William Burroughs and Cigarettes

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

William Burroughs having a smoke



Everything counts in small amounts. Everything, everything. Everything, everything. All the minutiae matters. El hombre invisible comes into focus only if you shift through enough details. It has always struck me that Ted Berrigan drank Pepsi, not Coke. He is emphatic on this point. It is one of the ten things he did every day along with eat lunch and make noises. You can tell a lot about a man in observing what he drinks. An alternative to Coca-Cola, Pepsi sales first rose during the Great Depression when marketed as a drink for the price conscious. “Twice as much for a nickel, too.” Drinking Pepsi was a sign of class, economically speaking. In the 1940s, it became a sign of race as well when Pepsi began inroads into the “Negro market,” selling specifically to the previously neglected African American consumer. Coca-Cola was viewed as racist as the company, based in Atlanta, refused to hire African American executives and its chairman had ties to white supremacy. Pepsi sales rose dramatically and Pepsi became associated with African American drinkers. So much so there was a backlash within the company and the president was on record as saying, “We don’t want it to become known as a nigger drink.” In the 1960s, when Berrigan championed Pepsi, the marketing department shifted its focus to the youth market. “Now it’s Pepsi for those who think young.” “Come alive, you’re the Pepsi Generation” Such were the slogans of Pepsi until the Summer of Love. Maybe Berrigan drank Pepsi for its taste alone, but there was also a progressive and countercultural history associated with the soft drink in opposition to Coke that might have appealed to his social and political tastes as well.  

William Burroughs reading with a vodka & coke in handBurroughs’ favorite drink was vodka and coke. Maybe somebody out there can confirm, but it seems to me that he did not use Pepsi as a mixer. Coca-Cola was mother’s milk after all. Laura Lee arranged flowers on the Coca-Cola dime and given the company’s policies throughout Burroughs’ youth it is the type of corporation that Ivy Lee would have done PR for. But that is not why I think Burroughs took the pause that refreshes, a tagline made famous in 1929 by Archie Lee, when Burroughs attended the John Burroughs School in St. Louis and wrote “Personal Magnetism” on telepathic mind control for the John Burroughs Review. No, I think Burroughs drank Coca-Cola out of nostalgia. Sitting on the porch of Pershing Avenue with Laura Lee as she arranged flowers, the evening sun turns crimson, the dusk coming in, picture fireflies and a train whistling in the distance, playing “East St. Louis Tootle-Oo,” as Jack Black dances the Charleston in an empty boxcar. Flash forward to 1974 and Steely Dan turns that song inside out on Pretzel Logic and a Coke is no longer quite the same thing. The record skips or should I say the music shuffles. The Cuervo Gold / the fine Colombian / Make tonight a wonderful thing. But the song always remains the same as Duke Ellington and those listening to him in the dance halls and juke joints no doubt sniffed the Colombian marching powder as they danced the Baltimore Buzz all night long. Yet nowadays Charm City has become associated with a tempo that is quite a bit slower, one that takes you deep into the Land of Nod and the horse you came in on leads you straight into the gutter with Edgar Allan Poe. And suddenly we come face to face with the Fall of America, and you ride shotgun in the passenger seat with Walter White driving through the Valley of Death looking through a glass darkly. In the land of Interzone, a childhood Coca-Cola is merely a gateway that quickly turns into the history of drugs. The devil lies waiting in the details.  

