By Mick Brown | The Telegraph
28 Oct 2009 »»
The daughter that Jack Kerouac disowned and an apparently forged will have ignited a dispute over the ownership of the writer's estate.
‘The only people for me’, Jack Kerouac famously wrote in On The Road, the book that made his name, ‘are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous Roman candles...’
For Kerouac, the candle burned out all too quickly. When Kerouac died in 1968 at the age of 47, he was a broken alcoholic, his literary reputation so depleted he was unable even to find a paperback publisher for his last novel, Vanity of Duluoz. Unsure of what value to put on his estate, the bank valued it at a nominal $1. Over the years, it would rise to an estimated $20m.
When Kerouac died, he left everything to the woman he had loved most throughout his live - his mother, Gabrielle. When she died five years later, she in turn left everything to Kerouac’s third wife, Stella Sampas - setting in train the events that led to Stella’s family managing the Kerouac estate for the past 19 years.
Now that legacy has been sensationally called into question, with a ruling by a Florida court that the will that Gabrielle signed, leaving everything to her daughter in law, was, in fact, a forgery.
The ruling appears to bring to a close a bitter legal feud that has run for the past 15 years, featuring a colourful cast of characters including the daughter that Kerouac spent much of his life disowning, the nephew who until recently was living in the front seat of a Dodge pick-up in a California junkyard, the author of ‘a critical biography’ of Kerouac, and the retired antiques dealer who has overseen the transformation of Kerouac’s into one of the most valuable commodities in the world of American letters.
Just how valuable was demonstrated in 2001, when the original Teletype roll of On The Road was sold at Christie’s to James Isray, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, for $2.43m - a world record for a literary manuscript.
On The Road was the book that came to define the beat generation, an exhilarating amphetamine-fuelled account of Kerouac’s furious travels back and forth across America in search of enlightenment and kicks.
Published in 1957, the book made Kerouac a literary sensation, but also proved his undoing. While he produced eight more books, he was never able to cope with the burden of being ‘king of the Beats’, and overwhelmed by alcoholism, he withdrew from public life, living with his mother, firstly in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts and then in Florida.
When Gabrielle suffered a stroke in 1966, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, the sister of his closest childhood friend - as much, it seemed, to have someone to care for his mother as for love. Stella was four years older than Kerouac and seemed to have been waiting for him all her life; he told friends she was a virgin at the time of their marriage. But she quickly found herself not only caring for Gabrielle, but also managing Jack, often hiding his shoes to prevent him going out on drunken binges. A few weeks before his death, Kerouac secretly consulted a lawyer about a divorce.
On the morning of October 20, 1968 Stella found Kerouac on his knees in the bathroom, vomiting blood. She called for an ambulance. As Kerouac was being carried out he shouted ‘Stella, I love you’. The following day he died in hospital of intestinal bleeding caused by cirrhosis - the drunk’s death.
Kerouac left everything to his mother, who continued to live with Stella until her death in 1973, and who then named Stella as the sole beneficiary in her will - the will that has now been ruled as a forgery.
Conspicuous by her absence from the will was Kerouac’s only known child, Jan - the product of his short-lived marriage to his second wife Joan Haverty. Kerouac and Haverty separated before Jan’s birth in 1952, and for many years Kerouac denied his daughter’s existence. The first time they met was when Jan was 10, on the day Kerouac took a blood test to confirm his paternity. ‘You’re a lovely little girl’, he told her, ‘but you’re not my daughter.’ The blood test proved otherwise. The second and last time was in 1967, when she visited Kerouac at his home in Lowell en route to Mexico. He was drinking scotch and watching The Beverly Hillbillies.
‘My mother had always talked about how I had Jack’s hands’, she told me when I interviewed her in 1995, ‘We sat on the couch and compared them. He was very sheepish about it, but he looked at me and there was like a spark of recognition is his blue eyes...our blue eyes.’
‘Use my name’, Kerouac told her. ‘Write a book.’
She went on to write two, drawing on a troubled life that had included teenage prostitution and problems with drink and drugs, while struggling to support herself working variously as a dishwasher, a baker and even as an extra in the 1980 film about her father, Heartbeat (in a cruel reflection of their relationship, her role ended up on the cutting-room floor.)
