Secrets of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch

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Fat Boy Naked Lunch with extra scoring lines visible in the spine

I bought my first copy of the Olympia Press edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch from eBay. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never seen a copy in person. I knew little about the principles of collecting. But I had the money and the itch so I overpaid for a copy that I wouldn’t consider buying today. The dust jacket is brownish, like somebody used it to prop up a flower pot and dirty water leaked out onto it. Also it doesn’t quite fit the book. It wraps at a slight skew that makes the columns of text in the inner flaps tilt in one direction. The wrapper even has extra scoring lines. For years I prided myself that, yes, indeed, my Burroughs collection contained a true first of Naked Lunch. But really my collection contained a copy so unappealing that it hardly counted. I just didn’t know any better.

Then I stumbled onto the website The author made a post about the unique copy of Naked Lunch he once possessed:

one day purchased a copy advertised as for sale with an ill fitting dust-wrapper, well surprise surprise, when the book arrived it was not the dust-wrapper that was wrong but the book which was too big, the wrapper fitted comfortably on my other copies, but not fat boy, which was both taller and thicker, with a lighter cover than the other copies, no fucking way was that dust-wrapper or any other I have seen since going to fit on that behemoth of a Naked Lunch

When I read this, two thoughts fired off simultaneously in my brain. First, this book sounded like my copy of Naked Lunch. Second, I recalled the mysterious comment in Maynard & Miles that there was a pirate edition of Naked Lunch, “probably done in Formosa, copying the Traveler’s Companion format.” What if, I thought, Fat Boy was a pirate of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch? What if my copy was a pirate? This thought sent me spiraling down a wormhole of obsessive research. I bought more than half a dozen copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch. I visited several archives. What I learned is that the first edition of William Burroughs’ most famous book still has secrets to tell. I discovered a point of distinction never previously remarked, inaccuracies perpetuated by every bibliographic listing, and the existence of at least one pirate edition.

The Official Story

The publication of The Naked Lunch by Olympia Press is a story we think we know. (The title of the Olympia edition began with the definite article but, for familiarity’s sake, I’ll drop it from here on out.) Maurice Girodias, Olympia’s founder, had previously turned down a chance to publish Burroughs’ masterwork. But the controversy caused by excerpts of Naked Lunch appearing in The Chicago Review and Big Table caused him to reconsider. On June 6, 1959 Girodias sent Burroughs a letter asking for a second look at the manuscript. Girodias tendered Burroughs a contract and gave him two weeks to ready the book for the printer. “I had exactly ten days to prepare the MS,” Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg in late July 1959. “Realize that in the last month I have edited the entire MS., corrected the galley-proofs, and the final proofs, and designed a cover, and the book is rolling off the presses right now.” On July 30, 1959 Burroughs wrote to Paul Bowles, “In the past month I have edited the entire manuscript, corrected all the proofs and it rolls off the presses today.” That was a Thursday. Burroughs must have spent the weekend sharing his first copies around the Beat Hotel. On August 1, he was supposed to read from Naked Lunch at George Whitman’s Le Mistral bookshop. Junk-sick, he sent a tape recording in his stead.

The 1978 bibliography by Barry Miles and Joe Maynard is the primary source of information for the publication history of the book. They state that Olympia did three printings. The first consisted of 5,000 copies. The second, “reprinted soon after the original,” consisted of another 5,000. The third printing, done in June 1965, was also 5,000 copies. The first printing has two points of distinction, a green border around the title page and a price of 1.500 francs on the rear wrapper. The very first copies lacked the dust jacket which, according to Miles, was added “after a month or so.” Patrick Kearney’s bibliography of Olympia Press publications repeats this information, adding that the dust jacket was “not issued until some months after the book’s initial release.” Kearney observes that “A number of collectors and dealers have reported that the dust jackets are ill-fitting, suggesting that they were poorly designed.” Finally, Kearney proposes a date of “c. 1962” for the second printing, which lacks the green border on the title page and has a price of 18 francs on the rear wrapper. In their editors’ note to the “restored” edition of Naked Lunch, Miles and James Grauerholz say that Burroughs corrected “about fifty” errors “when the book was reprinted a few weeks” after the initial printing. Later bibliographers add nothing new — but the documentary evidence will tell a more complicated story.

