COLUMN TWENTY-TWO, JUNE 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
IN MEMORIAM: JANET MICHELE KEROUAC, 1952-1996
[A Talk by Gerald Nicosia , Delivered at the Memorial Gathering Organized by Brad Parker, Middlesex College, Lowell Massachusetts, October 5, 1996.]
Two years ago, I was in this very room with Jan Kerouac by my side-to talk about Jack Kerouac's spirituality. Jan was uneasy with the topic. She was not conventionally religious in any sense. Her inability to follow the strict Buddhist regime when she lived in Boulder was one of the things that put her on bad terms with Allen Ginsberg. But was Jan a spiritual person? If spiritual is the opposite of materialist, then Jan was one of the most spiritual people I have ever known.
Jan was forever giving things away. That's one of the reasons it's hard now to assemble all her papers and manuscripts, because she placed them trustingly in so many different people's hands, people who have not handled that trust as honorably as Jan herself honored other people's. Those who were lucky enough to be her friend, and many others whom she met only fleetingly, would frequently find a package in the mail from her--a spur-of-the-moment gift, often ridiculously expensive, usually wrapped in some home-made container-sometimes even in an empty Campbell soup can wrapped in foil paper!--with her childish scrawl on the label
She was, in some sense, an eternal child. She never owned her own home-she never had the same address for more than a year. When she needed safety, she'd go home to Trainsong Park, in Eugene, Oregon, to stay with her mother, Joan Haverty, whom she called "Mommy" until the end of Joan's life.
One of the reasons it had taken Jan Kerouac so long to grow up was because she had no father around--no father to tell her what to read, to protect her, to give her advice about boys, to provide a secure place for her own values to develop. Her father, Jack Kerouac, the world-famous writer who is honored here in Lowell this week, spent no more than 3 hours with his daughter. I remember thinking, the day I first held my own daughter in my arms, that in one day I would spend more time with her, more time being her parent, than Jack Kerouac had spent with Jan in his entire life.
That is a mind-boggling fact. And it was more than mind-boggling for Jan-it was soul-boggling. She needed to know her father, but he was not there, and so she tried to find him by becoming him.
Her attempts at first were superficial. She traveled to Mexico and Tangier, and London because daddy had gone there. She drank and did drugs because Daddy had done them. She had numerous sexual partners because that was Daddy's way.
All of that took a heavy physical toll on her, as it did on her father. And from Daddy, who had phlebitis, she had also inherited blood problems-in her case, high blood pressure. But where Daddy always had the option of a VA hospital to go to for treatment, the vagabond Jan had no money for medicine, and for years, the high blood pressure silently ravaged her internal organs, especially her kidneys.
As Jan pursued her father's ghost, she tried to write, and she found--not surprisingly--that she was quite good at it. Like her father, she wrote about her own life, and the introspection such writing required moved her toward the beginnings of a maturity--the beginnings of an understanding of what had happened to her, and what she really ought to be doing with her life.
I knew Jan for almost 20 years, and in the first few years she was not always a nice person. She was self-centered, narcissistic, irresponsible to a near absolute degree. When you were with her, you would be showered in the riches of her good looks, her intelligence and wit and spectacular verbal skills--a sense of humor and love of word play that were the equal of her father's--and yes, a kindness too, even in that early time. Impetuous, spontaneous, Jan was likely to announce out of the blue that she was going to bake you a lemon meringue pie or a rye bread or, her specialty, hot-cross buns, and a mad rush to the supermarket would follow. Whatever treat she cooked up was delicious--indeed, she worked
She nurtured a succession of selfish and often criminal men, who abused her badly
for years, on and off, as a professional cook, and she was proud of her work. It was probably the best job she had, because when she was less lucky, she'd be stuck washing dirty dishes or cleaning hundreds of pounds of corn a day in a cannery.
Jan was fascinating, she was fun, she was perennially upbeat, but when she was gone, you might not hear from her for years. In plain terms, you could not count on her. She used a lot of people to stay alive, but she seldom took care of anyone else, except for providing money and nurture for a succession of selfish and often criminal men, who abused her badly.
On August 14, 1991, Jan suffered complete kidney failure in Puerto Rico. Because of her blood problems, her doctors had a great deal of trouble performing hemodialysis on her. At times they were certain she would not survive.
But one other thing Jan had was a tremendous will to live, and tremendous courage. She held her own compresses against her bleeding chest-where the failed catheter had been inserted--when there were no nurses left to do it, and as she sopped up her own blood, she tried to cheer up the people in her room, who had supposedly come to cheer her. I have this from a witness who actually stood by her bedside as Jan bled all over the bed and floor.
Somehow Jan lived. She moved back to New Mexico where she'd spent earlier happy years with her ex-husband. And a profound change began in Jan.
