Jack Kerouac’s Florida
How the ‘King of the Beats’ found a fertile place to work, but no escape from his demons, in his last troubled years here
By Thomas Hallock
The St. Petersburg home at 5169 10th Avenue North sits empty. This brick-and-block ranch house, with low-slung ceilings to push through the central air conditioning, was the final dwelling of Massachusetts-born writer Jack Kerouac, “King of the Beats” and author of the celebrated novel On the Road. In November 1968, Kerouac returned to Florida with his new wife, Stella Sampas, and his aging mother, Gabrielle or Mémère (MAY-mare), seeking asylum from another New England winter.
“Ti Jean” Kerouac (as he was known to family) packed an extraordinary amount of living into his 47 years. A printer’s son from a tight-knit clan of French-Canadian émigrés, he grew up in the factory town of Lowell, where he is buried. Kerouac attended Columbia University on scholarship for a year, dropped out, served as a merchant marine, wandered, and over a staggeringly productive two-decade spree, 1950 to 1969, produced some two dozen books – including several volumes of poetry and his trademark autobiographical fiction. Florida fairly claims a major chunk of his work; he was in and out of Orlando and then St. Petersburg every few years, and his story in the Sunshine State is not just a tragic demise.
Kerouac settled into the St. Pete home late in his life, somewhere between snowbird and full-time resident, with hopes for artistic productivity.
The author squandered his final days in his living room nursing a favorite drink, scotch with a beer “wash.” On October 20, 1969, he coughed up blood. Sensing his end, Kerouac dictated a peevish letter to his nephew, Paul Jr., speaking Quebecois to freeze out his Greek-American wife and insisting that his estate remain in “my direct blood line.” (Kerouac also had a daughter, Jan, from a brief marriage, whom he acknowledged only after a paternity test.) Early the next morning, at nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital, the failing author died from esophageal hemorrhaging, what his biographer Gerald Nicosia calls “the classic drunkard’s death.”
The 10th Avenue North home, legally contested between families, is an aftermath of this shattered life. Initially the property passed on to Kerouac’s mother, then to his wife Stella, and then to his Sampas’ in-laws.
The estate remained mired in probate for decades, as the sodden saga played out in courts. Meanwhile, Kerouac’s ghost would continue to haunt St. Petersburg. His novels, some say, mysteriously fell off the shelves at a favorite bookstore, Haslam’s, on St. Pete’s Central Avenue. Fans called his telephone number, which stayed in the city directory until 1999. Mildew at the home crept around the toilets, critters crawled through the soffits, and pilgrims broke in, leaving spent candles and cigarette butts. The estate’s closest contact today lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, and somehow the overgrown yard still gets mowed.
Across Florida, Kerouac has left an ambivalent legacy. He and Mémère actually held five Florida addresses, three in Orlando and two in St. Petersburg. In St. Pete, the 5169 Tenth Ave. North property piques either hometown pride or exasperation – depending who you ask.
For some, the author’s death marks a local claim to fame; for others, the very name “Jack Kerouac” draws an eye roll, sharp rebuke, or exasperated sigh. His reputation polarizes. Kerouac was the chronicler of the “Beat Generation,” the boy’s club of rebel-writers that included junkie-novelist William S. Burroughs (who shot his wife), poets Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka, zen-naturalist Gary Snyder, and San Francisco bookman Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still owner of the legendary City Lights, recently celebrating his 101st birthday). The Beats are credited for shaping the counter-culture, a youth movement that Kerouac disavowed in slurred harangues.
College kids tracked him down in St. Petersburg, meanwhile, hoping to touch literary fame or more likely replicate the drunken sprees from his novels. Even after his death, visitors still came. Pilgrims left notes, until the mailbox itself disappeared. “Dear Jack,” one admirer gushed, “your work is why I write and write to live.”
The story of Kerouac’s later years is historically hard to tell. Those seeking a fuller account might start with Orlando journalist Bob Kealing’s book, Kerouac in Florida: Where the Road Ends. The Sunshine State, Kealing demonstrates in his book, loomed large in the last two decades of the author’s life. Keraouc first moved to College Park, northwest of Orlando, in December 1956.