A New Point of Distinction

Once I had accumulated a few copies of the Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch, I lined them up to see if I could spot any differences between them. Certainly there were the known points of distinction — the green border, the price on the rear — but I was curious if there were any other telltale signs that might indicate whether my own Fat Boy was a pirate edition from Formosa. At first, I didn’t notice anything. The book stands 17.5 cm tall. The width varies a bit, from about 11 cm to 11.4 cm, but it can depend on how beat up the book is. The spine can skew in one direction or it can cave in, which makes it difficult to judge how to line it up with a ruler. The paper stock is consistent across my copies. The color of the green wrapper varies a bit but that can result from how much exposure the book has had to light. I didn’t notice any differences so I tried inspecting the books with a magnifying glass. That’s when I saw it. My Fat Boy copy had a comma in the price on the rear, like this: 1,500. Another copy had a period, like this: 1.500. Once I’d detected it, I could see it clearly with my naked eye. I checked Maynard & Miles — they used a comma in their description. Kearney used a period.

Naked Lunch prices with period and comma

This was a new point of distinction that no one had ever remarked. But what did it mean? The correct punctuation mark, reflecting common usage in France, was the period. In several years of inspecting Olympia Press books and watching them online, I have only spotted one other book which contains a comma in the price. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnameable, was printed in fall 1959 with prices in both old and new francs on the rear: 1,800 (old francs with a comma) and 18 (new francs). For a while I was strongly tempted to conclude that the comma must be the sign of a pirate edition. Yet there was a copy of Naked Lunch being offered for sale by Pleasures of Past Times in England that had a comma, was signed by Burroughs, dated by the owner April 1960, and contained a card stating “With the compliments of Maurice Girodias.” (Having already spent thousands of dollars accumulating Naked Lunches, I did not purchase this copy or examine it in person. But the pictures are clear.) This copy suggests that Olympia Press did in fact put out some books with commas in the price. So what was the difference between period and comma copies?

“Designed a Cover”

In addition to performing a close physical examination of the printed book, I also went over multiple dust jackets with a magnifying glass. I can’t say I noticed any differences between them. They’re 40 cm long by 17.5 cm high. They have a glossy finish. The ones that don’t fit well have scoring lines in weird places like the middle of the spine, as though they were originally scored for a thinner book. In fact, the best-fitting dust jackets still look like they were designed for a smaller book. On the front of even the most pristine Naked Lunch, the calligraphic symbols cut off and leave a white gap to the right. The designer must have expected the jacket would fold right where those calligraphs cut off. It suggests that the dust jacket was poorly designed or, more likely, that the book was thicker than expected — which wouldn’t be surprising since Burroughs was sending it to the printer in sections. Burroughs was suffering from a rampaging heroin addiction in July 1959 so Sinclair Beiles did most of the editing, along with some help from Brion Gysin. No one could calculate the thickness of the book in advance because no one knew what was or wasn’t in it until the editing was done.

White gap in Naked Lunch dust jacket shows poor design

I got to wondering, though, if it was possible that the dust jacket was poorly designed — precisely because Burroughs designed it. He had written to Ginsberg that he “designed a cover.” But how could this be? Heroin addiction aside, Burroughs did not possess the mechanical skills to lay out a dust jacket — not one as sophisticated as the jacket of Naked Lunch. Olympia must have had a talented designer, as can be seen from contemporaneous jackets such as Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy and Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le Métro. Perhaps Burroughs suggested some color or type treatments but his primary contribution lay in creating the calligraphic symbols. In interviews for Literary Outlaw, Brion Gysin explained this to Ted Morgan. “Um, who did the jacket? William did, I guess, with me sort of guiding his hand a bit. Or he sort of imitating what I was doing. It’s his drawing on the cover of the jacket.” (Tape 143 A) As Burroughs’ letters show, he had been doing many such drawings at the time. He included them as a “chapter” of Naked Lunch in the excerpt printed in Big Table and encouraged Irving Rosenthal to include them in the Grove Press edition.

