The fight over all things Kerouac
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- It has been more than 20 years since retired judge Fred Bryson ran a steady if nondescript law practice out of an office downtown.
He handled traffic tickets, wills, rezonings and the like, which is why what happened that late summer morning in 1969 stands out, even across the decades.
The phone rang. It was a friend with a law practice on Central Avenue, wanting to give Bryson a headsup. They had just turned away a drunk at their door, kind of a nut. As he stalked off, the guy flashed Bryson's business card and muttered, "If you don't want me, then I'll give this young, struggling lawyer my business."
A few minutes later, the guy stumbled in Bryson's door. He was drunk and smelled like it. His clothes were a mess. Under one arm he had a brown Publix grocery bag, which by appearances looked like the repository of all his worldly possessions.
"My name is Jack Kerouac," he said.
Bryson's impulse was to hurry this lunatic on his way, preferably without any ugliness.
"The next thing you're going to tell me is you wrote a book," Bryson said.
The stranger rustled through his shopping bag and withdrew a tattered hardback. It was On the Road, the 1957 novel that propelled Kerouac to fame as an icon of the Beat Generation. He drew Bryson's attention to the dust jacket, to the photo of the author.
"I look at the picture and then I look at this guy," Bryson said. "It's obvious since that picture that the guy's hit a few bumps in the road. But it's Jack Kerouac."
Having established his identity, the drunk stated his business:
"I want to make a will."
* * *
He was married, had been for three years, to Stella Sampas Kerouac. She was his third wife. By his second wife, Joan Haverty, he fathered his only child, Jan, whom he disowned. He abandoned Joan while she was pregnant, while he wrote On the Road.
Kerouac had few possessions, though he was a pack rat who saved a mountain of personal letters, manuscripts and books. His estate was valued in court papers at less than $30,000, the main asset a three-bedroom home on 10th Avenue N that he shared with Stella and his ailing mother, Gabrielle.
Kerouac wanted what little he owned to go to her. If his mother died before he did, Kerouac wanted everything to go to his nephew, Paul, stationed at an Air Force base in Alaska.
Bryson scheduled his second meeting with Kerouac at 7:30 in the morning. He figured the early hour would assure Kerouac's sobriety. "He wasn't happy," Bryson said. "But he came back straight as an arrow."
About a month later, Oct. 20, 1969, Kerouac wrote Paul to tell him he had put him in his will. The day he wrote the letter he was admitted to St. Anthony's Hospital, vomiting blood.
The next day he was dead. The cause: massive abdominal hemorrhaging, brought on by years of alcohol abuse. He was 47.
These 33 years later, the battle over Kerouac's estate and literary archive lingers in Pinellas circuit court, the stakes rising as the author's iconic status returned with the years.
The combatants are like characters out of a Kerouac novel: the hard-drinking daughter who kept the cork from the liquor bottle her father drank from when finally they met; the brother-in-law whose family owned one of Kerouac's favorite strip joints and now controls the writer's work with an iron hand; and Kerouac's closest living relative, a penniless nephew who lives out of a pickup truck parked at a garbage dump.
At the heart of it all is the spirit of the man himself, a booze-swigging traveler whose On the Road presaged the counterculture 1960s and provided a philosophical tutorial on the value of the journey above all else. His perpetually broke characters reject conformity and materialism in a free-living world of camaraderie on the road.
The poor traveler's estate is now valued by some at more than $10-million. Actor Johnny Depp paid $15,000 for his raincoat. Levi Strauss paid $18,000 to use Kerouac's name to sell jeans.
In death, Kerouac has become something he never was in life. He's rich.
* * *
"Mother, cut my throat!" -- Kerouac, on the eve of his departure to live in St. Petersburg
* * *
For those who might rhapsodize about Kerouac choosing St. Petersburg for the final years of his life, he didn't want to come here.
His mother, to whom Kerouac displayed unerring devotion, wanted to leave the cold of their home in Lowell, north of Boston. His wife, Stella, wanted to get him away from his drinking buddies.
The story goes that Kerouac disappeared on the eve of his move here in 1964. They found him two days later, sleeping it off in a field.
Kerouac bought the home on 10th Avenue N, a few miles from downtown. So endeared was he with his new surroundings, he called it "Salt Petersburg," "the town of the newly wed and the living dead." He said it was "a good place to come to die."
