William Burroughs in New York City 1964-1965

Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

November 30, 1964 – In a postcard mailed from Gibraltar to Jeff Nuttall dated November 21st, Burroughs stated that he would be sailing for New York City on November 30th. Burroughs experienced considerable problems with the locals in Tangier who had enough of his lifestyle. To escape, Burroughs followed Brion Gysin to New York City. Gysin hoped to sell the Dream Machine idea to a wealthy investor.

December 8, 1964 – Burroughs arrived in New York on the Independence. As usual Burroughs was stopped at customs. Agents searched his seven suitcases of papers and manuscripts commenting on the dirty nature of his writing.

December 11, 1964 – Burroughs inscribed a copy of the Olympia Press Ticket That Exploded to Ted Berrigan. After only three days in the city, Burroughs began networking for publishing outlets and imbedding himself in the New York avant garde. Berrigan and Burroughs began corresponding in 1964. C Journal, a mimeo published by Berrigan, published “Giver of Winds Is My Name” in the summer of 1964. This was the first Burroughs text to use Egyptian glyphs. Berrigan continued to publish Burroughs throughout 1965. The C Press edition of Time remains one of the most interesting examples of Burroughs’ 1960s cut-up technique. Burroughs also appeared in issue ten of C Journal.

December 22, 1964 – Burroughs hopped a train to St. Louis, his birthplace, for a reporting / writing assignment on behalf of Playboy.

January 8, 1965 – Burroughs stayed at the Chase Plaza Hotel as evidenced by this envelope to Nuttall. In St. Louis, Burroughs visited with his brother Mortimer and wandered through his childhood haunts that continued to haunt him years later. Playboy must have expected a straight story in the line of prodigal son returns an avant-garde hero. Instead they got a heap of cut-ups and childhood nostalgia. The manuscript was vintage Burroughs from the 1960s written in the trademark three-column newspaper format. Playboy rejected the piece, but Paris Review published the article in the fall of 1965. The Review reproduced a page from Burroughs’ St. Louis journal as well as an in-depth interview conducted by Conrad Knickerbocker that described the cut-up method. Knickerbocker interviewed Burroughs at the Chase Plaza just after the New Year.

The importance of this issue (Number 35) of Paris Review in presenting Burroughs as a writer and his technique cannot be overstated. The interview was widely anthologized in the late 1960s. Issue 35 remains monumental for the critical reception of Burroughs and a great example of the high quality material outside of the academy that Paris Review was publishing during Tom Clark’s tenure as poetry editor.

January 19, 1965 – Burroughs learned that his father died and attended the funeral in Palm Beach. Since the publication of Naked Lunch in Paris, Burroughs was on his own no longer dependent on his parents’ $200 monthly stipend. In 1951 after the shooting of Joan, it was his family connections and money that kept Burroughs out of a Mexican jail. In 1959 facing jail in France on a drug charge, Burroughs’ literary connections and his status as a published writer kept him a free man. The death of his father highlighted the fact that Burroughs was on his own and his own man. The meeting with his brother in St. Louis, the death of his father, and the uncertain status of Billy Burroughs after the failed experiment of living together in Tangier must have placed the issue of family firmly in Burroughs’ mind. In a side note, Chuck Wein, a friend of Edie Sedgewick and a Warhol figure, tutored Billy Burroughs in Tangier just before Wein and Burroughs returned to the United States providing Burroughs a link to the Factory crowd he would meet in 1965.

January 20, 1965 / January 26, 1965 – For a brief period after his return to New York City, Burroughs stayed at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. Burroughs’ time at the Hotel was short but he is consistently listed as one of the many notorious lodgers. Burroughs’ mailing address at this time was care of Grove Press at 80 University Place. In 1964, Burroughs received his first sizable royalty check from Grove that financed his move from Tangier to New York. In November 1964, Grove Press published the true first edition of Nova Express. Unlike Burroughs’ previous efforts, Nova Express went straight to hardcover spending next to no time with little magazines and publishers.