There are further signs of sloppiness evident in the flap copy inside the dust jacket. Curiously, the price is listed as “Francs 1500” using neither a comma nor a period. It was almost as though Olympia was splitting the difference or refusing to commit to one punctuation mark or the other, although the period was clearly correct. It is unknown who wrote the introductory paragraph inside the dust jacket — Beiles? — but there follows a long excerpt from an article published by John Ciardi in the June 27, 1959 issue of the Saturday Review. In comparing the flap copy to the actual Ciardi article, I noted only one minor difference between the two, a missing ellipsis. Ciardi, however, did not draw his Naked Lunch quotes from the volume that Olympia had only just decided to produce. He drew his from the inaugural issue of Big Table, published in March 1959. As a result, the flap copy correctly spells “dowser” (misspelled “dowzer” in the Olympia edition) and adds a line (“These messages from the blood are infallible, literally always right”) not present in the published book. Consequently, anyone with a dust wrapper literally got more of the text of Naked Lunch than those who bought copies without it.

Author photo of William Burroughs from Naked Lunch dust jacket

There is another important piece of information which the dust wrapper omits — the photo credit. The picture shows Burroughs staring out over a shelf of books. His face is illumined in a dark room by a light source coming from behind the camera. The photo was taken in fall 1953 by Allen Ginsberg at his apartment on East 7th St in Manhattan. The same photo was used in the summer of 1959 in Big Table 2. In later years, Ginsberg published variants of the photo, including one of Kerouac in the same pose. He also wrote similar but different captions on versions of the photo, generally giving the time, the place, and the fact that Burroughs was staying with him as they worked on Yage Letters and Queer. In some captions he compares Burroughs to Baudelaire. In others Ginsberg describes how he stood on the fire escape to take the picture. An entire essay could be written about the photo — how it ties together Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac; how it connects Naked Lunch to Yage Letters and Queer; how Burroughs addresses Ginsberg in the picture just as he had addressed many of the Naked Lunch letters to him. Suffice to say that the omission of the photo credit left all this in the shadows. Perhaps it was deliberate. Naked Lunch had many collaborators but this was Burroughs’ book.

Is there any way to be more precise than Maynard & Miles in dating when the dust wrapper was added to the book? They suggest “after a month or so.” Presumably this information was provided by Burroughs and/or Gysin. Burroughs must have received his first finished copies of the book on July 31 or August 1, 1959. The jacket is visible in the photographs of Burroughs that Loomis Dean took for Life magazine on October 1, 1959. I have been unable to locate any correspondence or other text referring to the dust jacket in the intervening period. I did, however, discover a copy of the book on eBay whose owner claimed to have bought it in the summer of 1959. A reasonably reliable source, the owner was a retired architect who was a friend of Robert Lowell and acquaintance of Allen Ginsberg. He could not actually remember purchasing the book and he did not have a sales receipt or other documentary evidence. But the book had the correct price on the back, which suggested it was purchased in 1959. It had a dust wrapper. The owner acquired it when he was a sophomore at Harvard. He had spent the summer in Europe and returned for the fall semester on a Harvard charter flight from Paris. It strongly implies he purchased the book right at the end of August or beginning of September. That would coincide with Maynard & Miles’ claim that the wrapper was added “after a month or so.”

William Burroughs signing Naked Lunch in Left Bank bookstore. Photo by Loomis Dean

The Loomis Dean photos also feature a series of Burroughs signing a copy of Naked Lunch in a bookstore. David Snell’s dispatch to Life magazine, excerpted in Literary Outlaw, says: “Roll two shows Burroughs autographing copies of his book in a Left Bank bookstore near his hotel…” It’s tough to say which bookstore. Gait Frogé gave Naked Lunch a window display at the English Bookshop but both the English and the Mistral were nearby bookshops on the Left Bank. In the image, the book appears to lack the dust jacket — doubtless local bookstores had a supply of the pre-jacket books. Also Burroughs was signing the very first inside page, which was blank. Usually he signed the title page. The inscription was long too. It makes you wonder if that particular copy exists somewhere out there. Perhaps it was in David Snell or Loomis Dean’s collections? I emailed Chris Dean, Loomis’ son, but he was unable to locate his father’s copy of Naked Lunch.

Printings and Print Run

Since I had many unanswered questions, especially about the difference between the period and the comma in the price, I visited the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library. I was particularly keen to read through a file of documents related to Olympia Press, whose own archives were lost or destroyed when the press went bankrupt. Letters flew back and forth between Burroughs, Girodias, Barney Rossett, editors, lawyers, literary agents, Swiss intermediaries. Many concerned grievances about rights, royalties, payments not made. On December 6, 1961, Olympia sent Burroughs a royalty statement indicating that “From publication up to the 1st of December 1961,” Olympia had sold 5.865 copies of The Naked Lunch. (A period was used as the thousands separator in this and other documents.) That was 865 books more than Maynard & Miles said were printed, but it’s not uncommon for a publisher to receive an overrun of 10% or so from a printer.

