Jan Kerouac’s mother, Joan, met Jan’s father, Jack, through Bill Cannastra. A handsome-as-sin Harvard Law graduate, Cannastra hosted riotous parties. W.H. Auden and his lover Chester Kallman, author-psychotherapist Paul Goodman, painters Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers, folksinger Rambling Jack Elliot, Allen Ginsberg, and Kerouac frolicked at Cannastra’s Manhattan loft. If Joan Haverty and Jack Kerouac met at one of these parties, no Kerouac biography mentions the meeting.
Jan Kerouac. Jack insisted Joan get an abortion. Joan refused. She went back to Albany to her mother. February 16, 1952, Janet Michelle, who would be called “Jan,” was born. Jack was in California with Neal and Carolyn Cassady.
Cannastra and Joan Haverty were introduced when Joan was 18 and Cannastra almost 30. Shy, pretty Joan had escaped to the big city from upstate New York. She wanted excitement. Cannastra, whose mother attempted suicide by swallowing lye, provided it. He drank prodigiously and daily. He was, as people said in those days, “AC/DC,” “swung both ways." He behaved outrageously, strolling nude around the block, Kerouac in jockey shorts right behind him. By 1950, Cannastra and then-20-year-old Joan were lovers.
David Byrne (shown here with Jan Kerouac) has involved himself in the charities for her benefit
October 12, 1950, Cannastra, drunk, on his way home from a party, fell out the subway car window. He was decapitated and then dragged under the train. Joan Haverty moved into Cannastra’s loft, Gerald Nicosia writes in his biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography, “to preserve it.” Which is how she met Jack Kerouac.
Jack, 28 going on 29, had out one book, his first novel. The Town and the City, a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up French-Canadian and poor in Lowell, Massachusetts. His dead father Leo was in the book. So was Gabrielle, his mother, whom Jack and his sister Carolyn called “Mémére.” When Leo, late in 1946, was dying his painful cancer of the spleen death, he made Jack promise that after he was gone, Jack would look after Mémére. Jack promised. He pretty much kept his promise. (“The trouble with you,” William Burroughs would tell Jack, “is you’re tied to your mother’s apron strings.”)
The family of Stella Sampas, Kerouac’s third wife, sold this private 1958 photo to the Gap for a reported $40,000.
The Town and the City's reviews weren’t bad. (New York Times: “rough diamond of a book.”) But few copies sold. Jack’s royalty statement from Harcourt, Brace showed him $665 in the red on the $1000 Harcourt, Brace paid for the book. Jack lived in Queens with Mémére. He smoked lots of marijuana — “tea,” “maryjane,” people called it then. Jack had spent summer and early fall in Mexico with Burroughs, trying to write, smoking tea, and occasionally hyping Burroughs’s morphine. Jack had started his “visions of Neal [Cassady]” and thought the writing greater than any he’d ever done.
As Nicosia recounts the story in Memory Babe, on the night of November 3, three weeks after Cannastra died, Jack was on his way to a party. He stopped under Cannastra’s window. He called up toward the window. Joan stuck her head out, “Yes?” she said. “Who is it?”
“Come on up,” Joan invited, “I’m making hot chocolate.”
Jack ran upstairs. Two weeks later, November 17, with Ginsberg as best man, Jack and pretty Joan Haverty agreed “to love each other madly” and said their I do’s. At the party afterward. Jack drank until he passed out. Next morning, when the newlyweds woke up, Jack asked Joan if he’d made her happy on their wedding night. “Beyond my wildest dreams,” said Joan.
Jack and Joan couldn’t stay in Cannastra’s loft forever. Neither had money to rent another place. So they moved to Queens, in with Mémére. Jack wrote and, when he couldn't write, caroused neighborhood bars. Joan, during Christmas, clerked at Saks.
Mémére liked few of Jack’s friends and none of his women. She wouldn’t have approved of anyone Jack married. Nobody would have been good enough. Joan would later tell Nicosia that Mémére and Jack spoke French, cutting her out of conversations. (Kerouac’s parents were French-Canadian. He spoke only French until he was seven.) Mémére regularly instructed Joan on Jack’s care. Joan, who described herself to Nicosia as rebellious and willful, couldn’t take it.
After Christmas, Joan insisted she and Jack move. Jack agreed. They rented an apartment on West 20th. Joan got a waitress job at Stouffer’s. Jack wrote. According to Nicosia’s book, the couple hoped for children and worried that Joan had not become pregnant. They decided to remain celibate for days at a time, hoping Jack’s sperm would “accumulate.” When they did have intercourse, Joan afterwards did headstands, thinking to improve her chance of fertilization.
Jack, since fall, had been working on what became On the Road. He drank cup after cup of coffee and got going so fast at the typewriter that needing to stick in a new sheet of paper distracted him. April 5, 1951, the day Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for passing A-bomb secrets to Russian spies. Jack decided to forget normal 8.5" x 11" typing paper. Using Scotch tape, he taped together 20-foot strips of paper that Kerouac biographer Ann Charters describes as narrower than typing paper and of a texture like onionskin. (“I never,” Ann Charters said, in a recent interview, “saw any paper like that”) Kerouac had found the paper in Cannastra’s loft. He rolled the first foot of paper into his typewriter and started typing.
