Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
In the annals of Burroughsiana it is common knowledge that “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” is based in part on the Morro Castle disaster of 1934.1
1The origin story of Burroughs’ first “serious” routine, “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” a collaboration with childhood friend Kells Elvins, is seemingly well-documented. Here is Burroughs in conversation with Allen Ginsberg, taken from the Allen Ginsberg Project:
AG: “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” is, for those of you who don’t know, a central piece in Bill’s mythology and texts, the earliest text from Harvard, I think — You made it up in Harvard?
WSB: Yeah, it was written with Kells.
AG: The sinking of the Titanic as a parable of the sinking of the American ship of state was..
WSB: Well the Titanic, no, the Titanic and the..
WSB: ..and the Lusitania, and the..what is it? Morro Castle (that’s the one that burned off Jersey Coast and the first mate was in the first lifeboat). But there was a steward on the Titanic that got in women’s clothes and escaped, yes! — “A cur in human shape” says the.. The account was “A cur in human shape” — “Surely he was preserved to show the lengths to which, the depths (to) which humans can sink!” — But the weird thing is that he was discovered by a boat-full of women and, you know, you’d expect he’d been torn to pieces by these harpies but…
AG: They let him off?
WSB: They did.
AG: So why did that appeal? — that seems to be one of the central metaphors.
WSB: Well, it was certainly the outrage, the outrage, the ultimate outrage — the captain in women’s clothes in the first lifeboat. But, on the Morro Castle, the first mate.. (you see, the Captain had died of..yes..the Captain had died of a heart attack the night before the fire).. So the first mate took over and he was in the first lifeboat that left the Morro Castle – the acting Captain. Outrageous!
“The Name Is Burroughs” from The Adding Machine probably provides the fullest published account by Burroughs:
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1938 . . . I was doing graduate work in anthropology at Harvard and at the same time Kells Elvins, an old school friend from John Burroughs, was doing graduate work in Psychology. We shared a small frame house on a quiet tree-lined street beyond the Commodore Hotel. We had many talks about writing and started a detective story in the Dashiell Hammett / Raymond Chandler line. This picture of a ship captain putting on women’s clothes and rushing into the first lifeboat was suddenly there [italics are Burroughs’] for both of us. We read all the material we could find in Widener’s Library on the Titanic, and a book based on the Morro Castle disaster called The Left-handed Passenger.
The story of the Titanic is common knowledge. The Morro Castle tragedy is lesser known yet no less fascinating and mysterious. Some background will show several reasons why this disaster appealed to Burroughs. Launched in 1930 by the Ward Line at the cost of $5 million, the 508 foot Morro Castle was billed in a press release of the time as the apex of luxury and safety, much like the Titanic: “the finest and most luxurious . . . the safest ship of her size that it was possible to build.” An article from the New York Times in 1964 reveals a more unseemly side: “She had been an unhappy ship from the start. Wages were low ($35 a month for ordinary seamen) and working conditions bad (18 hours a day) even for the times. Discipline was lax. The Morro Castle regularly ran guns to assorted Cuban revolutionaries on her outward voyages, and many of the crew members smuggled dope on the return trips.” The ship’s claim to fame was glorified booze cruises for Depression-era wage earners, known as whoopee cruises, which went round trip between New York and Havana. These trips were especially popular during Prohibition when alcohol was legal in Cuba.
On September 7, 1934, the return leg of a Labor Day cruise seemed like a typical affair: the crew was disgruntled and the passengers were getting drunk on Cuban rum. Then the Morro Castle ran into a nor’easter that brought 30 mph winds and heavy seas. A third of the passengers became seasick. That same night, Capt. Robert Wilmott ate his evening meal alone and complained of stomach cramps. He suddenly dropped dead of an apparent heart attack at 7:45pm. Chief Officer William F. Warms became Acting Captain and because of the storm he had not slept for 30 hours. Around 3am on September 8, off the New Jersey coast, a small fire broke out in a storage locker. The fire would have been detected earlier if Captain Wilmott had not turned off the smoke detectors to prevent the smell of wet hides in the locker from offending the passengers. In addition, the fire could have been controlled if Wilmott had not ordered many fire hydrants sealed to prevent water from getting on the decks. The crew was also not trained properly in fire safety procedures.
The winds from the storm turned the small fire into an inferno. In short order the ship was engulfed in flames. The incompetence of the crew and the severity of the storm made any rescue difficult. The Chief Engineer Eban Abbott put on his full-dress whites and cast off with 29 crewman and only three passengers in his boat. It was this “outrage” by the Chief Engineer, not the first mate as Burroughs remembered it, that inspired “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” and provided the “there” moment of the image of the captain in women’s clothes. Of 549 passengers and crew, 134 perished. It remains one of the most horrific luxury liner disasters of all time. It is easy to see how the Morro Castle would capture Burroughs’ attention.
