Rub Out The Words: Letters from William Burroughs
Photo by Richard Avedon.
In December 1959, an American man in his mid-forties in Paris wrote to his best friend, a younger man in New York City, to explain why a planned Christmas-time visit to the US to see his elderly parents in Florida, and his friend in New York, might not be possible, after all:
Temporary hitch.. My Old Lady [the man’s 73-year-old mother] read the Life article and has thrown off her shop keeper weeds and revealed her hideous rank in Matriarch, Inc.: “I Queen Bee Laura of Worth Avenue.. Stay out of my territory, punk..” She has, in fact, forbidden me to set foot in Palm Beach on pain of Orpheus.. And won’t send me money to come home.
Almost forty-six years old, William Burroughs still had to write home for money.
Laura Lee Burroughs ran a high-toned ‘gift shop’ in Palm Beach after she and her husband moved from St. Louis in spring 1952, with their five-year-old grandson, William S., Jr. – whom they were raising because his mother was accidentally shot and killed by their son, William, in Mexico six months before. That scandal made the newspapers all over the USA, and the Burroughses’ social standing in St. Louis County suburban ‘high society’ had become too awkward for them to remain.
The ‘Life article’ mentioned is Paul O’Neil’s ‘Sad but Noisy Rebels,’ in the 30 November 1959 issue. Better known today by its slug title (‘The Only Rebellion Around; But the Shabby Beats Bungle the Job in Arguing, Sulking and Bad Poetry’), the lengthy, photo-illustrated article mocked and dismissed Ginsberg, Kerouac, McClure, and others – including Burroughs:
For sheer horror no member of the Beat Generation has achieved effects to compare with William S. Burroughs, who is regarded by many seekers after coolness as the ‘the greatest writer in the world.’ [ . . . ] a pale, cadaverous and bespectacled being who has devoted most of his adult life to a lonely pursuit of drugs and debauchery [and] has rubbed shoulders with the dregs of a half-dozen races.
All of this (which was not even the half of it, if the full truth could not have been published in writing then), came as a complete and total shock to Laura Burroughs. Billy (William) was always her favourite, her precocious paragon of scientific learning; he later remembered her saying once, ‘I worship the ground you walk on.’
Of course, Life’s sudden blush of Beat scandal in 1959 was – as Laura would live long enough to know, until her death in 1970 – only the beginning of her son’s garish, worldwide notoriety.
William S. Burroughs [Paris] to Laura Lee Burroughs [Palm Beach, FL]
ca. December 1959
I counted to ten before answering your letter and I hope you have done the same since nothing could be more unworthy than a quarrel between us at this point.. Yes I have read the article in Life and after all.. a bit silly perhaps.. but it is a mass medium.. and sensational factors must be played up at the expense often of fact.. In order to earn my reputation I may have to start drinking my tea from a skull since this is the only vice remaining to me.. four pots a day and heavy sugar.. Did nurse make tea all the time? Its an English practice that seems to come natural to me.. I hope I am not ludicrously miscast as The Wickedest Man Alive a title vacated by the late Aleister Crowley – who by In order to earn my reputation I may have to start drinking my tea from a skull since this is the only vice remaining to me.. four pots a day and heavy sugarthe way could have had his pick of Palm Beach invitations in a much more straight laced era despite publicity a great deal more extreme.. And remember the others who have held the title before.. Byron Baudelaire Poe people are very glad to claim kinship now..But really anyone in the public eye that is anyone who enjoys any measure of success in his field is open to sensational publicity.. If I visit a waterfront bar in Tangier – half a block from my house – I am ‘rubbing shoulders with the riff raff of the world’.. You can do that in any neighborhood bar USA and not least in Palm Beach.. A rundown on some of the good burghers of Palm Beach would quite eclipse the Beatniks.. Personally I would prefer to avoid publicity but it is the only way to sell books.. A writer who keeps his name out of the papers doesn't publish and doesn't make money if he does manage to publish..
