by Allen Ginsberg A drunken night in my house with a boy, San Francisco: I lay asleep. darkness: I went back to Mexico City and saw Joan Burroughs leaning forward in a garden chair, arms on her knees. She studied me with clear eyes and downcast smile, her face restored to a fine beauty tequila and salt had made strange before the bullet in her brow. We talked of life since then. Well, what's Burroughs doing now? Bill on Earth, he's in North Africa. Oh, and Kerouac still junps with the same beat genius as before, notebooks filled with Buddha. I hope he makes it, she laughed. Is Huncke still in the can? No, last time I saw him on Times Square. And how is Kenney? Married, drunk ad golden in the East. You? New loves in the West-- Then I knew she was a dream: and questioned her --Joan, what kind of knowledge have the dead? can you still love your mortal acquaintances? What do you remember of us? She faded in front of me--The next instant I saw her rain-stained tombstone rear an illegible epitaph under the gnarled branch of a small tree in the wild grass of an unvisited garden in Mexico.


ed. by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg.

Joan Vollmer was an attractive, cynical, and daring young woman in her early twenties, from upstate New York. With a little matchmaking form Ginsberg and perhaps Kerouac, Vollmer and Burroughs had become intellectually and emotionally linked,,a dn their relationship graduated to sex by the spring of 1945. Eyewitnesses speak of the uncanny contact of their two "keen intelligence"; when Burroughs and Vollmer experimented with telepathic games, the results were eerie. The affair with Joan may also have been the first time Burroughs could feel self-assured with a woman.

By the summer of 1945, Burroughs was living with Vollmer and her one-year-old daughter, Julie, in their apartment on West 115th Street.

By the fall of 1945, William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer were involved with a frenetic Benzedrine-fueled sene around Times Square and the Village, in the course of which Vollmer began to exhibit sidturbing symptoms of dissociati9on and hallucination. Her husband, Paul Adams, came home on leave from the service and, disgusted by her condition, divorced her.

Burroughs was now living with Joan Vollmer and scoring for morphine on the Upper West Side. In April 1946, Burroughs was arrested for obtaining narcotics with a forged prescription. Joan Vollmer asked his erstwhile psychiatrist, Dr. ?Wolberg, to signa surety bond for his release.

Around this time [Burrough and Kells Elvins] made a car trip to Mexico, where Burroughs finally got a Mexican divorce from Illse Klapper.

Within a few months, Vollmer suffered a breakdown and was picked up by the police as she sat on the sidewalk, incoherent, her little daughter Julie next to her. She was hospitalized in Bellevue, and Burroughs responded at once, going to New York to gain her release. Now he asked her to marry him, and althought he marriage was never formalized, Burroughs always believed taht their only child was concieved in a New York hotel room that October. Burroughs brought Vollmer and her daughter back with him to Pharr, and after a Christmas visit to his parents in St. Louis, the young couple began to look for a remote area in eastern Texas where Burroughs could grow a cash crop of marijuana. They finally settled in New Waverly, near Houston and not far from Huntswille, where Elvins had worked in the state prison. Vollmer promptly sent word to New York for Huncke to come down and be their "farmhand."

While Vollmer carried her child and Burroughs shot dope in his orgone accumulator and read Wilhelm Reich and Mayan anthropology, Huncke visited Houston for drugsand cultivated their pot patch. He brought back cases of Benzedrine inhalers for Vollmer, and despite her pregnancy, she used them eagerly. In New York she had hallucinated violent scenes in an adjacent apartment; Huncke later wrote a vignette of Vollmer at the farm, late at night under a full moon, distractedly scraping the little skinks and lizards off the tres by the house.

But with the departure of junk came the return of libido,a dn after six years with Vollmer--who was visibily disintegrating under the accumulated damage of Benzedrine and now the all-day tequila, and suffering a recurrence of her childhood poliomyelitis--Burroughs was hungering to connect with a young American boy.

Vollmer's condition, meanwhile, as worsening. She felt abandoned, and her tequila intake climbed. For a long time hsehad tolerated Burroughs' pursuit of boys, ad he had never made any secret of his essential homosexuality. But she was visibly declining, her hair falling out, her sllight limp becoming more pronounced, her wistful features swelling with alcohol; she could scarcely care for the children. Out of her own despair, or her mounting disappoinment with Burroughs, she had begun to mock him in front of their friends, deliberately humiliating and verbally emasculating him when he would launch into one of his grandoise tales.

