Info:Correction Date: 09/03/1998
The Howls That Jack Built
Gerald Nicosia has spent a decade challenging the disposition of Jack Kerouac's $20 million literary estate. Along the way, he's annoyed most of what remains of the beat generation.
By Jack Boulware
Short and stocky, sporting a colorful children's Band-Aid wrapped around a finger, Gerald Nicosia prepares his tape recorder. Another journalist is giving him another interview, and Nicosia wants to make sure he has a record of what is said. Nobody has gotten the story right so far. He vibrates with nervous energy, and his claustrophobic, cluttered office reeks of an uncomfortable tension.
Lawsuits will do that to you.
And Gerald Nicosia is currently involved in three of them, all related to the estate of Beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac. The Oakland, California, chapter of the PEN writers' organization has honored Nicosia for his persistence in pushing for free access to Kerouac's literary archives.
But Nicosia's award-winning efforts have made the issue extremely confusing; the litigation surrounding him is so complex that one of his own attorneys acknowledges not fully understanding all the details.
At the center of the legal wrangle is Nicosia's friendship with Jack Kerouac's late daughter, Jan. For the past four years, Nicosia has assisted in a legal battle that would shift control of her father's literary archive to her estate. Currently owned and managed by the heirs of Kerouac's third wife, Stella Sampas, the archive is estimated to be worth over $10 million.
Jan died in 1996 and designated Nicosia as her "Literary Personal Representative." Empowered with this title, Nicosia has pursued a Florida lawsuit that claims the will leaving Kerouac's writings to the Sampas family was forged.
But his unprecedented quest after the Kerouac archive is now at a turning point. As a result of a labyrinthine series of legal maneuvers, a New Mexico appellate court is expected to decide within the next few weeks whether Nicosia's dogged pursuit of the Kerouac estate must end.
Although he never read any Kerouac until the 1970s, Nicosia must feel he knows the writer intimately by now. Nicosia's 1983 biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe, is considered by many the definitive critical take on Kerouac. The book runs to more than 700 pages and took Nicosia six years to complete. Woven together from interviews, letters and details from Jack's books, Nicosia's exhaustive history dives deeper into Kerouac's life than any other biography previous or since. (So deep that in an essay Nicosia contributed to an obscure 1985 Beat anthology, he admitted he went to bed with one of Kerouac's lovers and "got halfway with another.")
Such single-minded focus and thorough research don't necessarily translate into people skills. And that is one of Nicosia's problems.
Many people find him extremely annoying.
According to the PEN organization, for the past ten years Gerald Nicosia has been banned from all but one major conference on Kerouac and the other Beat writers. Police ejected him from a Kerouac event at New York University. Discussions about Nicosia and the Kerouac archive battle became so heated on the Beat-L Internet discussion group that the moderator was forced to shut it down. There is a Web site devoted solely to trashing Nicosia, and he says he has received a death threat. Press mentions of the Kerouac archive battle are often rebutted by a lengthy letter from Nicosia to the editor.
His propensity to annoy appears to be far-flung; many people who returned calls for this article were unwilling to have their words appear in print once they realized the piece would deal with Nicosia.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, faxed a garbled note but never responded to a follow-up call. Bay Area poet Gary Snyder e-mailed his "no comment." Local as well as national Beat scholars, journalists, archivists, and librarians have all refrained from going on record about Nicosia.
As one put it, "I don't need him bugging me all over again."
For someone who inspires such dislike, Nicosia lives (with his wife and two children) in a very ordinary setting north of San Francisco -- a middle-class house on a shady street in Corte Madera. A tired-looking Japanese compact sits in the driveway. The living-room floor appears to have received a grenade that exploded children's toys.
Nicosia slurps from his diet Coke and gestures to a foot-high manuscript stack, a book he's written about Vietnam veterans. It remains unpublished.
"It might be too anti-government," he says ruefully.
For two years he worked with Vietnam War activist Ron Kovic on Kovic's autobiography. When he asked to be credited, Kovic refused. The project fizzled. He mutters something about how it's been the story of his life. It can't be easy being Gerald Nicosia. But it has grown into a full-time job.
