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William S Burrough's Biographer Comments Upon The Factual Integrity of the Sundance film BEAT

Hey folks... Harry here. Well, while we are running the inside skinny on this whole DISNEY thing... It seems we are also going to get the inside skinny today on the events in the recent SUNDANCE film "BEAT" concerning William S Burrough's life according to his biographer... James Grauerholz. Personally this is exciting and interesting as all hell. Read... become impassioned or outraged... And voice your own reaction.

What follows below is a statement from James Grauerholz on the film, "Beat," I told him that the list was having a discussion on the film and the truth/fiction of the Joan/Lucien relationship. In my opinion, no one is better qualified than he to unravel the truth from the fiction. This is his response. Everything below this line is written by James. DC



Statement by James Grauerholz, companion and biographer of William S. Burroughs

February 1, 2000

Concerning the film BEAT:

BEAT, a film written and directed by Gary Walkow and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2000, purports to be a true story from the lives of William S. Burroughs, Joan Vollmer, Lucien Carr, David Kammerer, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, et al. The production's official website (at contains such assertions as these:

"Beat is a true story. The events depicted in the screenplay are entirely factual and based on extensive research. In writing the script, Gary Walkow read all the available published material and examined the source materials held in Columbia University's Rare Book Library. Before they died, Walkow met and talked with William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, the man who introduced Burroughs to heroin and lived with Bill and Joan in Texas. [...] The events depicted in 1951 Mexico are also entirely factual. [...] From all accounts there was a romantic undercurrent and sexual aspect to the Lucien/Joan relationship."

Unfortunately, judging from two drafts of Walkow's screenplay which I have in my possession (one of them the final shooting script), the story of BEAT is falsified and distorted. Far from "distinguish[ing] the real from the myth," it merely adds another layer of myth to the biographical record. The _real_true story of the origins of the "Beats"--beginning with a circle of friendships in New York in the mid-1940s--is quite dramatic enough, without being "dramatized" in this way.

Furthermore, Walkow did not discuss this movie with William Burroughs. In July 1996, on the way back to Kansas from the "Ports of Entry" museum show in Los Angeles, William and I were approached at L.A. International Airport by a man who said he was a filmmaker, but we did not talk with him, because he seemed to be a creep. The entire encounter lasted about three minutes.

I do not know whether Walkow ever met the late Herbert Huncke, but if he did, SUBS listmember Laki Vazakas would certainly know about it, because while working on his documentary film about Huncke's (and Louis Cartwright's) last years, Laki and his friends were Huncke's continual companions. I don't believe any substantial Walkow-Huncke meeting ever occurred.

I have admired the acting work of Kiefer Sutherland and Courtney Love (who play the characters called "Bill" and "Joan"), and I don't think it is an actor's job to verify the historicity of a screenplay--but with the best intentions toward them and the rest of Walkow's cast, I do think it is my job as a scholar to point out this kind of historical falsehood.

Walkow has no right to claim that BEAT is a realistic portrayal of these events and relationships. His understanding of the real-life models for his melodrama is appallingly superficial. Walkow is free to make up any sort of movie he pleases, but when he claims that movie is "a true story," he ought to be called to account for his perversions of the facts.

In August 1944 Lucien Carr killed David Kammerer, without premeditation, at the end of a six-year relationship that began when Carr was thirteen and Kammerer was twenty-seven. According to William Burroughs--who had been best friends with Kammerer since 1926--Carr never slept with Kammerer, although they both somehow kept the "pursued/pursuer" scenario going for six years. The death permanently marked Carr's life, and strongly impressed Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. These were indeed "real people" with real sufferings, and it is inhumane to toy with their true stories; any dramatization of this should have been written with care for the truth, and with compassion for the subjects.

Burroughs did not speak to Carr about the latter's relationship with Kammerer, as shown in BEAT; to the contrary, he remonstrated with Kammerer about it. Quoting Burroughs from an interview with biographer Ted Morgan, on July 12, 1983: "[Kammerer] became obsessed with Lucien Carr. I told him ‘This is silly, this is awful.’ I said ‘It’s also completely selfish, you’re not really interested in him, you’re interested in some idea of him that you have. And what you’re trying to do is not at all to his advantage.’ Which it sure wasn’t. He just couldn’t see it." Burroughs' relationship with the much-younger Carr was not such that he would have chided Carr about the matter.

Walkow's most irresponsible invention is an imaginary love affair between Carr and Joan Vollmer, a young woman who was at the center of the early Beat circle. Vollmer had many loves, and she ended up involved with Burroughs, becoming his wife in 1946. Carr had a steady girlfriend in New York from late 1943 to summer 1944. He did not pursue Vollmer at all. This is verified by the unpublished mid-1940s journals of the teenaged Ginsberg, by Vollmer's letters to her best friend Edith Parker, by Kerouac's journals, and by what I have been told by Burroughs, Ginsberg and Carr himself. And yet, Walkow makes this "romance" the mainspring of his movie.

Carr did not proceed, as shown in BEAT, immediately from the scene of Kammerer's death to the Upper West Side apartment of Vollmer, to confess the killing to her. In reality, he went first to the Greenwich Village apartment of Burroughs (who was Kammerer's best friend in New York), to relate the tragedy to him. Later, Carr found Kerouac, and they spent some hours together. By the time Vollmer learned of Kammerer's death, Carr had already turned himself in to the police. Walkow must have created this lie so as to bolster the fictional "Carr-Vollmer romance."