He had one novel behind him (the well-regarded but poor-selling Town and the City) and he was making final changes to the book that brought him fame, On the Road. “Ti Jean” and Mémère squeezed into a brick saltbox in the Orlando suburbs, where his sister Caroline (or Nin) and his brother-in-law, Paul Blake, had moved. Paul, who moved to Florida to work in the burgeoning space industry, did not always welcome the ne’er-do-well author.
But the Kerouacs remained formidably close, and Jack negotiated his place with family constantly, balancing steady contact alongside safe distance. “No writer ever traveled farther while staying so close to home,” the critic Ann Douglas wryly observes. In July 1956, he and Mémère settled into a sliced-up bungalow in Caroline’s College Park neighborhood, at 1418 1/2 Clouser Avenue.
The Clouser Avenue home, now a writer’s retreat, is where Kerouac banged out The Dharma Bums. Fueled by backyard citrus and Mexican Benzedrine, working under a bare lightbulb on the back porch, he furiously typed 12 days straight onto a 100-foot roll of teletype paper, following his usual free association of the “mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought.”
The Dharma Bums chronicles his explorations of western mountains and Buddhism with Gary Snyder, or “Japhy Ryder,” though little in the novel betrays that at time of writing Kerouac was actually in a run-down Orlando bungalow.
Florida remains invisible, though the Clouser Avenue apartment clearly served as his space apart, the retreat; nearly every one of the novel’s 34 chapters sounds out a theme of artistic isolation. The narrator Raymond Smith longs for a mountain cave, a camp in the High Sierras,
or “little temples hidden and forgotten,” where the monastic writer can “take off by himself to live purely and true to himself.”
That cave or mountain camp or hidden temple was Florida, his respite from the “mad sick sniffling” cities up north. Kerouac was rambling throughout North America during the 1960s, from New York to Berkeley to Mexico City, and four years after The Dharma Bums, his remarkable Orlando run continued. This time he set himself up in Kingswood Manor, a subdivision four miles from the Blakes in College Park.
Working nights in his bedroom of the new one-story ranch home, Kerouac took advantage of the “Florida peace” to polish off another major work, Big Sur. Set in northern California, Big Sur is rightly recognized for its evocative descriptions of Pacific fog and the 22-page tone poem “Sea,” which closes the novel.
Yet a theme of isolation underwrites his homage to California. The publication of ‘Road’ made him famous, he explains through the narrator, Duluoz. He had been “driven mad” by the “endless telegrams, phone calls, request, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers,” by teenagers crawling over his backyard fence for a peek, and “the time the reporter ran upstairs to my bedroom as I sat there in my pajamas trying to write down a dream.”
Clearly, one may claim the Pacific Ocean as an inspiration for Big Sur, though what made his communion with the muse possible was the anonymous, air-conditioned block house in a working-class subdivision.
Kerouac’s Florida can be difficult to locate. He never wrote about the Sunshine State directly (except in letters) and he refused commissions to pen travel essays about the usual tourist destinations. His correspondence grouses about his isolation in Orlando and the “heatwave horror” of August. Friends repeatedly ignored his invitations to visit, to sunbathe on his back patio in early spring or grill steaks outdoors.
Amidst this same suburban self-exile, meanwhile, the lonely Kerouac would churn out roughly one-quarter of his fiction. “Dreary” and “DEAD,” pre-Disney Orlando provided the solitude he needed to tinker with or finish up several well-known books – including Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, and of course, On the Road. In St. Petersburg, where he lived on-and-off from 1964 to his death, Kerouac also dashed off Satori in Paris (a brilliant if flawed novella, diseased by alcoholism) and his piecemeal, posthumous publication, Pic.
Taking the author at his word, critics have downplayed the importance of the Sunshine State to Kerouac’s literary output. The word “Florida” remains missing from most scholarly studies. Why?
The problem lies in how readers – popular and academic – approach him. Kerouac epitomizes the rebel traveler, riding the rails or hitchhiking from New York to San Francisco, tripping off to Mexico and Tangiers for wild adventures. Because the parties never seem to end in a Kerouac novel, we overlook the writer at work … sweating through drafts (or badgering his agent, the venerable Sterling Lord) from the bland comfort of a suburban block home.
Biographers especially paint his tight Quebecois family as an impediment to literary life. In this clichéd portrait, Mémère comes off as a maternal buzz-kill, as a block, or Oedipal trap. “Hey Jack Kerouac,” Natalie Merchant sings, “I think of your mother.” In Merchant’s song, a hit single back in the 1980s, the author is described as:
The hip flask slinging madman, steaming cafe flirts, nights in Chinatown howling at night.
