COLUMN SIXTY, JUNE 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 The Blacklisted Journalist)
PART 18: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
CHAPTER TWENTY: THE SACRED SCROLL
[With profound love and emotion, I hereby dedicate this column to my friend, Eugene Brooks, older brother of Allen Ginsberg, who died in his sleep of an abdominal aneurysm on July 11, two weeks after a family party celebrating his 80th birthday.]
Because I arrived early
at Christie's party at the West End Bar on Broadway, near Colombia U, I got to
see the auctioneer's representative take the sacred scroll out of a strongbox,
hold it up with one hand on each silvery handle as if it were a torah and then
unscroll it, laying a length of it in a lit showcase for the guests to inspect
it. The fact that someone would pay
2.43 million dollars for this manuscript a night later would come as no surprise
Neither would it come as
a surprise to the New York Times, which, in an editorial two days
afterwards, would describe the typescript of On the Road as a
"manifesto." Back in 1982, I
myself had characterized the book as the equivalent of a manifesto nailed to
the door of culture. Not only has On
the Road changed my own life, but it also has changed the lives of millions
of others and it continues to do so around the world. Published in 1957, On the Road resulted in a seismic
upheaval both in American letters and in American lifestyles and the book
continues to set off cultural reverberations as far away as China.
Jack himself was well
aware that he had accomplished something significant in his non-stop marathon, a
20-day rat-a-tat-tat-tat at the typewriter keys fueled, by coffee.
And not, according to Kerouac scholar Gerry Nicosia, by pot and
Benzedrine. According to Gerry,
Jack called it a "roll," not a 'scroll."
I myself don't remember whether Jack called it one thing or the other.
He had pasted together 12-foot-long sheets of semi-translucent architectural
paper into a 119 feet and eight inches-long roll he could feed into his
typewriter so the need to keep putting fresh sheets into the roller wouldn't
interrupt his flow of thoughts.
Jack had gotten the paper
in the West 21st Street loft of Bill Cannastra, where Jack moved in
to live with Joan Haverty, Cannastra's last girl friend.
Eventually, Joan became Jack's first wife, a beauteous, dark-haired
young woman of 20 who later bore him Jan Michelle Kerouac, for whom Jack would
not pay a penny of support until Jan was 10.
The impetuous Cannastra had been killed climbing out a moving subway car
window as a daredevil prank and it was on Cannastra's paper in Cannastra's
loft while living with Cannastra's girl friend that Jack glued himself to a
chair to begin typing his epic. According to Jack, the final paragraphs
of the typescript were later chewed off by the dog of still another friend,
Lucien Carr, who had been Jack's best man at his wedding to Joan.
It was with naively modest pride that Jack would tell me some 40 years
'they're going to
write biographies about me, aren't they??
I forget the exact date of my 1959 interview with Jack and his mother, Gabrielle---he called her M?m're. Afterwards, I drove Jack from his home in Northport to the Manhattan apartment of his girl friend, artist Dody Muller, under whose influence he said he had recently begun to paint. On the way to Manhattan, he talked about editors, whom he considered to be largely deaf, dumb, blind, ignorant and arrogant, an opinion I now
and that's a novel
and that's a novel. . .'
heartily share. Jack had
no love for academicians, either. Hadn't
he written a popular novel that thumbed its nose at academia's very precepts?
And yet, Jack could foresee a posthumous future in which academicians
would pore over every smudge on his manuscript, in which he told his tale in a
single paragraph, so rushed was he to gush out his story.
From that conversation
and from the way he had showed me his nickel notebooks, rubber-banded together
and neatly stacked in piles in his dresser drawer---'that's a novel and
that's a novel and that's a novel," he had said as he proudly pointed a
finger at each rubber-banded pile---I could tell he meant to have his papers
scrutinized by future scholars. He
longed for and anticipated eternal fame.
Which made me feel that
Jack would be offended to see his treasured manuscript placed on the auction
block, where it would be chopped away from the scrutiny of future literary
historians. Not to mention that,
like Van Gogh, who is said to have sold only one of his paintings during his
lifetime (paintings that eventually went for millions), Jack would feel
sickened, cheated and violated because he was never able to spend even a dime of
the 2.43 million that this typescript would bring. Yes, I felt the sale of the On the Road manuscript was
an affront to Jack and so I, too, felt offended. When I said so to his
literary agent, Sterling Lord, Sterling replied that the impending auction
offended him as well.