When Nicosia interviewed Joan, she told him she and Jack lived on pea soup during those weeks. Every day, when she got home from work she’d make another pot. By April 21, Kerouac had 90,000 words.
“I don’t know how it will be received,” Jack wrote to Neal Cassady. “If it goes over (Giroux waiting to see it) then you’ll know yourself what to do with your own work...blow and tell all. I’ve telled all the road now. Went fast because the road is fast...wrote the whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long...just rolled it through the typewriter and in fact no paragraphs...rolled it out on the floor and it looks like a road.”
Jack paid Joan little attention. He expected her to support them and feed them and keep the apartment clean. She threw him out.
Jack took his On the Road scroll to editor Robert Giroux’s Harcourt, Brace office. (Giroux had been editor of Jack’s Town and the City.) According to Nicosia, Jack unrolled the manuscript out onto Giroux’s carpet. Giroux asked, “How can we edit this?” and Jack, furious, rolled it back up and left. Six years passed before On the Road was published.
Early in June, Joan told Jack she was pregnant. Saying, “Of course, I want children, but not now!” Jack insisted Joan get an abortion. Joan refused. She went back to Albany to her mother. February 16, 1952, Janet Michelle, who would be called “Jan,” was born. Jack was in California with Neal and Carolyn Cassady.
In Selected Letters: 1940-1956, by Jack Kerouac, the letters’ editor, Ann Charters, writes that early in January 1955, Kerouac went to court to contest Joan Haverty’s suit requiring his contribution to their daughter’s support. The case was dismissed, the judge ruling that Kerouac’s phlebitis kept him from working and paying child support. After the hearing, Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg that Joan “showed me pixes of the dotter who I think looks like me...so may be mine.”
Joan Haverty Kerouac had three more children, twin girls and a son. She left New York in the late ’60s. She lived in Washington state and Oregon. After On the Road was published in 1957, Jack became famous. He drank, he wrote, he traveled. No matter where he went, he always went back to Mémére.
Jack would see Jan twice. The first time she was 10. Jack had agreed to take a blood test to prove or disprove his paternity. The test showed he likely was Jan’s father. The second time Jan saw her father she was 15. A year earlier she’d read On the Road, a reading about which she would later say, “It explained a lot to me about the weird way I thought.” And, “The book gave me a picture of what he’d been doing all this time, all over the country, it made more sense he hadn’t had time to be fatherly.” On that second visit, Jan was pregnant and on her way to Mexico, where her child, a girl, was stillborn.
September 1966, Mémére had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. Two months later, then-44-year-old Jack married 48-year-old Stella Sampas, maiden sister of his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas. According to Ann Charters, Stella, who all her life had lived at home in Lowell with her mother, was a virgin when she married Kerouac. “I think,” said Charters, “that the marriage, sexually, was not much for either of them. And he had a terrible temper and wrote awful things about her in many letters and he also wrote wonderful things about her in other letters.”
Kerouac told Ted Berrigan in a Paris Review interview conducted in Lowell in late 1967: “I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night...also kneeling and praying before starting...but now I simply hate to write.... Frankly I do feel my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: That being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties.... What I do now is write something like an average of 8000 words a sitting, in the middle of the night, and another about a week later, resting and sighing in between. I really hate to write.”
In 1968, the Kerouacs — Mémére, Jack, and Stella — moved from Massachusetts to St. Petersburg, Florida. Jack tried to write but could do little. He drank, gazed at television, sang along to tunes on the radio. Nights, he prowled local bars. In the early hours of September 20, 1969, Stella heard Jack crying out from the bathroom. He was vomiting blood. A day later, Jack, 47, was dead.
Kerouac’s earnings in 1969 came to under $2000. His estate, including the St Petersburg house, his letters, and papers, was valued at $53,280, two-thirds of which Kerouac left to his mother (Florida law mandated that one-third go to Stella). Stella cared for Mémére until Mémére’s death in 1973. Mémére’s two-page will left everything to Stella. When Stella died in 1990, she left everything to her four brothers and two sisters (three of the ten original Sampas siblings had died).
“Everything” included Kerouac’s paintings, unpublished manuscripts, some 20 book drafts, including the On the Road scroll, letters, photographs, and journals. “Everything” also included Jack’s clothes, the wool plaid shirts he favored, and the navy blue knit watch caps and baseball caps.
Everything did not include royalties on sales of Kerouac’s books. Federal copyright law mandates that widow or widower and children of the creator of words are entitled to a decedent’s royalties for 75 years after date of author’s copyright. Jan, therefore, after her father’s death, was automatically entitled to half the royalties on all books published by her father during his lifetime. Since 1985, royalties have added up to between $90,000 and $120,000 per year. The entire Kerouac estate, including royalties, currently is valued at as much as $10 million or as little as $1 million.
During the two decades after Kerouac’s death, Stella regularly turned away scholars asking access to Jack’s papers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, whose San Francisco City lights Bookshop was a meeting place and publisher for and of Beat writers, once told a Los Angeles Times reporter that he several times pleaded with Stella to permit him to publish some of Kerouac’s unpublished poetry. “Stella,” Ferlinghetti said, “considered all his Beat friends evil companions who led him astray. She wasn’t a very literary person. She just couldn't be bothered. She was very standoffish.” When writers would ask to interview Stella about her life with Jack, her standard response was, “If you want to know about Jack, read his books.”
