William S. Burroughs Poster


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Overview (5)

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Died in Lawrence, Kansas, USA  (heart attack)
Birth NameWilliam Seward Burroughs
Nicknames Il hombre invisible
Height 5' 11½" (1.82 m)

Mini Bio (1)

William S. Burroughs, one of the three seminal writers of the Beat Generation (the other two being his friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg), was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 5, 1914, to the son of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Co. He grew up in patrician surroundings and attended private school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, chosen due to the climate as he suffered from sinus trouble (the school was later used to house the Manhattan Project during World War II)). Burroughs took his undergraduate degree at Harvard College (Class of 1936) but rebelled inwardly against the life that the upper-class Harvard man was supposed to lead during the pre-war period (outwardly he dressed the part of a patrician, with three-piece suit, necktie, black homburg and chesterfield overcoat being his standard wardrobe. His political options generally were also of his class, i.e., right-wing).

Planning to become a physician, Burroughs moved to Germany to study medicine. The plight of the Jews under the Nazis was desperate, and in 1937 Burroughs agreed to marry Ilse Herzfeld Klapper, a German Jewish woman, so she could leave Germany and eventually become a U.S. citizen. The two remained friends for many years after they moved back to the U.S., meeting often for lunch when Burroughs eventually settled in New York City in the early 1940s. They never lived together, and Burroughs formally divorced her in 1946 so he could marry his second wife, Joan.

Perhaps it was his exposure to National Socialism in Adolf Hitler's Germany that raised Burroughs' interest in his lifelong fascination: control mechanisms used by the state against its citizens. Burroughs left Germany for the United States without completing his studies, bringing along Ilse.

A homosexual in an extremely homophobic age, back in the U.S. he drifted from job to job while continuing his education as an autodidact. He lived in Chicago, where he was an exterminator, which he claimed was the best job he ever had. While in Chicago he met the young Lucien Carr (later to be the father of best-selling novelist Caleb Carr, author of "The Alienist") and David Kammerer. Kammerer was a homosexual 14 years Carr's senior who had been his private school tutor and had stalked Carr obsessively afterward, following him from city to city. While Carr was disturbed by Kammerer's behavior, he was also immature and flattered by the attention, a moth attracted to the flame. When the moth got singed, he would fly away. Carr dropped out of the University of Chicago to attend Columbia in New York in order to escape Kammerer, and when Kammerer inevitably followed, Burroughs tagged along.

Through Carr, Burroughs made the connections that would change his life: Columbia drop-out Kerouac, then in the Merchant Marine, and Columbia undergrad Ginsberg, then studying pre-law with the idea of becoming a labor lawyer. Intrigued by what he heard from Carr and Kammerer of Kerouac, he dropped in to see him at the apartment of Kerouac's girlfriend Edie Kerouac Parker, who shared the flat with Burroughs' future wife Joan.

Before the momentous meet-up, Burroughs had begun experimenting with morphine when he acquired a stash of the drug to sell, and he subsequently became hooked. Long fascinated by "low lifes" and the vitality they retained while the rest of "normal" Americans seemed wan and dessicated (this was the Great Depression, after all), Burroughs began conducting field "research" into New York's demimonde, aided and abetted by Herbert Huncke, a junkie and thief whom Burroughs befriended and let share his apartment in lower Manhattan. With Huncke playing Virgil to his Dante, Burroughs met the "low-lifes" who would become part of his fiction as he journeyed through the rings of hell that was World War II New York. "Sailor", who showed up as a character in Naked Lunch (1991), was a thief and drug dealer who once borrowed Burroughs' pistol and went out and shot a storekeeper to death (Sailor later hanged himself in jail after being arrested for an unrelated crime. He was known as an informer and had turned in a rival narcotics dealer--he was facing beatings, torture and possibly murder when he decided to take his own life). Soon Burroughs began to deal drugs in earnest in order to keep up with his own habit and fence merchandise himself, becoming part of a den of thieves that spilled over into Edie and Joan's apartment. The patrician Burroughs, with his high standards, prided himself on giving the best "cut" of heroin available, with personal home delivery to boot.

