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Why William S. Burroughs Hated His Biography

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My life has been full of fortunate accidents. I met William Burroughs after I moved to Tangier in 1968. I stayed for four years working on a book because it was cheap. In those days, Bill was heavily into hard drugs and was so generally avoided that if he saw you liked him he became a loyal friend.

In another coincidence, we both returned to New York in 1974. By this time, after decades abroad, Bill had a reputation in the counter-culture that he had helped create. The expression Beat was coined, and while many used it with scorn, Bill had fans among writers, the young, and musicians such as the Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones, and Iggy Pop. David Bowie complained, "You sit on your ass writing - I could be torn to pieces by me fans." Burroughs didn't really like their music; his taste went back to Hoagy Carmichael playing "How Little We Know" in the movie "To Have and Have Not." But he pretended.

He now lived in a converted YMCA at 222 Bowery, which I often visited, in a large windowless space that had been the locker room. Instead of a bathroom there was a row of white porcelain urinals. The light of day never reached his pad, but Bill liked the privacy and the quiet and he called it the Bunker. He now had a young assistant from Kansas, James Grauerholz, who handled the household chores and the growing social and business affairs. The Bunker became a counter-culture salon.

Those years were fueled by drugs and alcohol, with Burroughs as a magnet. Famous performers passed through: Patti Smith with a new song, Terry Southern with a comic routine, Mick Jagger arguing with Bill about the counter-culture.

People from obscure publications came to interview him. "I don't give a shit about the quality of the interview," he told me. "I'm trying to find new readers." Another nuisance was Jaques Stern, a wealthy Frenchman crippled by polio who had put up some money to to produce a movie from the book Junkie. One evening at dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Soho, I joined Burroughs and Stern. Bill said he was due to leave for Illinois, Florida and Texas to read in colleges. Stern asked him if he was afraid of flying. "It's out of my hands," Bill said. "If a wing breaks off, I'll look around to see in whose company I'm going to die." The waiter arrived and asked Burroughs what he wanted. "A striped bass that was fished from Lake Huron in 1920," he said.

Grauerholz arrived with his boyfriend, Richard, who sat next to Stern, a nasty drunk. He told Grauerholz, "You're nothing but a typist." Then he turned to Richard: "You're a scumbag, you're garbage." Richard broke his wine glass against the leg of his chair and handed the intact jagged-edge bottom, which still had wine in it, to Stern, and told him to drink it. Stern raised it to his lips and cried out, "I'll be dead at midnight." Grauerholz said, "I sincerely hope so." Stern tried to burn Grauerholz' hand with his lit cigarette. A waiter came to the table and said that if we did not quiet down we would have to leave. Stern began to shout "call the cops." Two Chinese waiters grabbed him under the shoulders and deposited him on the sidewalk. Fun and games in the Bunker years.

When not socializing and writing, Burroughs worked hard at his readings, rehearsing and getting his timing right. He later figured that between 1974 and 1984, he'd done 150 of them. Norman Mailer told me that he dreaded reading with Burroughs on college campuses. It was like being on the same bill with W. C. Fields, because every time he opened his mouth he got a laugh. It was his penumbral presence and gallows humor. Whatever he said, however banal, something like "it's goddamn chilly in the morning," they fell on the floor laughing. Mailer kept thinking, "let me out of here, so I don't have to compete with this guy saying crazy things in a graveyard voice."

At the Bunker, in 1981, Burroughs was heavily into drugs again, and Grauerholz realized that the only solution was to remove him from New York. Jim took him to Lawrence, Kansas, where Bill spent the rest of his life. Burroughs went on methadone maintenance and traveled to Kansas City once a week to pick up his doses.

I had been working on other biographies and never had any intention of writing about Burroughs, though I visited him in Lawrence from time to time. I drove him to the clinic to get his methadone. There were usually a couple of addicts waiting with copies of Naked Lunch to be signed. There are so many addicts in America that they comprise a reading club.

On one of my visits in 1985, Bill asked me to write his biography. Having written the lives of three dead men, Maugham, Churchill, and FDR, I was intrigued by the idea of having a subject I could talk to.

I spent three years commuting between New York and Lawrence, Kansas. Burroughs not only spilled the beans, he helped me find and introduced me to some of the more bizarre characters in his life, who would never have talked to me without his blessing. Our taped sessions across a table in his living room usually lasted an hour. After that he was drained. At one point, after describing the death of his wife, he fell on the floor, as if in a seizure.

His only caveat was "don't pull a Truman on me." He blamed Capote for failing to intervene when the two convicted killers of In Cold Blood were hanged, so that he could have a death scene when his book was published. I promised that there would be no morbid waiting by his sick bed.

When my book was published in 1988, Burroughs was in Chicago. Asked by a Tribune reporter what he thought of it, he said, "it's awful." There's a huge difference between chatting with a friend in your home and seeing your life revealed on the page, hundreds of pages, for thousands to read. It was like arriving at a party naked. I heard from friends that Bill was complaining about various scenes, and even the title, Literary Outlaw, saying he had never been an outlaw. Though in fact he had been arrested by the Mexican police. We remained friends on the surface, though I did not go to his funeral when he died in 1993 at the age of 83.

I've been busy with other books, and it was not until last year that the proverbial light bulb went on. I was talking to my friend Bill Morgan, whom I'd known when he was Allen Ginsburg's office manager. He wrote the definitive biography of Allen and was now working on a book of Burroughs' letters. That started me thinking. My own book was missing a death scene. Why not a new edition, after more than 20 years, for a new generation of readers? And here it is.

Ted Morgan is the author of Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs [W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95].