So, the origins of and inspiration for “Twilights’ Last Gleamings” seems well-documented. But one element remains mysterious: the timing. Burroughs writes that the image of a ship captain in women’s clothes was suddenly “there“. In Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles places the genesis of “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” as somewhere between the summer of 1938 and the Great Hurricane of that year which hit Boston around September 21. Why did that image of the captain come up in this time frame? Why was a scene from the Morro Castle in their minds? Why did they race to read The Left-handed Passenger, a mystery based on the disaster? Was there something in the air besides the Great Hurricane and its 160 mph gusts?
The Morro Castle disaster was only four years in the past and it was an undeniable sensation at the time. Over one million of the curious visited the wreckage off the coast of Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1934/35. It was a massive tourist attraction for Jersey beach goers. The Morro Castle disaster was also a big story nationwide with much coverage in all forms of media. If the summer / fall timeline is accurate for the genesis of “Twilight,” then maybe Burroughs and Elvins were hanging out over Labor Day weekend or maybe even on Thursday, September 8, 1938, and the topic of the Morro Castle‘s anniversary came up in conversation, which led to the image of the ship’s captain.
Four years later the disaster lived on in the news. On September 9, the New York Times briefly reported a sparsely attended ceremony marking the fourth anniversary of the disaster. In addition, the Morro Castle lingered in the public imagination. A series of trials in the New York courts argued the negligence of the crew and the payment of damages to the victims and their relatives. News of a settlement with one of the victims’ relations made the New York Times in late August 1938. In addition, Chief Engineer Abbott, who escaped on a lifeboat playing dress up, was tried for criminal negligence, convicted, and sentenced to two years in jail. In 1937, an appeal overturned the verdict. Judges ruled Abbott’s behavior was due to confusion resulting from smoke inhalation. So, it is extremely probable that the Morro Castle and then the Titanic just came up in conversation from a combination of these recent news stories. Can you imagine a news report on the Morro Castle coming over the radio wafting through the window as Burroughs and Elvins sat on the porch shooting the shit? I can.
But there was another Morro Castle-related news story of 1938 that might explain why the disaster could have been on the minds of Burroughs and Elvins, and it is the type of story that fascinated Burroughs. The one man praised as a hero in the tabloid coverage of the disaster was Chief Radio Operator George White Rogers, who sent a distress call in the midst of the fire. Rogers “sat at his sending key, nearly suffocated by smoke, his feet tucked on the rungs of his chair above the boiling battery acid that sloshed across the floor, and waited patiently for the captain’s order to send an SOS . . . ‘SOS. Twenty miles south of Scotland Light. Cannot work much longer. Fire directly under radio. Need assistance immediately.'” He became an instant celebrity and a tabloid fixture who narrated his heroic story for RKO vaudeville on Broadway for $1000 a week.
After the celebrity whirlwind died down, Rogers found work with the New Jersey Police Department working under Lieutenant Vincent Doyle. Ever boastful, Rogers posited to Boyle a what-if story on the disaster à la O.J Simpson, involving a doctored pen with gasoline that started the fire. Doyle became suspicious that the hero was in fact the man responsible for the Morro Castle fire. This suspicion was supported by the fact that Rogers’ radio repair business had burned down shortly before he took the job at the police department. At the police station, Doyle and Rogers sent out ads stating they would repair broken items. Shortly after developing suspicions about Rogers, on March 4, 1938, Doyle opened a package that contained a broken aquarium heater. When he tried to plug it in, it exploded having been packed with TNT. In the resulting explosion, Doyle lost the thumb and three fingers on his left hand. Rogers became an immediate suspect. Roger was indicted in June 1938 and his trial began in late November. He was eventually convicted of attempted murder in early December 1938 and sentenced to 12 to 20 years in prison later in the month.
Time magazine reported on the Rogers / Doyle affair in March 1938 as did the New York Times and several other publications nationwide. Rogers’ indictment made the news in early June again in the New York Times. Is it too far a stretch to suggest that the downfall of Rogers and the damage sustained to Doyle’s left hand inspired Burroughs and Elvins to rush to Widener Library and get a copy of The Left-handed Passenger? Rumors persisted immediately after the disaster: “Had Captain Wilmott’s sudden death been natural? (After all, his body, along with all the other possible evidence, had been destroyed in the fire.) Had the fire been deliberately set? (Its intensity, and such additional details as the fact that the fuel lines from a pair of emergency gasoline tanks — located just outside the radio shack — had been deliberately uncoupled, suggested that it had.)” The air of mystery around the disaster inspired The Left-handed Passenger and the 1938 case involving Rogers provided a possible solution to the mystery of the Morro Castle. Had the true villain been revealed? And possibly this also sheds light on the a-ha “there” in “Twilight’s” origin story. It is entirely plausible to me that Burroughs and Elvins knew about the Rogers case, which along with the Morro Castle anniversary on September 8, 1938, and other newsworthy events surrounding the disaster, made it fresh in their minds around Labor Day of that year.