Jack Kerouac first urged Burroughs to write. Burroughs spent a lot of time at the apartment Kerouac shared with Edie and Joan. He particularly liked to psychoanalyze Kerouac and Ginsburg, and enjoyed having them act out scenarios, little dramas in which they would play roles: Burroughs an old queen/con artist, Ginsburg her pimp, and Kerouac as the gullible young American, mouth agape in a foreign land, ripe for the plucking. Their imaginations were quite fertile, and it fed Kerouac and Ginsberg's writing. Burroughs had never really had any inclination to write until he met Kerouac, but he and Jack collaborated on a mystery novel they eventually entitled "And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks," after the last sentence of a BBC-Radio report on a fire at the London Zoo. Each wrote alternating chapters, and after the book was complete, the manuscript was passed around among New York publishers. There were no takers, and for the time, Burroughs lost interest in writing.

In 1945 Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammerer to death during a stroll along the bank of the Hudson River below Morningside Heights that was a notorious gay cruising area. After holding the dying man in his arms, Carr weighted down the body of his former tutor with rocks and disposed of it in the Hudson. In bloodied clothes, Carr sought out Burroughs, soliciting advice. Ignoring the elder's wise counsel to get a good lawyer and turn himself in, Carr then went to see Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the murder weapon and Kammerer's glasses. Both Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested (Burroughs as a material witness; Kerouac as an accessory after the fact), but eventually both were released without being prosecuted. Carr pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent off to the Elmira Reformatory, where he was incarcerated for two years.

New York City became increasingly untenable as Burroughs became known to the police, so -- after he and Joan married -- they moved to Louisiana to become farmers. Their crop was marijuana, and eventually they moved on to Mexico, where living was cheaper and drugs easier to come by (and there was less hassle from police). In 1951, at a party in which they both were drunk, an exhibitionistic Burroughs shot and killed Joan in an alleged accident where he reportedly attempted to mimic the "apple on the son's head" scene from "William Tell". As the story is told, Joan put a glass of liquor on top of her head after Burroughs beseeched her to perform their William Tell trick for the guests. There had never been a William Tell trick, Burroughs later ruefully admitted, and Joan wound up with a .32 ACP slug in her head. Accounts of the death, which the Mexican police ruled a misadventure caused by a mistake in judgment, have never been entirely satisfactory. Like Lucien Carr before him, Burroughs may have consciously or subconsciously rid himself of a lover whom he no longer had any use for, or was piqued at. Burroughs at the time of the shooting was in love, involved in a heavy gay affair.

After the death of Joan, Burroughs spent time journeying through Central and South America, looking for the drug called "Yage", which like peyote was rumored to offer a key to opening the doors of perception and heightening consciousness. He found it and distributed it among friends. In 1953 Allen Ginsburg managed to get Burroughs into print under the pen name "William Lee." His autobiographical novel, "Junkie", was published by Ace Books (the son of the owner, Carl Solomon, was one of Ginsburg's friends) as a 35-cent paperback original (its formal title was "Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Adict", and it was published as "Two Books in One" back-to-back with another paperback original in the same volume). Returning to Mexico City, in the mid-'50s he began writing in earnest while keeping up with his drug habit, living off the small trust fund he received as a scion of the Burroughs family. It was in Mexico City that he began writing the sketches that would turn into his major book, "Naked Lunch". In 1956 he left Mexico City for Tangiers, Morocco, as the living was even cheaper than it was in Mexico City (as were the drugs). He eventually returned to the US in the 1960s.

"Naked Lunch" has the distinction of being the last major book to be prosecuted for obscenity in the United States. The novel was written in Mexico City and Tangiers, crafted from fragments he wrote while addicted to heroin. After it was published in Paris by the Olympia Press in 1959, it quickly became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, sadism and murder, as well as its no-holds-barred use of language. Many stalwart defenders of the First Amendment drew the line at "Naked Lunch", stating that they did not fight the good fight to get James Joyce's "Ulysses" and the works of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller before the American public so that something like "Naked Lunch" could be published. Grove Press acquired the rights to the book, but it was not published until 1962, as the publishing house awaited the outcome of other obscenity trials, including one involving Allen Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl", which featured Burroughs as one of its hipsters searching for "an angry fix". Guided by Justice William J. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court starting in the late 1950s had relaxed censorship standards to protect literature that had redeeming social value, no matter that passages in the works were accused of being obscene. To be banned, a work had to be utterly without redeeming social value. Undaunted, the Comonwealth of Massachusetts successfully prosecuted the book as obscene.