"If I quit now, I'll be saddled with this the rest of my life," he says. "It's what Jan would have wanted."
Any resolution of the archive dispute will not depend upon anyone named Kerouac. Jack died in 1969. His only child, Jan, passed away two years ago. There are no other direct blood descendants. But whoever ends up with the goods will be sitting pretty. For the past several years, anything Beat--in particular, anything Kerouac--has been big business.
Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road has sold more than three million copies and still is a favorite of any college kid who dreams of taking a road trip. Publication of the book--and Allen Ginsberg's 1955 debut of his poem "Howl" at a San Francisco performance gallery--form the beginnings of what Kerouac himself labeled the Beat generation.
Inspired by On the Road's benzedrine-fueled "Go man go!" descriptions of San Francisco's jazz and poetry scenes, young people descended upon North Beach during the late '50s and early '60s, and its coffee shops, goatees, and bongos made San Francisco the Beat capital of the world. Photographers and reporters prowled the neighborhood hunting for an explanation for this strange, disaffected postwar generation. In 1958, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the term "beatniks" (then considered derogatory) to describe the dirty kids who were loitering in the streets. (One Beat hangout responded with a poster reading "We feature separate toilet facilities for Herb Caen.")
Cynics argue that Kerouac's output was just autobiographical jazz-spew--more a throwaway product of its time than literature that sticks to the ribs. But his enduring cachet in pop culture cannot be denied. Only a handful of American authors have ever written a novel that consistently sells 60,000 copies a year, as does On the Road. Most of Kerouac's other books are back in print and on the shelves. Along with his contemporaries Ginsberg and William Burroughs, Kerouac has become required reading in college lit classes.
Attached to such popularity is a growing worldwide cottage industry of Beat. One of the prime purveyors of Kerouac's work is the Naropa Institute in Boulder, which includes the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Kerouac spent a lot of time in Denver in the late Forties hanging out on then-seedy Larimer Street. Much of his experiences in Colorado wound up in his writing. Surviving poets and writers of Kerouac's generation are treated like royalty at Beat conferences, where they sign books, mingle with fans and listen to scholars deliver papers with navel-gazing theses and yawn-inducing titles. One example: "Telepathic Shock and Meaning Excitement: Kerouac's Poetics of Intimacy."
The legal situation surrounding the Kerouac estate is so mysterious and confusing as to be almost impenetrable. These, however, are the basic facts: When Jack Kerouac died, he left everything to his mother, Gabrielle. When she died, her will left her entire estate, including Jack Kerouac's literary materials, to Stella Sampas, Jack's third wife. In 1994, Kerouac's only daughter, Jan, contended that this will was a forgery and filed an action in Florida, the state in which Gabrielle died, contesting the probate of her grandmother's will. This is the action that Nicosia has championed, as an heir and literary representative of Jan Kerouac, even after her death.
Now, however, a Florida judge has put that probate contest on hold, because Jan's other heirs--her ex-husband and her half-brother--don't want Nicosia involved in the matter. In fact, Jan's ex-husband, John Lash (as her "General Personal Representative"), has filed to dismiss the Florida probate litigation. (According to court documents, he has reached a confidential agreement with the Sampas family to settle the suit.)
In January 1997, a New Mexico District Court judge ruled in favor of Lash. (Jan died in Albuquerque.) Nicosia appealed the decision, and he and his attorney both claim that a judge promised them a decision early this month on that appeal. If Nicosia wins, he will be able to pursue the Florida probate case. If he loses, it will end a saga that started decades earlier, before anyone had ever heard the phrase "Beat generation."
Jack Kerouac and his second wife, Joan Haverty, conceived their only child in 1951, when he was living in New York, writing what would become On the Road. He left home six months later, bound for San Francisco, and never returned.
Jan met her father for the first time in 1962, when her mother's efforts to gain child support finally forced Kerouac to take a paternity blood test. (The result was positive.) As a nine-year-old, she nervously accompanied him to the liquor store for a bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream sherry and saved the cork as a reminder that she did indeed have a father.
The two would meet only once more, in 1966, when she was a pregnant teenager en route to Mexico. Kerouac turned away from an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies television show and encouraged his daughter to "use my name...write a book."