The mocking singer-songwriter makes a good point. Scholarship on the Beat Generation (like Kerouac himself), has never quite grown up. Discussions of the family are glaringly dismissive. Gabrielle Kerouac was “determined to hang onto Jack” like a jealous mother, the critic Gerald Nicosia opines, “even if she had to strangle him with kid gloves.” Nicosia overlooks the extent to which this “strangled” artist depended upon Mémère for emotional survival. The mother, in turn, protected her emotionally imbalanced son – also ensuring his productivity by providing a quiet, safe nest.
To recover the gaps in the story of Jack Kerouac’s Florida, we must explore two cities, Orlando and St. Pete, as well as two sides of a manic personality – the exacting artist and verbally abusive alcoholic. Despite the many addresses, today only two homes are associated with his name. The first, the bungalow on Clouser Avenue, has settled into its niche as a writer’s retreat. And the second, 5169 Tenth Avenue North in St. Petersburg, remains mired in court cases and a tainted legacy.
I managed to sneak in a visit to the Orlando house on Clouser Avenue last March, shortly before the COVID-19 virus shut down all travel. The little bungalow, previously a “roach-infested hovel” (by Kealing’s account) is now painted a tasteful light gray with misty blue trim. Holding down the corner lot in a gentrifying neighborhood, the home thrives as a writer’s retreat. Certainly the neighborhood has changed. Most of the citrus is gone; a letter from Mémère counts “9 orange trees, five grapefruit trees and 4 tangerines.” But an ancient live oak still shelters the modest cottage, which holds the character of an older Florida, and Kerouac’s tattered easy chair, donated by the Sampas family, reigns over the back room, where The Dharma Bums was created.
I cannot imagine a more pleasant place to hole up and write.
On the morning of my visit, I sat on the open front porch with two board members from the Kerouac Project and the current resident writer, Irish novelist Ronan Ryan. We joked about “self-isolation” during an artist’s retreat, working alone through a quarantine, though Ryan also acknowledged Orlando’s usual magic. “Coming from Dublin,” he explains, “with all this light” pouring into the little gray cottage, “I knew immediately I’d get work done.”
What succeeds in Orlando has struggled in St. Petersburg. Since 2013, volunteers with St. Pete’s Friends of the Kerouac House have cooperated with the estate, hoping to establish a similar writer’s retreat at 5169 10th Avenue North, the author’s last home. He and Mémère moved there in 1968, next door to their previous property, in what was his final North-South bounce. With early optimism, Kerouac set his rolltop desk in one of the home’s three bedrooms, and for privacy, had a backyard weave fence installed. “I’ve got my office-bedroom all fixed up and tho it’s small it’s cozy,” he explained to his friend Joe Caput, “I’se satisfied.”
Jack Kerouac was the chronicler of the “Beat Generation,” the boy’s club of rebel-writers. The Beats are credited for shaping the counter-culture, a youth movement that Kerouac disavowed in slurred harangues.
The Yankee-Quebecois transplant could not get enough of mild Florida nights: “I can step out this very second into the moonlight piney tree night where my cats are already making girls.”
But Kerouac could never turn away from a bender, and despite initial hopes for fruitful isolation, students from “Southern Florida U.” (or University of South Florida) found him out. Kerouac fell into old habits, trading the hard work over his typewriter for show-off “belly busting” and barstool rants.
While writing Pic, his novel from the perspective of an African-American boy, he got beat up at the Cactus Bar, on racially-divided St. Petersburg’s black side. Strangers cracked his ribs and the belligerent author went to jail, bailed out by his mother for $25. One month later, the “King of the Beats” was dead.
Despite this tragic end, celebrations of Kerouac’s legacy in St. Petersburg have never distanced themselves from alcohol. St. Pete’s Friends of the Kerouac House commemorates his life twice yearly at the Flamingo Bar, one of several Bay-area watering holes where he could be found. (Fundraisers at the smoky Flamingo Bar support maintenance for the 10th Avenue North property.) A mural of the author covers the bar’s south wall and the owner preserves a small stash of memorabilia. For $2.50 fans can squat on Jack’s favorite stool and throw down the “Kerouac special” – a shot of Canadian Club with a beer “wash.”
