Monday, October 19, 2009

Jack Kerouac's death in St. Pete remembered 40 years later

St. Petersburg, Fla. / "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic," the physically bloated and socially awkward writer told the St. Petersburg Times in Oct. 1969. "As you get older you get more ... genealogical."

It would be Jack Kerouac's last interview.

Ten days later Kerouac's handsome, French-Canadian features flanked an obituary as dark as its subject. Newspapers struggled to articulate the 47-year-old's literary brilliance that somehow managed to spiral into self-indulgent madness. Kerouac died in St. Petersburg 40 years ago this week, on Oct. 21, 1969.

John Louis Kerouac was born a child of the Great Depression on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Mass. Years before he would tell the world tales of male lust and cross-country travels, Kerouac would be discharged from a two-month stint with the Navy. The military had diagnosed the 21-year-old with premature dementia.

In 1948 destiny would bring together Kerouac with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs; these men would comprise the core of the Beat Generation, a clique that moved out to San Francisco in search of experimental sex, drugs and free-form literature. Time dubbed Kerouac the "cult leader of post-World War II intellectual vagrants."

"He saw the American dream kind of burst," says Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia. "Kerouac had the virtue of sharing all sides of himself even if they didn't make sense."

He was indeed a conflicted man. A loyal patriot. A devout Catholic. A closeted bisexual. A jealous loudmouth.

A surviving Beat Generation poet remembers his confrontational first meeting with Kerouac in the 1950s.

"He was annoyed that Allen [Ginsberg] had a boyfriend, and I was his boyfriend," Peter Orlovsky, 76, tells the Tampa Liberal Examiner from his Vermont home. "He tried to put his fist through a bathroom wall.

"I loved him, I loved him, I loved him," Orlovsky punctuates with a slow, scratchy voice.

"Publicly, he could never quite open up to it," says Nicosia of Kerouac, who found himself torn between his sexuality and religious faith.

By July 1957 On The Road was just weeks from publication and years from appreciation. Kerouac and his ill mother, Gabrielle, picked up and moved to 1418 ½ Clouser Avenue in Orlando. It was in this cottage Kerouac would write The Dharma Bums.

Over the next decade, Kerouac and his mother bounced from Tampa Bay to Long Island to Cape Cod, where Kerouac once challenged the son of writer Kurt Vonnegut to a fight -- in Vonnegut's kitchen.

"He was crazy," recalls Vonnegut in his autobiography Palm Sunday. "There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man."

Kerouac would marry Stella Sampas in Lowell, Mass. in 1966. A few years later the couple took Kerouac's mother with them to 5169 10th Ave. N. in St. Pete, "the town of the newly wed and the living dead," as Kerouac called it. It was an eerie thing to have been said by a man who would waste away the last eleven months of his life here.

Injuries he suffered during a bar brawl would collide with years of hard, daily drinking. An internal hemorrhage forced blood from Kerouac's throat while he watch television one Monday night.

"The poor guy was in shock from the time he hit the emergency room," a surgeon told reporters.

Attempts to save Kerouac had lasted three hours and nearly depleted the blood bank at St. Anthony's Hospital. He was gone by 5:45 the following morning. St. Pete had been, in Kerouac's words, "a good place to come to die."

Forty years on, Kerouac's estate remains entangled in court. Stella's relatives have controlled Kerouac's image, manuscripts and property since his wife's death in 1990. Kerouac's daughter, Jan, fought for his belongings until she died in 1996. Those on both sides of the battle have estimated the value of the estate at between $20 and $30 million. A Tampa judge, however, ruled in July that the signature on Gabrielle's will -- which left her son's estate to his wife -- had been forged.

"It's clearly misspelled," a pulmonary specialist pointed out in court. "There's an 'i' in there that shouldn't exist."

Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, says he's writing a complete legal history of the 15-year-long case for California Lawyer Magazine.

The Sampas family is appealing the judge's decision, says attorney Alan Wagner, who represents Paul Blake Jr., Kerouac's nephew and last surviving blood relative.

"It is extremely hard to predict the appellate process," adds Wagner. "Hopefully, it will be over soon."

"The last time I was in Lowell, a homeless man reclined against one of the pillars in the Kerouac Commemorative Monument in Kerouac Park," remembers biographer Michael Dittman. "To Jack, the man might have been a Holy Fool, but the tourists averted their eyes, made the conversation little bit louder and did their best to pretend the old man didn’t exist."

"End Of The Road," Steve Rowell and David McElroy's one-man play about Kerouac's last days, premieres Wednesday at American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, on the 40th anniversary of his death.

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