They say you are what you eat. And drink. But I have always felt that you can tell a lot about a man by his bad habits. By this pretzel logic, Burroughs has quite a story to tell. The one that gets told ad nauseam is the story of his drug addiction. But as a long-time smoker myself, I find myself just as fascinated by Burroughs and cigarettes. There are few if any photographs of Burroughs shooting up, off the top of my head I am struggling to think of one, although I dimly recall one during the Beat Hotel years, but my memory could be playing tricks on me. That said there are plenty of shots of him smoking or with cigarettes near at hand. Recently my cigar habit has gotten out of control and I have been thinking of trying to quit. In 2012, Troy Patterson wrote an article for Slate modelled as a reader’s guide on how to quit smoking. One of his steps is decide to write an article on the topic for a prominent online magazine. So this essay is step one on my half-hearted attempt. (I am smoking a cigar as I write this, so I am off to a slow start.) As all Burroughsians know, Burroughs is everywhere, so it is no surprise that Burroughs is in Patterson’s article:  

To clarify, we turn to William S. Burroughs, a keen reader of Brean’s How to Stop Smoking. In a 1976 interview, he likened the book’s instructions to think calmly about smoking and write a list of what you don’t like about it to a Buddhist writing technique: “Look at your data, and a solution will present itself.”

Quest/77, July August 1977Sound advice. For me data always finds its way into collecting. My other great addiction. Patterson mentions a 1976 interview, but he does not mention that Burroughs also wrote a review on Brean’s book, which was collected in The Adding Machine. All Burroughsians have The Adding Machine. But the true addicts will no doubt try to hunt down the original publication of the review and this is where things get tricky. A quick look at Schottlaender’s Anything but Routine will tell you that the publication in question is the July/August 1977 issue of Quest/77. And guess what? It is a tough motherfucker to find for some reason. Not a single copy appears to be available at the moment. (Notice how in the age of the Internet the mere frustration of instant gratification suddenly makes something rare as hen’s teeth. Quest/77 might in fact not be rare at all. Lack of availability makes anything seem more desirable and elusive. There is nothing quite as sexy as playing hard to get.) So like any addict I will have to wait for my man (i.e., my pusher, i.e., the friendly bookdealer) to help me dig up a copy as I scour the web and bookstores for a copy. In the meantime, I have to do something to satisfy the collector / addict in me and bide my time while I light up another cigar and think about trying to stop smoking.

So here is step two of my stop-smoking plan: why not dig through Burroughs’ bibliography and letters and look at the photographs and see what brand of cigarettes Burroughs smoked or wrote about. Simple enough but not much fun for the collector. How about this? Why not try and buy a pack of those actual cigarettes from the time period Burroughs wrote about or smoked them? Any collector will tell you that that sounds like one hell of a good time and maybe it will take my mind off this fucking delicious cigar.

So here goes:  

Old Golds

Old Gold (circa 1952)

According to Freud, a cigar is not just a cigar. To see Magritte paint it, this is not a pipe. Burroughs’ buddy Foucault had something to say about all that (I had a little trouble understanding what exactly that was myself.). With Burroughs a cigarette is often something more than a cigarette. Burroughs’ cigarettes are always a bit funny. Look out for that extra meaning. For me the most famous cigarette relating to Burroughs is the Old Gold from Naked Lunch. The brand is mentioned three separate times toward the end of the novel. Folk wisdom tells you to never light three cigarettes from the same match. It can be deadly, and it is a life-and-death situation when Carl finds himself interviewed and later when Lee finds himself face to face with O’Brien’s Old Gold. “Then O’Brien gives you an Old Gold — just like a cop to smoke Old Golds somehow.” The Carl Interview section uses the same line almost verbatim. The repetition is crucial. As the cut-ups prove, Burroughs uses repetition as a core literary technique and it is the repetition of the Old Gold line which gives it the power of truth, even shading into a tired Times Square cliché. Reading these lines in the Olympia Press edition in 1959 they stuck with you; they made such an impression that Loomis and Snell of Life magazine repeated a version of the line to Burroughs when they came to interview him in the fall of 1959 for a full spread on the Beat Generation.  