In 1982, at a writer’s conference in Colorado she met John Steinbeck Jr, the son of the novelist, who told her that as Kerouac’s daughter, under the terms of copyright renewal, she was entitled to a share of royalties on her father’s books. Jan took steps to retrieve her entitlement. By the 1990’s, she was receiving up to $40,000 a year. She was also beginning to take a personal interest in the fate of her father’s archive.
For years, Stella had done little with the estate, consistently rebuffing the increasing number of Kerouac scholars who were turning up on her doorstep requesting access to his voluminous collection of papers.
When she died in 1990, she left everything to her five brothers and sisters, who nominated the youngest, John, an antiques dealer, to administer the estate.
By now, interest in Kerouac as a literary figure, and as an icon of cool, was growing, and Sampas energetically set about promoting his life and work. He organised the publication of hitherto unseen work and - in a move that incensed literary purists - licensed his image to be used in a 1993 Gap campaign (‘Kerouac wore khakis’). At the same time he began selling off items from the Kerouac archive to private collectors. In 1995 Johnny Depp came to Sampas’s Lowell home and left with Kerouac’s raincoat, tweed overcoat and other items for which he paid $50,640.
Jan Kerouac began to speak out against Sampas’s handling of the estate, arguing that her father’s archive should be deposited in a single collection with a university library.
In 1994 she was shown a copy of Gabrielle’s will by Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia, and immediately suspected it was a forgery. ‘It was all weird and scraggly and misspelt’, she told me. Gabrielle, Jan maintained, had been too incapacitated by her stroke to sign her own name, and the sole surviving witness to the will, a family friend named Clifford Larkin, had admitted he was not even in the room when it was signed. Jan launched a court case to challenge the will, and Nicosia became her principal champion. Nicosia’s ‘critical biography’, Memory Babe, published in 1983, is widely regarded as the definitive work on Kerouac. But he alleges that the Sampas family have never forgiven him for his disclosure that the family patriarch had been imprisoned for killing a man - ‘I thought it was relevant’ - and the bitter feud between him and the Sampas family has been one of the more diverting sideshows of the entire affair.
Nicosia claims that his support of Jan Kerouac resulted in the family ‘blacklisting’ him, pressurising publishers into removing his name from the bibliographies of other books about Kerouac and attempting to have him barred from Kerouac and Beat conferences. He accuses the Sampas family of ‘stealing’ Kerouac’s inheritance from his rightful heirs.
For his part, John Sampas says that Nicosia's sole motive throughout has been to gain control of the Kerouac archives for himself. ‘This is all about Nicosia’, he says. ‘Jan Kerouac and I were getting along just fine. Nicosia got to Jan.’ In 1996, Jan Kerouac died at the age of 44 from liver failure. Nicosia says she had appointed him as her literary executor ‘with the specific purpose of carrying on the case’, although he was subsequently removed from the role following a court-case brought by Jan’s heirs - her ex-husband John Lash and half-brother David Bowers.Undaunted, Nicosia has recently edited a collection of writings about Jan Kerouac, A Life In Memory, and sells signed limited editions of her two novels from his website .
Lash and Bowers withdrew from the case over Gabrielle’s will. But now a new contestant emerged in the person of Kerouac’s only surviving relative, his nephew Paul Blake.
Kerouac had always held a particular affection for Blake, the son of his sister Catherine. And Blake held what appeared to be a trump card - a letter, supposedly written to him by Kerouac on the day before his death, in which Kerouac expressed the wish for his estate to go ‘to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, and not leave a dingblasted fucking goddamn thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives.’
This had been of little help to Blake, whose life became a litany of hard luck, broken marriages and alcoholism, which at one point saw him living on baloney sandwiches in a California junkyard. Somewhere along the way, Kerouac’s letter was sold to a dealer, but Blake always kept a crumpled photocopy in his pocket.
But in 2004, Blake’s law-suit hit the buffers when the Sampas family was awarded a summary judgement by the court, under a Non Claim Statute in Florida law, ruling that they had inherited Kerouac’s estate legitimately through Stella’s will, and not through Gabrielle’s disputed one - a ruling that effectively ‘cleansed’ the entire inheritance, and any deals the estate might have made since Stella’s death.