Not that life was all gloom. He enjoyed minor-league baseball and the wind rustling the branches of a Georgia pine in his front yard.
He had no Florida driver's license, but friends helped. He was a regular in Tampa at the Wild Boar on Nebraska Avenue. In Treasure Island, it was the Shipdeck.
Near the end, the writer Richard Hill visited. Kerouac sipped scotch from a pill bottle and spewed right-wing politics.
"He knew he was going to die soon. The doctor had told him his liver was nearly gone," Hill wrote. "He talked about his will. He read and reread his genealogy and spoke much of the Kerouac family tradition and his boyhood home in Lowell."
On the eve of his death, in a letter to his nephew, Paul Blake Jr., Kerouac spelled out why he left Stella out of his will:
"I just wanted to leave my 'estate' ... to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line ... and not to leave a dingblasted f--- g--- thing to my wife's one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce or have her marriage to me annulled."
Though Kerouac left nothing to Stella, Florida law assured her one-third of his estate. Not that there was much to it. Kerouac's popularity was at low ebb. In the age of the Beatles, Beat was uncool.
Kerouac's mother died four years later. She left everything to Stella, who died 17 years after that, in 1990. She left all of Kerouac's literary materials to two brothers and a sister. The younger brother, John Sampas, eventually headed the estate.
Nowhere in all this was Kerouac's nephew.
* * *
"I do not admit that I am the father of this child, only that she bears my name." -- Kerouac, during a 1962 paternity hearing
* * *
Jan Kerouac didn't meet her father until she was 10 years old. They got together at a hamburger joint in Brooklyn the day Kerouac, under court order, gave blood that would prove he was Jan's father.
"You're a lovely little girl, but you're not my daughter," she says he told her.
He took her to a liquor store and bought a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream. Jan saved the cork.
She didn't see him again for five years. She stopped by his home in Lowell on her way to Mexico to write a book with her boyfriend, John Lash. Kerouac was watching the Beverly Hillbillies, drinking scotch. He showed Jan and Lash some of his paintings. "Use my name," he told Jan. "Write a book."
"It was a typical display of drunken arrogance," said Lash, who later married Jan.
She never saw her father again. She heard on the radio that he had died.
"I don't think she ever came to grips with that rejection," said David Bowers, Jan's stepbrother. "Here you are, your father is seen as this cultural icon but, on the other hand, you have no relationship with him. She had a mix of pride and disappointment."
She drank heavily as a teenager, prostituted, took LSD and heroin, and spent time in institutions, including New York's Bellevue. She traveled places he traveled, wrote in his autobiographical style, had little success.
At a Kerouac conference in 1982 in Boulder, Colo., John Steinbeck's son asked her why she was broke. He said she was due some of her father's royalty payments.
A lawyer confirmed it: Though her father left her nothing, when his books came up for copyright renewal, she was entitled to half the royalties.
In 1985, On the Road came up. After Jan threatened to sue Stella and family for the payments, they agreed that Jan would get $4,000 and half of future royalties. By the 1990s, she was getting up to $100,000 a year.
In 1990, Jan came to St. Petersburg and knocked on the door at 10th Avenue N. She wasn't sure who might open it. Two decades after her father's death, the St. Petersburg white pages still listed "Jack Kerouac." (The phone number rang at the house until 1999.)
John Sampas opened the door. He was Stella's youngest brother and gatekeeper of much of Kerouac's literary archive. Not only had his sister been Kerouac's wife, his brother had been one of Kerouac's closest friends.
He invited her to sit in her father's swivel chair at his dark wood desk. She said she felt "like a little boy in the cockpit of his father's plane, like I was at the controls."
Sampas asked, "Well, would you like anything else?"
"Well, the desk."
Sampas refused. He says Jan had bragged to him that she sold desks at garage sales by telling buyers they belonged to her father. If he gave her the real thing, he was afraid she'd sell it, too.
"No way I was going to give it to her after her garage sale story," he said.
The real garage sale, critics say, was about to begin.
* * *
"The Jack Kerouac Lofts are being designed to appeal to a new generation of buyers..." -- Ad for condo complex in Denver
* * *
Jeffrey Weinberg couldn't believe what John Sampas was asking.
