Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was not an artist or writer, but William Burroughs and others credit her with being a powerful inspiration to their work.

Joan Vollmer grew up in Loudonville, New York, a suburb of Albany, where her father managed a large plant, and worked hard to provide his family with the best of everything. Joan grew up in a financially privileged world, but longed for a sense of self money could not buy. She fought with her mother constantly, and chafed at the constraints of the household. As soon as she could, she eagerly left it all behind for New York City and Barnard College.

A handsome woman who constantly questioned the status quo, Joan read voraciously and enjoyed discussing a wide range of topics, usually while in the bathtub. Her appetite for books was rivalled only by her appetite for men, and she married law student Paul Adams soon after arriving in New York, more an act of defiance than love. After her marriage, Joan spent her evenings prowling bars like the West End, looking for the company of strangers; Paul had been drafted.

Late one night, she met a kindred spirit, Edie Parker, during one of her rambles at the West End Bar, and the two soon moved into an apartment at 421 West 118th St. This was the first in a series of apartments which would provide a forum for the exchange of open ideas and attitudes, with Joan at the center, a strong and magnetic presence.

By the time Bill started coming up to Joan's place, though predominantly homosexual, he was intrigued by her quicksilver intellect and love of stirring people up. Joan was attracted to Bill for his brilliant mind, outrageous proclamations, and vaguely sinister air. Bill moved in, and the two began their curious marriage of minds.

Bill was becoming addicted to heroin at around this time, and brought with him a collection of hustlers and petty criminals. Joan and Jack were introduced to Benzedrine. Eventually, Bill and others were arrested for drug use, and Joan ended up at Bellevue, speed-addled and in need of help.

Bill arranged Joan's release from the hospital and they conceived a child soon after. Although never married in a ceremony, the two were never again parted. Bill bought a farm in New Waverly Texas, and they moved there to escape the legal problems which plagued them in New York. The plan was to make lots of money growing marijuana. Mostly, though, they entertained guests, including their old New York Beat crony Herbert Huncke, who came to 'sharecrop,' do drugs and play with guns.
Joan and Bill had a special psychic connection which, friends said, seemed to transcend the normal - Joan had the uncanny ability to receive images that Bill sent her telepathically. They would sit across the room from each other for hours, playing this psychic game and startling visitors with their amazing associative talent.

Later that year, Joan and Bill were caught in flagrante delicto by a notoriously vigilant sheriff, who charged Bill with drunk driving and public indecency. Rather than deal with more legal problems, they moved to New Orleans. That was fine for awhile, but another drug bust prompted another move; this time to Mexico City to ensure there would be no more reckoning with American authorities.

Bill enjoyed Mexico because the boys and heroin were cheap. Joan could no longer get Benzedrine, and made do with cheap tequila. She looked terrible, and hinted to friends that her days were numbered.

On September 6, 1951, Joan and Bill were at a party. Everyone had been drinking gin for hours when Bill announced it was time for the William Tell act. Joan put a glass of water on her head and turned her face away, saying she couldn't stand the sight of blood. Bill, a crack shot, took aim from about six feet away. She died instantly, not yet thirty years old.

Bill was able to stay out of trouble with a good lawyer, but he would be forever haunted by Joan. He maintained years later that it was an accident, although he has also said that there is no such thing as an accident. He has always maintained that it was Joan's death which motivated him to write ever since.

Burroughs was not the only Beat to be inspired by Joan. Allen Ginsburg's masterpiece 'Howl' was written after a dream of Joan in 1957.

Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation

Copyright 2002-2008 by Steven Watson/

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