Then I came across another royalty statement from May 31, 1965. “We sold the first edition” of The Naked Lunch, it says:

5.865 copies at 15 NF
4.034 copies at 18 NF

“Of the second edition of the book,” it adds, “we sold”:

6.800 copies at 18 NF

May 31 1965 Royalty Statement from Olympia Press

Ok, I thought, that’s about fifteen thousand copies, which per Maynard & Miles was the total of the three Olympia editions of Naked Lunch. The letter referred to two editions of the book instead of three but I figured that was an issue of terminology. Olympia might have distinguished the editions differently than Maynard & Miles did. Then I realized that this royalty statement was created just before the June 1965 release of Olympia’s third and last printing of Naked Lunch. In other words, the royalty statement concerns the first two editions of Naked Lunch. The first edition was therefore almost double what we have always thought — at least 9,899 (5,865 + 4, 034) copies were printed and sold. And the second edition, the one without the green border on the title page and with the 18 NF price printed on the back, was more than 30% larger than given in bibliographies.

The royalty statement raises another question about how Olympia priced the editions. On January 1, 1960, France revalued its currency so that the original 1.500 price in old francs became 15 new francs. There are many copies of the Olympia Naked Lunch around that show the 1.500 (or 1,500) price overstamped with the price in new francs. I have never seen, however, a copy in which the stamp says 15 NF. The stamps, which are remarkably consistent in their appearance, all say 18 NF. Olympia must have begun repricing the book in new francs on January 1, 1960 yet the royalty statements imply that Olympia did not start collecting 18 NF until after December 6, 1961. Does this imply that Olympia did not overstamp the books until late 1961? I think that there is a more likely explanation, which is that Olympia began overstamping books with the 18 NF price in January 1960. The royalty statements, however, neglected to indicate that the publisher had been collecting an extra 3 francs per unit from January 1960 to December 1961. It’s an error in Olympia’s favor — precisely the sort of gamesmanship for which Girodias was known.

None of the royalty statements in the Burroughs archive give a total print run for the third Olympia edition of Naked Lunch — the 1965 one printed by Imprimerie Crouzet. On November 10, 1966, Girodias attested that Olympia had sold 2,471 copies. In a letter to agent Peter Matson on July 17, 1969, Girodias claimed there were about 1,500 copies of the third edition “still in stock in Paris.” Presumably the print run was around 5,000 copies and sales were undermined by the Grove Press and international editions which had appeared by then. Also Olympia Press had been nearly destroyed by legal fights and bankruptcy issues.

While this documentary evidence was revelatory, it still left me with a number of questions. Did the period or the comma correlate to one or the other printing of the first edition? If so, which was which? Were there any other visible differences between the two print runs of the first edition?

Olympia used French printers who introduced a number of errors into the English text of Naked Lunch. In the very last paragraph, for example, “Old-time, veteran Schmeckers” is printed as “Old time, veteran Scmeeckers.” On page 95 there is also a text decoration consisting of three dots — the only such separator in the book. Why is it there? In the “restored” edition of Naked Lunch, Miles and Grauerholz assert that “Burroughs corrected about fifty [errors] when the book was reprinted a few weeks” after the first printing. On July 20, 1960, Burroughs told Irving Rosenthal that he “corrected the book for second printing and found as I remember not more than fifty actual errors.” But I compared the text in every edition of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch I have. The same errors are in the same places in every book. “Old time, veteran Scmeeckers” is in the first, second, and third Olympia printings. On page 11 the phrase “Now right again” looks like it was accidentally set in bold type. The same mistake occurs in every Olympia edition. If Burroughs really did make corrections — when it came time to go over The Soft Machine, he didn’t want to do it and told Brion Gysin “I am not much of a proof reader” — the corrections never made it into print.

Old-time veteran scmeeckers error from Naked Lunch

It is easy to explain how Burroughs’ corrections went unused. Olympia had the type set for the first printing. For subsequent reprintings, they used photo-offset — basically photographing the original edition and printing the photographs. That perpetuated the errors, the lone text decoration, and the stray instance of bold type. Maynard & Miles state that Olympia did plan a “special edition” which they never ended up issuing. There are galleys with corrections in the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library. The handwriting looks more like Gysin’s than Burroughs’ but it’s possible these were the corrections made for the “second” printing. At any rate, they were unused and provide no further way of distinguishing between the various Olympia editions.