Kerouac biographer Ann Charters, who in 1966 met Kerouac in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, when she prepared a bibliography of his work, was not permitted to quote directly from Kerouac’s letters and was forced, she said, in a recent interview, to paraphrase. (See interview with Charters on page 60.)
“Stella,” said Charters, “had lived with Kerouac for three years before he died. She saw him as a man destroyed by a career that had really gone out of control. She was not going to participate in any selling of Kerouac after his death, because she wanted to make a statement about how no one had loved him in his lifetime, so why, after his death, do anything? That was her line to biographers. Whether or not you want to accept it, that was the line. I think at least it was partly true."
In 1991 after Stella’s will was probated. Charters received a telephone call from John Sampas, youngest of the Sampas children. “The family,” said Charters, “had decided to let John be executor and speak for them. Stella had given different books of Jack’s to various members of the family — Tony got On the Road, Benny got The Subterraneans, and so on. John Sampas got all the unpublished stuff.”
Charters said John Sampas telephoned her in Storrs, Connecticut, where she teaches at the University of Connecticut. “He said Stella had told him before her death that [of various Kerouac biographers] I was the one she trusted most of all.” Charters said she was surprised, as she did not know Stella at all. She had shaken her hand at Kerouac’s funeral and said hello to her in Lowell in 1988 when the city dedicated a monument to Kerouac.
John Sampas asked Charters if she’d be interested in looking over the papers and perhaps editing them. “You can imagine,” said Charters, “how quickly I got in my car and drove to Lowell, which is two hours from my house.”
When Kerouac died. Charters said she, like everyone with an interest in Kerouac, had no idea what would happen to his papers. She feared the worst, that letters and manuscripts were in St. Petersburg, turning blue with mildew or, alternately, stolen. Charters said apparently what happened after Kerouac’s death was that with his mother’s permission, his things were packed up and transported to Lowell.
When Charters arrived at the Sampas home in Lowell, “the same little house in a crummy neighborhood in which Stella grew up,” and where John lives now, she was shocked by what Sampas showed her. “It was far more than what Jack had shown me in 1966.” Of items Sampas had, what surprised Charters most were three different typescripts of On the Road, typescripts on 8.5” x 11" paper.
“When I got back home, John called and asked if I wanted to edit a book of Kerouac letters.” She did, but only if he also would permit her to do a Kerouac reader. Sampas agreed.
Reminding me that it is John Sampas who owns ail unpublished manuscripts, Charters said, “Which is why I work for John,” adding, “It’s a very hard contract. I work for hire. I don’t get royalties. I do it for love and I do it because I can afford to do it, because I edit textbooks that make me a great deal of money.”
John Sampas wanted to get the collection inventoried. Charters didn’t have time to do this. Sampas hired Paul Marion, a young poet living in Lowell, to do the inventory. Sampas, said Charters, “had to make money to pay Paul, and I think that’s when he started selling small things out of the estate.” She quickly added, “There’s lots of rumor...I don’t know.”
According to newspaper reports, the Sampas family sold to The Gap, for a reported $40,000, a 1958 photograph of Kerouac standing in front of a Greenwich Village bar. The clothing chain used the photo to promote khaki trousers. “Kerouac wore khakis,” the ad read. Francis Ford Coppola is producing a film version of On the Road, with a script by Kerouac biographer Barry Gifford (Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (1978), edited by Gifford and Lawrence Lee). When actor and Kerouac fan Johnny Depp showed up in Lowell, John Sampas sold Depp Jack’s tweed car coat for $15,000, Jack’s shoes for $5000, and for an undisclosed amount, he sold Depp a clutch of Jack’s signed, canceled checks.
Last May, New York University sponsored the 50th anniversary Beat Generation Conference, a weeklong series of lectures, art exhibits, and poetry readings. The conference commemorated the meeting in New York, 50 years earlier, of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. At the time Kerouac was living in Queens with his parents. He’d recently been discharged from the Navy. Ginsberg was attending Columbia University. Burroughs, grandson of the inventor of the first practical adding machine, was a 30-year-old Harvard graduate and morphine addict, surviving on a $200-a-month stipend from his family. The younger Ginsberg and Kerouac viewed the elder Burroughs as a “big seeker of souls and searcher through cities.”
The day before the conference opened, Jan Kerouac held a press conference. A startlingly pretty woman, her face clearly bears her father’s genes. According to the Village Voice, Jan wore a bright red dress. Her hands trembled. She announced she had brought suit in the St. Petersburg, Florida, court where Gabrielle Kerouac’s, Jack’s mother’s, will was probated, claiming the will was forged and therefore invalid. As evidence, Jan cited a declaration from one of the will’s two witnesses that he never saw Jack’s mother sign the will and an opinion from handwriting experts that the signature on Jack’s mother’s will was not her handwriting.
Jan Kerouac accused the Sampas family of “ransacking” her father’s estate, “selling everything off piece by piece.” She added, “They’re living off my father’s estate like vultures.”
The Voice account noted that Jan (author of two semi-autobiographical novels. Baby Driver (1981) and Trainsong(1988), both, unfortunately, now out of print) felt “patronized, even betrayed” by some of her father’s old Beat friends. The Voice quoted a haiku Jan recited at a banquet that closed the Beat Conference: “Nazis masquerading as Buddhists/Like the emperor’s new clothes/Who will win the Nobel Prize for buggery?"