A Kerouac fan, Weinberg owned a book shop in Sudburg, Mass., that specialized in Beat materials. Now Sampas was asking him to inspect and sell materials from Kerouac's estate. Music to his ears.
Sampas ushered Weinberg into his Victorian home in Lowell one Sunday and locked the door behind them. Kerouac clutter was everywhere. Manuscripts of Mexico City Blues and The Subterraneans lay out, filing cabinets overflowed, the baseball game Kerouac invented was spread on the floor. Cats wandered about.
"I was willing to get involved just to be near this stuff," Weinberg said. "These were the crown jewels of Beat."
He said Sampas told him, "I want to turn some of this stuff into cash."
Weinberg said he began selling books from Kerouac's personal library, his paintings, letters, original manuscripts and first editions that the author had inscribed for Stella.
Scouting for buyers, Weinberg contacted the owner of Flashback Books, whose daughter happened to be dating a Kerouac fan of some means, Johnny Depp. The daughter's name: Winona Ryder.
Depp came to Lowell. He started with letters and manuscripts. According to Weinberg, Sampas brought in a large box and said, "Johnny, I think you're going to like this stuff better."
In the box were Kerouac's clothes: hats, shoes, raincoats, jackets.
"Johnny tries on the clothes," Weinberg said, "and by God, they fit."
Depp paid $15,000 for the raincoat, $5,000 for a suitcase, $3,000 for a rain hat, $10,000 for a tweed coat and $5,000 for a letter Kerouac had written his friend, Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
Sampas said he never sold anything important or related to Kerouac's work. Most of the letters, journals and notebooks remain, including all original manuscripts. He said he stored and handled all Kerouac materials like the treasures they are.
What he did sell, he said, covered the costs of office equipment and cataloging the archive. As the family member in charge of the estate, he said, "I had a financial responsibility to the heirs."
Sampas is 70 now, an antiques dabbler who collects notes Kerouac fans leave on the writer's grave in Lowell.
Some Kerouac devotees consider him Public Enemy No. 1. Biographer Gerald Nicosia most of all.
* * *
"There are plenty of things rotten in the state of Kerouac right now, and I am hardly the only person to know it." -- Nicosia, in a 1993 letter to his editor
* * *
Nicosia is always fuming. At his editors, at reporters who can't seem to get the Kerouac story right, at historians he thinks are selling out to make a buck off the Beat Generation.
At the University of Chicago in 1972, Nicosia didn't think his literature professors were giving Kerouac his due. He vowed to write the definitive biography of Kerouac, and he did.
"If Jack ever had a bowel movement, Gerry's book can tell you what time," said Weinberg.
Nicosia spent six years, traveled 50,000 miles and interviewed more than 300 people in his research of the biography he titled Memory Babe, the nickname Kerouac's childhood friends gave him for his extraordinary memory.
When Sampas began selling pieces of the Kerouac archive, Nicosia called it a "fire sale," a sacrilegious scattering of a literary relic.
"They weren't doing it secretly," he said. "They issued catalogs. They sold stuff hand over fist."
In the early 1990s, Nicosia said, Sampas pressured his publisher to pull Memory Babe out of print. Nicosia thinks Sampas did it to get back at him for criticizing him publicly. He found another publisher.
Sampas counters that Nicosia is hardly the literary purist and about the farthest thing from a detached biographer. He says Nicosia plotted to take control of the Kerouac archive and pulled strings to get Jan to do his bidding.
In 1994, Nicosia invited Jan to his home north of San Francisco. He showed her a copy of her grandmother's will. He said he wasn't trying to draw her attention to anything, just showing her a document of interest to her.
Within minutes, Jan was saying Gabrielle's signature was a forgery, that her name looked misspelled.
Jan found a handwriting expert who agreed and filed a lawsuit, challenging the will.
She died of kidney failure in 1996, before the case came to trial. Nicosia, her literary representative, asked to press the litigation on her behalf. He said he wanted to fulfill Jan's effort to stop the selloff and to preserve her father's archive in an academic institution. A court said Nicosia had no standing.
With the daughter and the biographer out of the picture, Sampas' hold on the Kerouac estate looked secure. Until the nephew surfaced.
