The estate of Beat writer Jack Kerouac was very messy in the late 1990s. The trail led from San Francisco to Kerouacâ€™s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. Guest appearance by Johnny Depp.
The Kerouac Obsession
Gerald Nicosia has spent a decade challenging the disposition of Jack Kerouacâ€™s $20 million literary estate. Along the way, heâ€™s annoyed most of what remains of the beat generation.
Short and stocky, sporting a colorful childrenâ€™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 chapter of the PEN writersâ€™ organization has honored Nicosia for his persistence in pushing for free access to Kerouacâ€™s literary archives.
But Nicosiaâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™s friendship with Jack Kerouacâ€™s late daughter, Jan. For the past four years, Nicosia has assisted in a legal battle that would shift control of her fatherâ€™s literary archive to her estate. Currently owned and managed by the heirs of Kerouacâ€™s third wife, Stella Sampas, the archive is estimated to be worth over $10 million.
Jan died in 1996, and designated Nicosia as her â€œLiterary Personal Representative.â€ Empowered with this title, Nicosia has pursued a Florida lawsuit that claims the will leaving Kerouacâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™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. Nicosiaâ€™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 Jackâ€™s books, Nicosiaâ€™s exhaustive history dives deeper into Kerouacâ€™s life than any 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 Kerouacâ€™s lovers, and â€œgot halfway with another.â€)
Such single-minded focus and thorough research doesnâ€™t necessarily translate into people skills. And that is one of Nicosiaâ€™s problems.
Many people find him extremely annoying.
According to the PEN organization, for the last 10 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 been the victim of a death threat. Press mentions of the Kerouac archive battle are often rebutted with a lengthy Nicosia letter 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.
City Lights bookstore founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti faxed a garbled note, but never responded to a follow-up call. Bay Area poet Gary Snyder e-mailed his no comment. UC Berkeleyâ€™s Bancroft Library curator Anthony Bliss, who has agreed to house the Kerouac archive if it becomes available, also begged 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, â€œI donâ€™t need him bugging me all over again.â€
For someone who inspires such dislike, Nicosia lives (with his wife and two children) in a very ordinary settingâ€”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 childrenâ€™s toys.
Nicosia slurps from his diet Coke and gestures to a foot-high manuscript stack, a book heâ€™s written about Vietnam veterans. It remains unpublished.
â€œIt might be too anti-government,â€ he says ruefully.
For two years he worked with Vietnam War activist Ron Kovic on Kovicâ€™s autobiography. When he asked to be credited, Kovic refused. The project fizzled. He mutters something about how itâ€™s been the story of his life. It canâ€™t be easy being Gerald Nicosia. But it has grown into a full-time job.
â€œIf I quit now Iâ€™ll be saddled with this the rest of my life,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s what Jan would have wanted.â€
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 beatâ€”in particular, anything Kerouacâ€”has been big business.
Kerouacâ€™s 1957 novel On the Road has sold more than 3 million copies, and still is a favorite of any college kid who dreams of taking a road trip. Publication of the bookâ€”and Allen Ginsbergâ€™s 1955 debut of his poem â€œHowlâ€ at a Fillmore Street performance galleryâ€”form the beginnings of what Kerouac himself labeled the beat generation.
Inspired by On the Roadâ€™s benzedrine-fueled â€œGo man go!â€ descriptions of San Franciscoâ€™s jazz and poetry scenes, young people descended upon North Beach during the late â€˜50s and early â€˜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 â€œbeatniksâ€ (then considered derogatory) to describe the dirty kids who were loitering in the streets. (One beat hangout responded with a poster reading â€œWe feature separate toilet facilities for Herb Caen.â€)
Cynics argue that Kerouacâ€™s output was just autobiographical jazz-spewâ€”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 his other books are back in print and on the shelves. Along with his contemporaries William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac has become required reading in college lit classes.