Sterling had once been my
agent, too. But I never finished
writing the Beat book I was supposed to deliver to the publisher to whom he had
sold it---a book I now call The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz and which I
am now serializing on THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST website. And which now includes
this very article you are reading. I hadn't seen Sterling since my failure to
deliver that manuscript and there he was at this party with his beautiful wife
Meg, who is some years his junior. He's now 80 but, except for his whitening
hair, he looked very much the same as he had always looked. Sterling told me
that even John Sampas, whom I've come to consider the main man in charge of
Jack's estate, felt offended by the auction.
So offended that he refused to attend this party.
John is a brother of the late Stella Sampas, Jack's third wife, whom
"No, John didn't want to sell it, it was Tony over there?---and Sterling nodded toward Tony Sampas, a younger dark-haired man of 30 or 40 who stood talking amid a knot of others
was a bookie,
another ran a 'bottomless' strip joint
nearby---?it was Tony
who insisted they had to sell it to pay the taxes on the estate.
The federal government finally woke up to the fact that the estate is
worth a lot of money and the feds wanted their share."
Tony Sampas, like John
Sampas, is one of the inheritors of Stella Stampas? estate, which also
includes Jack's estate. From
Pepperell, Massachusetts, Tony inherited his share of the estate from an uncle,
the late Anthony G. Sampatacus, another of Stella's brothers, who, according
to detractors, once raked in about $1,500 a week as one of the most important
bookies in Lowell, Massachusetts. Still another of Stella's brothers was the
late Nicky Sampatacus, who had earned his living in Lowell by running what was
described by people who went there as a "bottomless? strip joint.
The sister of Jack's
boyhood idol, Sebastian Sampas, who died in the fighting in Europe during World
War II, Stella inherited Jack's estate from M?m're, for whom Stella had
continued to take care of from the time Jack drank himself to death until M?m're's
own demise. M?m're's will gave
it all to Stella, but Jack's daughter, the late Jan Kerouac, initiated a
lawsuit claiming M?m're's will had been forged. As Jan's literary executor, Nicosia continued to press the
lawsuit after Jan's death. The
author of Home to War, Nicosia also wrote the acclaimed Kerouac
biography, Memory Babe.
But the Sampas family
then came up with Jan's first husband, whom she had married when she was 16
and whom she divorced a few years later. As one of Jan's inheritors, he fired
Nicosia, an act Nicosia contested until the dismissal was upheld by a split
decision of an appellate court. However, Paul Blake, Jack's nephew at last
report was trying to get Jan's lawsuit reinstated.
'stella was a nursemaid
and a professional laundress," Nicosia commented. 'she
From the start, much
enmity arose between Stella's inheritors and that part of the Beat community
gathered around them on one the hand and Nicosia, Jan Kerouac and their
sympathizers on the other. As part of this feud, the taped interviews
Nicosia'd recorded during his research for Memory Babe---he'd put
them in the possession of the Massachusetts University Library in Lowell---were
I thought the ugly fight
did nothing but contribute negativity to and detract from Jack's writings, his
fame, his cause and his memory. And
so I took a neutral position, inviting both sides to contribute pieces
explaining their arguments to be printed in THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST while
exhorting them to reach a settlement. As I understood him, all Nicosia wanted
was for events like the auction sale of the On the Road scroll never to
happen. He feared that Stella's inheritors were going to sell off Jack's
papers piecemeal rather than enshrine them in a library, where scholars can
study them, something he says they have already been doing. It's a known fact that the Sampases sold Jack's raincoat
to movie star Johnny Depp some years ago.
Despite my public stance of neutrality, I obviously sympathized with the writer---in this case, Jack. I knew what I would want if I were Jack and I knew what I would want if I had to research a story about Jack. I would want all his papers to be in one place, preferably a library. Jack obviously didn't want his papers scattered all over the world in the hands of collectors. And this is what I told George Tobia Jr., whom I considered a friend but who
'. . .not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddamn thing to my wife's one hundred Greek relatives. . .'
also is the attorney for
the Sampases. Afterwards, George
refused to talk to me any more and when I asked John Sampas for an interview, he
never replied. Unencumbered by literary credentials, the Sampas family is
obviously more concerned with the monetary worth of Jack's papers than they
are with their academic value.
As a matter of fact, Jack
didn't want his estate to go to the Sampas family at all.
In a letter to his aforementioned nephew, Paul Blake, Jack wrote:
October 20, 1969.
Dear Little Paul:
This is Uncle Jack. I've turned over my entire estate, real, personal, and mixed, to M?m're, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you.... I just wanted to leave my "estate? (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me sister Carolyn, your Mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddamn thing to my wife's one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is....