After this brief encouragement, Jan hit the road to become a writer and lived a life similar to her father's. For years she traveled the world, toughing it out by working odd jobs, at times resorting to prostitution to support a heroin habit. Jack Kerouac spent the last few years of his life with his wife Stella and his mother in St. Petersburg, Florida, living in a cinder-block house where he watched TV, read books and eventually drank himself to death.
On October 20, 1969, he wrote a letter to his nephew, Paul Blake Jr., which said in part:
"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 [sic] 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."
Gerald Nicosia says this letter is proof that Kerouac didn't love Stella Sampas. The Sampas family and their attorney maintain that this letter is a forgery.
Whether real or created, the letter was dated just one day before Jack Kerouac died of an alcohol-related hemorrhage. Although married to Stella, his will excluded her completely and left everything to his mother, Gabrielle.
Stella filed for and obtained one-third of his estate under a legal entitlement extended to widows by Florida law. When Gabrielle died in 1973, her will left everything back to Stella, ignoring both of her grandchildren, Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jr., the only son of Kerouac's deceased sister.
After Stella inherited the archive, she sealed it. Kerouac's Beat friends say she never liked them anyway, or anything they represented. And in the 1970s, the Beats were as nowheresville as the Dobie Gillis TV show, and nobody much cared about Jack Kerouac.
Jan Kerouac learned of her father's death from a news report on the radio.
As she developed her own literary career, Jan was readily accepted by her father's friends and the Beat community. The family resemblance, especially the eyes, was amazing. The first of her two autobiographical novels, Baby Driver, appeared in 1981, followed by Trainsong in 1988. Eventually, she began speaking at public Beat events. She even contributed liner notes to a boxed set of her father's recordings.
At a 1982 Kerouac conference at Allen Ginsberg's Naropa Institute in Boulder, Jan bumped into an heir of John Steinbeck's, who asked her if she had been receiving her royalty renewal payments. She had never heard of such payments. The young Steinbeck explained that as a blood heir of Jack Kerouac, she was automatically due 50 percent of all royalties of her father's books once they came up for copyright renewal. Jan retained a lawyer and discovered she was, by birth, to be involved in an ongoing business relationship with Stella Sampas.
(Since 1985, the estates of Jan and Stella have argued over copyrights of Jack's books, a legal minefield of unprecedented complexity. Essentially, both sides now say they have come to resolution, but the Kerouac collection contains the most confusing copyrights in modern literature. Some books attribute copyright to Stella Sampas, some copyrights are shared by Stella Sampas and Jan Kerouac, some read only Jan Kerouac, some are still held under the name of Jack Kerouac, and a few are copyrighted John Sampas.)
After Stella died in 1990, her estate, including the Kerouac archive, passed to her six surviving siblings. When brother-in-law Jack's archive was appraised, the Sampases realized, perhaps for the first time, that they possessed a gold mine. Among other things, the archive included the original Teletype scroll manuscript of On the Road and Kerouac's paintings, journals, letters, and unpublished novels and stories. The value of the collection has been estimated between $10 million and $20 million.
John Sampas, the family's representative, acknowledges that he sold off portions of the archive to raise money for attorneys familiar with estate management. Kerouac's raincoat, for example, went for $15,000 to actor Johnny Depp. Other collectors purchased letters, paintings and Kerouac's personal library books, each of which went out the door stamped and signed by John Sampas.
During the early '90s, Jan Kerouac was receiving upwards of $100,000 a year in royalties from Jack's books. Still, she grew furious, watching as her father's legacy was carved up. Beat experts agreed. The sales were, at the very least, stupid and irresponsible. An incomplete archive is a disservice to scholars and an insult to the writer. And Kerouac had repeatedly asked that his papers be kept intact and made available to the public.
In 1994, Jan and her attorney were looking through old court documents when they came upon a copy of her grandmother Gabrielle's will, which had left her estate, including Jack Kerouac's archive, to Stella Sampas. The signature looked peculiar, perhaps even misspelled. A handwriting analyst was brought in; he claimed it was an obvious forgery. If indeed it was, Jan could legally wrestle control of the archive from the Sampases. She began legal proceedings in Florida to contest the will.