This was about the time Jan came back into my life-early 1992. I was astonished at how serious Jan had become, and how careful. She no longer wanted to write just for money and fame. She was working on a third novel, Parrot Fever, that she wanted to make into a profound study of her own personal tragedy--of the anguish and confusion that had been her lot as a famous man's daughter--an absentee famous man, at that. To create greater objectivity, she was writing in the third person, and had split her own self into two separate characters, the good girl and the bad girl, the artist and the stripper--but they were both equally lost.
As her eyesight failed--just one of many consequences of the kidney failure--her writing slowed; then she switched to working on tape, but sadly, she never finished this work, which would have been her greatest.
Jan was also able to make commitments for the first time in her life, and they seemed to grow from her commitment to staying alive. Everything in her life had become a huge effort. She had to do self-dialysis 4 times a day, for 45 minutes each time. The only type of dialysis that worked for her was peritoneal dialysis. A special pouch and catheter were implanted in her abdomen-making her look 3 months pregnant--and every six hours she had to hook up to an IV tube and run a cleansing fluid in and out of the pouch.
This meant a major interruption in her life every 6 hours--an exhausting interruption. Jan, who was never a good sleeper, would usually be up most of the night, then collapse for a few hours after her 6 a.m. dialysis.
When Jan and I resumed our friendship in 1992, she told me of her years of legal battles to secure an income from her father's increasingly popular literary works. According to federal copyright law, Jan should have been receiving 50% of the royalties from each book whose copyright had hit the 28- year renewal mark. This meant Jan should have had a royalty income from 1978 on. But, in fact, attorneys for Jack Kerouac's widow, Stella Sampas, had opposed Jan's rights and kept her from receiving that income until 1985. In practical terms, that was 7 extra years with no money for blood-pressure medication.
In 1992, Stella had been dead for 2 years, but the Sampas family, Jan told me, was still not fairly sharing royalty income with her. There was a movie deal for Pic they apparently did not want to pay her for, and other book deals were popping up that no one had ever consulted her about, and for which she was not being properly paid, like The Portable Kerouac.
It was clearly not just money that Jan was concerned about. Jack Kerouac was her father, whether or not he had changed a single diaper-he was in her genes, she said, and his name, Kerouac, was also hers.
She felt that her father's honor was being injured--that he was being milked as a cash cow, while his own wishes, his spiritual intentions for his work, and his own blood kin, herself and her cousin, Paul E. Blake, Jr., were being rudely shoved aside.
Anyone who knew Jan, knew she had a keen sense of injustice--she worried about inner city black kids whose breakfast programs were being slashed by Newt Gingrich, and she worried about the needless killing of marine mammals. In the last year of her life, she even talked about going to the South Pacific to demonstrate against underwater nuclear tests by the French.
Though slow to anger, Jan reacted to the sense of injustice set off by the callousness of the Sampas family toward her very existence, and that sense of injustice was sharply heightened when, in late 1992, she began to learn about pieces of her father's literary archives--his papers, letters, notebooks, and manuscripts--being sold off piecemeal by the Sampas family for maximum profits.
Jan asked me if I could help her find a good lawyer and I introduced her to a man named Tom Brill, who had helped me out with some literary rights problems. Certainly, no one expected what actually happened--that they would look at Jack Kerouac's mother's will, Gabrielle Kerouac's will, and see an apparent misspelling, and then have the will declared a forgery by a highly-credentialed handwriting analyst.
There are those that have tried to say that the Sampas family only hardened their hearts against Jan Kerouac after she filed a lawsuit against them in May, 1994. But the historical record proves that a lie.
In 1972, an agent of Stella Kerouac persuaded a 20-year old, drugged-out Jan Kerouac to sign away her interest in her father's home for $500.00. Then there were the 7 years, 1978-1985, when legally due royalties weren't paid to Jan. Then there was 1988, when the Sampas family orchestrated the dedication of the Jack Kerouac memorial in Lowell, and they failed to invite Jan. Not only did they fail to invite her, but when she showed up anyway, her bus ticket paid for by Mr. Brad Parker of Chelmsford, and her hotel paid for by Father Armand "Spike" Morrissette of Lowell, the Sampases left her to sit in the wet grass below the stage, while Stella Sampas held forth up above about what a great man her husband was.