Tracking the First Copies of the Book

As much as I learned from the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library, I still had unanswered questions. What was the meaning of the periods and commas in the price? Was there any way to differentiate between a true first and a pirate edition of Naked Lunch? Was it possible to identify the very first books Olympia issued — the ones in the month before the dust wrapper was added? It occurred to me that the next step was to look at copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch which had documented histories. There were books which Burroughs signed to friends in 1959. There were books which Olympia sent to reviewers. Did these indisputably true firsts harbor telltale signs of their primacy? I made a list of Burroughs’ friends and associates in 1959 and set to work seeing if I could figure out where their copies of Naked Lunch had landed.

This was complicated not only by the passage of time but by the difficulty of getting the book out of France in 1959. Allen Ginsberg had predicted that Naked Lunch would drive readers mad. What really drove them mad was getting their hands on a copy. Piero Heliczer wrote a correspondent about the difficulties of getting it into England. “Three people,” he said, “who will pay for it want to peruse a Naked Lunch if you cant bring these within one month please send them at once Naked Lunch must be by personal mercury as customs officials of post like getting indigestation.” [sic] In the United States, the post office confiscated many copies. Bill Dobson, whom Burroughs had befriended in Mexico City, described how hopeless the situation was in small-town America. On October 6, 1959, he wrote Burroughs,

Sure disappointed that the book didn’t get through — I kept hoping though I didn’t expect it would get here. The postmaster in every town big enough to have a radio station gets free broadcast time to inform the public about the revolting stuff that comes through the mails and its direct contribution to crime generally and juvenile delinquency in particular and urging everybody to vote for more stringent laws that will enable the Postmaster General to purify our reading and deliver us from evil.

Allen Ginsberg had received the letters out of which Burroughs fashioned Naked Lunch but even he could not manage to get the printed result. On August 14, 1959, Ginsberg wrote Burroughs: “Send me your book, a number of copies, I don’t have one.” On September 29, he wrote: “I still have not receivd a copy of yr book. Presumably one was sent, & didn’t get through. Please ask Gerodias [sic] to try again.” On November 17, he wrote again: “I still haven’t got my copy — tell Girodias try send me one not under my name but care of my brother… Also another one care of my father.” Another case in point was Edwin (Ned) Erbe, the publicity director of New Directions, who was working with Gregory Corso to publish The Happy Birthday of Death. Erbe tasked Corso with getting him a copy of Naked Lunch in November 1959. In spite of multiple requests, Erbe only received the book in May 1960 when it was delivered to him by Peter Orlovsky. In April 1960, a New York Times article about Girodias claimed that “Olympia had exceptionally bad luck with review copies of ‘The Naked Lunch‘: only two out of twelve reached their American addressees.” What abyss did those confiscated books fall into? One imagines the inscription Burroughs must have written on that first copy to Ginsberg.

Grove Press, which would go on to publish the book in America, struggled to get a copy. On September 21, 1959, Fran Muller of Olympia wrote to Judith Schmidt at Grove: “I am surprised to hear that you did not receive the copies of ‘The Naked Lunch‘ we have sent to you.” On September 29, Gregory Corso wrote Burroughs that “I still didn’t get my copy; Diane was hesitant to send me her copy then I got a letter awhile back from her saying she sent it on, I await.” Diane who? Diane di Prima? Evidently Corso received this or another copy. He wrote Ned Erbe in November to say that Naked Lunch was great and that he had loaned his signed copy to Tennessee Williams. Kells Elvins, Burroughs’ childhood friend, had not managed to obtain Naked Lunch by that point either. On November 13, Burroughs advised him, “If you cannot buy Naked Lunch in Rome I will send copy.” In his letter of July 30, Burroughs had promised Paul Bowles that “you should have a copy within the next few days,” yet on December 7 he was following up to say “I hope you got the copy of N.L. I sent you with Achmed Yacoubi.” In December, Burroughs wrote to his son Billy, “I was glad to hear from you [that you] received Lunch and enjoyed same.. That’s something the cook always likes to hear..” Incredibly, the book had gotten through U.S. customs to a twelve-year-old. (And one wonders about Burroughs’ parental judgement in sending it to him.)