The key word is “somehow.” All the hip readers of Naked Lunch would know exactly why it is appropriate that O’Brien smoked Old Golds. The poor squares if they even read Naked Lunch would stare at the smoldering Old Gold in their ashtray and puzzle over that “somehow.” “But something is happening and you don’t know / what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” So what is up: why Old Golds? Clearly O’Brien smoking Old Golds is square. Burroughs makes this evident with the juxtaposition of O’Brien smoking an Old Gold by the window on the arm of a chair dreaming about his pension with Lee probing his arm and “hit[ting] a vein right away.” Here, Burroughs makes the subtle comment that tobacco is no different than heroin. Both are addictive drugs and both are deadly; tobacco is just legal. Tobacco is a square high, but it goes deeper than that.

In the opening scene of episode one of Mad Men, Don Draper, who has Lucky Strike as a client and is struggling with a new jingle for the brand, asks an African American busboy at the Knick Knack Bar for a light. The busboy pulls out a pack of matches from his packet of Old Golds. Don comments on the Old Golds and adds that he is a Lucky Strike man himself. Don then asks why he smokes Old Gold. Low-tar? Low-nicotine? The new filters? Why Old Gold? Ah, yes, that is the question, why Old Gold? Answer: “They gave them to us in the service. A carton a week for free.” And there is our first clue to that mysterious “somehow.” Old Gold is government-Issue and approved by Uncle Sam and the military. During World War II, there was even a military staging camp in Le Havre, France named after Old Gold. It is a cigarette manufactured in the United States, as American as apple pie and Babe Ruth, who happened to shill for Old Gold. In short, they are the cigarette of The Man. Of control and of authority.  

But as is often the case with Burroughs there is more. In July 1942, quite possibly contemporaneously with this section of Naked Lunch, which is simultaneously timely yet timeless, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Lorillard, the manufacturers of Old Gold, due to false advertising regarding stated lower tar and resin levels and the resulting health benefits of the cigarette in Reader’s Digest. The complaint alleged there was no medical basis for the claim. Reader’s Digest would change its tune in the Silent Decade. According to the busboy in Mad Men: “My wife hates [smoking]. The Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The makers of Old Gold will tell you anything you want to hear in order to sell a cigarette, just like good cop O’Brien will say anything to get Lee to turn stool pigeon, but in the end both Old Golds and O’Brien somehow, somehow will kill you. Burroughs knew all about the Cancer Men, be it in the tobacco industry or police bureaucracy. “For a treat instead of a treatment, enjoy Old Gold’s fine and friendly tobaccos.” Yeah, right.  

Lucky Strikes

Lucky Strike (1944)

Don Draper does not smoke Old Gold; he smokes Luckies. Draper is definitely a cool customer. Yet like Old Gold, Lucky Strike was a C-ration cigarette during the war. In addition, there was a staging camp named after them and Luckies were patriotic too: “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!” So how did Lucky Strike somehow become cool? Lucky Strike was always good at advertising and the cigarette company advertised heavily: It’s Toasted; L.S./M.F.T. (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco); the iconic red bull’s eye packaging. In the Thirties and Forties, celebrities like Frank Sinatra backed Luckies. Throughout the era, it was America’s most popular cigarette. Your mother and father smoked Lucky Strike. Again: how in the hell did they become cool?  

David Bowie, Iggy Pop (with Lucky Strikes), and Lou reedWell, if the brand advertised well, it did not make the shift into the world of the filtered cigarette nearly as smoothly. In fact, it completely botched it. In the 1950s, as the truth about the dangers of cigarettes became better known and cigarette smokers became more health conscious and aware of tar and nicotine levels, Lucky Strike unfiltered became the cigarette of dinosaurs, as in those who wanted to be extinct. They were the very definition of coffin nails; the cigarette for those who wanted to live fast and die young. As time wore on and smoking unfiltered cigarettes seemed like putting a gun in your mouth, Luckies became associated with early casualties like Jack Kerouac and James Dean. Kerouac wrote about Luckies in On the Road and in a letter to Ginsberg talked of rolling joints the size of Luckies in order to throw the law off appearances if not exactly off the scent. In a priceless photograph, Iggy Pop preens with a pack of Lucky Strikes in his mouth wearing a T-Rex t-shirt standing between David Bowie and Lou Reed, no less. Nothing possibly could be cooler and more self-destructive than 1970s era Iggy Pop. The Lucky Strike cool cache was sealed.  

But as always, Burroughs was there first. I have a soft spot for the little-known Burroughs piece “Unfinished Cigarette.” If you know about it, it is probably from The Burroughs File which ripped it off from White Subway, published by Jim Pennington’s Aloes Books, which in turn ripped it off from the Birmingham Bulletin of 1963. Hence the soft spot. Besides the name check, the writing is not bad either. The piece has an overwhelming sense of loss about it; Ian MacFayden mentions the piece in connection with “a remembered brief encounter, a sexual tristesse.” Anxiety, sadness, aggression, and agitation permeate it. It opens with mention of The White Subway and I cannot help but think of Bill Cannastra whenever the subject of death and subways comes up. With all the mentions of dead fingers and lost boys, I also think of Jack Anderson and the Van Gogh kick. An ur-story in terms of Burroughs and sexual tristesse. A dead finger tapping an unfinished cigarette.

Dead and deadly boys, goodbyes, unfinished cigarettes, The Swan and needle beers, blood and sea air. “Knife and empty arteries. It was a long time ago. Dying blood fingers the flute.” It all sounds so familiar. And then there is this haunting passage:  

“Far away adios, Meester — into the past — The White Sabbah cancels this earth — this sail — the new world created in disaster — dead job here — Abandoned coat on a bench — forgotten face — Keep friend’s last goodbye, Meester — a child sad as his voice — finished — dust, Meester — caught in story ended — “His finger tapped unfinished cigarette” Meester Bradly you forgot cigarette long ago. Adios marks this address.”  

Jack Kerouac, Vanity of Duluoz (with Lucky Strikes on the cover)Who is the sad child? Who is the lost friend? Whose forgotten face and abandoned coat? And most importantly, what brand is the unfinished cigarette? It can only be a bloodstained Lucky Strike. At dawn on the morning of August 14, 1944, William Burroughs opened the door of his apartment at 69 Bedford Street to find a child sad in his voice. Lucien Carr handed Burroughs a bloodstained packet of David Kammerer’s Lucky Strikes and said, “Have the last cigarette.” “So this is how David Kammerer ends.” Burroughs as Will Dennison rewrote the scene in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a book too close to the truth to publish until Carr was dead. The last book published during Kerouac’s lifetime, Vanity of Duluoz, revisits the murder and recounts the iconic cigarette scene between Burroughs and Carr. A paperback edition of the novel even features a pack of Luckies on the cover. (Interestingly Kerouac compares Carr to Claude Rains, who appeared in Now, Voyager in 1942, which just happens to feature arguably the most iconic scene involving a cigarette in film history. Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes at once and hands one from his mouth to frumpster Bette Davis. This sensual gesture was widely copied by lovers and would-be lovers of all ages at the time and has been referenced and parodied in popular culture endlessly ever since.) Burroughs may have flushed Kammerer’s packet of Luckies down the toilet but those cigarettes keep on surfacing decades later. And not just in the annals of Beat history. For it is during the dog days of a wartime summer and with a dead man’s Lucky Strikes as much as with Lester Young’s tilted sax and Humphrey Bogart’s hand-rolled cigarettes that American Cool took shape for better or for worse.  