But years of alcohol and drugs, compounded by an inherited blood disease, had ravaged her body. In 1991, her kidneys failed, and she spent her last several years undergoing dialysis four times a day.
As Jan's health worsened, Nicosia staged three standing-room-only benefits for her in San Francisco. Entertainment ranged from Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters and Ramblin' Jack Elliott to Big Brother & the Holding Company and a Kerouac documentary by Bay Area filmmaker John Antonelli. Nicosia says the nights served a dual purpose: to help pay Jan's medical bills and to finance her legal efforts. Apparently not everyone was made aware of the two motives.
An afternoon reception at Enrico's in North Beach offered people the opportunity to greet some of the performers for the benefits, which included many of San Francisco's Beat and hippie icons. Nicosia and Jan Kerouac's attorney stood up to address the crowd. But they didn't talk about Jan's medical condition. Instead, they tried to explain the convoluted legal proceedings surrounding the Kerouac archive.
According to those who were there, Ken Kesey abruptly stood up from his table, bellowed, "Kidneys! Kidneys! We're here for kidneys, not to pay lawyers!" and stormed theatrically out of the cafe.
The public manifestation of the archive battle intensified that June, when Jan and Nicosia descended upon a New York University conference honoring Kerouac. The noisy incidents that ensued have become known as "Kerouac-gate."
Major players invited to the conference included Kerouac biographer and Beat scholar Ann Charters, Beat poets Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, writer and onetime Kerouac girlfriend Joyce Johnson and members of the Sampas family, among others. Nicosia and Jan Kerouac were not invited.
But that didn't stop them from attending.
Jan paid for her own $120 ticket. Nicosia wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Gerald Nicosia...A tiresome wannabe--Ann Charters." On the reverse were printed the words "KEROUAC VS. SAMPAS." On his name tag, he replaced the words "Kerouac Conference" with "Sampas Conference." In nearby Washington Square, Jan and her supporters staged their own rally, unfurling a banner that read "Save Jack's Papers."
During one session, police escorted Jan and Nicosia out of the room. Accounts differ, but all agree that there was some shouting and that panelist Ginsberg, Jan's godfather, was in favor of removing the pair.
Guerrilla-style disruptions continued through the final evening of Kerouac readings at the town hall. John Sampas recalls attending with a friend. It had been a long three days, punctuated by continual interruptions from Jan Kerouac and Gerald Nicosia. Sampas remembers sitting in the audience, waiting for things to start, when a wild-eyed Nicosia materialized as if from nowhere, pointed to him and yelled, "THERE HE IS!"
Gerald Nicosia no doubt feels his heart is in the right place as he pursues the Kerouac archive, but his abrasive personality has turned against him a sizable number of people who might otherwise support his efforts or work with him in the future. Adding to his effect on others is the high regard in which he holds himself. According to his rambling, 20,000-word autobiography, this son of an Illinois postman is "innately very bright" and "a gifted comedian." Such audacious self-promotion makes him a difficult man to ignore or forget.
The international writers' organization PEN has done neither. On June 6, Bay Area author Maxine Hong Kingston presented Nicosia with the PEN-Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Censorship Award for the personal and professional barriers he has encountered and surmounted in defending the legacies of Jack and Jan Kerouac.
Nicosia's acceptance speech ran so long that a scheduled post-awards reception had to be canceled.
At a later panel discussion on the Kerouac legacy held in San Francisco, Nicosia fumed. That morning's San Francisco Chronicle included an article promoting the event. But why did the story appear only in the paper's North Bay edition and not in the full San Francisco version, which reaches so many more readers? He approached his attorney and blurted:
"The majority of people who are interested in the Beats live in San Francisco! Sampas must have put pressure on them!"
This claim--that his nemesis, John Sampas, exerts influence in many places--is one of Nicosia's more common complaints. And at times, Sampas does appear to have acted in ways that undermined Nicosia's mission. But much of Nicosia's belief in a bicoastal conspiratorial octopus of power controlled by Sampas seems to be unfounded.
"None of my editors even know who John Sampas is!" says Chronicle reporter John Aiello, author of the article, when told of Nicosia's reaction. "The only reason we ran that story at all is because Nicosia lives in Corte Madera."
