The Howls That Jack Built

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jack Boulware