period together away from outside influences and problems. During this
time, William Burroughs III is conceived in a Times Square hotel room. The bond
between Bill and Joan is strengthened
With a son on the way, Bill devised a plan to leave New York with Joan. While
in St. Louis, Bill met up with his old friend Kells Elvins. Kells owned 100
acres of cotton plantation and 10 acres of citrus grove in Pharr, Texas nestled
on the Mexican border. Kells suggested that Bill come in on the deal with him.
Bill’s parents approve of the idea and purchase 50 acres for him which Bill and
Kells developed. Bill and Kells traveled to Texas and set the wheels in motion.
Each day he and Kells drove around looking at the cotton. Neither man knew the
first thing about the operation, and relied on illegal Mexican laborers to keep
it running. At exactly 5 PM everyday drinks were served. Kells would beat on a
pan, and the neighbors came running. Once the plantation was underway, Bill
returned to New York and asks Joan to join him in Texas. She is all too happy
to accept. They purchase a cabin outside of Waverly, Texas, with no running
water and no electricity. The property sloped down into swampland and was
plagued by scorpions, chiggers, ticks and armadillos. Bill built a cistern to
collect rainwater and they lived by the light of kerosene lamps and candles.
They can finally live without outside interference. Joan, Bill, and Julie
became a family.
Kells ran the plantation while Bill looked after Joan. With Joan pregnant,
Bill decided it would be helpful to have another hand around the house. He
employed Herbert, who had recently been released from prison, to come to Texas
and live with them. Huncke mends fences, carries water, and tends to the house.
His most important function is running back and forth to Houston to purchase
marijuana seeds for Bill’s crop and Benzedrine inhalers for Joan. Every morning
Bill, in his typical suit and tie, drove into Waverly to collect official
papers, and mail. In the evenings, Bill and Joan relaxed on their porch in the
soft Texas air while Huncke grilled steaks and Julie played in the yard. They
find peace in the solitude, and waited for the coming day swimming in the sweet
melodies of Viennese waltzes by kerosene lamplight. Years later, in a newspaper
style manuscript titled “Coldspring News", Bill reflects on their lifestyle and
says, “Man, are we ever in Hicksville!”
On July 21, 1947, Joan knocked on Bill’s door. “I think it’s time.” Bill
drove her into Waverly at 3 AM and William S. Burroughs III made his appearance.
Despite making no prenatal arrangements during her pregnancy, Billy III’s birth
was uncomplicated and she was able to return home the same day. At the time of
Billy’s birth, Joan was using two Benzedrine inhalers a day, and was forced to
breast feed him. She had made no effort to kick her habit, and her breast milk
was unsuitably saturated with amphetamines. Bill often spent the day cradling
Billy in his arms walking through the house trying to comfort the infant. Billy
experienced withdrawal symptoms immediately and cried out in pain day and night.
Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassidy, who was later immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s
novel On the Road, hitchhiked into town from Denver, Colorado, and stayed with
the family. Allen shipped off to West Africa on a freighter from Houston, and
Neal stayed with Joan and Bill to lend a hand harvesting Bill’s marijuana crop.
At the end of September, Bill put Joan and the children on a train to New York
City. Bill and Neal put the marijuana crop into mason jars and filled the back
of Bill’s jeep with the jars. The next day they started the 1900-mile journey
to New York. Cassidy drove nonstop the majority of the way, covering the
distance in three days. Once in New York, Bill found there was no market for
the uncured marijuana, and had to settle for selling it at a wholesale price to
get rid of it. While in New York, Bill’s parents paid for Bill, Joan and the
children, to stay in a swanky Atlantic City hotel. They felt it would be good
for the children. Bill took up with his old friends in New York, and was soon
neck deep in another bout with opiate addiction. Joan and Bill was right back
where they started.
After the devastating loss Bill had taken on the marijuana, he decided that he
no longer wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, and moved his family to
Algiers, Louisiana. He bought a house just across the Mississippi River from
New Orleans and began riding the ferry across everyday to score for junk
(opiates). His habit increased at an alarming rate, and Bill had to push junk
on the side to keep up with the price of his habit. The stay in Algiers was
short-lived. Bill was busted for possession of heroin. He found a good lawyer,
and was sentenced to a sanitarium where he once again kicked his habit. The
police had seized his car, and illegally searched his home, so the District
Attorney would not prosecute the case. At the time, the mandatory sentence for
possession of narcotics was two to five years in prison. Bill’s lawyer hinted
to him that leaving the country might be a good idea. At the very least, Bill
should leave the state. If he was caught with narcotics again, it carried a
mandatory sentence of seven years. Bill took his lawyer’s advice. Joan, Bill,
Julie, and Billy III moved back to Texas and stayed at Kells Elvins’ ranch.
In 1949, they packed up and left the United States. They settled in Mexico
City, where Bill attended Mexico City College on the GI Bill.
In Mexico, Bill and Joan faced persecution at the hands of their neighbors.
Local children screamed “Vicioso” (junky) at Bill in the streets; however,
Mexico was still less restrictive than the United States. A vast network of
bribes trickled from the highest offices in the government down to the petty
street thug. Bill had less difficulty finding doctors to write prescriptions
for his habit, and found an outlet for his homosexuality by purchasing young
boys for the evening. Joan, however, was unable to get Benzedrine inhalers in
Mexico City and went through several weeks of painful withdrawal. She began
substituting the amphetamine with alcohol, and told Allen in a letter that she
was “Drunk from 8 AM on.”