Attached to such popularity is a growing worldwide cottage industry of beat. Surviving poets and writers of Kerouacâ€™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: â€œTelepathic Shock and Mean-ing Excitement: Kerouacâ€™s Poetics of Intimacy.â€
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 Kerouacâ€™s literary materials, to Stella Sampas, Jackâ€™s third wife. In 1994, Kerouacâ€™s only daughter, Jan, contended this will was a forgery, and filed an action in Florida, the state in which Gabrielle died, contesting the probate of her grandmotherâ€™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 Janâ€™s other heirsâ€”her ex-husband and her half-brotherâ€”donâ€™t want Nicosia involved in the matter. In fact, Janâ€™s ex-husband, John Lash (as her â€œGeneral Personal Representativeâ€), 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, N.M.) Nicosia appealed the decision, and he and his attorney both claim a judge has promised them a decision on that appeal by Aug. 5. 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 â€œbeat generation.â€
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 motherâ€™s efforts to gain child support finally forced Kerouac to take a paternity blood test. (The result was positive.) As a 9-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 teen-ager en route to Mexico. Kerouac turned away from an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies television show and encouraged his daughter to â€œuse my name â€¦ write a book.â€
After this brief encouragement, Jan hit the road to become a writer, and lived a life similar to her fatherâ€™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, Fla., living in a cinder-block house where he watched TV, read books, and eventually drank himself to death.
On Oct. 20, 1969, he wrote a letter to his nephew, Paul Blake Jr., which said in part:
â€œI just wanted to leave my â€˜estateâ€™ (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 wifeâ€™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.â€
Gerald Nicosia says this letter is proof that Kerouac didnâ€™t love Stella Sampas. The Sampas family and their attorney maintain 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 Kerouacâ€™s deceased sister.
After Stella inherited the archive, she sealed it. Kerouacâ€™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 fatherâ€™s death from a news report on the radio.
As she developed her own literary career, Jan was readily accepted by her fatherâ€™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 box set of her fatherâ€™s recordings.
At a 1982 Kerouac Conference at Allen Ginsbergâ€™s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., Jan bumped into an heir of John Steinbeck, 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 fatherâ€™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 Jackâ€™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 Jackâ€™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 Kerouacâ€™s paintings, journals, letters, and unpublished novels and stories. The value of the collection has been estimated to be between $10 million and $20 million.
John Sampas, the familyâ€™s representative, acknowledges that he sold off portions of the archive to raise money for attorneys familiar with estate management. Kerouacâ€™s raincoat, for example, went for $15,000 to actor Johnny Depp. Other collectors purchased letters, paintings, and Kerouacâ€™s personal library books, each of which went out the door stamped and signed by John Sampas.
During the early â€˜90s, Jan Kerouac was receiving upward of $100,000 a year in royalties from Jackâ€™s books. Still, she grew furious, watching as her fatherâ€™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 Gabrielleâ€™s will, which had left her estate, including Jack Kerouacâ€™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 completely, and she spent her last several years undergoing dialysis four times a day.
As Janâ€™s health worsened, Nicosia staged three standing-room-only benefits for her in San Francisco. Entertainment ranged from Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters and Ramblinâ€™ Jack Elliott to Big Brother & the Holding Company and a Kerouac documentary by Mill Valley filmmaker John Antonelli. Nicosia says the nights served a dual purpose: to help pay Janâ€™s medical bills and to finance her legal efforts. Apparently not everyone was made aware of the two motives.
An afternoon reception at Enricoâ€™s in North Beach offered people the opportunity to greet some of the performers for the benefits, which included many of San Franciscoâ€™s beat and hippie icons. Nicosia and Jan Kerouacâ€™s attorney stood up to address the crowd. But they didnâ€™t talk about Janâ€™s medical condition. In-stead, 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, â€œKidneys! Kidneys! Weâ€™re here for kidneys, not to pay lawyers!â€ 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 â€œKerouac-Gate.â€
Major players invited to the conference included Kerouac biographer and beat scholar Ann Charters, beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, writer and one-time Kerouac girlfriend Joyce Johnson, and members of the Sampas family, among others. Nicosia and Jan Kerouac were not invited.