Inscription to Brion Gysin in his copy of Naked Lunch

Who else managed to receive books? A pristine copy described as the author’s is located in the Burroughs archive at the New York Public Library. Burroughs must have handed Brion Gysin his copy at the Beat Hotel, presumably within days of publication. He inscribed it “For Brion Gysin / nothing is true everything is permitted / William S. Burroughs.” That copy, covered with a handmade dust jacket of silver leaf paper, is now in the Burroughs archive at the NYPL too. Irving Rosenthal also received a copy hot off the presses. On August 23, 1959, he wrote Burroughs to acknowledge receiving a copy of Naked Lunch. Rosenthal loaned his to Lyle Stuart, a publisher to whom he was trying to sell the American rights to Naked Lunch on Burroughs’ behalf. In the same letter he mentioned that the Partisan Review had received a review copy. “I hope,” Rosenthal wrote, “you have airmailed copies of NL as we asked. Neither Allen nor Jack nor I nor anyone friends we know have rec’d copies from Olympia — but Partisan Review has rec’d a review copy. The copy you sent me has been with Lyle Stuart & his lawyer.” This copy is now located in the Irving Rosenthal Papers at Stanford University. It is accompanied by a note by Rosenthal titled, “On the Olympia edition of [The] Naked Lunch sent me by WSB 8/3/59.” The note begins, “This is the first copy of NL to enter the U.S.” — language repeated in the finding aid for the Rosenthal Papers.

Irving Rosenthal edits to Naked Lunch

I decided to visit Stanford in order to inspect this copy of Naked Lunch. I have to say that it was an enlightening, even moving experience. It is common knowledge that Rosenthal used the Olympia edition to put together the Grove Press one, which has since become canonical. But until you see the Rosenthal copy in person you don’t really appreciate just how extensive an editing job he performed. At a glance, the book is the most beat-up copy of the Olympia edition that I have ever seen. The spine has been taped. The covers are cracked. The wrappers, normally a flat green, have been so thoroughly handled that they’re sort of greasy looking. Page after page after page contains proofreading symbols, deletions, insertions. Paragraphs are crossed out or moved around. There are inserts with typewritten text. There are sheets of paper with handwritten text — in various colors of ink — taped in. It resembles one of Burroughs’ cut-up scrapbooks from the 1960s. It’s tempting to think that this is exactly how Naked Lunch ought to look — jumbled, unstable, cobbled together from multiple sources, printed and typed and handwritten. “This book spill off the pages.”

Although the cover of the Rosenthal copy is beaten and worn, I was able to use a magnifying glass to ascertain one important detail. The price on the rear of this copy, which is indisputably from the first batch of books printed, contains a period: “1.500.” The price on the rear of the author copy and the Brion Gysin copy at the NYPL uses a period. The price on the copy purchased by a Harvard student in August or September 1959 also makes use of a period. Based on the evidence furnished by these four copies, it is difficult not to conclude that the very first copies of the printed book bear this previously unremarked point of distinction: they had periods in their prices. Books with commas came later. When? They had to have been printed before April 1960, the date scrawled by an owner on the Pleasure of Past Times copy. It’s possible that the Samuel Beckett book, the only other Olympia book of the time to have a comma in the price, suggests a date. Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnameable was printed in October 1959 by Imprimerie du Lion. Naked Lunch had been printed by S.I.P in Montreuil. Did Girodias, reaching out to a different printer for the Beckett volume, task them with generating another run of Naked Lunch? Did the same printer use the comma in both books?

Inscription to Gait Froge in her copy of Naked Lunch

Tracking down other known copies of the first printing would lend further weight to this thesis. The poet-bookseller Harry Nudel purchased Gait Frogé’s copy from her estate. Burroughs inscribed it, “For Gait Froige [sic] – The English Book Shop – Minutes to Go.” The inscription indicates that Burroughs can’t have signed the book before October 1959, when he began experimenting with the cut-up technique, and most likely signed it in April 1960 at the launch of Minutes to Go, which Frogé funded. Notably, the book has a period in the price on the rear. Paul Bowles’ copy appears to be held in the Paul Bowles Collection at the University of Delaware. Bowles himself can be seen showing the book to the camera in the 1995 documentary The Complete Outsider. A snapshot of it has also appeared online. Bowles had the book covered in red Moroccan leather. Was the rear cover with the price bound into the book? Was it taken off and thrown away? I have not been able to visit Delaware to find out. Alan Ansen’s copy is also a mystery. He received his by October 1, 1959, when he wrote Burroughs: “I did get your book and thank you ever so much for the inscription.” Where is Ansen’s copy? I have been unable to find out. Where is the review copy received by the Partisan Review? It is not catalogued in the Partisan Review archives at Boston University.

