Like Mother, Like SonTags: Laura Lee Burroughs, William Burroughs
William Burroughs, Laura Lee Burroughs, and Coke
By Graham Rae
Writing talent can run in families. There are many documented cases of male scribes with writer mothers: Oscar Wilde’s, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, put pen to paper. More recently pseudonymous horror author Joe Hill was revealed to actually be Joe King, whose mother Tabitha is a writer. His brother Owen also lays down words and their dad just happens to be Stephen, but that statistically improbable inkspiller quartet is slightly tangential to what’s under discussion here. The creative baton can be handed down from one or both parents, or some other earlier generation, but there was certainly no parthenogenesis involved in the genetic penpusher inheritance of William Seward Burroughs.
At the start of the 1940s, Coca-Cola decided that it wanted to spearhead a campaign to get their drink into the home market. They decided the Trojan horse that would sneak their product into the home and heart and hearth of the average American was gardening and flower arranging, which were huge popular cultural pastimes back then. The soda’s bottlers were told, in part, this about the horticultural blitzkrieg:
Reduced to its essentials, this idea can be summed up as follows: Women are deeply interested in things that brighten the home. Flowers add to the charm of a home. Therefore, by showing women how to utilize the beauty of lovely flower arrangements in their homes, we can at the same time interest them in arrangements for refreshment with Coca-Cola.
Obviously this was in the time before women’s lib.
In 1940 the famous soda company produced the full-color soft-cover 56-page book Flower Arranging — A Fascinating Hobby with text and flower arrangements by none other than Laura Lee Burroughs (1888 — 1970), William’s mother, who by that time had become a top authority in the floral decorative field. The drink had stopped using the cocaine from where it drew part of its name in its formula in 1904, so soda popagandist Laura Lee wasn’t being a shill for drug dealers, something which her infamous son would no doubt have wryly highly approved of.
Now. When I say that Coca-Cola was trying to push their product onto the average American, I should clarify that somewhat. They launched an ad campaign that ran alongside their ads in general magazines that used new, as-yet-unexplored soda-soapbox venues like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and on groups like the PTA and garden clubs, so the emphasis was most definitely on the average middle class American.
By associating the 5c-a-bottle drink with a genteel pastime, Coca-Cola was obviously trying to present its product as a status symbol to the new flower-border-ordering hordes it was hoping to woo. And there’s no doubt that the well-bred Laura Lee Burroughs was a representative of this coveted wannabe-converted societal demographic. The flower-fad ads, which used a Burroughs arrangement as their visual copy, as well as some bottles of Coke of course, told the breathless reader that they could send off for a copy of the Flower Arranging book for an SAE and 10c to Georgia. They even had Coke bottlers distributing it (who were in turn sold on the book by a film extolling its virtues, and advising them to sell it to florists in their area — wonder if Laura Lee was in the flickershow) amongst the eager thirsty masses, and the company also distributed it at flower shows.
Radio airtime was booked for the ads. Coca-Cola bottlers sponsored a program called “Refreshment Time With Singin’ Sam.” Mrs. Burroughs and “Mrs. Singin’ Sam” (the mind boggles) discussed the book as commercials on the air in-between tunes spun by good old Sam, a popular minstrel-cum-vaudevillian radio personality in that medium’s early days. You have to wonder what Laura Lee sounded like. If it was anything like the flat otherwordly unemotional nasal burr of her son, you can only imagine the amount of poor listeners screaming as they reached for the off button on their knob-twiddler set, frightened and disturbed beyond all reason or hope of buying the fizzy liquid the primping woman was pimping. “Laura Lee was a beauty,” notes Burroughs bio Literary Outlaw by Ted Morgan, “with thick chestnut hair, a perfect oval face, the high Lee forehead, a lovely mouth, lovely skin, and a willowy hourglass figure.” But these qualities obviously wouldn’t be readily apparent to the average radio listener.