But that didnâ€™t stop them from attending.
Jan paid for her own $120 ticket. Nicosia wore a T-shirt with the slogan â€œGerald Nicosiaâ€¦A tiresome wannabeâ€”Ann Charters.â€ On the reverse was printed the words â€œKEROUAC VS. SAMPAS.â€ On his name tag, he replaced the words â€œKerouac Conferenceâ€ with â€œSampas Conference.â€ In nearby Washington Square, Jan and her supporters staged their own rally, unfurling a banner that read â€œSave Jackâ€™s Papers.â€
During one conference, police escorted Jan and Nicosia out of the room. Accounts differ, but all agree that there was some shouting, and that panelist Ginsberg, Janâ€™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, â€œTHERE HE IS!â€
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 â€œinnately very brightâ€ and â€œa gifted comedian.â€ Such audacious self-promotion makes him a difficult man to ignore or forget.
The international writersâ€™ 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.
Nicosiaâ€™s acceptance speech ran so long 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 morningâ€™s San Francisco Chronicle included an article promoting the event. But why did the story appear only in the paperâ€™s North Bay edition, and not in the full San Francisco version, which reaches so many more readers? He approached his attorney and blurted:
â€œThe majority of people who are interested in the beats live in San Francisco! Sampas must have put pressure on them!â€
This claimâ€”that his nemesis, John Sampas, exerts influence in many placesâ€”is one of Nicosiaâ€™s more common complaints. And at times, Sampas does appear to have acted in ways that undermined Nicosiaâ€™s mission. But much of Nicosiaâ€™s belief in a bicoastal conspiratorial octopus of power controlled by Sampas seems to be unfounded.
â€œNone of my editors even know who John Sam-pas is!â€ says Chronicle reporter John Aiello, author of the article, when told of Nicosiaâ€™s reaction. â€œThe only reason we ran that story at all is because Nicosia lives in Corte Madera.â€
And now, after a momentâ€™s thought, Aiello gets annoyed. â€œGoddamn it, Iâ€™m gonna call him right now,â€ he says.
Clearly, some of Nicosiaâ€™s other assertions also fall flat on close inspection.
One such claim pertains to Nicosiaâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™s claims and concerns, their response is an immediate groan. There is a reason for this reaction. Gerald 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 donâ€™t fit) standard definitions of reality. In a conversation earlier this month, 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 drip with fatigue. His life looks to be something of a wreck. Even some friends wonder if heâ€™s gone off the deep end. His publisher is angry because he hasnâ€™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, Mass.
John Sampas, the youngest of 10 children, grew up in Lowell, which was also Jack Kerouacâ€™s hometown. Sampasâ€™ brother Sammy was Jackâ€™s boyhood friend, and years later their sister, Stella, would become the third Mrs. Kerouac. The Sampas family strip joint, Nickyâ€™s, was one of Kerouacâ€™s favorite bars. Johnâ€™s late brother Charlie was once editor of the Lowell Sun newspaper, and Charlieâ€™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-60s, Sampas has shepherded the publication of several Kerouac books in the past few years, including a collection of letters and a 40th-anniversary edition of On the Road, and a book of previously unpublished poetry titled Some of the Dharma.
Sampas says that future releases from the closely held archive will include CDs, a biography by Douglas Brinkley, another anthology of letters, and a book of Kerouacâ€™s early writings. Talks continue with Francis Ford Coppola about a film version of On the Road, possibly directed by Coppolaâ€™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 Kerouacâ€™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 theyâ€™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 altogetherâ€”especially one involved in perpetual litigation.