Another copy that has gone missing is Harold Norse’s. In Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, Norse describes how Burroughs personally gave him the book after a reception at the English Bookshop.

That evening Burroughs came to my room and handed me an inscribed copy with disarming warmth and shyness. “This copy is for you, Harold,” he said, standing in his topcoat and trilby, his back to the window that faced the street. I accepted it gratefully and read the inscription: “For Harold Norse, ally and accomplice, with very best wishes.”

Where is Norse’s copy? I cast around looking for it. Norse sold some papers to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Other papers landed at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. So far as I could find out, neither university has a record of it. I asked Todd Swindell, a friend of Norse who runs He suggested that it might have been pilfered. “Harold did have some of his archives stolen around 1996 by a friend of his roommate — a disastrous event that precipitated his heart attack. Perhaps there’s a chance it might have been amongst that material.” It must be in a collector’s library somewhere.

Putting It All Together

I managed to track down five copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch with documented histories — books that belonged to Burroughs, Gysin, Irving Rosenthal, Gait Frogé, and a Harvard student. Five of five have periods in the prices on the rear. It is reasonable to conclude that the “truest” firsts of Naked Lunch, the ones distributed in August 1959 before the dust jacket was finished, can only have been copies with the period in the price. Conversely, books with commas in the price were probably not available before fall 1959, when the Samuel Beckett book with a comma in the price was printed. The print runs were significantly larger than described by the bibliographies. The first printing, the one with the green border on the title page, was probably 10,000 copies. In my experience, period copies are somewhat rarer than comma copies. It is also harder to find period copies with the New Francs stamp, which suggests again that the period copies were issued prior to the comma ones. As a rough guess, I’d say something like 3,000 copies in the first print run had periods and the remainder had commas. The second official printing, the one with 18 francs on the rear wrapper and no green border on the title page, was printed in a run of at least 6,800 copies. Kearney’s date of “c. 1962” for the second printing is realistic but, in the absence of documentary evidence, it could have been earlier or later.

What about pirate editions? I stumbled on a pirate of the Grove Press Naked Lunch that’s in the Beinecke Library at Yale. It belonged to the Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot bibliographer Donald Gallup, who wrote in the front fly-leaf “A pirated ed. sold in Taiwan.” There were likely other pirates of the Grove edition but what about the Olympia? Given how often Olympia Press books were bootlegged, it’s logical to assume pirate editions of Naked Lunch must have been printed. Books too large for their wrapper might be an indicator but eventually I decided that my own Fat Boy wasn’t really that fat in comparison to other copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch that I’d accumulated. Other dust wrappers do fit on it and there are any number of plausible reasons to explain the sloppy fit of some wrappers. Maybe the jackets were scored wrong. Maybe the designer made an assumption about the length of the text and therefore the thickness of the book which changed as Burroughs and his collaborators revised Naked Lunch for publication. Nothing else about my Fat Boy screams “botch job from Formosa.”

Red pirate of Naked Lunch in Barry Miles' collection

I have learned of one pirate of Naked Lunch with an intriguing and indisputable backstory. The book was once in the collection of Barry Miles. It has red wrappers, which some Olympia titles did have, and was purchased by Brion Gysin in an Iranian airport during his pilgrimage to Hassan-i Sabbah’s mountain fortress in 1973. In “A Quick Trip to Alamut,” Gysin mentions finding copies of Naked Lunch for sale “in the airport of Isfahan… probably both bootlegged and pirated.” On his return, he gave one of these copies to Miles, writing in the front leaves, “This copy of Naked Lunch was bought at the airport at Isfahan, Iran and taken on the quick trip to Alamout Castle, the HQ of Hassan I Sabbah, Grand Master of the Assassins, on a very scary day, Wednesday Aug 22, 1973. Brion Gysin.” Burroughs inscribed it too, “All the best to Alamout by Brion Gysin. William Burroughs.” In an email, Miles shares that the book “is a straight forward offset litho reprint — no green border on the TP.” A pirate edition from the command post of Hassan-i Sabbah — this must be one of the coolest copies of Naked Lunch in existence. The thought of other red pirates floating around the mideast has tormented me during the years I’ve been researching the publication history of Naked Lunch. They must be out there.