However, all this mad-fadvertising paid off in black liquid gold-sales-spades. As Flower Arranging — A Fascinating Hobby Volume 2 puts it in the introduction by Richardson Wright, who was the Editor-in-Chief of House & Garden magazine, and Chairman of the International Flower Show Committee (guess he was a big floral cheese back in the days of beverage-yore):
The Coca-Cola Company last year published a book, relating their product, as one of the pleasant things in the home, to the fascinating art of flower arranging. Illustrated with full color reproductions from the skillful hands and brilliant imagination of Laura Lee Burroughs, here, for the first time, was a book on this absorbing subject, costing but ten cents, that everyone could afford to own. A million and a half copies have been distributed.
So. In 1940 Laura Lee Burroughs got into print 13 years before her son would, in 1953 with Junky, and sold far more copies than probably any volume by Wee Willie Junky ever has. And magazine readers from nearly 50 countries worldwide sent for Flower Arranging, including South Africa, India, and Peru. That’s a pretty good distribution spread, if they all got their books (and if it’s true). The second volume received an equally sales-rapturous reception, despite having the good luck to be full of Japanese-influenced flower arrangements in the same year that the attack on Pearl Harbor happened. A San Francisco hardware store chain, Charles Brown & Son, decided they’d get in on the action and sell gardening and flower arranging paraphernalia by teaming up with local SF bottlers. Laura Lee “just happened to be in San Francisco at the time” and put in a series of appearances at Sheridan Bell, which were stores run by Charles Brown.
You can only imagine what the cloistered sniffy autograph-signing Mrs. Burroughs would have made of the great unwashed (and vice versa) on her mini promotional book tour. Despite all this culture shock schlock, however, Volume 2 went down better than the Hindenburg. At a flower show in Shanghai she was even awarded a “Certificate of Merit” for her contributions to the pastime. Famously, JG Ballard was in Shanghai at that time. You wonder if his middle class mother was involved in that flower decoration decorative decision, and if the mothers of these two famous writers somehow met at the show and had a gin and tonic together.
But you don’t wonder about this too hard.
Entitled Homes And Flowers: Refreshing Arrangements, Volume 3 in the so-far-so-good-sales series wasn’t anywhere near as successful as its predecessors, however. World War II had rendered pastimes like flower arranging somewhat frivolous and time-wasting — there were, after all, more important things to do than mess around with blooms on a table to make it look good when people were dying all over the world. Wartime austerity also had an impact on the materials themselves used in the final volume, and it used much cheaper floral materials like weeds and vegetables and ice cubes to paint its penny-pincher esthetic table and mantel tableaus. But interest in the subject matter of the books in general was waning and no further volume was ever produced after 1942.
Over six decades later, the Flower Arranging volumes themselves still stand the test of time. I showed them to my wife Ellen and our gay neighbor Mark, the two main demographics for horticultural activities one would assume, and they both thought they were beautiful and inspirational and stylish, saying they’d like to try out displays from the timeworn pages. They have value as sociological and historical and mass-media-anthropological time capsules — and of course as literary lineage documents, coming, as they do, from the mother of one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century.
I bought all three of these books cheaply and easily from various net sources, somewhat interested to see what they had to see about their author, her esthetic worldview and her writing talent, because of course these elements would shed a bit of light, no matter how small, on her son’s work and where he might have gotten his artistic proclivities from. And before we go any further, no, there are no yage, soul vine of the Amazon arrangements, or tabletop marijuana creations, okay? The latter plant had long been criminalized in America by 1940, and you get the sense that the prim and proper and puritan Mrs. Burroughs would have been aghast at the mere thought of doing anything against the law, though obviously you couldn’t say the same thing about her infamous son. Poppies are actually used in one volume, but only as an eye-pleasing display and not as a fundamental opium or morphine ingredient.
In Literary Outlaw Laura Lee is described as crippled by her Bible Belt upbringing, hateful of bodily functions, insensitive, cold, unaffectionate, vain, smart, and with a good sense of humor (glad she had at least a couple of good qualities to balance the others out slightly!). It is, of course, arguable how much of her personality and personal pathologies she passed onto her beloved Billy (it is said she worshiped the ground he walked on / lay on in a heroin stupor), as well as her artistic abilities, but looking at the Flower Arranging volumes you get a sense of extreme order and cleanliness and, well, sterility. Anal retentive is the phrase that comes to mind, and she was clearly a person who did not like disorder or dirt, qualities she most definitely didn’t pass down to William; they may well have been a large part of the reason why he rebelled (with contributions from his stiff-upper-lip, eldest-son-Mort-favoring middle class businessman father Mortimer, that is) and went in the other direction to such an extreme. She was definitely a person of class and breeding, and that comes through clean and clear.
