Openly homosexual and an unapologetic drug addict, writer William S. Burroughs was, in director John Waters' words, “the first person who became famous for things you were supposed to hide.”
Born William Seward Burroughs II on this day 97 years ago to a wealthy family in St. Louis (the family fortune came from an equipment manufacturing company that specialized in adding machines), Burroughs started writing at a young age, authoring a story called “The Autobiography of a Wolf” when he was 8. At age 13, he discovered You Can’t Win, the best-selling 1926 autobiography of outlaw Jack Black: hobo, burglar, safecracker and opium addict. Instead of viewing it as a cautionary tale, Burroughs found in it a blueprint for the ideal life.
"In the U.S. you have to be a deviant or die of boredom." — William S. Burroughs
A misfit in the uppercrust circles of St. Louis, he left in 1932 to attend Harvard, where he became known chiefly for carrying a revolver and having a pet ferret. He didn’t like elite Ivy League life much better, but graduated in 1936 and then travelled to Vienna with the intent of studying medicine. There he saw first hand the effect Hitler was having on Central Europe (Burroughs' uncle, it may be noted, was Hitler’s publicist in the U.S.). While there, he married a Jewish woman named Ilse Klapper in order to help her emigrate to the United States. The marriage was dissolved once she was safely out of the country.
While his family continued paying him a generous monthly stipend (as they would do for much of his life) Burroughs drifted. He returned briefly to Harvard, took classes at Columbia and on three separate occasions tried joining the military. While in Chicago, where he worked as an exterminator and a store detective, he befriended Lucien Carr, who would introduce him to Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York. Though Kerouac and Ginsberg were younger than Burroughs, they were attracted by his unconventional, acerbic wit and his underworld credentials. It was in New York he met his future common-law wife, Joan Vollmer.
"Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.’’ – William S. Burroughs
Though an avowed homosexual, Burroughs admired Vollmer’s intellect. After Burroughs was busted for forging a narcotics prescription, she followed him to Texas, where he lived on a farm and grew marijuana. They moved to New Orleans, where Burroughs was arrested on drugs charges. In 1949, the pair settled in Mexico City, whose lax attitudes towards narcotics and firearms Burroughs found amenable. By this time, the pair had a 4-year-old son.
Burroughs was also by this time seriously addicted to heroin. Vollmer was addicted to Benzedrine and both were alcoholics. They were drinking heavily on the night Burroughs decided to show off his William Tell routine to visiting friends and, while trying to shoot a highball glass from Vollmer’s head, instead accidentally shot and killed her. He was arrested and spent 13 days in jail before his wealthy father bribed officials and arranged his pre-trial release. Burroughs left Mexico but was convicted in absentia of homicide.
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing… the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” – William S. Burroughs
Impressed by his letters, Ginsberg began urging Burroughs to write. The result was Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict. Acting as Burroughs' agent, editor and lead cheerleader, Ginsberg was eventually able to get the work published by Ace Books, who specialized in cheap paperbacks. At the age of 39, William Burroughs had become a published author.
Inspired by Paul Bowles, Burroughs moved to Tangiers and spent the next four years ingesting a variety of narcotics and writing more than 1,000 pages that would later be edited into five books, including his seminal work, Naked Lunch. Non-linear, paranoid, hallucinatory, darkly comic, violent and sexually graphic, Naked Lunch was first excerpted in The Chicago Review, a move that caused the editors to lose their jobs. When the book was published in full in 1959, it became the subject of the last major literary obscenity suit in the United States. In 1966, after hearing testimony from Pulitzer Prize winner Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg (by then famous as the author of ‘Howl’), the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled the work had social merit. By then, it was already an underground hit and Burroughs was on his way to becoming a literary celebrity, as perhaps evidenced by his appearance next to Marilyn Monroe on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album.
Of all the artists of the Beat Generation – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes and the rest – none was as revered by the hipsters and punk rockers who later came of age in the 1970s and '80s. Partly this was a matter of style. Whereas Ginsberg wore long, unkempt hair and Eastern proto-hippie garb, and Kerouac had favored the rolled shirtsleeves and work boots of American blue-collar masculinity, William S. Burroughs, with his gray flannel suits, thin ties and wide brimmed hats, was a 1940s throwback. He could have been a travelling salesman or guest host of The Twilight Zone. Kerouac once described him as “inscrutable because ordinary looking (scrutable), like a shy bank clerk with a patrician thinlipped cold bluelipped face.” While living abroad in Tangiers, London and Paris, he was often mistaken for a CIA agent. Along with the look was the voice, a gravelly, nasal deadpan, his cadence that of an misanthropic carnival barker talking at half speed.
Both were evidenced in his memorable cameo in Gus Van Sant’s 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy, where he played a wise, elderly drug addict named Tom. In 1991, director David Cronenberg would raise the writer’s profile even higher by making a big-budget film based on Naked Lunch. Burroughs collaborated with Laurie Anderson, Michael Stipe and Kurt Cobain. He appeared in a U2 video. He starred in ads for The Gap and Nike. By his 80s, he had gone from being an obscure underground writer to a full-fledged cultural icon.
Not all were pleased. Critics pointed to a rich vein of misogyny that ran through his works. Others questioned why giant corporations like Nike would want to associate their products with an unrepentant drug addict who drunkenly shot his wife. His son Billy would write a damning article for Esquire about Burroughs failures as a father before drinking himself to death at the age of 33.
"What is death? A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up." - William S. Burroughs
Burroughs lived his final years in Lawrence, Kansas with his friend, assistant and legally adopted son James Grauerholz, as well as a number of cats. He died on August 2, 1997 of a heart attack.