Jack signed the letter
with his John Hancock-like signature but he died before he could divorce Stella.
In her lawsuit claiming M?m're's signature on the will was forged,
Jan said that one of the witnesses to M?m're's signature swears he wasn't
even there when M?m're signed it. According
to Jan, this witness said he was the lover of the gay male nurse who worked for
Stella. According to Jan, this
witness said he witnessed the will only at his boy friend's behest. His boy
friend, the male nurse, has long since died.
My good friend David
Amram says Jack told him that Stella saved his life.
Jack drank himself to death at 47 so I don't know how anybody can say
Stella saved his life. Stella herself died at 72. Unlike Amram, I lost touch
with Jack after his marriage to Stella, but I remained close to Allen Ginsberg,
who never had anything glowing to say about Stella. Nor did any of the Kerouac scholars who phoned me through the
years. Allen characterized Stella
as a "caretaker wife," a provincial who kept insisting that Jack be as
provincial as she was. The various scholars who telephoned me through the years
complained that Stella kept them away from Jack and that she prevented them from
having access to any of his papers. Allen
said she put up a wall between him and any intellectual input.
After Jack's death, Paul Blake went to visit his grandmother but Stella
prevented him from seeing M?m're. From personal experience, I can tell you
that grandchildren are among the greatest joys of old age and I can't imagine
M?m're not wanting to see her grandson.
Several years ago, Sampas
attorney George Tobia Jr. told me that all of Jack's papers were in the New
York Public Library, where he insisted they would stay. At the party, Sterling
told me that both he and John Sampas were still hoping that's where the scroll
would end up. There is now little
hope of that. Forty-one-year-old Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who bought
the scroll, afterwards said he wanted to "put it on display alongside the
Lombardi Trophy." He said
he'd been prepared to pay much more than 2.43 million dollars for it.
At the West End Bar, a
legendary hangout for the Beat Generation originals when they were all situated
in the vicinity of Columbia, Christie's handed out an expensively printed and
well written booklet telling all about the scroll and how Jack came to write it.
The booklet, on slick paper, was illustrated with full-color photographs.
I tried to read some of the scroll unrolled in the showcase, not an easy thing
to do when looking at it sideways. I
saw many sections xed out and felt dismayed by the thought that future Kerouac
scholars would never be able to ponder over them to study and debate Kerouac's
boast of 'spontaneous bop prosody?---in which he claimed he never rewrote or
amended what he had written off the top of his head. In addition to the sections
xed out, there were handwritten changes on the manuscript. The real names of all
the characters?including those of Neal Cassady and of Jack himself---were in
the manuscript and the part I read was about Neal being distracted in traffic
while driving through Des Moines and inadvertently bumping into the car in front
of his, bursting the water bag on the other car's rear bumper.
I was soon distracted by
the rush of people into the room, the usual suspects at recent Beat gatherings
plus many unfamiliar faces. This
was another EVENT for the Beat community of nowadays and I won't bore you with
a list of all those I saw, except to say that Amram, a master musician, wowed
the crowd by improvising a rap song he made up on the spot.
After the auction, I
received an email from poet Ron Whitehead quoting an e from Poet Casey Cyr.
Casey, who was at the auction the next night, told Ron that Jim Irsay
flew to New York with his old friend, historian Douglas Brinkley. She said the
bidding war ended up being between Jim Irsay, sitting behind Casey, and "a
couple in the row in front of us."
"I went to the
auction," Casey said in her email to Ron, "with Michelle Esrick, who asked
Mr. Irsay point blank after he bought the scroll, "Are you going to share it
with the world?? Jim talked about the possibility of bringing the scroll on
the road (in celebration of the 50th year), and talked about the importance of
sharing it with others. Jim's also a poet and guitar player who spoke of his
spirituality and connection to the "beat? writers. He also said that since
Kerouac was an American original, that he was hoping to buy it to keep it in the
USA. And he went on at length about honoring Jack and paying tribute to him, and
acknowledgment of his importance in literature. The commentary about the
football trophy was something he threw in after all the other really nice things
he said about Kerouac. I have a feeling that's the blurb that the media will
spread around, though.
"I was surprised at the
authentic love he had for Kerouac and happy too---the awesome and beautiful
manuscript, which transcends monetary value, could have gone to someone who
cared a lot less. Plus, I was comforted to see that Douglas Brinkley and
Sterling Lord were friends with Jim Irsay---two people who really love
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