The Left-handed Passenger provides some interesting points of intersection present and future in the Burroughsian sense. In the opening paragraphs the Morro Castle in Havana Bay looms over the Cortez, the ill-fated fictional ship, just as the memory of the Morro Castle disaster sails like a ghost ship through the entire novel. The basic plot involving a cat-and-mouse game between Lieutenant Curle and the criminal mastermind and murderer Jamieson mirrors the suspicious Lieutenant Doyle and Rogers that played out in the news throughout 1938. The novel is obsessed with hands. Jamieson has a scar on his left hand and in a reverse scenario, Doyle’s left hand was disfigured by Rogers’ makeshift bomb. In less than a year, Burroughs would meet Jack Anderson, his first serious boyfriend, and in 1940, Burroughs in his second creative act (a gratuitous act of dada and surrealism) after “Twilight”, cut-off his left pinkie finger in the Van Gogh Kick. Making him a left-handed passenger of sort. The third who walks beside Jamieson and Doyle. Burroughs and Kells found the writing of the novel hysterical and that hysteria found its way into “Twilight.” Most interestingly, the opening pages feature some unintentionally funny dialogue as well as a band playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” to the arriving passengers, perhaps inspiring Burroughs and Elvins to incorporate the song as a major motif in their routine. Mere coincidences in some cases; but in some cases maybe not.
The Rogers story would only get more Burroughsian as time went on. Rogers served four years of his sentence and was released in order to serve in World War II as a radioman. The parole was extended after the war and Rogers slipped into obscurity. Until 1953. While working as a radio-TV repairman, he murdered his two neighbors, the elderly William Hummel and his spinster sister. Rogers was stealing money from them and was about to be discovered. Quickly convicted, he died in prison in 1958. Over the years it was revealed that before his hiring on the Morro Castle, Rogers was a rapist and an arsonist and an all-around bad guy. The mystery of the Morro Castle has never been solved and Rogers was never formally charged in any respect, but Rogers is at the center of several conspiracy theories that take Lieutenant Doyle’s suspicions and run with them. For example, Thomas Gallagher, a novelist, who wrote the non-fiction Fire at Sea, interviewed Rogers and surmised that Rogers did not merely set the Morro Castle fire but that it was designed to cover up his murder of Captain Wilmott, who intended to fire him. Gallagher won the Edgar Award for non-fiction in 1960 for his theories. Books on the Morro Castle abound, and the Internet is full of sites dedicated to conspiracy theories. Others believe Rogers was a scapegoat in a master plot involving ammunition smuggling and insurance fraud. There are still records involving the Morro Castle that are sealed by the government, and due to the mysterious death of the captain, the unknown source of the fire, and the unlikely and unseemly hero Rogers, the Morro Castle remains one of the great maritime mysteries of all time and a conspiracy theory magnet, like the Marie Celeste, another Burroughs obsession.
Interestingly, it is also something of a mystery why a version of “Twilight’s Last Gleamings” appears in Nova Express, as “Gave Proof Through the Night.” It seemingly does not fit with the rest of the novel. Brion Gysin expressed such an opinion and Burroughs himself was ambivalent about its inclusion. From the Restored Nova Express, Burroughs in a letter to his editor Richard Seaver: “Mr Gysin felt that the ship wreck chapter . . . was not in keeping with the rest of the book and should be omitted. I am undecided on this point and would be interested to hear your opinion.” Burroughs offered to drop it and substitute another section. So why is the routine there?
The standard line comes from Allen Ginsberg. He viewed “Twilight’s” as a metaphor for the wreck that is contemporary America. According to Oliver Harris in the Restored edition, Nova Express was an attack on the Time-Life empire that Burroughs saw as going hand in hand with the American Century. Ginsberg probably got the idea of “Twilight” as metaphor from Burroughs himself. Letter to Ginsberg (Sept. 25, 1959):
I have read your article. Very good and to the point. I think the climate is definitely changing. America will change with the times or find herself left in a long lurch without even power. It is obvious that the balance of power has shifted, and America is no longer the strongest factor. So either America stops, reorients from a course of suicidal and psychotic behavior, or — “Twilight’s Last Gleamings.” I think the shift may be nearer than you realize.
Yet in the conversation quoted as the beginning of this piece, Burroughs interrupts Ginsberg as he makes this reading and instead focuses on the disasters as historical events: the fact that the “outrageous” events in “Twilight” actually happened. It seems it isn’t just metaphor for Burroughs.