The envelopes from Burroughs to Nuttall in early 1965 highlight the publishing dynamic for the 1960s. With Grove, a small but ambitious independent, Burroughs appeared on the fringes of mainstream New York publishing and with My Own Mag, Burroughs operated in the hinterlands of the Do-It-Yourself avant-garde. Off-Off Broadway so to speak. Just as Burroughs received some degree of financial freedom from his writing from Grove, his work got increasingly experimental and non-commercial. As a result, Burroughs relied on mimeos like Nuttall’s My Own Mag for the too hot (read technically radical) to handle material. I would suspect that the three-column format as seen in Time and APO-33 was expensive to produce as well. The inexpensive processes of mimeo and early photocopying were perfect for recreating Burroughs’ work of this period. 1965 proved a big year for Burroughs in the mimeo magazines and presses. My Own Mag, Fuck You Magazine of the Arts, C Journal and Lines all printed Burroughs extensively in that year. Time, My Own Mag, Roosevelt After Inauguration, APO-33 (the Fuck You version) are legendary examples of the book art of the mimeo revolution.

February 14, 1965 – Burroughs gave a reading for the American Theater of Poets at the East End Theater on East Fourth Street, off Second Avenue. The American Theater of Poets was established by Alan Marlowe, James Waring, Leroi Jones, Diane Di Prima and others to provide an outlet for drama, poetry and dance created by the multitude of artists in their circle. The Theater opened its 1965 season on February 13th with Port (A Murder in One Act) by New York School poet Barbara Guest as well as a handful of shorter pieces. The theater specialized in the one-act play by New York School poets accompanied by set design by a host of New York based artists, but on Valentine’s Day, Burroughs was in the spotlight for what I think was his first reading in the United States. I know that Burroughs read in Paris around the publication of Naked Lunch in 1959 and in 1960 at the publication of Minutes to Go, but this event in 1965 was clearly the first time many (if the 129 seat theater could be called a multitude) if not all saw Burroughs perform. Burroughs started at 4:00pm and the New York Times reviewed it the next day. Here is the bulk of Harry Gilroy’s account of the reading:

After some recorded music that seemed to mix a train pounding over a loose rail with North African bazaar melodies, Mr. Burroughs gave his audience a couple of clues to help their poetic impressions along.

Then the author read a line here and a line there from his own works: Junkie, about a drug addict; Naked Lunch, a novel of literary bits and pieces also spliced with marijuana, and Nova Express, which has something to do with space. In the middle of this, he left the stage while a tape recorder provided lines read by Mr. Burroughs from the babblings of Arthur Flegenheimer, alias Dutch Schultz, on his deathbed after being shot in Newark in 1935.

The gangster’s last word, full of phrases like ‘Don’t let Satan draw you too fast,’ interspersed with lines taken from recent news articles about Vietnam and two air crashes, generated a mix of shock and nervous laughter.

The Theater issued a program for the reading that appears on the rare book market from time to time. The seven-page program reprinted excerpts from Dutch Schultz as well as Coldspring News. OU, a magazine run by Henri Chopin that published the Electronic Revolution in 1971 issued a 10″ LP of the St. Valentine’s Day reading in 1972 and 1973. Like Aspen, OU came in a box and was a multimedia affair.

April 23, 1965 – Burroughs reads at a party at the loft of artist Wynn Chamberlain at 222 Bowery along with friend Mack Thomas, author of Gumbo. Attendees included Diane Arbus, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Ted Berrigan, Larry Rivers, Marisol, Richard Avedon, Larry Poons, Andy Warhol, and Barnett Newman. Brion Gysin (incorrectly identified as Brian Gysin in the New York Times) demonstrated his Dream Machine. About the Dream Machine, Harry Gilroy reported, “Someone mentioned that Mr. Gysin was the partner of William Burroughs in the invention of the Dream Machine. ‘It’s a blinking light,” Sally Cram explained, “and when you look at it awhile you see strange things.'” Gilroy continued, “The normal residents of the Bowery looked like they had been staring into the Dream Machine when the party crowd trooped out of 222 Bowery and strolled away.”