On September 6, 1951, Burroughs had made arrangements to meet someone about selling a gun at the apartment of John Healy, an American who was part of the Bounty. Vollmer was with Burroughs, and Healy was at work downstairs, in the bar. [Burroughs] told them about his plan to move his family to South America to live off the land, killing and eating the plentiful wild boars. Joan said that if Bill was their hunter, they'd starve to death. Burroughs took the bait, and dared her to "show the boys what kind of a shot old Bill is"--to put a glass on her head, for him to shoot it off, a la William Tell. She put the glass on her head, turned a little sideways, giggled and smiled, and said, "I can't look; you know I can't stand the sight of blood...."

Time stood still for the two drunken boys as the watched the skinny older man rause his pistol, too proud or too ashamed to back down, and aim at the glass on his wife's head. He fired before they sould raise any protest--but he missed, and Vollmer's head jerked back, then slowly tilted forward onto her chest, bright red cranial blood oozing from the wound. In the ensuing silence, Marker said, "I think your bullet has hit her, Bill," and Burrtoughs moved to his wife's chair and took her in his arms, calling her name disconsolately. Her drinking glass lay unbroken on the floor.

Joan Vollmer breathed her last at the nearby Red Cross station in Colonia Roma, while Burroughs waited outside.

Heir's Pistol Kills His Wife; He Denies Playing Wm. Tell

Mexico City, Sept. 7 (AP)--William Seward Burroughs, 37, first admitted then denied today that he was playing William Tell when his gun killed his pretty, young wife during a drinking party last night. William S. Burroughs, c.1951

Police said that Burroughs, grandson of the adding machine inventor, first told them that, wanting to show off his marksmanship, he placed a glass of gin on her had and fired, but [was so drunk] that he missed and shot her in the forehead.

After talking with a lawyer, police said, Burroughs, who is a wealthy cotton planter from Pharr, Tex., changed his story and insisted that his wife was shot accidentally when he dropped his newly purchased .38 caliber pistol.

Husband in Jail

Mrs. Burroughs, 27, the former Joan Vollmer, died in the Red Cross Hospital.

The shooting occurred during a party in the apartments of John Healy of Minneapolis. Burroughs said two other American tourists whom he knew only slightly were present.

Burroughs, hair disheveled and clothes wrinkled, was in jail today. A hearing on a charge of homicide is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

No Arguments, He Says

"It was purely accidental," he said. "I did not put any glass on her head. If she did, it was a joke. I certainly did not intend to shoot at it."

He said there had been no arguments or discussions before the "accident."

"The party was quiet," he said. "We had a few drinks. Everything is very hazy."

Burroughs and his wife had been here about two years. He said he was studying native dialects at the University of Mexico. He explained his long absence from his ranch by saying that he was unsuited for business.

Wife from Albany

He said he was born in St. Louis and that his wife was from Albany, N. Y. They have two children, William Burroughs, Jr., 3, and Julia Adams, 7, who he said was his wife's daughter by a previous marriage. The couple had been married five years.

She had attended journalism school at Columbia University before her marriage to Burroughs.

Burroughs, who also had been married before, formerly lived in Loudonville, a ... suburb of Albany. He is a graduate of Harvard University and worked for two weeks in 1942 as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

built his first adding machine in St. Louis in 1885.


Lynn Snowden
Esquire, Feb 1992, pg. 112-116
Interview with William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg

Revulsion No. 1: Shooting Joan

In 1951 Burroughs was living in Mexico City with his wife, Joan, and young son, Billy Jr., after a heroin and marijuana possession charge against him back in the States had been dropped. One September afternoon, Burroughs and his wife dropped by to see an acquaintance and a few other friends who had gathered to enjoy some drinks. Burroughs was packing a Star .380 automatic. At one point in the festivities, he said to his wife, who was sitting in a chair across the room, ``I guess it's about time for our William Tell act.'' They'd never performed a William Tell act in their lives, but Joan, who was drinking heavily and undergoing withdrawal from a heavy amphetamine habit, and who had lived with Burroughs for five years, was game. She placed a highball glass on top of her head. Burroughs, known to be a good shot, was sitting about six feet away. His explanation for missing was not that his aim was off, but that this gun shot low. The bullet struck Joan in the head. She died almost immediately.