And now, after a moment's thought, Aiello himself gets annoyed. "Goddamn it, I'm gonna call him right now," he says.
Some of Nicosia's other assertions also fall flat on close inspection.
One such claim pertains to Nicosia's own research archive, amassed during the writing of his book Memory Babe. Nicosia had placed his archive of papers and cassette tapes on deposit at the University of Massachusetts library in Lowell, for use by scholars and students. Since 1995, he says, John Sampas has used his power over the Kerouac papers to freeze Nicosia's archive of Kerouac material, making it impossible for scholars or anyone else to look at its contents. Nicosia says he intends to sue to save his own archive, and he has posted notices to a literary Web site, asking for $25 donations to defray his legal costs.
But a recent visit to the Center for Lowell History, the current location of Nicosia's archive, finds a friendly staff librarian who gladly assists anyone curious to see the Nicosia collection. When asked about its accessibility, she smiles wryly and says that nearly everything is available to the public. The collection is most definitely not frozen.
More than occasionally, when people are confronted with Nicosia's claims and concerns, their response is an immediate groan. There is a reason for this reaction. Nicosia seems to believe that the man who now controls the Kerouac archive, John Sampas, is single-handedly responsible for problems ranging from potholes on the Massachusetts turnpike to the devaluation of the yen.
Nicosia seems blithely unconcerned that many of his claims stretch (or simply don't fit) standard definitions of reality. In a conversation in July, he sits at his desk, a can of diet Coke clutched in his fist, and insists that the New Mexico appeal looks very promising. But his saggy, sweaty face says otherwise. His eyes are huge and glassy, and they drip with fatigue. His life looks to be something of a wreck. Even some friends wonder if he's gone off the deep end. His publisher is angry because he hasn't been able to finish his Vietnam book, but no war in the world matters to him as much as the war with the Sampases of Lowell, Massachusetts.
John Sampas, the youngest of ten children, grew up in Lowell, which was also Jack Kerouac's hometown. Sampas's brother Sammy was Jack's boyhood friend, and years later their sister, Stella, would become the third Mrs. Kerouac. The Sampas family strip joint, Nicky's, was one of Kerouac's favorite bars. John's late brother Charlie was once editor of the Lowell Sun newspaper, and Charlie's wife still writes the local society column.
John Sampas lives alone. He dealt antiques out of his home until he became chief administrator of the Kerouac papers in 1990. A polite, guarded man in his mid-sixties, Sampas has shepherded the publication of several Kerouac books in the past few years, including a collection of letters and a fortieth-anniversary edition of On the Road, and a book of previously unpublished poetry titled Some of the Dharma.
Sampas says future releases from the closely held archive will include CDs, a biography by Douglas Brinkley, another anthology of letters and a book of Kerouac's early writings. Talks continue with Francis Ford Coppola about a film version of On the Road, possibly directed by Coppola's son Roman.
Portions of the Kerouac archive now reside in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, a well-respected Beat repository. Sampas has said this is eventually where all of the archive will end up. But, oddly, he keeps most of the archive locked in a Lowell bank vault, available only to handpicked scholars and biographers. He checks Kerouac's grave once a week to collect notes left by fans. Occasionally, he sees someone standing in front of the headstone, mumbling poetry.
The Sampases are curious about opinions of the Kerouac materials they're releasing. They have inherited a weird orphan, an unwieldy literary estate that nobody in the family was really prepared to manage. They understand how to run a strip joint or a newspaper, but a literary legacy is another thing altogether--especially one involved in perpetual litigation.
And although some journalists have described Sampas as foreboding or "noirish," in a July interview Sampas seems both polite and rational--far more rational than many others interviewed about the Kerouac inheritance dispute. He wears a baseball cap and an untucked short-sleeved shirt, looking as if he just took a break from mowing the lawn.
As if to underscore the politeness, Sampas leads a sort of tour of Kerouac sites in Lowell. After visiting Kerouac's beer-bottle-decorated grave, Sampas drives to the middle of downtown Lowell and the Kerouac Memorial, a series of vertical granite slabs, engraved with excerpts from his books.