Sampas family attorney George Tobia responded to Jan Kerouac’s announcement by phone rather than making it available in a public institution, Tobia answered that items that had literary or historic value, including letters from Kerouac to Ginsberg and manuscripts of Kerouac’s books, together with the On the Road scroll, are currently in public institutions. He denied the Sampases had sold anything important. Kerouac letters currently on the market, he said, were not sold by the family. Tobia acknowledged sale of Kerouac’s coat and shoes to Johnny Depp, saying, “They’re not going to treat every shred of clothing he ever donned or touched as if it was the Shroud of Turin.”
On October 5, 1994, the St. Petersburg judge who heard Jan Kerouac’s case ruled that the court would hear Jan’s petition on the matter of the signature. I telephoned Jan Kerouac’s lawyer, Tom Brill, in his Newport Beach, California, office. “What the judge in Florida decided was that if we can prove there is a forgery, then the probate will be revoked, which means that the will then would have no force and effect.”
“Technically,” said Mr. Brill, “the action that was filed initially is a petition to reopen the probate of the will. We stated two reasons in our petition. One was that the will of Gabrielle Kerouac was forged. The second was that the will was not executed pursuant to the laws of the state of Florida in effect at the time.” Mr. Brill explained that this second issue was that in which the witness to Gabrielle Kerouac’s will, Clifford Larkin, admitted that he did not witness Gabrielle Kerouac’s signing of the will.
“The court,” said Mr. Brill, “is not going to let us go forward on the second. Clifford Larkin’s testimony is still relevant to our case of the forgery, it just doesn’t give us an independent cause of action for reopening the probate.”
New England Investigative Services’ handwriting expert Ronald Rice, said Mr. Brill, determined that the signature on the will was not that of Gabrielle Kerouac. “No one,” he added, “knows whose handwriting it is. We may never be able to prove whose handwriting it is. I doubt we would be able to prove it even if we tried.”
I asked Mr. Brill what the will looked like. “It is,” he said, “a two-page document, done on a typewriter. On the bottom of the second page is Gabrielle Kerouac’s supposed signature and then below that, two signatures [of witnesses].”
How did Jan come to decide the will was forged?
“She really didn’t know it was a forgery until the expert gave his opinion. I didn’t expect it necessarily, but I thought it would be a good idea to check it out. Actually, my wife is the person who thought it was a forgery. I didn’t have any opinion one way or another.”
Mid-March, I received a piece of third-class mail with a Larkspur, California, return address. The mailing announced a series of benefits to be held in San Francisco in April for Jan Kerouac. The earnings from the benefits were to go to the costs of her lawsuit and to help her pay for medical expenses associated with kidney failure. Memory Babe's author, Gerald Nicosia, was listed as one of the event’s sponsors.
I called Mr. Nicosia, to ask about the benefit. He explained that the benefit’s earnings would go toward helping Jan with her medical problems, including a kidney transplant, and to help her fight her lawsuit. Any contributions, he said, were tax-deductible.
I asked Mr. Nicosia how he got involved with the benefit. He began by explaining that for Memory Babe (reissued last year by the University of California Press), he did an enormous amount of research. “I interviewed over 400 people back in the late 1970s and tried to find people nobody had found.
“I interviewed Jan and we became friends. I helped her get Baby Driver published. I was impressed with her writing.
“But here she was, back then, working in factories, in a corn-canning place, as a stable groom — hard, hard jobs. I told her, ‘You should be a writer. You shouldn't be having to lead this kind of life.’
“We didn’t know, then, in the late ’70s, that in 1978 Jan should have started receiving royalties on the renewal of her father’s The Town and the City copyright, because the Sampases never told her. When Jan did find out in 1982 that, by law, she should be getting that, they fought her for three years in court, trying to keep her from getting the copyright renewals mandated by federal copyright law.
“I brought her out here to San Francisco in 1979, for the ten-year anniversary of Jack’s death. I got the organizers of the event to pay her ticket down from Washington state, where she was living then.
“We drifted apart after 1982. We were leading different lives. I’m a homebody. Jan was leading a wild life, drinking and traveling and having lots of love affairs. I lost touch with her until 1991.
“In 1991 a writer contacted me. This writer wanted to talk to Jan. We had enough mutual contacts that I was able to find her. Then, Jan and I got back in touch. I had always cared about Jan, always thought she was a very real, vulnerable, down-to-earth, sweet person. I could see how it was easy for people to take advantage of her.
“I have a lot of knowledge about the estate, because of the years of study I put in. I knew there was some fishy stuff. Jan and her cousin, Jack’s sister Carolyn’s son, for instance, were never notified of Jack’s mother’s death. I agreed to help her get to the bottom of it.
“She needed a good attorney. So I got in Ton Brill, who’d done pro bono work for Mexican farm workers and who’d done a good job getting back my rights from Grove Press for Memory Babe. He just whipped Grove Press’s ass. By the time he got through with them, they turned over everything to me.”
I asked Mr. Nicosia if I were correct in thinking that Jan was conceived while her father was writing On the Road.