Then there was early 1994, when Jan Kerouac met John Sampas for the first time. At this point, I'd like to read the story of their meeting which is recorded in a long piece of mine called Kerouac-gate at N.Y.U.:
Even before the filing of the lawsuit, however, Jan Kerouac got to meet the man who has become her chief opponent: John Sampas. The day before Jack Kerouac died, October 20, 1969, he wrote to his nephew, Paul Blake, Jr. (in a letter that is now on deposit in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library), saying that he wanted "someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line" to care for his estate, "and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddamned thing to my wife's hundred Greek relatives." But when Stella Sampas Kerouac died in February, 1990, she helped fulfill Jack's dreaded prophecy by leaving everything to her several brothers and sisters. The brothers and sisters elected the youngest among them, lifelong bachelor John Sampas, to be their "literary representative." In March, when Jan was in Florida with her attorney, Thomas Brill, and his wife Marta, they decided to stop by Jack Kerouac's last house at 5169 10th Avenue North--the house where he had his fatal seizure of hemorrhaging esophageal varices only hours after posting that testamentary letter to Paul Blake, Jr. When they inquired directions of the neighbors, they were told that the house was currently being occupied by "relatives." Happily Jan imagined that some of the French-Canadian Kerouacs from Lowell, who had always welcomed her, had somehow gotten access to Jack's former home. But when she, Brill, and Marta got to the screen door, they were greeted by the tall figure, close-cropped silver head, and tinted spectacles of John Sampas. Sampas awkwardly invited them in.
Sampas was temporarily occupying Jack's house with a male friend, and he kept insisting that they sit down, though they naturally wanted to wander and look around. Jack's paintings were still on the wall, the same ones Jan had seen in 1967--and Sampas finally yielded to her curiosity and let her sit in the swivel chair at her father's dark wood desk. She recalls having "the most amazing feeling" there: "like a little boy in the cockpit of his father's plane--like I was at the controls." She also felt the presence of her father very strongly, and heard his voice speaking to her. It was as if his words were emanating from the desk and chair, and they were telling her: "Don't let him (Sampas) sell us. You should have this desk and chair; these are yours." Sampas fixed them drinks and made small talk, but Jan was hardly listening to him, since she was awed by everything there, feeling as if she were being touched by the spirits of her father and grandmother.
At some point, evidently anxious to have them leave, Sampas asked: "Well would you like anything else?" Brill and Marta said, "No, thanks." But after thinking a moment, Jan replied: "Well, the desk?" She claims she was "half joking," and that she looked at him to see if he would have any humor about it, or what he would say. Yet she also says she "almost half expected him to say, 'You can have the desk.'" It seemed like an "appropriate" gift for her to ask of him. But instead Sampas shook his head no, with an explanation that seared her like a branding iron: "Well, Jan, that's the way the way the cookie crumbles." It convinced her that "he's planning to sell that for big bucks," and probably the house too. Sampas, however, only recalls that Jan "wasn't feeling well" that day. He claims he offered her money, but that she turned it down by asking if he needed money.
Sampas has, to date, not given Jan as much as a pencil owned by her father. After she filed the lawsuit that attempts to reduce his family's share of the estate to one-third, his copyright lawyer instructed agent Sterling Lord to stop paying her 50% of the foreign royalties on her father's books, in an attempt to put her in a financial squeeze. Sampas is also trying to keep Sterling Lord from paying her a full 100% of the royalties on books that have renewed completely in Jan's name after Stella died--books which are technically Jan's sole property, at least as recorded in the Library of Congress: among them, Visions of Gerard, Desolation Angels, and Satori in Paris.
The attempts by the Sampas family to cut down Jan Kerouac's income continued to the very end of her life.
Any person needs money to stay alive, but to take money from a person on life support,
Jan was nearly hysterical
but she vowed to fight on
such as kidney dialysis, is to seriously endanger that person's life. Jan needed expensive shots and periodic blood transfusions to stay alive. By February, Jan's financial situation had grown so desperate that she had to borrow money to pay her rent. She owed $25,000 to the IRS and an equal amount to her lawyers. There were also unpaid medical bills, though Lovelace Hospital in Albuquerque continued to treat her under its special kidney program.
Jan was nearly hysterical at times, but she vowed to fight on. Not because she hated the Sampas family. She did not. Nor, for the record, do I. But because what they were doing was wrong--a violation of her father's stated intention for his Literary Archive. John Sampas' smokescreen of supposedly putting that Archive on permanent deposit in the NYC Public Library--a statement he made nearly three years ago--has been proven a sad sham. It is 300 miles from Lowell to NY--it does not take 3 years to get a bunch of boxes from one place to the other, even if John Sampas chose to carry them one at a time on his back.
Instead, John Sampas was busy colluding with Helen Kelly of New York University to make sure Jan did not attend a conference there on Jan's father in June 1995. When Jan showed up anyway and paid $120 to get in the door, she was taken out by police, while John Sampas sat happily smiling behind the director's desk with Ms. Kelly.
And Mr. Sampas was also busy finding ingenious ways to chip away at Jan Kerouac's income. The Sampas family had somehow forgotten to renew the copyright on Visions of Cody, the 1st special edition of 150 pages published by New Directions in 1960. Viking Press was still paying John Sampas' agent, Sterling Lord, the full royalties on the book, even though 1/3 of the book had fallen into public domain. But John Sampas decided Jan Kerouac should stop receiving her share of the royalties on the book, because the part she owned was the part in public domain-through no fault of her own!