As the drive continues--Lowell High School, where Kerouac and most of the Sampases attended; the home Jack was born in--Sampas tells a story about his brothers, who one morning, while hunting for a missing Kerouac, found him still drinking in a bar from the night before.
The Mercedes pulls into the driveway of a three-story wooden structure, with a carriage house out back. This is the family home of John's late brother Michael. It feels lived-in, yet very empty. We sit in a living room lined with dozens of family photos and choke down cups of instant coffee.
Underneath the tidiness, the provincialism and the politeness, however, is a vague feeling, a sense that the Sampases are streetwise, that they play their cards close to their chest. And that in their own way, they are just as determined and obsessive as Gerald Nicosia.
For one thing, John Sampas has taken very obvious steps to ensure that his family will be remembered for posterity. Although the Sampases have a small (or perhaps nonexistent) connection to Kerouac's literary output, the Berg Collection contains many early letters from Jack Kerouac to Stella and Sammy Sampas. The 1995 collection of Kerouac letters edited by Ann Charters is dedicated to Sebastian "Sammy" Sampas, Kerouac's boyhood friend, who died in World War II; the book's cover depicts images of letters to the Sampases, with the name Sampas clearly readable.
The family feels it has been under siege for some time now. Judging from its strict control over the archive, the criticism is not entirely unwarranted. Liquidating portions of the archive to generate cash, for instance, immediately got a rise from the Beat community.
"I sold some things," Sampas admits, taking a drag from his ever-burning Parliament Light.
Sampas says he doesn't want to talk about Nicosia at all; he's not worth wasting time on. Jan Kerouac's credibility as the actual daughter was always in question for him, he says, because her mother "was what you'd call a harlot in those days." Even so, Sampas says, he offered to cut Jan into the Sampas deal--a one-seventh share, the same as all the other family members--but she didn't want it. He claims he had generously given her foreign royalties, even though he didn't have to and she wasn't legally entitled to them. It was only when she filed the suit, Sampas says, that he took them away.
"I'm not gonna finance her lawsuit," he grumbles.
The Sampases are confident the forgery case will never come to trial. If it does, they're prepared with handwriting experts of their own who will authenticate the will that is the basis of their control of the Kerouac archive.
And even though Nicosia isn't worth spending time on, Sampas and his family have some questions of their own about him. How did Jan happen to be in Gerald Nicosia's home when she was first shown the supposedly forged will? Why does nobody mention that as her literary executor, Nicosia receives 10 percent of her estate's literary-related income? Or, for that matter, what about Nicosia's agreement to sell the image of Jack Kerouac for a Levi Strauss Co. ad campaign for $11,000? Or the sale of Jan's own archive to the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley for $20,000? Jan's heirs didn't see a dime of either transaction. (According to Nicosia's own Internet posting, he retained these payments to pay the rising legal fees for her estate.)
And even though he's polite and accommodating to a visiting journalist, John Sampas does not want to discuss the specifics about the sale of Jack Kerouac's clothing to Johnny Depp. If any one action illuminates the perpetual spat around the Kerouac legacy, it may be the purchase of a writer's old raincoat by a perky young actor.
The big red house, surrounded by trees and an expansive green lawn, is located just a few minutes' drive from Walden Pond. In the driveway, a crew of five tattooed guys pours a layer of fresh black asphalt. Looking much like a hotel from the board game Monopoly, the home belongs to book dealer JeffreyWeinberg.
Weinberg remembers Jack Kerouac very well. In the 1960s, Weinberg was a high school student. By that time, the father of the Beat generation was just another alcoholic, sitting in his underwear in his garage, yelling at the neighborhood kids to go to the liquor store for him.
"He lived across the street," Weinberg shrugs. "He was an asshole. Always drunk."
Weinberg now operates the Beat-themed Water Row Books out of his home. From 1991 to 1993, Weinberg says, he had an arrangement with John Sampas, acting as his agent and helping him sell off portions of the Kerouac archive. He says that at that time Sampas was merely an antiques dealer, living in a home cluttered with junk.