Nicosia said she was. “That’s part,” he went on, “of the poignancy of this. On the Road, when Jack wrote it, was too far ahead of its time. There was no money and no way to raise a kid, and he didn’t want to give up his writing and what he called his ‘new vision.’ There was no space for a wife and baby, and that was a tragic schism in his life. After that, Jack’s life became more and more chaotic and alcoholic, and he would never let anyone close to him except his mother, who was as destructive as she was helpful.”
I mentioned that I’d read that Jan’s kidneys shut down in 1991, that she was staying alive with dialysis she administers herself four times a day. Nicosia said that was true and added, “She lives very poorly. She rents a one-bedroom house in New Mexico. Basically, she lives not a lavish existence.
“Plus, she is fighting people who are making money off her father. Every time Sampas needs money for the lawsuit, all he has to do is sell a pastel drawing. Jan does not have those kind of resources.
“Jan was down there in Florida with her lawyer and a friend last spring. They were driving past the house where Jack was living in St. Petersburg when he died. They saw the front door was open. So, they went to the door and knocked. John Sampas came to the door. They stood there and talked and he said, ‘Well, come on in.’ He didn’t know that one of the men with Jan was her lawyer. He fixed them a drink and showed them Jack’s paintings on the wall.
“Jan sat down at her father’s desk. She said that sitting there she had an overpowering, almost visionary experience, that she felt she heard her father speaking to her, saying, ‘Don’t let them do this to me, don’t let them sell off any more of my things.’
“John Sampas kept trying to hustle them out. He asked, ‘Is there anything else I can give you?’ He meant, of course, in the way of a drink. Jan turned to him and said, ‘Yes, my father’s desk.’ John stopped and said, ‘No, no, I can’t do that, Jan. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.’
“Isn’t that a nice thing to say? What a creep! You can quote me on that.”
I asked about the Village Voice account, which had noted that Ginsberg was noncommittal about Jan’s lawsuit.
“I am outraged at Allen Ginsberg,” said Nicosia. “Every time I tell people that Ginsberg's on the wrong side of this issue, people say to me, ‘Oh, Allen couldn’t be wrong, he couldn’t do anything for mercenary reasons, even though he sold his tennis shoes to Stanford for a million dollars [Stanford recently purchased a 300,000-item Ginsberg collection that includes a pair of Ginsberg’s tennis shoes, his beard clippings, taped telephone conversations with William Burroughs, and old electricity bills]. He’s such a good person and it’s like he’s God, he couldn’t make a mistake.’
“The problem is that he’s been canonized, made into a saint. When that thing came out about Ginsberg and NAMBLA [the North American Man-Boy Love Association, an organization that Ginsberg supports], that group that wants to legalize sex between men and little boys, that should have been all over the press. But it’s gotten to a point where Ginsberg has become a sacred cow.
“Ginsberg’s become this guru. He’s an extremely ambitious, self-promoting man who wants to win the Nobel Prize, and I have that from people who are close to him that he’s dying to win the Nobel Prize. That he might have greed or he might have ambition or that power might have gone to his head, people will not believe.
“He’s poisoned the well for us in a lot of ways, because people who should be on board for this thing have not gotten on board. Gary Snyder screamed at me over the telephone. That’s never happened. I’ve known Gary for 20 years. I called him up. He’d never answered my letters about Jan. When I finally got through to him, he snapped at me. He said, 'I didn’t answer your letters,’ and I said, 'I wonder why, Gary,’ and he said, ‘You want to attack people.’ I said, ‘No, I want to help Jan Kerouac and I want to save Jack’s papers,’ and he said, ‘No, you want to attack people, and I am not going to get involved.’
“So, that’s what I’m up against.”
Before I telephoned Jan Kerouac at the number Mr. Nicosia gave me, I rooted around in my shelves and found Baby Driver and Trainsong. What Jan Kerouac’s done in these two books is more memoir than fiction.
Baby Driver tells about growing up poor on the Lower East Side, losing her virginity and dropping acid (“I was 12 and he was 22”), her pregnancy and the baby’s stillbirth in a Mexican hut when she was 15, prostitution and shooting heroin in New Mexico, a jaunt to the Amazon with a man who tried to kill her, jobs in massage parlors in Arizona. All this before she turned 30.
Trainsong starts off in the ’70s. “I hadn’t seen my mother or brother for three years, except for a brief, chaotic visit when I had breezed up from the massage parlors...even my own mother had hardly recognized me through the facade of dyed, teased hair, hot pants, and spike heels: the whorish cocoon I’d spun around myself.” Her mother lived in a shack in a little town in Washington state. Jan went to visit, got involved with a married Mexican laborer with an alcohol problem. She took a nightshift position at Twin City Foods, cutting corn off cobs. She married. The newlyweds took a freighter to Tangiers. Back in the States, Jan and her husband broke up. Jan fell in love with a cook in Portland. He taught her to steal. They got arrested. On and on, Jan’s story goes, every detail, the stuff of parental nightmare.
All through Baby Driver and Trainsong, no matter what awful thing happens to Jan, and the awful things always happen when she’s with a man, Jan never complains. Trainsong ends with this: “And so time passes, passes by, passes over, passes away and through.... Sometimes time passes by so fast...you can’t even see those seconds make their little streaks of reentry into your heart.” And, like her father, once Jan’s adventures ended, she always went back home to her mother.