As regard my return to the family hearth perhaps we had best both shelve any decision for the present.. Please keep me informed as to Dad's condition and give him my heart felt wish for his recovery..
As a child in 1920s St. Louis, William Burroughs was a constant reader – a trait he shared with his devoted mother, who was even known to dabble in such daring writers as Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann, not to mention her fascination with telepathy, magic and séances. Little Willy also devoured Brave Jungle Explorer-type stories (a very popular genre then, since the 1890s), and took an early interest in drugs that affect one’s consciousness.
He recalled his mother telling him, after he’d been given morphine by the dentist removing his wisdom teeth, that the man remarked: ‘I had to give almost an adult dose!’ And Burroughs never forgot his ‘nurse’ (mentioned in the riposte to Laura) telling him that ‘opium brings you sweet dreams’. Billy was plagued by nightmares, and he resolved to take opium someday . . . which he certainly did, as well as every other mind-altering drug he heard about and could get his hands on.
Burroughs had first tried mescaline in Mexico City in 1952, in the company of the young American ‘hipsters’ who were by then flocking to D.F. Writing about it in Junky, Burroughs was thinking in terms of addiction, not cultural revolution:
Peyote high is something like benzedrine high. [ . . . ] I couldn’t sleep until the next morning at dawn, and then I had a nightmare every time I dozed off. In one dream [ . . . ] I had a chlorophyll habit. Me and about five other chlorophyll addicts are waiting to score on the landing of a cheap Mexican hotel. We turn green and no one can kick a chlorophyll habit. [ . . . ] We are turning into plants.
On 5 January 1961, Burroughs received his first letter from ‘Dr Timothy Leary, director of the Center for Research in Personality, Department of Social Relations, Harvard University,’ as the stationery of his first letter to Burroughs proclaimed. A serious scientist, and at Burroughs’s own alma mater, no less!
Leary offered Burroughs a sketch of the political situation, vis-à-vis psychedelics: ‘Medicine has already pre-empted LSD, marijuana is the football for two other powerful groups – Bohemia and the narcotics agents. Mescaline and psilocybin are still up for grabs and it is our hope to keep them ungrabbed, uncontrolled, available.’
Music to Burroughs’ ears. He was quick to reply to Leary, and as their correspondence began, Leary mailed him some Psilocybe extract in March. Burroughs was said to find it ‘made him nauseated and irritable, and the visions he had were not pleasant—he saw green boys with purple fungoid gills.’
By April, Burroughs was in Tangier for the summer. The young expatriate hip crowd there put some ‘Prestonia’ in his hands; the active ingredient was DMT, dimethyltryptamine, and Burroughs described his horrific trip this way:
Trips to the ovens like white hot bees through your flesh. But I was only in the ovens for thirty seconds [ . . . ] showed me around a very small planet.
William S. Burroughs [Tangier, Morocco] to Timothy Leary [Cambridge, MA]
May 6, 1961
Cargo U.S. Consulate
Dear Dr. Leary:
I would like to sound a word of urgent warning with regard to the hallucinogen drugs with special reference to N-dimethyltryptamine [Prestonia]. I had obtained a supply of this drug synthesized by a chemist friend in London. My first impression was that it closely resembled psilocybin in its effects. I had taken it perhaps ten times – this drug must be injected and the dose is about one grain but I had been assured that there was a wide margin of safety – with results sometimes unpleasant but well under control and always interesting when the horrible experience occurred which I have recorded in allegorical terms and submitted for publication in Encounter. I am A metabolic accident? Perhaps. But I have wide experience with drugs, and excellent constitution and I am not subject to allergic reactions. sending along to you pertinent sections of this manuscript and I think you will readily see the danger involved. I do not know if you are familiar with apomorphine which is the only drug that acts as a metabolic regulator. I think if I had not had this drug to hand the result could have been lethal and this was not more than a grain and a half. While I have described the experience in allegorical terms it was completely and horribly real and involved unendurable pain. A metabolic accident? Perhaps. But I have wide experience with drugs, and excellent constitution and I am not subject to allergic reactions. So I can only urge you to proceed with caution and to familiarize yourself with apomorphine. Doctor John Dent of London has written a book on the apomorphine treatment for alcoholics and drug addicts ― it is the only treatment that works but the U.S. Health Dept will not use it. His book is called Anxiety and Its Treatment. I can ask him to send you a copy if you are interested. Let me hear from you
Leary wrote to invite him to address a symposium of the American Psychiatric Association, that coming September. Burroughs replied that Leary should first come visit him in Tangier. In late July Leary arrived . . . with psilocybin for everyone.