He says Sampas called him one Sunday, asking if he knew anyone who might buy some of the Kerouac materials. Weinberg contacted Flashback Books, of Petaluma, California. The owner, Michael Horowitz, told Weinberg he might have a buyer for Kerouac items. Horowitz's daughter, Winona Ryder, happened to be dating him--a kid named Johnny Depp.
Weinberg and his wife met Depp in New York, presented him with a freshly baked quiche and drove him back to their home in Sudbury, outside Lowell. Depp agreed to buy items from Sampas, and everyone took a field trip to the Kerouac grave, where photos to commemorate the occasion were taken.
Weinberg comes up the stairs from his basement and sets down a thick three-ring binder on his kitchen table. It is the entirety of his relationship with Johnny Depp, a $50,000 deal from which Weinberg says he received a $5,000 commission.
"Nobody outside this house has seen what's in this file!" he announces.
Weinberg carefully pages through the binder, which contains a luggage tag from the Los Angeles airport in the name of Depp, copies of the check drawn on Depp's account, a postcard of gratitude from Depp to the Weinbergs. He removes a copy of the actual purchase invoice, dated November 19, 1991, and slides it across the table:
The Kerouac raincoat, $15,000; suitcase, $10,000; travel bag, $5,000; sweatshirt, $2,000; rain hat, $3,000; tweed coat, $10,000; a letter to fellow road-tripper (and Denver native) Neal Cassady, $5,000; and a canceled check to a liquor store, $350.
The total is $50,640, including tax.
The list produces an obscene impact, to which Weinberg is apparently oblivious. These high-priced keepsakes were once the personal effects of a man to whom money meant nothing. Jack Kerouac's best writing reflected a postwar world in which everyone was sympathetic, broke, Beat and vastly unmaterialistic. For his possessions to end up as trophies in the hands of the idle rich is an ignoble fate Kerouac could not have imagined in his worst drunken depression.
Weinberg believes he has done no wrong. His job was to locate buyers for Kerouac materials. He did so. But now, claiming to have been a victim of sharp dealing, Weinberg refuses to work with Sampas. His bitterness is evident.
"If his old spinster sister hadn't been sitting on a porch waiting for a drunk to come home," says Weinberg, "he would have been working flea markets."
Weinberg clears off the table. It's show time. He produces a color photo, flicking it over like a blackjack dealer.
Kneeling at the grave of Jack Kerouac is a strong-chinned Johnny Depp, an old blue raincoat around his shoulders, a cigarette strategically placed between his fingers. His expression is practiced, his eyes fixed on the camera lens. He is an actor, doing what he has to do to get what he wants, and then get the hell out of Massachusetts.
Weinberg names his price for the shot:
"Five thousand dollars." He leans back. "Hey, I could sell this to People magazine."
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Although it's unlikely that People would suddenly take $5,000 of interest in a seven-year-old photograph of Johnny Depp or be in the midst of preparing an all-Kerouac issue, the image is worthy in one sense. It represents all that is cold, greedy and empty about the controversy surrounding the legacy of Jack Kerouac.
This long-running dispute could continue in the courts for years or be over in a few weeks. Whatever the outcome, in the end the dispute will not have focused on who might be a proper caretaker for the best-selling voice of a generation. For in the end, the Kerouac obsession is not about novels or poetry at all. It's about literary nobodies who have no blood relation to Jack Kerouac but who through sheer perseverance have envisioned themselves to have become somebodies, at last.
What would Jack Kerouac make of all this?
"He would have enjoyed it. His name would be out there." Sampas smiles, and thinks a moment. "He only would have enjoyed the good aspects of it.
Published:Jack Boulware's story "The Kerouac Obsession," published in the August 13 Westword, incorrectly claimed that Gerald Nicosia spoke so long at an award ceremony that a reception had to be cancelled; actually, the reception was held. The story also contended that Mr. Nicosia once wore a T-shirt with the words "Kerouac vs. Sampas" on it; Mr. Nicosia says no such shirt existed, and we believe him. In addition, the story incompletey described Mr. Nicosia's relationship to the estate of Jan Kerouac. In his role of literary executor, Mr. Nicosia is to receive 10 percent of any income generated from Jan Kerouac's literary estate as a result of publications, sales or licensing arrangements negotiated by Mr. Nicosia. Westword regrets the errors.