Gerald Nicosia suggested I wait until late afternoon or early evening to telephone Jan. By then, he explained, she’s had dialysis and feels better.
A man who had seen Jan recently had said to me, “She’s a tiny little thing. Barely five feet tall. She looks so young, so pretty...sweet, innocent. You look at her and listen to her and can’t believe she lived through all that hard life she wrote about.” So I was not surprised by the voice that answered the telephone and identified itself as Jan Kerouac. The whispery voice might have been a teenage girl’s.
“Twice,” she told me, “I saw my dad. The first time my mother and I met him and his lawyer on a street in Brooklyn and then went someplace to a bar to sit down for a while. While they talked, I watched the astronauts on TV [John Glenn beginning his third orbit of the earth, according to Nicosia’s biography], and then we went to a doctor’s office to have a blood test. The whole purpose of the test was to prove he was my father. He knew I was his kid.”
After the blood test, Jan said, they went back to the Lower East Side apartment where Jan, her mother, and twin sisters lived. “As soon as we got to the apartment, he wanted to know where the nearest liquor store was, so I took him to the one on Tenth Street and he bought Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry.” Jack sat on Joan’s couch, drank sherry, and talked. Then, he left. Jan saved the cork from the sherry bottle.
“The last time, the second time, was in 1967, up in Lowell, when I was getting ready to go to Mexico. He was sitting in his rocking chair, watching The Beverly Hillbillies and drinking Southern Comfort. When I got ready to leave, I told him I was going to Mexico and was going to be a writer. He said something like, ‘Yeah, you go to Mexico, write a book. You can use my name.’ ”
Jan suddenly sounded weary, tired, I thought, of telling strangers like me this old, sad story. “Both the meetings,” she said, her voice flat, “are in Baby Driver."
She perked up, saying, “I am about to meet my cousin, Paul Blake, Jr., who was Jack’s nephew, his sister Carolyn’s son. He told me over the phone the other night that he remembered a time when Jack pulled a little picture out of his pocket in the house down in Florida and Paul asked, ‘Is that my cousin Jan?’ and Jack put his finger up to his mouth and said, ‘Don’t let anybody hear you say that.’ He, Jack, wanted to keep it a secret from his mother because he didn’t tell her in the beginning the truth about me, and he felt he had to keep the lie up forever. I know he was very attached to his mother and that she was the most important thing in his life.”
“Why did you decide to sue?”
“My father left everything to his mother, and then what happened was that she died, and it’s been discovered that the will she supposedly signed was a trumped-up phony kind of will in which she supposedly gives everything to Stella, the third wife of Jack. But it’s common knowledge among people who knew them that Jack’s mother and Stella hated each other, so she wouldn’t have done that. He married her to be a nursemaid to him and his mother."
Jan said that she didn’t start receiving any money from her father’s royalties until 1985. “Until then, I didn’t know I had any rights. Friends convinced me to see a lawyer, and he investigated it for me.”
How did the idea for the benefit come about?
“Gerry Nicosia pretty much put this whole thing together along with Tony Seldin. We just had a brainstorm last fall that this would be a good idea, and ever since we have been making sure it would happen, the original purpose being that I need funds for the lawsuit and also possibly for a kidney transplant, because, you know, I’ve had kidney failure.”
I said, “Poor baby.”
“I’m used to it now,” she said, matter-of-factly, then added, after a pause, her voice bright, “ever since I started this suit I have felt even better.”
Had she ever seen the On the Road scroll?
“No, but I’d like to. I’m going to own it pretty soon. I’m determined. He was writing it while I was in the womb.”
I said I’d read in Nicosia’s book that her mother had fed her father pea soup, day after day, while he wrote On the Road.
Jan laughed. “That sounds like her. I remember her making pea soup when I was a kid. She died in 1990 of cancer. But she wrote a book, too, and it’s going to be published soon. It was kind of a mess, and someone had to pull it together. She was writing it the last ten years of her life.”
I asked about Ginsberg.
“Ginsberg,” Jan said, “has turned out to be a real hypocrite and is not helping at all. At the Beat Conference last year in May, he would come up to me and say, ‘How are you feeling, my dear?’ He’d pat my hand and look concerned. He was insinuating that I was at death’s door. Far from it! I’ve gotten a new lease on life from this thing. It’s given me a real reason to survive.”
It wasn’t, Jan said, “a money thing” that caused her to want to gain control of her father’s estate. She said she wanted her father’s manuscripts and letters available to scholars, either at a library or perhaps in a Kerouac House in Lowell. “Pretty soon I am going to own that whole estate, and where will they be? If they’ve been against me. I’m not going to give them anything. I have sort of a blacklist going now, because it becomes obvious who’s your friend, when you do something like this.”
Jan said, politely, that she was tired. We said goodbye and I wished her well.
When I talked with Ann Charters, I asked what she made of the will fracas. “I think it’s extremely sad," Charters said, “that Jan Kerouac is in such poor health. I will give you that possible way of explaining her bizarre behavior. Because she really wants to control all of the estate.
“Jan is automatically legally entitled to half the royalties, because there was a widow and only one child, but the Sampases had to be told that through a lawyer before the widow would copyright things in Jan’s name and her name. What she wants now is everything. She knows she’s only entitled to half the book royalties of published work.”