Regarding Burroughs’ reading, Gilroy wrote,

Mr. Burroughs, a lean and formal man who sounds something like the late Will Rogers as he reels off dry jokes, read a story that conveyed the idea that various bizarre characters were in a port seeded with atomic mines.

These people wanted to leave but Burroughs’ audience did not. Warmed by such interest, he livened up his one syllable at a time reading with sudden bursts of dramatic activity, eventually ripping down a white sheet backdrop and uncovering a painting of horrifying tarantulas.

April 25, 1965 – Burroughs attended Lester Persky’s “Fifty Most Beautiful People Party” thrown with Andy Warhol at the Factory. In Factory Made, Steven Watson writes, “Persky regarded the Factory as ideally positioned between the avant-garde druggy counterculture and the mainstream glamour of the fashion and celebrity world. This was to be the crossover event, where the bohemian avant-garde community frugged with celebrities.” The two poles are probably best represented by the mingling of Edie Sedgwick and Judy Garland although both explored and abused drugs. This party announced the Factory as a social center and an oasis of craziness and creativity. Burroughs clearly represents “the avant-garde druggy counterculture.” Persky’s party highlights the aura that surrounded Burroughs in mid-1960s New York. Like Edie Sedgwick and other Warhol superstars, Burroughs captured the tawdry glamour of the Underground. Burroughs’ unreadable novels were the definition of hip like Warhol’s unwatchable movies.

Spring 1965 – Panna Grady, a patron of poetry and the arts, threw a party in Burroughs’ honor. Grady collected artists as lovers and quickly grew enamored of Burroughs and as described in Literary Outlaw hoped to marry Burroughs. Like at the Persky party, Burroughs’ man of mystery persona captured the wealthy and bored imagination.

May 14, 1965 – After his stay at the Chelsea, Burroughs rented a loft at 210 Centre Street in the financial district of New York. Unlike earlier envelopes listing Grove Press as his address, Burroughs finally had a place of his own in the United States.

Summer 1965 – Possibly on the strength of Burroughs’ reading in the New York avant garde, the English Bookshop in Paris released Call Me Burroughs on LP. The New York Times articles prove that Burroughs was a fascinating performer who guaranteed to shock and amuse. Like the Paris Review interview in the Fall of 1965, Call Me Burroughs humanized the shadowy writer and introduced him to a new audience. The LP brought out the humor in Burroughs’ work and revealed why he was such a hit in the winter of 1965 in lofts and off-Broadway theaters. Artist and friend of RealityStudio, Gary Lee Nova has commented on the impact Burroughs’ voice on those who heard it for the first time in the 1960s.

July 28, 1965 – Burroughs writes Ian Sommerville, “I have missed you a great deal. Nothing here really, just stay in my loft and work.” Burroughs and Gysin worked diligently on The Third Mind, their how-to book and defense of the cut-up method. The book would not be published until 1978. There was more creative energy at the two Burroughs readings and more posing at the later Warhol and Grady parties. The magazine accounts from the two readings suggest a level of excitement from Burroughs that is uncharacteristic. Gilroy describes Burroughs as reading with “alacrity” and mentioned that he seemed genuinely pleased by the enthusiastic response to his performance. Scarcely a couple of months later, the parties must have seemed old hat to Burroughs and to a social circle always on the lookout for the next new thing Burroughs must have been wearing thin. By July, the excitement of the winter and spring party season was over and Burroughs grew bored with the scene. Clearly, Burroughs absorbed all the stimuli available and was depleted from radiating his creative energy to the New York underground.

August 1965 — Burroughs suffered like all New Yorkers with the heat and like all New Yorkers in the late summer, he planned his escape.

September 1965 – Burroughs arrived in Gatwick Airport after nine months in the United States. Thus begins Burroughs’ period of residence in London until 1973. In 1974, Burroughs was back in New York City feeding off a newly emerging Punk scene he inspired.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 10 January 2007. Also see the companion piece Burroughs, Berrigan, and The Ticket That Exploded. For the scans of postcards and envelopes, many thanks to Robert Bank, curator of the incredible Jeff Nuttall archive site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *