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Irony fills court saga of Kerouac's estate

WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published October 14, 2004

In letters and conversation, writer Jack Kerouac denigrated St. Petersburg, his adopted home. Once, he cried, "Mother, cut my throat!" on the eve of a trip to the city he called Salt Petersburg.

He died here at age 47 on Oct. 21, 1969, a booze-swigging, hard-living Beat Generation icon whose body couldn't keep up with his legend.

In a sense, the city hasn't buried the writer yet.

A judge on Wednesday postponed a lawsuit contesting a will that helped land Kerouac's valuable estate into his in-law's hands, prolonging one of the longest-running legal soap operas in Pinellas courts.

The reason for the delay might fit neatly into one of Kerouac's irreverent novels: his nephew, a homeless Arizona man and a character in some of his uncle's books, doesn't have anyone left to sue.

"You're suing nobody," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer told Bill Wagner, an attorney for Paul Blake Jr., the nephew. "It's not because they didn't show up. It's because they don't exist."

The trial finally might have decided a decade-old legal dispute challenging whether the will of Kerouac's mother, Gabrielle, was a forgery. Kerouac's estate, including his former home on 10th Avenue N, is valued by some at $20-million.

Gabrielle Kerouac died in 1973, and nobody from her estate is still around to represent it.

Earlier this year, Greer dismissed as defendants in Blake's suit Kerouac's in-laws, who inherited his estate through his third wife, Stella. Her brother, John Sampas, Kerouac's childhood friend, now controls the estate.

Greer apologized for not noticing the flaw in the case earlier.

The solution, Greer ruled Wednesday, is to appoint a lawyer to represent the interests of Gabrielle Kerouac's estate and then proceed to trial, if necessary.

But when, or even if, a trial will ever occur is a point of dispute.

What's left is a case that won't go away - a bitter, messy, tangled, complex legal legacy to the life of a dead writer who, some say, wouldn't be happy about all the bickering.

"I don't know that Kerouac would have found any of this amusing," said Bob Kealing, author of Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando.

"I think he would have thought it takes attention away from what he always said: If you want to know about me, read my books," said Kealing.

Even if Gabrielle Kerouac's will is proven a fake, the chances of Blake getting any money are slim, most agree. When Greer dismissed the Sampas family as defendants, he ruled their ownership of the estate is valid.

"It's a slim hope we get any money," Wagner said after Wednesday's hearing in Clearwater. "But Paul wants a decision made. He wants some legal acknowledgement of his uncle's original intent."

It's almost a matter of principle as Blake tries to prove that his famous uncl e and Gabrielle Kerouac indeed wanted to give him something after they died.

Blake wasn't in court Wednesday. But he has pointed to his uncle's last letter as proof of Kerouac's intent to give him something.

"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," Kerouac wrote to Blake.

After Kerouac died, he left everything to his mother, not realizing the eventual court battle he had unleashed. Kerouac decided that if she died before him, Blake should get everything.

After his mother died in 1973, her will gave everything to Stella Kerouac. Jack and Stella were married for about three years. She in turn left everything to her siblings when she died in 1990.

Blake didn't inherit anything.

Family ties and relationships run strongly through the case.

Wednesday's court session opened with Stella Kerouac's niece asking through her attorney to intervene in the litigation. That way, the case would have been contested.

Greer refused, saying she had no legal interest.

"Somebody needed to step up," said attorney Michael Keane, who represented the niece, Marie Perritano, who was not in court and could not be reached for comment. "Who has more of an interest than family members? There's no one left."

Keane said the will is not forged and that Blake waited far too long to contest it.

He said he doubts Wagner will be able to move forward with the suit, saying it should be barred by the statute of limitations.

The case started in 1994, when Kerouac's only child from his second marriage, Jan Kerouac, filed suit contesting Gabrielle's will.

But after Jan Kerouac died in 1996, Gerald Nicosia, who wrote what many consider the definitive biography of Jack Kerouac, stepped in to continue her fight as Jan Kerouac's literary representative.

Nicosia has been critical of the Sampas family for selling parts of the estate.

A court barred Nicosia from proceeding. Later, Blake, 56, a former carpenter, stepped in.

Kerouac's financial worth at death was far inferior to his literary reputation. When he died, beat wasn't in vogue. He struggled financially.

His estate eventually became a valued literary relic. Actor Johnny Depp bough Kerouac's raincoat for $15,000. The scroll manuscript for On the Road sold for $2.43-million.

"I think Jack would be amused," said Keane, "that everything has taken on such monetary value after the fact."

THE BEAT GENERATION

Jack Kerouac and a few other friends from Columbia University, including writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, became known as the center of the "Beat" movement. They were influenced by the popular jazz and bop music of the 1940s. Kerouac coined the phrase "Beat Generation" to describe an attitude of "beatness" or weariness with the world.

ON THE ROAD: In 1949, Kerouac took a road trip from the East Coast to San Francisco with Neal Cassady and his ex-wife Luanne. He would cross America and Mexico several times in the next decade. These cross-country trips comprised much of the content for Kerouac's most famous work, On the Road, which was published in 1957.

KEROUAC IN ST. PETERSBURG: In 1966, Kerouac moved to St. Petersburg to tend to his ailing mother. He died in St. Anthony's Hospital three years later, and his will listed her as his only heir. Kerouac, his mother and his third wife, Stella Sampas, lived in small concrete block home on 10th Avenue N.

Sources: Kerouac Foundation, Times files

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