For the initial trial, Grove Press had gathered together an impressive list of "experts" such as Norman Mailer to defend the book, but Burroughs' modern classic initially lost, was declared obscene, and was banned in Massachusetts (a banned book would be destroyed, the copies already having been confiscated by the police). However, in 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Court (in Memoirs v. Massachusetts) found that "Naked Lunch" was "not without social value, and therefore, not obscene." With this ruling an era that began in the 1870s when anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock led the charge for stricter enforcement of obscenity laws by the federal and state governments came to an end.

By the late 1970s Burroughs had lived long enough to be hailed by critics and the public as a major American writer. He was embraced by punk rockers in New York and became an iconic figure by the 1980s. He died in 1997 at the age of 83.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Spouse (2)

Ilse Herzfeld Klapper (1937 - 1946)
Joan Vollmer (? - 6 September 1951) ( her death) ( 1 child)

Trade Mark (1)

Gravelly voice, a fedora tipped to the right with heavy glasses and dark, sardonic sense of humor.

Trivia (21)

He is featured on the song "Just One Fix" by Ministry with a vocal speaking part. Like frontman Al Jourgensen, Burroughs was also a heroin addict.
The acknowledgment given to him at the end of the film Blade Runner (1982) was for legal reasons. He had written a screenplay with an identical title (and completely different storyline), but it was never put into production.
Once lived in a windowless apartment in the basement of what used to be a YMCA. His friends often called the apartment "Bill's Bunker".
His novel "Naked Lunch" provided the name for the famous rock group Steely Dan. "Steely Dan III From Yokohama" was the name of a rubber phallus used in the book.
In 1951 Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan got drunk at a party in Mexico City, where they were living (he was a heroin addict and she was addicted to Benzedrine, and drugs were easier to come by in Mexico). They decided to do a "William Tell" act with Joan balancing a glass on her head and Burroughs shooting it off with a gun. He missed and Joan was killed. This incident was later worked into the movie adaptation of Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch" (Naked Lunch (1991)).
Was a good friend of Kurt Cobain. He was even asked to appear in Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" video as Jesus Christ, but later refused. He made an EP with Cobain titled "The Priest They Called Him".
Was an heir to the Burroughs Cash Register Co. fortune. A family trust fund allowed him to write without holding other jobs.
Lived in Tangiers (Morocco) for several years, partly to avoid the legal and social fallout from shooting his wife when they were living in Mexico and partly because Tangiers was even cheaper to live in than Mexico, which meant that the allowance he got from his family trust fund allowed him to live in luxury.
Was addicted to heroin. This was a recurring theme throughout many of his novels.
Was a good friend of Genesis P-Orridge, leader of the avant-garde/industrial band Throbbing Gristle. The two were frequent correspondents and great fans of each others' work, and P-Orridge collaborated with Burroughs on his tape work occasionally.
Created the "cut-up" style of writing along with Brion Gysin, in which sections of a story are cut up and reassembled to create a new story. This technique is similar to the "tape collage" style of experimental music, which Burrough was known to dabble in.
Biography in: "American National Biography". Supplement 1, pp. 84-87. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
In 1937, while studying medicine in Germany, he agreed to marry a German Jewish woman named Ilse Herzfeld Klapper so she could escape Nazi persecution and become a U.S. citizen. They never lived together, separating immediately upon entering the U.S., but remained friends, meeting weekly for lunch. Burroughs formally divorced her nine years later so he could marry his second wife, Joan.
After shooting his second wife Joan, he fled to Tangiers, Morocco, and remained there for many years, a fugitive in both his birth country of the U.S. and in his adopted homeland of Mexico.
Produced several albums throughout the 1980s featuring spoken word and his own style of electronic music.
Highlander (1986) director Russell Mulcahy bought the rights to Burroughs' novel "The Wild Boys" in the 1980s with the intention of making it into a feature film. When the project fell through, he used the book as the basis for the 1985 Duran Duran video of the same name.
The prosecution of Burroughs' book "Naked Lunch" by the Comonwealth of Massachusetts is considered the last major obscenity trial in the United States. The book was initially found obscene, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court overturned the decision on appeal in 1966. For the initial trial, Grove Press had gathered together an impressive list of "experts" such as Norman Mailer to defend the book, but Burroughs' modern classic initially lost and was declared obscene in Massachusetts. However, the state Supreme Court (Memoirs v. Massachusetts) found that the book "was not without social value, and therefore, not obscene." With the ruling, an era that began in 1870s when anti-smut crusader Anthony Comstock led the charge for stricter enforcement of obscenity laws by the federal and state governments came to an end.
Did not start writing until he was 39 years old.
Wrote one of the earliest exposes on Scientology.
"Ah Pook is Here" was adapted for both animation and a Graphic Novel.
There happened to be a Mrs S Burrows of the Scilly Isles, whose claim to fame was that her cat ate a rare gray-cheeked thrush.