That included a very complicated crowd around Burroughs at the time: Ian Sommerville, his younger lover since late 1959; the even-younger English beauty, Mikey Portman, their friend and undetachable hanger-on; Gregory Corso, whose lovable but truculent unpredictability was already well-known to Burroughs, from New York and Paris days; Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s bisexual blaue Blüme since 1955; and Allen himself.
The first group mushroom trip went, for Burroughs, badly again. He retreated to his room in the Villa Muniriya, and as Leary later tried to convey his remarks, said:
I’m not feeling too well. I was struck by juxtaposition of purple fire mushroomed from the pain banks. Urgent warning. I think I’ll stay here in shrivelling envelopes of larval flesh [ . . . ] You fellows go down to the [street] fair and see film and brain waves tuning in on soulless insect people.
In light of these experiences, it is astonishing that Burroughs nevertheless left Tangier for Cambridge and Harvard in early August, to participate in the promised symposium. He arrived on 23 August, 1961, and remained until 28 September.
What Burroughs made of Leary’s scene in Newton and Cambridge went into the letters he wrote to his old friends Paul Bowles (in Tangier) and Brion Gysin (in Paris).
William S. Burroughs [Newton, MA] to Paul Bowles [Tangier, Morocco]
ca. late August or early September 1961
This country is a shambles. I don’t know when I've seen anything so nasty. Staying in Leary’s house. Enough food to feed a regiment left out to spoil in the huge kitchen by Leary’s over-fed, undisciplined children. Unused TV sets, cameras, typewriters, toys, books, magazines, furniture, stacked to the ceiling. A nightmare of stupid surfeit. The place is sick sick sick. And disgusting. Like a good European Unused TV sets, cameras, typewriters, toys, books, magazines, furniture, stacked to the ceiling. A nightmare of stupid surfeit. I am stashing away all the $ I can lay hands to with one thought in mind. Walk don't run to the nearest exit.
Have you taken those mushrooms? Seems to me about the same as Prestonia. Nothing will ever get another psilocybin pill down this throat. I am of course not expressing my feelings on the subject to Leary lest he cut off the $. Just how precise and definite my feelings on the subject are I hesitate to express to anyone.
Saw Hiroshima Mon Amour the other night with Leary. See it if you get the chance. Interesting and revealing.
I have just been playing your tape. For which I can not thank you enough. It is almost life saving in the blighted suburb.
Michael Portman may return to Morocco. I have suggested he take a long trip South and perhaps you could help with the indicated itinerary.
Thanks again to you and Christopher [Wanklyn]. And give my best to Jane [Bowles]
William S. Burroughs [New York] to Brion Gysin [Paris]
pre-September 28, 1961
The scene here is really frantic. Leary has gone berserk. He is giving mushrooms to hat check girls, cab drivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it. However Gerald Heard and your correspondent have taken a firm stand. We both refuse to take any more mushrooms under any circumstances. Heard is certainly the most intelligent and well intentioned person connected with this deal. He gave a great talk at the symposium about LSD and paranoid sensations. The last barrier: PANIC! To God Pan. I managed to do all right too, fortified by two joints and the whole symposium came off very well.