Joan did not seem to mind Bill’s open homosexuality, or didn’t admit as much in
public, but Bill’s philandering with the young boys of Mexico City drew scorn
from his friend Allen. Bill testily replied to Allen’s judgment by saying, “Now
this business about Joan and myself is downright insane. I never made any
pretensions of permanent sexual orientation. What lie are you talking about?
Like I say, I never promised or even implied anything. How can I promise that
which I cannot give? I am not in control of Joan’s sexual life, never have
been, never pretended to be. There is, of course, an impasse, and cross
purposes that are in all likelihood, not [conducive] to any solution.” Bill was
on and off junk during this period. When he was off, he drank profusely, often
losing his memory of several days in a row, waking up in strange places, and
pulling firearms on strangers in bars. Bill and Joan had drifted apart. They
were still in accord as far as two individuals are that share the bond of
parenthood, but the camaraderie they had shared in the past seemed to be a
distant memory. The unity they felt in Texas had dissolved, and Bill was
pursuing his desires through prostitution, junk, alcohol, and travel. Joan, in
turn, pursued her own desires slipping off to Acalpulco with friends and
spending every waking moment inebriated.
In June, Bill moved his family to 210 Orizabo, apartment 5, in Mexico City.
This locale put them very close to The Bounty, a bar popular with American
expatriates and University students, that was owned by their friend John Healy.
The real motive behind the move was a desperate change of scenery. Their
previous neighbors had turned Bill into the police and the incident cost him
$200 in bribes.
Three months later Bill left his family behind once again and took an
expedition to Ecuador in search of Yage. Yage is a drug that is said to
heighten psychic communication between its users. It was used by South American
tribes to realize visions. The shamans of the tribes were said to effectively
communicate psychically while on Yage. The underlying reason for the expedition
was Bill’s romantic interest in a young man. Bill had developed an obsession
for Lewis Marker, which is chronicled in Burroughs’ novel Queer. Marker,
however, was not homosexual and found Bill’s affections tedious and frightening.
Marker agreed to go on the expedition with Bill on two conditions. The first
being, Bill paid all expenses for the trip, and the second, that Bill limits his
sexual requests to twice a week. The expedition was a disaster, and the drug
was never found. Bill and Marker returned from Ecuador with a strained
friendship and Marker avoided Bill at all costs from then on. Bill fell into a
deep depression as a result of Marker’s rejection.
On September 6, 1951, Joan and Bill’s relationship reached its destructive
pinnacle. Bill took a knife he had purchased in Ecuador to be sharpened, and as
he walked down the street he suddenly felt tears running down his face. He
found it difficult to breathe and was filled with a dreadfully consuming
depression. Bill returned to his apartment and drank through the afternoon.
Joan and Bill were very low on money so Bill arranged through John Healy to
sell a Star .380 automatic handgun to an interested party. Healy arranged for
them to meet at his apartment that evening. At six o’clock Bill and Joan
arrived at Healy’s apartment which was directly above The Bounty. The buyer had
not arrived, but there was a drinking party well underway, so Joan and Bill
stayed and joined the festivities. Bill said of that night, “Because I felt so
terrible, I began throwing down one drink after the other. And then this thing
happened...I was drunk.”
Bill opened his bag and pulled out the .380. Turning to Joan, he said, “I
guess it’s time for our William Tell act. Put a glass on your head.” Joan, who
was also very drunk, laughed and placed a highball glass on her head almost
daring Bill to follow through on his promise of a show. Bill pointed the gun
and pulled the trigger. Joan slumped over in her chair and the glass fell to
the floor undamaged. The bullet pierced Joan’s brain through her forehead
leaving a perfect crimson tunnel. Joan Vollmer was pronounced dead on arrival
at the Red Cross Hospital.
Bill was charged with ‘imprudencia criminal’. He was released on bail, and
required to report to Lecumbere prison every Monday morning. Billy III was sent
to his grandparent’s home in St. Louis, and Julie went to Albany to live with
Joan’s parents. Bill remained in Mexico alone.
From Mexico City, Bill escaped to Tangier, Morocco, where he began the novel
Naked Lunch. Bill said many years later: "I am forced to the appalling
conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death. The
death of Joan brought me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice
except to write my way out." The ghosts of his common-law wife haunted Bill
until his death. Bill felt an indescribable detachment when he took his wife’s
life, as if he were possessed by an entity he was not capable of controlling.
He lived his life desperately trying to remain one step ahead of the demons that
plagued his mind, and the guilt he would never admit to. Some say that Joan
moved in front of the bullet at the last moment, taking control of a life that
was out of control and spiraling faster and faster into nothingness. Some say
Bill couldn’t have missed that shot. He was a marksman, and no stranger to
weaponry. They feel Bill executed the person who was standing in the way of his
freedom. Seeing his responsibility to Joan and their children as the flesh and
blood representation of “control” that Bill spent the rest of his days combating
through his prose. Joan and Bill murdered each other long before he pulled the
trigger on that balmy Mexican evening. When the round left the chamber of the
.380 automatic and found its home in Joan Vollmer, Joan and Bill both lost their
lives. We will never know the truth about Joan’s murder. It is locked in the
buried memories of the “Angel-head Hipstress” and the “Gentleman Junky”
“Thank you for tuning in for ‘The Misadventures of Joan and Bill”. We’ll see
you next week on Live Fast. Die Young. Goodnight...”