The accounts of Kerouac’s drunken behavior from his own lifetime, however, suggest nothing to celebrate. “Sweet and tentative when sober,” novelist John Clellon Holmes wrote, he grew “truculent, paranoic, garrulous, stiff-jointed, wild-eyed, exhaustless, and amnesiac when drunk.” Biographer Anne Charters likened the intoxicated author to “a blind porcupine.” Even Neal Cassady (“Dean Moriarty” in On the Road and “Cody” in Big Sur) expresses dismay when his friend uncorked a jug of wine.
This unheroic demise, perhaps, should raise questions about how Floridians honor a problematic legacy today. Can we come to terms with Kerouac? Scenes of open sex in The Dharma Bums, while celebrated in the 1960s, can raise hackles for #MeToo readers. Japhy Ryder has “a hard time convincing” his “favorite doll Psyche” to make love, a cringe-inducing passage explains, but “once she got drinking she couldn’t stop.”
Footnotes in the biography are jarring. While in Orlando, as Kerouac’s nephew Paul Jr. recounted to the biographer Nicosia, the two of them burned a makeshift cross outside the black community of Eatonville. Paul would later say “we almost did” that; still, only a naive apologist can dismiss such episodes as outliers.
When I come across anti-Semitism in his letters, I wonder how a Jewish friend like Allen Ginsberg could still speak fondly of him. And how do we recognize the alcoholism, which was tantamount to suicide? A devout Catholic with unbreakable family bonds, Kerouac knowingly drank himself to death. So do I lay my $2.50 on the bar for a Kerouac Special?
His tombstone back in Massachusetts reads: “He honored life.”
So how to honor that life? Rather than celebrating an author’s tragic slide, I prefer to think about the work. The body went back to New England, not to mention most of his stuff, with Florida left as the place where Jack Kerouac came to die.
We get redeeming pockets of productivity. In spring 1965, at his first Tenth Avenue North home, Kerouac prepared for a journey to France, where he would track down his family name. The alcoholic had momentarily sobered up.
Athletic in his writing method, he used exercise to coax his brain back into shape. He was doing 30 push-ups daily and practicing handstands. In June he popped by the offices of St. Petersburg’s Evening Independent, where he dashed off stories for the sports page, rightly predicting that the Detroit Tigers would take the American League pennant, and that slugger Hank Aaron (“the greatest living ballplayer”) would lead the Milwaukee Braves to the National League flag (incorrect – the Cardinals took the pennant, scoring an impressive 97 wins that season). One month later the part-time sports columnist was back with the Independent, this time commenting on Muhammad Ali’s knock-out of heavyweight Sonny Liston: “Boxing matches are sad, and everything is sad anyhow,” the story poignantly closed, “till that day when the Lion lays down with the Lamb.”
For brief moments in 1965, Kerouac recaptured his old form. That May, The New York Review of Books reviewed his latest novel, Desolation Angels. The issue included a caricature by David Levine, who portrayed the King of the Beats in tattered pants, with a shock of black hair across his handsome face, and hobo stick angled for new adventure.
Soon after he journeyed to Normandy. Kerouac was forced to cut this trip short (brandy swallowed up his savings) but upon his return he sat down and typed up his “rare little hunk” of a novel, Satori in Paris.
Almost anyone who has ever followed Jack Kerouac indulges some vision of the author. As our conversations in America about gender, race, religion and mental health continue to unfold, he remains someone with whom we should come to terms. I like to think of Kerouac in St. Pete that summer of ‘65, sober and moving in a new direction. This point in time helps me see beyond the suicide sips of whiskey and barstool rants. I like to think about the productivity and focus that a serious artist once found in my adopted home state. No one can write with the “delicious freedom and abandonment who has not practised severe discipline,” the novelist Henry Miller observed of The Dharma Bums.
Kerouac’s Florida is a story about “plying his trade and never giving up,” Kealing maintains. We might honor the “practicing” wordsmith rather than the fatalistic drunk, the disciplined artist who momentarily kept his demons at bay to push through another book, following the sacred calling of his craft. Florida was not just the “end of the road” for Jack Kerouac. It was where he worked.
Thomas Hallock is the Frank E. Duckwall Professor of Florida Studies and Professor of English at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. His publications include William Bartram, the Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters and Unpublished Manuscripts. For more on his work with students recovering the early literature of Florida, go to earlyfloridalit.net.
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