Benson & Hedges and English Ovals

The British cigarettes: Senior Service, Player’s, Benson & Hedges, English Oval (1960s-1970s)

Senior Service cigarettesThe cigarette most commonly associated with Burroughs is Senior Service. It is the cigarette that appears most often in photographs, some of them iconic shots. According to The Telegraph newspaper in a list complied in 2016, which marked the end of individualized cigarette packaging in England, Senior Service made it as one of the 21 most iconic brands of all time. Named after a nickname for the British Navy, the package featured a variety of nautical themes. From what I can tell from tobacco message boards, there is a niche market for them today for those who like their smokes hardcore. Unfiltered and strong as a motherfucker, Senior Service are not for the squeamish. They have also become quite expensive, but even back in Burroughs’ glory days they were a considered a luxury cigarette (“The perfection of a Luxury Cigarette”) that could be had by those who were waiting for a check to arrive at the American Express office. That fits with a blue-blood slumming it in the underground like Burroughs. Even as early as the late 1960s, coffin nails like Senior Service were considered something of an old man’s smoke for those who remembered the brand’s glory days. Like Player’s, which Burroughs dabbled in and also had a tie-in to the British Navy, Senior Service was the cigarette of spies and intrigue. James Bond smoked the brand in a handful of Ian Fleming novels such as Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, and The Man With the Golden Gun. After all, Senior Service was advertised as “A Product of a Master Mind.”  

Again this fits. If you look at pictures of Burroughs smoking a cigarette, and I am thinking particularly of a shot of Burroughs in what I think is the lobby of the Beat Hotel, which serves the masthead to the RealityStudio site, it is a very theatrical pose. It is like Burroughs is playacting at smoking a cigarette. El Hombre Invisible posed as a British spy in his persona, a role he gravitated to from his youth; he also played the role of the English banker as he grew older especially in his dress. The British cigarette was part of that pose. Like the smoking of cloves which fit in with the Goth look during my teenage years. The English attire and British cigarette were props he took seriously. There is a video of him on YouTube taken at Better Books addressing Alex Trocchi and a group of would be revolutionaries and Burroughs stresses that true revolutionaries should dress conservatively. While staying in the United States in 1964/1965, it appears from the introduction to the Conrad Knickerbocker interview, which appeared in the 1965 Paris Review, that Burroughs smoked Benson & Hedges and English Ovals, which are two British-style cigarettes that were marketed in the States. (On a side note Benson & Hedges was manufactured by the same company that made Virginia Slims, which was developed in 1968 for the independent woman who happened to smoke. Apparently the independent woman did not smoke the same cigarette as men and could only find satisfaction in Slims, which were extra-filtered and much thinner than a traditional cigarette. Kind of sexist in a healthy way I guess. You’ve come a long way, baby, even if you can’t smoke sticks like the Marlboro Man.) If Burroughs could not get Senior Service, he would get a close substitute.  

If smoking was a pose for Burroughs, I do not have the same feeling about his drug addiction. For whatever reason, I feel that was completely authentic. Whatever that means. I guess what I am driving at is what Burroughs himself said best in Junky: “Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life.” For me this line, along with his riff on the space between just after the Talking Asshole routine in Naked Lunch, is about as important and true a phrase as Burroughs ever wrote. Heroin provided Burroughs with a worldview, a purpose, and a theoretical basis for living. It strikes me that Burroughs survived as a heroin addict, when so many others did not, because shooting drugs (unlike shooting guns later in life) was not a manner of showing off, it was not posturing. It was not a dare or a game. It was a means of fitting into one’s own skin, a way to deal with anxiety. As Bobby Hughes of Drugstore Cowboy said, “People use drugs to relieve the pressures of their everyday life . . . like having to tie their shoes.” Heroin was not a lifestyle for Burroughs; the needle and spoon were not personal accessories as was a Senior Service. They were essential for day-to-day living. It was the cigarettes, not the heroin, which eventually killed him.  