And although some journalists have described him as foreboding or â€œnoir-ish,â€ in an interview earlier this month, Sampas seems both polite and rationalâ€”far more rational than many others interviewed about the Kerouac inheritance dispute. He wears a baseball cap and untucked short-sleeve 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 Kerouacâ€™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 continuesâ€”Lowell High School, where Kerouac and most of the Sampases attended; the home Jack was born in, complete with people out on the porch glaring at usâ€”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 Johnâ€™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 street-wise, 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 Kerouacâ€™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 â€œSammyâ€ Sampas, Kerouacâ€™s boyhood friend, who died in World War II; the bookâ€™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 their 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.
â€œI sold some things,â€ Sampas admits, taking a drag from his ever-burning Parliament Light.
Sampas says he doesnâ€™t want to talk about Nicosia at all; heâ€™s not worth wasting time on. Jan Kerouacâ€™s credibility as the actual daughter was always in question for him, he says, because her mother â€œwas what youâ€™d call a harlot in those days.â€ Even so, Sampas says, he offered to cut Jan into the Sampas dealâ€”a one-seventh share, the same as all the other family membersâ€”but she didnâ€™t want it. He claims he had generously given her foreign royalties, even though he didnâ€™t have to and she wasnâ€™t legally entitled to them. It was only when she filed the suit, Sampas says, that he took them away.
â€œIâ€™m not gonna finance her lawsuit,â€ he grumbles.
The Sampases are confident the forgery case will never come to trial. If it does, theyâ€™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 isnâ€™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 Nicosiaâ€™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 estateâ€™s literary-related income? Or, for that matter, what about Nicosiaâ€™s agreement to sell the image of Jack Kerouac for a Levi Strauss Co. ad campaign for $11,000? Or the sale of Janâ€™s own archive to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley for $20,000? Janâ€™s heirs didnâ€™t see a dime of either transaction. (According to Nicosiaâ€™s own Internet posting, he retained these payments to pay the rising legal fees for her estate.)
And even though heâ€™s polite and accommodating to a visiting journalist, John Sampas does not want to discuss the specifics about the sale of Jack Kerouacâ€™s clothing to Johnny Depp. If any one action illuminates the perpetual spat around the Kerouac legacy, it may be the purchase of a writerâ€™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 minutesâ€™ 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 Jeffrey Weinberg.
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.
â€œHe lived across the street,â€ Weinberg shrugs. â€œHe was an asshole. Always drunk.â€
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 at that time, Sampas was merely an an-tique 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, Calif. The owner, Michael Horowitz, told Weinberg he might have a buyer for Kerouac items. Horowitzâ€™s daughter, Winona Ryder, happened to be dating himâ€”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.
â€œNobody outside this house has seen whatâ€™s in this file!â€ he announces.
Weinberg carefully pages through the binder, which contains a luggage tag from the Los Angeles airport in the name of Depp, xerox copies of the check drawn on Deppâ€™s account, a postcard of gratitude from Depp to the Weinbergs. He removes a copy of the actual purchase invoice, dated Nov. 19, 1991, and slides it across the table:
The Kerouac raincoat, $15,000; suitcase, $10,000; travel bag, $5,000; sweat shirt, $2,000; rain hat, $3,000; tweed coat, $10,000; a letter to fellow road-tripper 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 Kerouacâ€™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 he 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.
â€œIf his old spinster sister hadnâ€™t been sitting on a porch waiting for a drunk to come home, he would have been working flea markets.â€
Weinberg clears off the table. Itâ€™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:
â€œFive thousand dollars.â€ He leans back. â€œHey, I could sell this to People magazine.â€
Although itâ€™s unlikely that People would suddenly take $5,000 of interest in a 7-year-old photograph of Johnny Depp, or be in the midst of preparing that 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. Itâ€™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?
â€œHe would have enjoyed it. His name would be out there.â€ Sampas smiles, and thinks a moment. â€œHe only would have enjoyed the good aspects of it.
(First published in SF Weekly)