Jan's copyright lawyer, Herbert Jacoby thought this one of the most outrageous manipulations he had ever encountered. I would like to quote from his letter to Sampas' agent, Sterling Lord, dated May 29, 1996, just 8 days before Jan died:
Re: Visions of Cody .
Barbara Ryan has copied me on her fax of May 24 to John Sampas with respect to royalty collections on Visions of Cody. As she points out, "until very recently the moneys earned on that title were split (with the understanding of all parties) 85% to you (Sampas) and 15% to Jan Kerouac". On March 5, 1996--eight years after the event--Sampas suddenly woke up to the fact that in 1988 he failed to have the copyright on the 1960 version of this work renewed in his sister's name. Consequently, he now claims that the 85/15 sharing (which had been previously reduced, with my consent, from 70/30) should now become 100/0.
In my letter to Barbara of March 25 I pointed out that this was somewhat akin to the situation of a child who has murdered his parent demanding his right to inherit. Moreover, it seemed to me that having acquiesced in Jan's participation from 1988 (when the renewal should have taken place) until 1996 Sampas had entered into a contract with her and was estopped from unilaterally changing his position at this late date.
I have no idea as to just how much in royalties you have recently received on this work which has occasioned Barbara's fax. In all probability the 15% share is de minimis. However, I want to go on record as saying that, in my opinion, by refusing to adhere to a sharing arrangement which by mutual agreement has been in effect for so many years, your agency is not acting impartially, but is definitely taking sides with a strong as against a weak client.
Signed, Herbert P. Jacoby"
A weak client indeed. eight days later, bleeding profusely after the removal of her spleen, Jan Kerouac went into cardiac arrest.
What I am here today to tell you is a shameful story, and I am not afraid to tell it, though
Her name was
not even mentioned at a sacred mass for her father
John Sampas has tried, in every way, to keep me quiet, including the threat of a libel suit from his Boston attorney, George Tobia. I am here to tell you Jan Kerouac was not a saint, nor was her father, but they both deserved better than they got. Jan Kerouac was not served well, either by the Sampas family or the town of Lowell, where the so-called "official" Kerouac committee, the one that was funded by the National Park for 8 years, never saw fit to invite her to speak and completely ignored her whenever she did come here. Now, during the time of this memorial to her, they deliberately stage a competing event at the Quilt Museum across town. They hold a sacred mass for the soul of her father and though she has now joined her father in heaven, her name was not even mentioned there.
There is an all out attempt going on to bury what Jan Kerouac stood for. Not long after she died, John Sampas cut a secret financial deal with her heir, her ex-husband John Lash. Mr. Lash then told the court in Florida that it was Jan Kerouac's dying wish to dismiss the lawsuit against the Sampas family.
I, personally, do not believe this and I do not know how anyone who watched the video here today or who ever heard Jan speak, could believe that she ever made such a deathbed statement. As her literary executor, I am doing everything in my power to see that her lawsuit is brought to a just conclusion.
I'd like to conclude by reading some of Jan's own words--the poem she wrote to NATASHA, the daughter born dead to her in Mexico when she was a mere 16 years old.
Loss, death, emptiness and betrayal all hit Jan Kerouac early, just as she herself hit the ground running from the moment of her birth. But she lived long enough to redeem some of that in language, just as her father did and to leave us a precious legacy of truth and love.
By Jan Kerouac
Ahh--the bleak white brightness
Glitters the retina
To flights of breeze-memories past
A whiff from jungle's
Dark moss mystery
Soft within black bosom
Cushioned in precious rot
My fruit half-finished lies
Returned to rain forest soil
Beneath the banana palm
Wrapped in Northern light
Her ankles pinkly crossed
Awaiting the Bardo dream
Lapse of sightless void
Enclosed in hasty carpentry
Sleeps unthinking through
The mad Mexican night
Of dog-howling choruses
In the land of Scorpio
Does she hear the rattling
Frond--eclipse the torrid moon
Lazily, twixt brittle fingers
Or cackling goat-man on the steps
Who brought messages of fear
On winds of disembodied Mayans
So near--through that old woven
Bamboo door while
She was yet unborn?
Native women, wailing pound
Cloth on rocks at lagoon's edge
And roosters weep at noon
Now rains pour down--hit
Myriad mammoth leaves
In ceaseless din, the
Tropic of torrential tears
Shed blood and milk
Which empty down to bay of sharks
Circle round slime of rocks
Under nose of bobbing fern
As spiders watch and lizards race
The waltz of scorpions
"Los gulebras son bravos"
It stains the Aztec sands with
Pineapple placenta and amniotic tears
And from the wrinkled fetus
Such fronds unfold. . . . ##
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