Nonetheless, supported by Gerald Nicosia, Blake decided to press on, to establish whether or not the will was forged. With the Sampases now dismissed as defendants, the judge was obliged to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the estate of Gabrielle.
In July of this year, the court finally ruled that Gabrielle Kerouac had been ‘physically unable’ to sign the disputed document and that ‘Her last will and testament is a forgery’.
The judge made no specific ruling as to who had forged Gabrielle’s signature, but a hand-writing expert testified that Stella had often signed her mother-in-law’s name on legal documents and that those signatures were consistent with the signature on the will.
But while this appears to be a victory for Blake, it may well be a Pyrrhic one. According to the Sampas’s lawyer, Leticia Marques, ‘The Sampas family continues to legally own and control all of Jack Kerouac’s works and belongings, which they inherited from Stella Sampas Kerouac. Stella’s will was never challenged and the 2004 Summary Judgment bars any claims against her estate.’ In other words, Johnny Depp will get to keep Kerouac’s raincoat, and John Sampas will keep the money he paid for it.
Sampas says that the value of the estate is now far less than it once was.
In 2001 the New York Public Library purchased what he describes as ‘95%’ of Kerouac’s literary and personal archive for an undisclosed amount. This included more than 1050 manuscripts and typescripts, as well as notebooks, journals, and personal ephemera including a Valentine’s Day card Kerouac made for his mother when he was 11, and a list of all the women he had ever slept with.
Nicosia claims that there are a number of roll manuscripts that were not included in the items sold to the New York Public Library, and which have still not been accounted for. ‘My guess is that [John] Sampas has sold them all,’ he says.
Sampas denies this. ‘I have never sold a scroll manuscript privately to anyone.’ All that remains, he says, are some personal items of Kerouac’s. The value of the estate, he says, now resides in ongoing royalties and whatever books may be published in the future. This includes journals, notebooks and, Kerouac’s hitherto unpublished first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, which he wrote when he was working as a merchant seaman, and which Harper Collins in the US plan to publish next Spring.
There is also the matter of a new ‘authorised’ Kerouac biography, drawing on all the archive material that had been denied to previous biographers, including Gerald Nicosia. The historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited the letters of Hunter Thompson and a volume of Kerouac’s journals, The Windblown World, was given carte blanche to write the new biography, but has withdrawn. John Sampas says he now intends to write the book himself, with the help of a collaborator. ‘My eyesight is terrible, so I’ll do a lot of dictating’.
The book, he says, will include the legal wrangles of the last 15 years.
Sampas himself has no legal standing in the most recent court case. However, one member of the family, Jim Sampas, who has an interest in Kerouac-related film projects, plans to appeal against the verdict on the grounds that it may hamper his ability to do business.
John Sampas maintains that the family has its own hand-writing experts who will testify that the signature on the will is Gabrielle’s. ‘It wasn’t a forgery. Stella certainly wouldn’t have done anything like that. It was beyond her capability, beyond her character. Stella never signed anything on behalf of Gabrielle. It just doesn’t happen.’
Paul Blake is not giving interviews. But his lawyer, Bill Wagner, argues that while the 2004 summary judgement governs ‘hard property’ from the estate, it does not necessarily cover intellectual copyrights and the use of the Kerouac name. Also at issue, Wagner says, are any contracts that Stella might have negotiated before her death.
(John Sampas maintains there are none.)
Wagner says that for Blake, who suffers from ill health and now lives with his son, money ‘is not the big thing.’
‘I’m sure Paul would like to live a better life, but I don’t think he’s looking at this and thinking “Oh boy, I’m going to become a multi-millionaire.” When I told him what the result was, he said, ‘Oh God, that’s going to be so nice. I can really show people what my Uncle Jack really meant.’
John Sampas believes he knows what ‘Uncle Jack’ would be thinking.
‘He would be furious at all this,’ Sampas told me. ‘He would have been furious with Jan Kerouac and with Paul especially.’
Kerouac did not write much about lawyers in his literature, but he did once write about making wills.
‘Money is the root of all evil,’ he said, in the ‘238th Chorus’ of Mexico Blues. He wrote:
For I will
In my will
'I regret that I was not able
To love money more.'