* * *
"I want you to know that if you're a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we're of the same blood." -- From Kerouac's last letter to Paul Blake
* * *
Kerouac's closest living relative is Paul Blake Jr., a 54-year-old recovering alcoholic and former carpenter. He is homeless, living in Sacramento, Calif.
Blake says he doesn't own anything that belonged to his famous uncle. He doesn't even have the letter Kerouac wrote him the day before he died. He sold it to a dealer years ago.
"I'm not angry or depressed about how things turned out," Blake said. "I just feel hurt and left out."
Blake said his grandmother, Gabrielle, used to send him a Christmas card every year with little checks, usually $10 or $20. He can't understand why she wouldn't have provided for him in her will. In fact, he doesn't believe it.
He picked up the fight after the courts blocked Nicosia from challenging Gabrielle's will. He wants a judge to declare his grandmother's will a fraud and toss it. If he wins, his lawyer says Blake stands to get a third of Kerouac's estate.
The lawyer is Bill Wagner, a veteran Tampa attorney who specializes in personal injury cases. He said he has never read Kerouac and had to go on the Internet to figure out who the writer was when he got the case.
That Kerouac was close to his nephew is uncontested. Blake is the Lil Luke in several novels, including Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.
Wagner says Blake has a good claim against Sampas and deserves a piece of the empire. The will, he says, is a forgery. A witness to Gabrielle's will later said he did not see her sign it.
Blake used to play a baseball board game his uncle invented, a game he says his uncle promised him. Sampas won't give it.
Sampas said he would have helped the struggling nephew earlier, but Blake never asked. Now, Sampas said, he doesn't want to fund litigation against himself.
Blake gets by with handouts. "My uncle would have thought all this was a bunch of balderdash," he said. "He would straighten this out real quick. He wouldn't want to see me living out of a truck."
* * *
"My complete archive en bloc I'm going to hang on to for my oldage poverty." -- From a letter Kerouac wrote in 1968 to friend Allen Ginsberg
* * *
Nicosia blames Sampas for many things: negative publicity, archive sales, plotting to hurt Memory Babe. He said Sampas even threatened to have someone cut him into little pieces. He said he reported it to the FBI.
Sampas said he made no such threat.
"They're trying to demonize me," he said. "What they're saying about me selling off the archive is just all baloney. There's no fire sale. There never has been. I'm a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character.
"I'm just Jack Kerouac's brother-in-law."
An Oakland writer's group honored Nicosia's persistent efforts to aid Jan in freeing her father's archives from Sampas.
Nicosia said he never crossed the line from impartial biographer to partisan in this bare-fisted Kerouac family fight. "These were separate roles from my role as a biographer," he said.
In August 2001, Sampas sold most of the Kerouac archive to the New York Public Library for an undisclosed sum. He said it now has "99.9 percent" of Kerouac's letters, journals, notebooks and manuscripts. The Sampas family has a deal with writer and historian Douglas Brinkley, allowing him exclusive access to parts of the archive until 2005, when his Kerouac biography is to be finished.
Brinkley said the Kerouac archive is mostly intact: "Once John Sampas recognized his sales weren't good protocol, he stopped. He didn't know better."
Nicosia isn't buying it.
"Here is Jack Kerouac, the most-populist American author, a man who identified with the common man, a writer for all the people, and now you have to go through John Sampas to look at the stuff. It's a travesty."
* * *
More than 33 years after Kerouac's death, his house in St. Petersburg is a must-see for devotees who make the pilgrimage here.
The Sampas family still owns the house. No Kerouac materials remain. No manuscripts. No paintings. No desk.
When Kerouac lived here, in poor health, trying to make his finances work, he brooded over his letters and literary materials. He knew they were worth something.
He sold some letters for $6,000, then worried in a letter to a friend that people would think he was selling out. He said he wasn't, he was just desperate.
A year before he died, he wrote a former editor to ask him to return the manuscript to On the Road, a 120-foot roll of taped paper.
"I'll be needing this," Kerouac wrote, "to tide me over middle age in a very surprisingly unlucky literary career, from a financial standpoint."
Last year, Sampas' nephew sold the manuscript for $2.43-million.
Bryson never did find out how Jack Kerouac got his business card 33 years ago.
* * *
-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which draws onMemory Babe, by Gerald Nicosia, and Jack Kerouac Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters.
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