97 Things You Didn’t Know About William S. Burroughs

Writer, philosopher, artist, and co-founder of the Beat Generation, William S. Burroughs — who died in 1997 at the age of 83 — continues to be a vital cultural force today. The author of books like Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, Burroughs forged the cornerstone of a modern American cultural movement with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other visionary writers and artists. His buttoned-up, three-piece exterior cloaked a dark genius that hungered for hustlers and heroin — way back in the 1940s. On February 5, William S. Burroughs would have been 97, but his spirit undoubtedly lives on, with more about him still coming out.

Yony Leyser’s documentary William Burroughs: A Man Within is due on DVD February 15, filled with Burroughs rarities and interviews with everyone from John Waters, Laurie Anderson, and Patti Smith to Gus Van Sant, Iggy Pop, and Thurston Moore. Slated to be published this summer, Ah Pook Is Here is a collaboration between William S. Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill. The “word/image novel” predicted the emergence of the ever-popular modern literary genre, the graphic novel. So if you have $260,000 laying around, you could do worse than invest in the William S. Burroughs Word Horde 2.0, considering the potential publishing rights. But for the rest of us, we’ll just celebrate by pulling out a big, sweet, flaming sheet-cake of love with words instead of candles, each representing one small piece of Burroughs’ life before he finally succumbed to his biggest obsession: death.

1. William S. Burroughs’ uncle was Ivy Lee, the godfather of modern public relations and a publicist for the Rockefellers.

2. His mother, Laura Lee Burroughs, came from a prominent Southern family, and claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee.

3. William S. Burroughs’ dad’s first name was Mortimer. He was the owner of a plate-glass company.

4. Their family fortune came from the Burroughs Adding Machine.

5. Burroughs’ parents sold their stock for $200,000 in 1929 — right before the stock market crash.

6. Burroughs used his first gun at age eight.

7. The same year, he wrote his first short story, “The Autobiography of a Wolf.”

8. Burroughs was introduced to opium by his family’s housekeeper.

9. Later in life, he thought he might have been sexually abused by a family relative.

10. From age 12 to 15, William S. Burroughs went to John Burroughs School in St. Louis. John and William were not related.


Junkie, 1953 [via]

11. He discovered the counterculture lifestyle at age 13 after reading You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. It was around this time that he first began experimenting with drugs.

12. His short essay “Personal Magnetism” was published in the John Burroughs Review in 1929.

13. He learned about sex from studying classics.

14. Burroughs’ parents sent him to the Los Alamos Boys School in New Mexico, a boarding school for the wealthy, when he was 15. He was later expelled after taking chloral hydrate with another student.

15. At 16, he lost his virginity to a boy in the next bunk bed.

16. He destroyed all his diaries from this period.


William S. Burroughs [via]

17. Burroughs graduated with a degree in English literature from Harvard University in 1936. He was known for keeping to himself, and spent most of his free time with a .32 revolver and his pet ferret.

18. His parents gave him an allowance of $200 a month after graduation. $200 in 1936 was roughly equivalent to $3000 in 2011.

19. Burroughs worked as a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but disliked the job and refused to cover certain stories.

20. Burroughs was turned down four times by the military.

21. He moved to Vienna to study medicine at age 22.

22. In Europe, Burroughs married a Jewish woman named Ilse Klapper in order for her to escape Nazi occupation and obtain a visa to the United States.

23. They divorced, but remained close friends for decades.

24. He purposely cut off his left pinky at age 25.


William S. Burroughs’ left hand [via]

25. He brought his severed finger to his psychiatrist Herbert Wiggers, who admitted him to a mental hospital.

26. Burroughs said that cutting off his little finger was part of “an initiation ceremony into the Crow Indian tribe.”

27. He later wrote a short story about the experience called “The Finger.”

28. Burroughs moved to Chicago in 1942 and got a job as an exterminator.

29. He also worked as an employee-fraud detective.

30. In Chicago, Burroughs became friends with Lucien Carr and Dave Kammerer; both men were also from St. Louis.

31. Burroughs moved to New York City in 1943, where he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

32. In 1944, their friend Lucien Carr murdered Dave Kammerer for making sexual advances.


Lucien Carr [via]

33. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses to the crime.

34. The two collaborated on a novel based on the event, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.

35. While the book was completed in 1945, it remained unpublished until 2008.

36. Burroughs met his future common-law wife Joan Vollmer through Jack Kerouac, who was dating her roommate, Edie Parker.


