On a Sunday afternoon in December of 1997 I hooked up with the poet Jim McCrary at a Greenwich Village saloon. I’d come down from Boston to cover a fight at Madison Square Garden the previous evening, and Jim was visiting from Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked as an editor for William Burroughs Communications, still a thriving concern despite the death of its eponymous patron four months earlier.
After brunch and a leisurely afternoon passed watching football games on the pub’s TV, Jim suggested that we ring up James Grauerholz, a mutual friend (and, as Burroughs’s literary executor, McCrary’s boss) who was also in New York on business.
Grauerholz was still in the process of wrapping up his meeting, but suggested we take a cab over to meet him at Allen Ginsberg’s loft on East 13th Street. The poet had preceded Burroughs in death earlier that year, but somebody was evidently still paying the rent.
When we arrived, I was somewhat startled to find myself in the midst of what appeared to be a convocation of the Capos of the three Beat Families. The company included Grauerholz, Burroughs’s agent Andrew Wylie, Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas, Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord, Allen Ginsberg’s secretary Bob Rosenthal, his protégé and posthumous editor Peter Hale, and Bill Morgan, the Beat archivist Ginsberg had entrusted with the disposition of his effects. The only significant heir not represented at the kitchen table that day was the estate of Jan Kerouac (Jack’s unacknowledged daughter who had died a year earlier).
Since our visit was purely social, we didn’t pry into the nature of the conference that had consumed the better part of the day, but McCrary’s speculation that the subject was “Okay, who’s got what left and how much can we get for it?” probably wasn’t far off the mark.
In October of 1999, a Sotheby’s sale entitled “Allen Ginsberg & Friends” fetched $674,466. The auction lots included everything from original manuscripts to Ginsberg’s writing desk and Uncle Sam top hat to an original copy of Lady Windermere’s Fan, signed by Oscar Wilde (it had been a gift to Ginsberg from Bono), to Kerouac’s 1939 football letter from Horace Mann, the Bronx prep school where he had been stashed to further hone his gridiron skills by Lou Little, the Columbia University coach.
At another auction, at Christie’s two years later, the original “scroll” manuscript of On the Road was sold for $2.4 million to Jim Irsay, the owner of the NFL Indianapolis Colts. After restoration at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, the scroll was dispatched on a celebrated national tour before being published, verbatim, in 2007.
And even after the residue of Burroughs’s literary output had been exhausted, William Burroughs Communications continued to prosper posthumously. To this day, collectors from England, Germany, and Japan jostle for position in the queue to purchase, at $10,000 a pop, an apparently inexhaustible supply of Burroughs’s “shotgun paintings.”