Charters doesn’t believe the will was forged. “There is never any question that it is Jack’s mother’s will." But, she said, were she John Sampas, she would be “very concerned. Jack had a very valuable estate and the daughter really was cut out of the unpublished work completely, so it’s a tough one to call. Whether he [John Sampas] would be generous and give her a portion of it, I don’t know. I don’t want to know about this, because I have my own life and own work.
“Here are two people [Sampas and Jan] who weren’t involved directly in Jack’s life and he was so irresponsible, so bad as a parent, that my imagination stops right there, I don’t even want to think about whether Jan is more entitled or John is more entitled. She [Jan] is obsessed with this and John is just as equally determined to fight every inch of the way and not settle out of court, which is her hope.”
Why did Charters believe Gerald Nicosia became involved in helping Jan with her lawsuit?
“I am doing the editing he hoped to do.” She added that she also believed Nicosia didn’t understand what was involved in preparing a collection for sale to a library. “Nicosia doesn’t understand that a library can offer to buy something, but they want to know what they’re buying, especially when we are talking a lot of money. You can’t sell to a major library without an inventory.”
A friend who lives in Massachusetts told me that he recalled attending several years ago a dinner in Lowell, at which John Sampas was present. Sampas, he said, was quite a good-looking man, and charming. My friend said that after dinner, they’d all been drinking quite a bit, at Nicky’s Bar and Grill, owned by the Sampas family. My friend turned to Sampas and said, playfully, “So, do you suppose you own the most valuable literary archive in America?” Sampas, he said, jocularly responded that he believed he did.
Sampas, retired from his job as researcher for the Department of the Army, was at home in Lowell when I telephoned. “Retired, but not really,” he said. “The estate, believe me, that’s not retirement.” Sixty-two years old, he is the youngest of the Sampas children. The house where he lives now is the house to which his family moved when he was three or four, the house where Kerouac came as a boy to visit Sampas’s brother Sebastian.
I asked Sampas why his sister Stella suggested Ann Charters as the person who would be best to edit Kerouac’s letters. Sampas answered readily. Stella, he said, originally had been upset with Charters’ 1973 biography. Charters, he said, had been given “some misinformation” that Nin (Carolyn’s nickname), Jack’s sister, had committed suicide. Nin, he said, was a Catholic, and for her, suicide would have been “a great sin.” Stella, he said, was upset by the suggestion of Nin’s death being a suicide. “These were people who were very religious and took great offense at that.”
Later, however, said Sampas, “Stella accepted the idea that it was a mistake on Ann’s part, she had been misinformed.”
As Sampas recalled events, Stella, some years before she died, recommended that after she was gone, if anyone were asked to do anything with the papers, or letters or a biography, Ann Charters would be the person to ask. “So,” said Sampas, “that was it.”
I asked if Stella read the biographies. (Ann Charters: Kerouac: A Biography ; John Tytell: Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation ; Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee: Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac [ 1978]; Dennis McNally: Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America [ 1979]; Gerald Nicosia: Memory Babe: A Critical Biography .)
“Oh, all of them, of course,” said Sampas. “Contrary to what you may have heard, she, while not formally educated, was educated within the family." His brothers and sisters, he said, attended college. He had intended to become a pianist and studied at the Boston Conservatory before joining the Air Force. He still plays, daily, and said that currently, he was learning a Bach fugue: “It’s murder. I was never a Bach man. I was a Chopin man.”
The Sampases, he said, “had known Jack since we were babies. We all followed Jack’s career. Back in 1957, I said to a friend, ‘Jack is going to marry my sister.’ ” Sampas said he knew this, because over the years, Stella would talk about Jack and Jack wrote to her. (Several of these letters are in Selected Letters.) “Jack,” Sampas said, “was her childhood sweetheart and someday he would come back and marry her and he did.”
I said Stella’s photographs showed her as a pretty woman.
“She was no Hollywood starlet,” he said, “but, yes, she was pretty.”
Did Sampas know why Stella refused access to Jack’s papers?
Stella, he said, after Jack’s death, chose to take care of Jack’s mother. Gabrielle, he noted, had no one else. “She was half-paralyzed, on the left side. She had a wheelchair. Stella had a physical therapist who came two or three times a week.” After Jack’s mother died in 1973, Stella moved to Lowell to take care of their mother, who was in her 80s. She died in 1981. “I can understand why Stella didn’t do anything, because once this whole thing sort of fell into my lap, I learned. It’s tremendous work.”
After Jack’s death, said Sampas, “the papers were never touched, they were put away." Most of the papers were moved to Lowell and put into a bank vault. Since 1991, Sampas said he had been putting “quite a few papers, manuscripts, and original holograph manuscripts including the On the Road scroll” in the New York Public Library.
Charters, I said, thought storage fees would have been high. Sampas said that when they were first stored, “the fees aren’t what they are now. They are high now.” He added, “I did sell off some stuff. I had to do this to set up this thing.”
By “this thing,” Sampas meant sorting Kerouac’s papers. The night before our conversation, he had been talking by telephone to Allen Ginsberg. “He had one man who worked on this [preparing his collection for Stanford] for 15 years. It gives you an idea of what it takes.”
The archive, Sampas said, “is not vast. Some people have the idea there are piles and piles of papers. I think that perhaps every so often Jack’s stuff would get ripped off on his travels."