Michael [Portman] wants to come here now and I have written to dissuade him. Let me explain that I really put in a lot of overtime on that boy and thought I had managed to separate him from his deplorable connections. Then something happened and there he was with a cold sore and I lost my patient and my patience as well. I'm not complaining butLeary has gone berserk. He is giving mushrooms to hat check girls, cab drivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it. I have been under considerable pressure trying to sort out and assess hundreds of conflicting reports and demands pleasing no one of course so maybe I goofed. In any case he is now in an impossible condition. Imagine having Eileen Garrett, Mary Cooke, Old Lady Luce in the same room with you. It is absolutely intolerable and I don't propose to tolerate it.
Otherwise the situation here is not too bad. At least I have room to work and there is much to be said for American conveniences. I can get good food out of the ice box and take a bath and wear clean clothes at least. Seems to be plenty of pot around NY and nobody worries about the heat. Its like they all have the fix in. Of course I have to keep clean in Cambridge. Flying back on Sunday. Please write what your plans are. I wish you could arrange to come here. Like I say NY is really a great scene and a goodly crowd is there. And more expected momentarily. Please write.
P.S. Very pleasant visit with the family.
As Leary wrote to Ginsberg at the time:
From the moment Bill hit the USA he started putting mushrooms down. A crazy situation developed. We were facing a rising storm of opposition here and Bill was saying dreadful things about the mushrooms within our group. This left his research work in an ambiguous state. [ . . . ] I admire Burroughs’ game. Tremendously. But only one can play.
In October, Burroughs summed up his side of the whole fiasco in a letter he wrote from New York City to Allen Ginsberg, now with Orlovsky in Athens.
William S. Burroughs [New York] to Allen Ginsberg [Athens, Greece]
Oct 26, 1961
Cargo Grove Press
64 University Place
I have severed all connections with [Timothy] Leary and his project which seems to me completely ill intentioned. I soon found out that they have the vaguest connection with Harvard University, that the money comes from Madame Luce and other dubious quarters, that they have utterly no interest in any serious scientific work, no equipment other than a faulty tape recorder and no intention of acquiring any or making any equipment available to me, that I was supposed to sell the beatniks on the mushrooms. When I flatly refused to push the mushrooms but volunteered instead to work on flicker and other non-chemical I received not one cent from Leary beyond the fare to Boston. And I hope never to set eyes on that horse's ass again. A real wrong number.methods, the money and return ticket they had promised me was immediately withdrawn. I received not one cent from Leary beyond the fare to Boston. And I hope never to set eyes on that horse’s ass again. A real wrong number.
Harry Smith another wrong number. He fancies himself a black magician and does manage to give out some nasty emanations. Was it William the Second who said in regard to black magic, ‘Whether their spells are effective or not they deserve hanging for their bad intentions’??
So living in Spanish neighborhood in complete seclusion. NY literary cocktail parties are unmitigated horrors. Still shuddering from the last one I attended. In fact I can find nothing good to say of life in America except the food which I dig Horn and Hardarts the greatest. Would leave tomorrow but short of the ready pending publication of Naked Lunch or other windfall. See Iris Owens from time to time. Have not seen Lucien [Carr]. Met Irving Rosenthal who is most charming. Please write me about life in Athens. Any word from Peter [Orlovsky]?
Writing a lot. Nothing else to do. No pot no sex no money. Well I should have known better than to come here without a return trip ticket in my pocket. Whenever you hear, ‘We don't think much about money on this project’ you are about to get a short count. One thing is sure, Leary isn’t getting any short count. Twenty thousand a year plus expenses. For doing exactly what? Pushing his pestiferous mushrooms ―
Well like I say, I should have known better. Write soon.
Leary was right about the Burroughs Game: Only one could play. ■
Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974 will be published in the US in February 2012 by Ecco and in the UK by Penguin in March of the same year.