The judge in Mexico believed the shooting to be accidental, as the other people present in the room asserted that this was the case. And so after paying a lawyer $2,000 and serving thirteen days in jail, Burroughs was allowed to post $2,312 and was freed.

Eight years later; Burroughs's first novel, "Naked Lunch", was published. One of the last books in America to be the cause of an obscenity trial, it is a biting, hallucinatory work that Norman Mailer described as having been composed by a genius. But Burroughs might never have written a word of it had he not shot his wife in the head. ``I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death,'' Burroughs has said, ``and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.''

This is exactly what the film "Naked Lunch" is about. It's not so much a re-creation of the book itself, but a story of how William Lee, played by Peter Weller, came to kill his wife (Judy Davis) and write a novel called "Naked Lunch". ``It's Joan's death,'' explains Cronenberg, ``that first drives him to create his own environment, his own Interzone. And that keeps driving him. So in a sense, that death is occurring over and over again.'' We both look at Burroughs, relaxing in his modest Kansas house, years away from the charged tropical dream of Mexico City. Although the home seems at first glance fit for a preacher, a quick look around reveals a human skull sitting stolidly in a bookcase and a drawing hanging on the wall of Burroughs throwing a knife. Burroughs considers Cronenberg's theory. How many times has he gone over this same, excruciating terrain? He says only, ``That seems quite valid.''


by Jack Kerouac

We went to Old Bull Lee's house outsidetown near the river levee. It was on a road that ran across a swampy field. The house was a dilapidated old heap with saggin porches running around and weeping willows in the yard; the grass was a yard high, old fences leaned, old barns collapsed. There was no one in sight. We pulled right into the yard and saw ashtubs on the back porch. I got out and went to the screen door. Jane Lee was standing in it with her eyes cupped toward the sun. "Jane," I said. "It's me. It's us."

She knew that. "Yes, I know. Bull isn't here now. Isn't that a fire or something over there?" We both looked toward the sun.

"You mean the sun?"

"Of course I don't mean the sun--I heard sirens that way. Don't you know a peculiar glow?" It was toward New Orleans; the clouds were strange.

"I don't see anything," I said.

Jane snuffed down her nose. "Same old Paradise."

"I hope I'm not around when you try it," said Jane from the kitchen. "How do you know it's a gas shell?" Bull snuffed, he never paid any attention to her sallies but he heard them. His relation with his wife was one of the strangest; they talked till late at night; Bull liked to hold the floor, he went right into his dreary monotonous voice, she tried to break in, she never could; at dawn he got tired and Jane talked and he listened, snuffing and going thfump down his nose. She loved that man madly, but in a delirious way of some kind; there was never any mooching and mincing around, just talk and a very deep companionship that none of us would ever be able to fathom. Something curiously unsympathetic and cold between them was really a form of humor by which they communicated their own set of subtle vibrations. Love is all; Jane was never more than ten feet away from Bull and never missed a word he said, and he spoke in a very low voice, too.

"I was not much surprised to hear of your hospitalization , as I've been claiming for three years (today being my third anniversary from Bellevue) that anyone who doesn't blow his top once is no damn good...No percentage in talking about visions or super-reality or any such lay-terms. Either you know now what I know (and don't ask me just what that is) or else I'm mistaken about you and off the beam somewhere-- in which case you're just a dime-a-dozen neurotic and I'm nuts."

--Joan Vollmer in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, 1949.



Joan Vollmer was about twenty when she was photographed on the Upper West Side. The photo by an anonymous photographer is blurry and scratched, Joan's eyes are closed, one can barely make out the bundle she is clutching or the letters protruding from the pockets of her fur-necked cloth coat. But for all the photograph's shortcomings, it is one of only two known images of Joan Vollmer, the most important woman to the Beat Generation during its early years. She was sardonic, widely-read, sexually experienced, and telepathic. And she became the housemother for the five-bedroom communal apartment she organized in 1945. Ginsberg described her as 'the greatest' as they say in hip-talk.' She projected a restless intelligence that far exceeded her years and qualified her as a counterpart to William Burroughs; Kerouac and Ginsberg became matchmakers. Burroughs moved in and began a relationship with Joan that was not only intellectual, but sexual, prompting her to exclaim, 'You're supposed to be a faggot, you're as good as a pimp in bed.' For a period all of them lived in Joan Vollmer's apartment - Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs and assorted friends - and that rambling residence became the crucible for the Beat sensibility.

| email | Burroughs' Tape Recorder |