Harris also stresses that Burroughs hoped that Nova Express would have mass appeal. It was a cut-up novel designed for the general public. A potboiler of sorts. I have written before of how it is Burroughs’ particular genius that during this cut-up period that whenever Burroughs sought to sellout, he failed in the most spectacular fashion by creating something wildly experimental instead. The inclusion of a version of “Twilight” in Nova Express may have been his attempt to insert something of the nature of a mass-market pulp, much like The Left-Handed Passenger, within its pages. In 1938, the story was rejected by Esquire as being “too screwy.” In my piece on Burroughs and Esquire, I show how publishing in Esquire was an early aspiration of Burroughs’. Burroughs finally appeared in Esquire in 1964, and maybe by putting “Twilight” in Nova Express, Burroughs is showing how far he has come as a writer. He has made it.
In terms of mass appeal, the inclusion of “Twilight” may have something to do with the Morro Castle disaster even if subconsciously. Nova Express was published in early November 1964, and the Morro Castle was once again news. That year marked the 30th anniversary of the disaster and the New York Times published three stories mentioning the disaster in September, including a full recounting of the entire saga that I have used as a source for this piece. Whether intentional or not, the inclusion of “Twilight” would have been something that the general reader, who always likes a good disaster, could relate to and may have even thought about recently, even if the account received the special Burroughs treatment and is almost unrecognizable. Intentionally or unintentionally, the routine strangely fits.
Harris mentions that Burroughs was working on the galley for Nova Express on July 21, 1964, when he dated the “Twilight” section as “1938” in the manuscript. I wonder if Burroughs saw the New York Times obituary of Lou Davidson from May 31, 1964, which mentioned in passing that Davidson had presented Captain Wilmott of the Morro Castle with a medal of honor for navigating his vessel through a hurricane in 1933. This is one of those ironic points of intersection that frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines that Burroughs relished and made such creative use of. If he read it maybe he thought back to a ship captain in woman’s clothes, a mysterious disaster involving a nor’easter and possible murder, and the greatest hurricane New England ever experienced. Maybe he was transported back in time to the porch in Cambridge in 1938? Maybe he thought of Kells Elvins, his collaborator, whom he had not thought of in years, and when he tried to contact him about the original manuscript for “Twilight” found out from Elvins’ mother that he died in 1961?
On learning of Elvins’ death, did Burroughs view the inclusion of “Twilight’s” as a tribute to his dead friend and collaborator? From Remembering Jack Kerouac: “Years later in Tangier, Kells told me the truth: ‘I know I am dead and you are too . . .’ Writers are all dead, and all writing is posthumous. We are really from beyond the tomb and no commissions. . . (All this I am writing just as I think of it, according to Kerouac’s own manner of writing. He says the first version is always the best).” The past, present and future is encapsulated in this short obituary. Did Burroughs read it? Did Burroughs know of the Rogers case? Why did an image from the Morro Castle become suddenly “there” around Labor Day 1938? It is a mystery but one of the fun things about a mystery is coming up with theories to help explain it. Burroughs was not above having a little fun himself. And there is nothing far-fetched about that.
News Clippings and Documents
- Felix Risenberg, The Left-Handed Passenger (Excerpt)
- 1938.03.16 Morro Castle Hero Held In Bayonne Blast
- 1938.06.04 Policeman Is Indicted
- 1938.11.22 Peripatetic Trial Held in Bomb Case
- 1938.11.24 New York Policemen Testify in Bomb Case
- 1938.11.29 135 Policemen Testify
- 1938.11.30 Morro Castle Hero Denies Bomb Charges
- 1938.12.01 Handwriting Expert Heard in Bomb Case
- 1938.12.0 Rogers, Sea Hero, Guilty in Bombing
- 1938.12.24 Wins Appeal in Bombing Case
- 1939.12.16 Rogers, Sea Hero, Jailed in Bombing
- 1964.09.13 New Ship Safety Traced to ’34 Fire
- 1964.09.13 Thirty Years Ago
- 1964.09.20 37 Years of Good Luck Go Up in Smoke for Radio Man
2 thoughts on “William Burroughs, the Morro Castle Disaster and the Mystery of “Twilight’s Last Gleamings”: A Conspiracy Theory”
i’ve always wondered about Twilight’s …. it has such a reporter feel to it.. but it never crossed my mind that there may have been a real event outside of the usual myths about the Titanic. The radio man is straight out of a yellow press sensation…
Wonderful and informative and gleaming piece, Jed – thanks.
Great article very interesting raises lots of questions.
Im wondering how , if it’s possible , it would be confirmed that burroughs was aware of this.
I think its very likely but dont know how it would be proven .