What also comes through loud and proud is that Laura Lee was a very intelligent, educated woman, had a fine eye for flower arranging, and was a very good and precise writer. Her father James Wideman Lee wrote a book entitled The Geography of Genius and her brother, “Poison” Ivy Lee (don’t recall any poison ivy tribute bouquets in any of the books), spilled ink as a newspaper reporter, so writing quite clearly ran in the Burroughs family. And William’s own son Billy would write a couple of books further down the linewriter family line. Indeed, it’s very ironic that Laura Lee was shilling for Coca-Cola, because this sort of would-be mind-control mass media popcult-propaganda was the exact thing that William would rebel against (ostensibly in relation to the vile ‘word lines’ laid down by Ivy Lee) and create an entire anti-linear-line lineage in his own work. You wonder if maybe too much has been made of Burroughs’s hatred of his uncle Ivy’s creeping word-poison and not enough of his rebellion against his suffocating ever-over-loving mother and her own soda whoring, but we’ll never know for sure.
Wordplaygirl techniques on display in the series include fairly frequent alliteration (“There is Cotton in the cabin and contentment, too, we might add.”), a wide vocabulary (“curvilinear”), puns (one photoshoot involving a duck decoration — duckoration? — is entitled “Gone With The Duck,” an obvious then-contemporary play on Gone With The Wind), and recontextualizing phrases from other works (“Consider The Lilies!” from the Biblical phrase) — “Steal anything in sight,” as her son put it. The famous mordant Burroughs sense of humor gets a look-in once in Volume 3 as well, no doubt when the author felt confident enough in her subject matter and guaranteed audience to be able to perform for them a bit. In a display entitled “Low Price Glamour” (note the “cultured” British spelling of the last word) involving delicate metal-legged chairs, Laura Lee writes: “We point with pride to the soda fountain chairs gilded and upholstered, looking adorable and comfortable with all but two hundred pounders. Best weigh in your guests as the airplane companies do.” Perhaps a clue as to where William got his dry sense of humor from as well.
The all-full-color arrangements in the volumes are full of plants and accompanying knick-knacks from all over the world including countries like Mexico (land of “flowers, color, and life in a pleasant tempo” — wonder if she still felt that way after her son shot his wife there), Argentina, China, America, England, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and more; a real cosmopolitan floral smorgasbord. Japanese flowers feature quite heavily in the works. The author had been taught their placing by an Oriental teacher, and she wryly reproduces one of her mentor’s didactic admonitions in the only piece of dialogue in the three volumes: “As the tiny Japanese teacher said, ‘Don’t make them look like me — too skin-nee.’” Written before or after Pearl Harbor? Who knows. Maybe this phonetic almost-insult helped that bombing along. You’d like to hope so anyway.
The introduction to the first volume talks of it being for people whose homes range from eighteenth century to just plain comfortable to young and modern; an all-prices real estate spread, in other words. Although hand-built, the Burroughs home at 700 South Price Road, St. Louis, where the plant-tome author would have been living at the time of publication, would no doubt have been far closer to the first price group mentioned than the others. Although the books were ostensibly a product-push towards all societal strata, Laura Lee’s own background is frequently betrayed in sentences like including stuff like “On the lawn near a badminton court” or “A game of bridge is in progress” or “You finish tennis and dash for a place to relax.”
Interestingly, there are a few pictures taken inside the writer’s own home in the third book. One shows her sitting stiffly and unsmilingly holding a soda bottle (“Have a Coke and no smile?”) in an extremely tidy, light-pink-looking room (which may be white, with the supposed color just a trick of the light and/or the age of the books) with green décor. The same room is shown without her in it in another photo. “This is the arranger’s home, so she can speak of it objectively,” Laura Lee notes with lack of objectivity. “It boasts no priceless furniture nor art treasures. Everything about the room is a background for flowers. Consequently, all flowers look well here — warm reds in the winter, pink, yellow, any color. When there are no flowers, bunches of dark green leaves — Magnolias preferably — are used.” Then on into the BS unit-shifter pitch: “Bottles of ice-cold Coca-Cola are at home in this room. They should be. They are always here, in a bowl of ice, or on a tray without ice.” You wonder how easy it would be to relax in a cold-looking room whose décor was designed solely for plant display, but I suppose that’s a moot point.
What’s interesting to note, though, is that in the only photo in all three volumes with her in it, the single limelight-stealing piece of decoration apart from flowers is a book and a sheaf of papers placed strategically on the table in front of her. The tome’s title is tantalizingly unreadable, but its mere inclusion is an indicator of what Laura Lee thought to be important to communicate about herself and her interests and, in all probability, her aspirations. Maybe it was the esthetic choice of a frustrated writer who wanted to convey the impression the book was her own composition. As ever, we’ll never know, but it’s funny to note that the book in question is green to match the background décor and plants. Clearly she was ever the color-coordinating esthete!
There are a few shots sprinkled throughout the books where plants are photographed against leather-bound books in what appears to be a personal library / study. Their titles also remain out of focus and forever maddeningly illegible — they might have provided us with some interesting insight into the reading materials lying around the house when William was growing up. But as at least one book mentions being shot in a studio, there’s no guarantee that the photos were taken in the Burroughs home, so their inclusion is probably merely decorative. However, if their titles were legible, they might have provided us at least with a glimpse of which literary artists and works Laura Lee thought important and prestigious enough to complement her beloved blooms.
Towards the back of Volume 3 (every volume ends with a few boring pages of displays involving Coke), there is a section entitled “Woodshed Into Workshop” which provides a tiny glimpse into Laura Lee’s life, complete with another revealing room photograph.
For years, my flower decorations in the making were a source of annoyance to my family. My efforts in the kitchen always seemed to time with the advent of a pie. I had no pantry, no flower room. Finally, a woodshed was enlarged for me with cheap lumber, old brick and home labor — the roof line following the contour of a tree above it. The sink is a large tub, complete with drainage. The water faucet is high enough to allow ample room for vases. Heat is provided by an old-fashioned stove, painted up to give it flair. (This was found in a country store.) There are shelves everywhere, providing storage space for tools and vases.
The woman took her blooms very seriously indeed. And the first sentence here is the only time in all three volumes her family gets mentioned, unless of course you count talking about (cough) Sweet William flowers.
Mentioning the old-fashioned stove brings into focus another very prevalent aspect of the books: making something out of nothing, both finance-and-material-wise. Mortimer and Laura Lee, of course, owned Cobblestone Gardens, their gift and antique shop. The three Flower Arranging tomes are chock full of antiques and random found items — scales, pitchers, “old shutters purchased from a wrecking company for twenty-five cents each, complete with dirt and cobwebs” — and so on and so forth — shined up and used in some esthetically pleasing new flower-holding-or-highlighting context.
Clearly the author’s antique-polishing-and-selling background came in extremely useful in writing the books and creating the displays, as did her evidently good eye for a bargain. Indeed, you have to imagine that at least some of the antiques in the pictures came from the shop. “A visit to a wrecking company might be treated as a treasure hunt for those with more imagination than money,” she writes in Volume 3. “You may find nothing you can use, but it is worth a trial if you need a short length of wrought iron, a marble mantel, a door to use for a panel, or if you are just looking for vagabond objects d’art. Don’t be surprised if you meet some of your most affluent friends on one of these expeditions.” Always assuming you have affluent friends, that is. This sort of cheapskate esthetic might suggest that there was more to William’s complaints about lack of family money than he is given (lack of) credit for; “fur coat, no knickers,” as the British phrase succinctly puts it. Then again, it may just be a case of the wealthy stylishly slumming it, and they never accrue money by actually spending it, do they?
On page one of the first Flower Arranging volume there is an odd, interesting, vaguely dramatic creative verbal illustration (mentioning crystal, a “clear” LLB favorite material, as it gets mentioned numerous times throughout the books): “One night when the temperature was high and funds were low, a clever young architect decorated his table with ice cubes and a few green leaves. Piled in a crystal bowl around a Crystal Polar Bear, which he had, the arrangement was not only beautiful but, in the vernacular of Hollywood, it was sensational. Incidentally, it cost nothing.”