Personal Quotes (57)

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.
In the U.S., you have to be a deviant or die of boredom.
Language is a virus from outer space.
A functioning police state needs no police.
The face of evil is always the face of total need.
The road to the western lands is by far the most heavily guarded and therefore most dangerous road in all the world.
[on his alma mater, Harvard University]: "I hated the University and I hated the town it was in. Everything about the place was dead. The University was a fake English setup taken over by the graduates of fake English public schools."
America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.
A simopath - the technical name for this disorder escapes me - is a citizen convinced that he is an ape or other simian. It is a disorder peculiar to the army, and discharge cures it.
If civilized countries want to return to Druid Hanging Rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink blood with the Aztecs and feed their Gods with the blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon." -- "Naked Lunch
I don't mind people disliking me. The question is, what are they in a position to do about it?
Anyone from outer space would look at this planet and say, 'I want to see the manager'.
The mark of a basic shit is that he can't mind his own business.
Never go into business with a religious SOB, as he'll always have his God telling him how to screw you on the deal.
A paranoid is someone who has a small idea of what is going on. A psychotic is someone who has found out what is going on.
All political movements are basically anti-creative - since a political movement is a form of war. "There's no place for impractical dreamers around here," that's what they always say. "Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around."
Many doctors are drawn to this profession (psychology) because they have an innate deficiency of insight into the motives, feelings and thoughts of others, a deficiency they hope to remedy by ingesting masses of data.
As soon as you know you are in prison, you have a possibility to escape.
There is nothing more provocative than minding your own business.
All abilities are paid for with disabilities. Perfect health may entail the heavy toll of bovine stupidity. Insight into one area involves blind spots in another.
A consumer society is about simplifying and degrading the consumer as well as the product.
The way to kill a man or a nation is to cut off his dreams, the way the whites are taking care of the Indians: killing their dreams, their magic, their familiar spirits.
Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts.
If, after spending time with a person, you feel as though you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that person in the future.
England has the most sordid literary scene I've ever seen. They all meet in the same pub. This guy's writing a foreword for this person. They all have to give radio programs, they have to do all this just in order to scrape by. They're all scratching each other's backs.
Intelligence and war are games, perhaps the only meaningful games left. If any player becomes too proficient, the game is threatened with termination.
The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time... and you can't see it if you refuse to face the possibility.
He asked if I wouldn't like to live completely without problems, say in Greece maybe, nice climate, everything provided? I say: "When we find out what we are actually doing and who we actually are, that is the point of living...it may be only a few seconds...a few seconds of significant actions, out of a lifetime..."
A doctor is not criticized for describing the manifestations and symptoms of an illness, even though the symptoms may be disgusting. I feel that a writer has the right to the same freedom. In fact, I think that the time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.
I think anybody incapable of changing his mind is crazy.
Thanks for the American dream, to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through. Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind their own business.
Society is cancerous and bureaucracy is its cancer.
If everyone is to be made responsible for everything they do, you must extend responsibility beyond the level of conscious intention.
If a weaker baboon be attacked by a stronger baboon the weaker baboon will either (a) present his hrump fanny I believe is the word, gentlemen, heh heh for passive intercourse or (b) if he is a different type baboon more extrovert and well-adjusted, lead an attack on an even weaker baboon if he can find one.