A pack of Kamels on a shelf at William Burroughs' house - photo by Patricia Elliot

Kamel Menthols (1997)

One of these things does not look like the others; one of these things does not belong. There they sit on the same table as the cat statue and the photograph of Samuel Beckett. A packet of Kamel Menthols. Surely these cigarettes cannot be Burroughs’. But if we think about it we can make them fit. You can make everything fit if you try hard enough and push hard enough. It just may not be the truth. In Don’t Hide The Madness, a book of conversations between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg in the Spring of 1992, both men talk about how they had to quit smoking. In the 1990s, if you happened to be watching a late-night talk show, you might have caught Ginsberg with his harmonium belting out “Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don’t Smoke)” to a horrified and embarrassed host. Burroughs claims he quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey, but with Burroughs and his addictions you can never fully believe him. Burroughs was on methadone until the day he died and I suspect he smoked from 1992 onward as well or at least snuck in a smoke now and again.

If that is the case, the Kamel Menthols might fit in somehow. There is no way he could smoke a Senior Service. They seem too extreme. But then again Burroughs dealt daily in extremes. I could see him smoking a Marlboro Light, the cigarette for smokers who feel guilty about smoking. Menthols are in the same boat. They are smokes for those who do not like cigarettes. Just like Acids are cigars for non-cigar smokers. But maybe just maybe Burroughs was trying to make the cigarette smoking experience so unpleasant that he just would not want to smoke. Hence the Kamels. I like this idea myself since it ties into a story about how my father quit smoking. He started smoking a cigarette he hated, Camels, in order to wean himself off smokes. What fascinates me about this story is not my father’s method of quitting but the fact that he smoked at all. Until my step-mother told me recently, I had absolutely no idea. Apparently he liked a cigarette on the weekends after working and especially on a Sunday evening. Such revelations merely prove what a complete mystery my father was to me while he was alive. He becomes less so over time, not because I am any closer to the truth or that there have been several big reveals, but because I just make up the facts about my father as I need them. Just like I am probably making up the fact that the Kamel Menthols are Burroughs’.

But they could be and should be. Note: Kamels not Camels. Of course Burroughs would smoke the up-market Camel brand. Burroughs may have traded in his trademark fedora for a hunter’s cap when he moved to Lawrence in order to be one of the boys, but he would always be a blue-blood and born into an American aristocracy. The Camel brand was first marketed around the year Burroughs was born and the name came from a time when all things Egyptian were the rage. The Egyptians weighed heavily on Burroughs late in life as he approached the Western Lands. The Kamel just makes sense even if Burroughs never smoked them, plus it does not hurt that the camel on the packet has a picture of a naked man with a boner in its foreleg. As always with cigarettes, it’s subliminal, kid. 


Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 16 September 2018. With thanks to Michael Stevens for inspiration and images. Thanks to Patricia Elliot for the photograph of the Kamels on a shelf at William Burroughs’ home in Lawrence. Thanks to Brian Schottlaender for the scan of Quest/77.

One thought on “William Burroughs and Cigarettes

  1. During the years when Burroughs lived primarily in London – 1960-1974 – his drink was whisky and water. Usually Johnny Walker even though he lived only a block away from J&B’s shop on St. James’s Street (they were major suppliers during prohibition and delivered in bulk to Canada at that time). Bill was never a connoisseur of drinks, and usually simply bought the cheapest. Alcohol was used to get drunk, not to appreciate in its own right. He knew little about wine but could be quite a gourmet regarding food. He liked to at well, appreciated caviar and the like.
    In London Bill smoked Senior Service as Jim says. One of his oft repeated quips was that Senior Service was the only service you were likely to get in England as waited for sales staff, plumbers, electricians to attend him. In the late sixties-early seventies Bill used to get tincture of cannabis on prescription from his doctor as a cure for paranoia: ‘Pot is illegal and I’m paranoid that I might get busted.’ It came in a bright green alcohol suspension, designed to be taken like medicine. Bill got through a bottle a week by dipping his Senior Service in it and letting the cigarettes, which were now bright green, dry out on the top of his night storage heater. Then he would carefully replace in their pack. He happily lit up after a restaurant meal – legal in those days – and though people could be seen sniffing the air with a puzzled look on their faces, no-one ever challenged him. He sat impassive, in his three piece suit, smoking his digestif Senior Service.

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