Now. Consider this passage. We are never told the architect’s name, whether Burroughs ever actually knew him, or whether he ever even actually existed. This frugal-flower-sculpting vignette almost reads like some fetherlite artistic moral homily, and/or a fantasy of the sort of man Laura Lee would have liked to meet. You know, the kind of man who can pull a stunning floral arrangement out of thin air and ice cubes, but who still brings home the bacon in the form of his architectural earnings. If it’s fiction, an illustrative artistic moneysaver sketch, then it’s the first time that fiction from the Burroughs family (discounting the “creative license” probably taken with facts by Ivy Lee in his proto-spin-doctor press releases for various wealthy scumbags) appeared in mass-market print in the United States.
The arty architect is definitely the sort of person and class that William would satirize so viciously and mercilessly in Naked Lunch and many other works; all you have to do is add a sick twist and some mad humor to that paragraph to get something her son could have written. Cold, two-dimensional, somewhat poetic, evocative… what more do you want or need? And, of course, William would have been well aware of his mother’s publication, and perhaps been excited by the attention and adulation she received because of it. Might this have spurred him on to want to be a published writer himself, to make her proud of him, or to try get him affection from her because he loved and identified with her? He did, after all, use the name “Lee” as a pseudonym in his first publications.
“Someday I wish you would write a book that we can read and dedicate it to Billy — he would like that,” Laura Lee once admonished her son, but not much seems to have come of this wishful thinking from her. This does show, however, that his parents either did not read, or did read and were disgusted, and perhaps confused by, William’s books. So if he was writing them for motherly approval he certainly fell far wide of the mark. Maybe he wanted to compete with her, or even to rebel against her; she would certainly have regarded using the name “Lee” for a book called Junky as a slap in the face anyway. Once again, we may never know if these factors were a part of his artistic motivations, conscious or otherwise; it’s just a talking point, that’s all.
“Flower arranging will give you an outlet for that artistic urge you long to use,” Laura Lee writes on page three of Volume 2. You suspect that this was exactly the case for her, an intelligent, educated, creative woman stuck in a time when expectations for women were much more presubscribed by rote societal role and form and ritual and design. Tiny flights of artistic fancy (anybody out there know if she was ever published anywhere else before or after these books?), or humor, or pragmatism, pervade the Flower Arranging volumes, betraying the fact that she was clearly a woman of depth and substance trapped in antediluvian gender roles.
Plus she was a bit mental too.
Reading these pop-historical works gives us an interesting, illuminating glimpse into a time over six decades ago when the world was a more innocent time. Before rock and roll. Before the net. Before Japanese amputee sex dolls. Before a random Scotsman decided to sit down and write about this stuff just for personal-interest kicks. Was it worth the effort? Maybe, maybe not; only you the reader can ultimately tell. I just decided to salvage a few things out of the dustbin of history, shine them up, and present them to you as “vagabond objects d’art.” Something of which the female subject of this article would no doubt have appreciated, lack of ice cubes and crystal Polar Bears aside. So let’s raise a (vodka and) Coke in toast to Laura Lee Burroughs.
And in tribute to the woman and her famous son, here’s a bonus sort-of cut-up made with cut-and-pasted chapter titles from all three volumes into a vaguely linear impressionistic ramblerant…
It’s blossom time out where the dried arrangement fun begins… a narcissi “Coke” party… Chinese flavor, refreshment in the home be it ever so humble back yard exotics… under a spreading flower tree the garden provides ladies’ day, a retreat from the heat, femininity personified phantom leaves grandmother’s urn, accent on pink, curved is the line of beauty… flowers make waterlilies and white swan refreshing accents… four seasons seed pod mauve period children’s table rhythm… the decorative weigh when you relax when you entertain by the bride’s table light of the moon… practical suggestions for beginners… you can do surprising things with the deep south…
RealityStudio acknowledges the use of some facts from the article “Flower Arranging Books” from the June 1987 issue of The Coca-Cola Collectors News by Randy S. Schaeffer and William E Bateman in the production of this article.