Kerouac kept all his papers in manila folders. “The way Jack had sorted it was the way I left it. I didn’t want to disturb the order. Because Jack had a reason for having it the way he did. He was using it as reference when he wrote.”
What most surprised Sampas when he began sorting the papers?
"What surprised me more than anything else was the extent of rewriting he did on his novels. You are left with the impression he sat down and wrote out a novel. But he had formulated his ideas and his notes. When you go back to his notebooks, when he sat down to type something out, he had already done a lot of work. He did a lot of revision before the final draft. I have all his working papers, so I know what I’m talking about.”
I asked about the lawsuit.
“It’s very, very bad. But we will cope with it.” He said, after a moment’s pause, “It will get thrown out. It’s not forged. The whole thing’s silly, it’s bogus. It’s a stickup.” About Jan, he said, “The woman’s not well, she’s on dialysis.”
Why did he think she filed suit?
“I think she was put up to it. People around her encouraged her to do this. They have their own selfish motives. They resent Ann Charters being the biographer. There’s lots of jealousy there and meanness of spirit, and it’s unfortunate for us because I, myself, I’m literate, but I don’t have any master’s degree in English literature and I had no idea there was so much backbiting and bickering among the so-called literary set. But I should know that because I read enough criticism of books in the New Yorker and the New York Times.”
What Sampas remembered of the March 1994 meeting with Jan Kerouac was that he saw a woman walking up the sidewalk to the front door. He remembered a man, across the street, taking photographs of the woman as she walked toward the house. He went to the door, asked, “Can I help you?” The woman introduced herself as Jan Kerouac. Sampas said he invited her in, together with the male photographer. He showed them around, offered Jan a drink. She wasn’t feeling well and said she wanted only water. He asked what they were doing in St. Petersburg. Jan told him she was on vacation. He felt they were on friendly terms.
I asked if Jan asked him for anything. He said, “I asked her if she needed money. She said she didn’t and then asked me, ‘Do you need money?’ and I said, ‘I don’t.’ ” Only later did Sampas learn that the gentleman taking photographs was Jan’s lawyer, Tom Brill, and that they were in town to file the lawsuit.
Is it expensive, I asked, dealing with the lawsuit?
“Yes, of course. We intend to fight it all the way. Stella was the sort of woman who was so unfortunately maybe upright and forthright and decent and honest and caring, so for them to try to smear her when she’s not here to defend herself is really outrageous.
“I think it’s sad for Jan, because she has sort’ve demeaned herself in this whole episode. The thing is she gets 50 percent of the royalties and has been since 1985. I don’t see why she should get any more. Jack didn’t want her to get anything. Gabrielle never would have left her anything.”
I said that my understanding was that Jack had not wanted his mother to know he’d fathered a child.
Sampas answered, “She was well aware of the child; she encouraged him to fight it [Jan’s mother’s child-support petitions]. Gabrielle had no use for Jan’s mother. These are Gabrielle’s feelings, these are certainly not mine. I get my information reading the letters. As for Jan’s using Jack’s name professionally, she claims Jack told her to. Maybe he did, I don’t know.”
As to whether or not Sampas intends to give up the Kerouac collection, he said, “They will have to shoot us, I’m afraid.”
In my conversation with Jan Kerouac’s lawyer, Tom Brill, I asked, “What happens next?”
“Next thing that happens legally,” he said, “is that the Sampas family is going to take the deposition of Ron Rice, the handwriting expert. We are taking the deposition of John Sampas. They, also want to take the deposition of Jan Kerouac.
“Then, we will have a trial. [No court date has been set.] The court will determine whether it’s a forgery or not. The trial’s in front of a judge. We don’t have a right to a jury. The court will hear evidence and will decide whether or not the judge thinks it is a forgery.”
I mentioned to Mr. Brill that several people with whom I spoke suggested that Gerald Nicosia became involved with helping Jan because he was angry not to have been asked to edit the Kerouac material.
Mr. Brill disagreed. “Gerry has had an interest in Jan’s well-being ever since he met her, but he didn’t know what to do. He felt frustration. Jan was the only blood heir in Jack Kerouac’s direct line, and she was basically ostracized from the literary community and the Sampas family. It was not that he didn’t edit books or write forewords.”
I said that several people had also said that Jan got enough money from her father’s royalties, that she didn’t need to open this lawsuit.
What Jan Kerouac did and didn’t get in royalties, answered Mr. Brill, “is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about whether a will is forged or not. I’ve never asked her how much she makes. I don’t care. But I do care if there’s a forged will which shouldn’t have been probated and that this family should not have gotten the property if this will is a forgery. If Gabrielle wanted Stella to get everything, then Stella gets everything. If we can prove it’s a forgery, and I believe we can and I believe it is, it doesn’t matter how much money Jan gets, it doesn’t matter how much money anybody is getting.
“Jan does not stand to benefit by receiving the entire estate, she would only be getting one-third anyway. Paul Blake, Jr., Jack’s nephew, who was close to the family and who visited Gabrielle often in her later years, would get one-third, and the Sampas family would get to keep one-third. So they would get some of the largess. They ought to be happy with that.”
Several calls to Allen Ginsberg’s Manhattan office brought only a comment by Mr. Ginsberg through his secretary. “It’s up to the courts,” said Mr. Ginsberg. “Let them decide.”