God save the Queen and a fascist regime ... a flabby toothless fascism, to be sure. Never go too far in any direction, is the basic law on which Limey-Land is built. The Queen stabilizes the whole sinking shithouse and keeps a small elite of wealth and privilege on top. The English have gone soft in the outhouse. England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire.
We must all face the fact that our leaders are certifiably insane or worse
There couldn't be a society of people who didn't dream. They'd be dead in two weeks.
If you wish to alter or annihilate a pyramid of numbers in a serial relation, you alter or remove the bottom number. If we wish to annihilate the junk pyramid, we must start with the bottom of the pyramid: the Addict in the Street, and stop tilting quixotically for the "higher ups" so called, all of whom are immediately replaceable. The addict in the street who must have junk to live is the one irreplaceable factor in the junk equation. When there are no more addicts to buy junk there will be no junk traffic. As long as junk need exists, someone will service it
One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don't know they know... Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough... So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.
Writing prejudicial, off-putting reviews is a precise exercise in applied black magic. The reviewer can draw free-floating disagreeable associations to a book by implying that the book is completely unimportant without saying exactly why, and carefully avoiding any clear images that could capture the reader's full attention
The program of the ruling elite in Orwell's 1984 was: "A foot stamping on a human face forever!" This is naive and optimistic. No species could survive for even a generation under such program. This is not a program of eternal, or even long-range dominance. It is clearly an extermination program.
Wouldn't it be great, as Scott Peck suggests, if all medical students had to undergo the symptoms and feeling of a spectrum of illnesses. From acute infections to terminal cancer - and Kuru, the laughing sickness. Just a month for each exposure, controlled of course, and a good heavy dose of excruciating pain. So they'll know what that feels like.
[Naked Lunch, Dr. Benway] Jeder macht eine kleine dummheit.
We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems.
Do not try and cheat the muse.
There is a boy sitting at the counter thin faced, his eyes all pupils, I see he is hooked and sick.
I've seen villages in South America with no police whatever. Then the cops would arrive, then the sanitary inspectors, and before you know it they've got all the problems - crime, juvenile delinquency, the whole works - just like us.
It is to be remembered that all art is magical in origin - music, sculpture, writing, painting - and by magical I mean intended to produce very definite results. Paintings were originally formulae to make what is painted happen. Art is not an end in itself, any more than Einstein's matter-into-energy formulae is an end in itself. Like all formulae, art was originally FUNCTIONAL, intended to make things happen, the way an atom bomb happens from Einstein's formulae.
You see, should I stand in front of a landscape and paint it, I'm completely ignoring the factor of time. While I am painting it, it's changing, clouds are changing, all sorts of things. So there's the myth there of someone creating in a timeless vacuum.
Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.
Smash the control images. Smash the control machine.
[Naked Lunch] The writer sees himself reading to the mirror as always ... He must check now and again to reassure himself that The Crime Of Separate Action has not, is not, cannot occur ... Anyone who has ever looked into a mirror knows what this crime is and what it means in terms of lost control when the reflection no longer obeys ... Too late to dial Police ... I personally wish to terminate my services as of now in that I cannot continue to sell the raw materials of death ... Yours, sir, is a hopeless case and a noisome one ... "Defense is meaningless in the present state of our knowledge," said The Defense looking up from an electron microscope ... Take your business to Walgreen's. We are not responsible. Steal anything in sight. I don't know how to return it to the white reader. You can write or yell or croon about it ... paint about it ... act about it ... shit it out in mobiles . . . So long as you don't go and do it ..
Be just, and if you can't be just be arbitrary.
Thou shalt not be such a shit you don't know you are one.
I began to get a feeling... of being the only sane man in a nut house. It doesn't make you feel superior but depressed and scared, because there is no one you can contact
You cannot show anyone what he has not seen.
If you want to cure something, find out who doesn't get it.

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