Joan Vollmer

37. The four of them moved in together in 1944.

38. Joan was the first girl Edie knew who practiced birth control with a diaphragm.

39. Kerouac introduced Burroughs’ wife Joan to Benzedrine inhalers.

40. In 1946, Burroughs was arrested for forging narcotics prescriptions.

41. At the same time, Joan was committed to a mental hospital for acute amphetamine-induced psychosis.

42. Burroughs and his wife moved to Texas and grew marijuana.

43. They had a son, William Burroughs III, aka Bill, Jr., born in 1947 in Conroe, Texas.

44. After being arrested for drugs in New Orleans, Burroughs and his family moved to Mexico City in 1949.

45. He studied Anthropology as a graduate student at Mexico City College.

46. In 1951, Burroughs killed Joan after shooting her in the head while playing William Tell.

47. They used a highball glass, not an apple.

48. Right before she was killed, Joan allegedly said, “I can’t watch this — you know I can’t stand the sight of blood.”

49. The police officially ruled it an accident, and Burroughs never served time for the crime.

50. In his book Queer, Burroughs wrote: “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.”

51. Though it was written between 1951 and 1953, Queer wasn’t published until 1985.

52. Burroughs moved to Colombia in search of the entheogenic vine yagé (ayahuasca) in 1953.

53. He corresponded with Ginsberg about his experiences; their exchange was published in 1963 as The Yage Letters.

54. Junkie was first published in 1953 under Burroughs’ pen name, William Lee.

55. Burroughs met his future collaborator Brion Gysin and author Paul Bowles in Tangier in 1954.

56. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky visited Burroughs in Morocco in 1956 and helped him to organize Naked Lunch.


David Woodard, William Burroughs, and Brion Gysin’s dream machine

57. Naked Lunch was rejected for publication by City Lights Books.

58. Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal was fired for publishing excerpts of the book.

59. Burroughs lived with Ginsberg in Paris, where he met Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who published Naked Lunch in 1959.

60. Burroughs had a bad trip on psychedelic mushrooms that Timothy Leary gave him in 1961.

61. After it was published in the US in 1962, Naked Lunch was officially declared obscene by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer testified in defense of the book.


Naked Lunch, 1968 [via]

62. In 1966, courts rejected the obscenity charges against Naked Lunch. The case marked the last major censorship hearing against written literature in America.

63. “I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally, yes, to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up to the marks,” Burroughs told an interviewer in 1970. He described Naked Lunch as ”a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

64. While living in London, he reportedly sold his typewriter to buy heroin.

65. Burroughs appeared on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (He’s next to Marilyn Monroe in the middle.)

66. He attended the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago with Jean Genet, Terry Southern, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Seaver, and John Berendt, where he witnessed police riots against demonstrators.

67. Burroughs lived abroad for 24 years before returning to NYC in 1974.

68. He taught at City College of New York from January to May of 1974.

69. Patti Smith had a huge crush on Burroughs (“He’s like another kind of Bible,” is how she once described him); he encouraged her to sing.


Patti Smith and William Burroughs, photo by Allen Ginsberg [via]

70. Burroughs’ son was one of the first people in the US to get a liver transplant in 1976.

71. William S. Burroughs worked as adjunct faculty at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado from 1976 to 1978.

72. While he was one of the pioneers of gay liberation movement, Burroughs said, “I have never been gay a day in my life.”


The Soft Machine, 1967 [via]

73. He wrote for High Times magazine.

74. He loved snakes.

75. He always carried a gun, even in bed.


Photo by Jon Blumb [via]

76. He’d also carry a custom-made sword-cane and a switchblade.

77. His physician’s name was Dr. Harvey Carcass.

78. He loved cats, having as many as six at a time.

79. Burroughs’ son Bill, Jr. died from a hemorrhage at age 33 on March 3, 1981.

80. Bill Burroughs, Jr. wrote two autobiographical novels before his death: Speed (1970) and Kentucky Ham (1973).

81. William S. Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1981 with his life manager James Grauerholz, who helped him organize and publish his works.


Early Routines, 1982 [via]

82. He made paintings using bullets from shotguns.

83. He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

84. The Ministry of Culture of France gave him the order of Commandeur del’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

85. During his life, Burroughs painted over 600 Manila file folders featuring “automatic calligraphy,” which he called his “life files.”

86. His first solo art exhibition was in December 1987 at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in NYC.

87. Burroughs was a regular on the set of David Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch.

88. He had triple bypass surgery at age 77 and quit smoking after the operation.

89. He was in a GAP commercial in 1993.

90. Kurt Cobain visited Burroughs six months before committing suicide. The pair had collaborated on Burroughs’ spoken word EP The “Priest” They Called Him.

91. Burroughs was featured in a Nike ad campaign in 1994.

92. He is considered the godfather of punk, even though he resisted the title.

93. He recorded a song with Ministry called “Quick Fix.” He also appeared in the music video for their song “Just One Fix.”


William S. Burroughs in 1983

94. He has a drink named after him: “The Burroughs” is made with vodka and Coke.

95. Burroughs died of a heart attack in Lawrence, Kansas at age 83. His epitaph reads: “American Writer.”

96. He died five months after Allen Ginsberg passed away. In a 1961 interview Ginsberg asked Burroughs “What is death?” His response: “A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.”

97. William S. Burroughs’ final words in his last journal entry were: “Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. Love.”