There is one other pirate of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch in my possession. A few years ago, an eBay auction offered a 1959 text block of Naked Lunch with no wrappers. It had been in the collection of the San Francisco Public Library. Presumably the library rebound the book in boards which were removed when it was deaccessioned. Purchasing the text block, I set myself the task of recreating the famous green wrappers of the Olympia Press edition in Adobe InDesign. I printed this out on a color laser printer, fixed it to a sheet of cover stock, and wrapped the text block in it. My Fat Boy may not be a bootleg of Naked Lunch but I now have this piracy of one, a 1959/2018 hybrid of French printing and American do-it-yourselfism. I imagine dying one day and the book being sold off or deposited in a library along with the other copies of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch I’ve collected. So as not to confuse bibliographers, collectors, or librarians of the future, I made one tweak to the cover while recreating it. Below the 1.500 price on the rear, I added the domain name REALITYSTUDIO.ORG. If you ever see the book around, now you’ll know who pirated it.

DIY pirate of Naked Lunch in RealityStudio collection


Thanks to Barry Miles for sharing the red pirate of Naked Lunch formerly in his possession, Harry Nudel for sharing the Gait Frogé NL, and Jed Birmigham, Oliver Harris, and Jan Herman.



ASU. Ted Morgan Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Arizona State University Library.

Berg. William S. Burroughs Papers, 1951-1972, The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library.

HRC. Paul Bowles Collection 1897-1995, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Kansas. Burroughs-Hardiment collection, 1957 – 1964, Kenneth Spencer Research Library Repository, University of Kansas.

Stanford. Irving Rosenthal Papers, Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University.


Maynard, Joe, and Miles, Barry, William S. Burroughs: A Bibliography, 1953 – 1973, Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1978. Miles confirmed in an email on July 27, 2020 that they used Joe Maynard’s copy of Naked Lunch to write the description in their bibliography.

Kearney, Patrick, The Paris Olympia Press (New Edition Revised and Expanded), Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2007.


Unless otherwise specified in the notes, cited letters can be found in the two volumes of Burroughs’ correspondence.

Burroughs, William S., The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945 – 1959, edited by Oliver Harris, New York: Viking, 1993.

Burroughs, William S., Rub Out the Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1959 – 1974, edited by Bill Morgan, New York: HarperCollins, 2012.


William Burroughs to Paul Bowles, July 30, 1959. HRC.

Brion Gysin interview with Ted Morgan for Literary Outlaw, Tape 143 A. ASU.

Olympia Press royalty statements. Berg.

Maurice Girodias to Peter Matson, July 17, 1969. Berg.

Piero Heliczer to unnamed correspondent, fall 1959. Quoted in listing on for “Ten typed letters, nine of them with holograph additions, drawings and other embellishments; one typed postcard; one autograph postcard; and one autograph aerogramme from Michael Horovitz to Piero Heliczer, c. May – November 1959.”

Bill Dobson to William Burroughs, October 6, 1959. Kansas.

Allen Ginsberg to William Burroughs, August 14, 1959. Berg.

Allen Ginsberg to William Burroughs, September 29, 1959. Berg.

Allen Ginsberg to William Burroughs, November 17, 1959. Berg.

Henry Popkin, “The Famous and Infamous Wares of Monsieur Girodias,” New York Times, April 17, 1960.

Fran Muller to Judith Schmidt, September 21, 1959. Berg.

Gregory Corso to William Burroughs, September 29, 1959. Berg.

William Burroughs to Kells Elvins, November 13, 1959. Berg.

Irving Rosenthal to William Burroughs, August 23, 1959. Stanford.

Photographs of Gait Frogé’s copy of Naked Lunch were very kindly provided by poet-bookseller Harry Nudel.

Alan Ansen to William Burroughs, October 1, 1959. Berg.

Barry Miles to the author, July 30, 2017, email.

Written and published by RealityStudio on 26 July 2020.

2 thoughts on “Secrets of the Olympia Press Naked Lunch

  1. pleasure to read this : my copy has the comma Francs : 1,500
    and i got it a few years ago from a bloke in Brighton – he might have got it from a dealer in 1959/60 on the Newhaven ferry, a well-known way of by-passing the Customs in Dover… “

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