By summer 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were living in Mexico City. While Burroughs was in South America with Lewis Marker, a young Army veteran whom he was pursuing, Ginsberg and Carr arrived for a visit. They spent a week with Vollmer, drinking in the Bounty Bar and making a car trip to Guadalajara and back. At the Bounty they met the bartender, John Healy; the childhood friend of Marker, Edwin Woods, Jr., a fellow veteran, arrived from Florida just after Ginsberg and Carr left town. Burroughs and Marker also returned around the same time, but they were traveling separately at that point.

Neither Healy nor Woods--the real-life models of bartender "Heard" and bar patron "Dwight" at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City--would have had any amorous designs on Vollmer, as shown in BEAT. ("Heard" says he had been hoping to "get Joanie alone tonight.") Healy was sleeping with an older woman--Juanita Penaloza, the landlady of the building where the Bounty was located--and he was good friends with Burroughs. I interviewed Healy for six hours in the early 1990s, and he told me that he found Joan Vollmer unattractive. As noted, Woods was not even there when Ginsberg and Carr were.

The BEAT shooting script has Ginsberg, referring to Burroughs, telling Vollmer: "It's kind of funny, but we've both been involved with the same man." A moment later he adds: "I didn't stay with Bill because he was sucking me dry. He was a psychic vampire—his phrase." This is based on nothing but Walkow's imagination. Burroughs was not at all attracted to Ginsberg during the early period of their friendship, in 1943-1946; his romantic attraction to Ginsberg did not develop until two full years after Vollmer's death.

When Burroughs and Marker return to Mexico City, Ginsberg and Carr have already left. According to Walkow's fantasy, Carr has made a final, all-out effort to bring Joan back with him to New York. A phony dialog scene between "Bill" and "Joan" has them arguing about this, and sets up the false dynamic of "Bill's jealousy" over "Joan and Lucien's romance."

When the story of BEAT reaches its melodramatic climax, Vollmer and Burroughs are shown in "Heard's" apartment with "Lee" (Lewis Marker, the young man who had just spent six weeks with Burroughs in Ecuador--not "Guatemala") and "Dwight" (Edwin Woods, Jr.). "Joan" rudely taunts and needles "Lee" and "Dwight"--although in reality, according to numerous eyewitness accounts of the period, it was Burroughs for whom Vollmer reserved her taunting and teasing.

The sheer inanity and lack of realistic motivation in Walkow's script can only be illustrated by quoting what happens next:


Bill fiddles with the gun, unhappy with the gloomy party.
JOAN: "Well ..."
BILL: "Well ... "
JOAN (annoyed): "I"m so bored."
BILL (taunting): "Shall we show them our William Tell act?"Joan is initially surprised, but smiles at his dare.
JOAN: "Okay, William. Show them our parlor trick."She finishes her drink. Joan stands and puts the empty highball glass on her head. Dwight looks startled. Lee, used to Bill"s outre behavior, is more blase. Bill raises the gun, milking the moment. He points the gun just above her head. Out of the corner of his eye he watches Lee, hopeful of impressing him. Joan is annoyed by Bill"s coquetry.
Joan smiles skeptically at Bill, daring him. Joan glances at Lee, with a contemptous smile. Dwight looks more afraid than Joan. His muscles tense, as if he is about to grab for the gun. But he is also embarrassed about seeming uncool, and so stays tensely seated.
Nobody says anything.
Bill takes careful aim. But he seems to be waiting for something--for Joan to call it off.
Joan is silently taunting Bill--it"s up to him to stop.
A tense tableau: Joan--Bill--Lee--Dwight.
The moment stretches with unbearable tension, the silent dare neither Joan nor Bill will back down from.


Talk about "milking the moment"--! A "tableau," indeed. The actual eyewitnesses, Marker and Woods, both told biographer Ted Morgan that the incident happened very, very fast--the way such things usually do, in real life. Marker remembered that he had only a split-second to wonder if he should deflect the gun, and before he could decide that it might just make things worse, Burroughs fired ... inadvertently creating an enduring myth, one that seems irresistible to melodramatists.

It should be noted that Walkow and the film's producers did not ever show the courtesy of any approach whatsoever to the estates and survivors of Burroughs and Ginsberg, et al., nor most tellingly, to my friend Lucien Carr--who is alive and well, leading a private life that the lies of this film are sure to invade. But for Carr to attempt to punish Walkow and his producers in court for this onslaught would force him to abandon the very privacy that he seeks to protect. BEAT is a callous abuse of this man's situation in his retirement years--and William Burroughs, having died in 1997, can no longer protect himself from the opportunistic piracy of this movie.

Walkow wants to utilize the actual, famous-name Beat characters, and the true-to-life fascination that they still exert fifty years later, to illustrate a wholly made-up love affair. But it is easily demonstrable that the real people, living and dead, whose personalities he is hijacking did not act or feel as he makes them do in his screenplay. Walkow starts from the actual facts, but then he gratuitously adds a great deal of pure invention that obscures the truth.

In particular, I want interested parties to know, on behalf of the William Burroughs Estate and my own biographical scholarship, that I did not cooperate in any way with this film.


P.S. to statement:

Andrew Lampert posted Jan. 28:

Watson writes (p.145) that during Lucien Carr's visit to Mexico (August 1951) he "helped Joan marshal her diffuse marital discontent, for she and Carr shared romantic feelings (perhaps never acted on sexually), and after he left she petitioned for a divorce in Cuernavaca."

Andrew's intelligent comments contain a small but significant error: Lucien made two trips to Mexico -- in August 1950, with Liz Lehrman (AKA Liza Williams, see the Rolling Stone Book of the Beats) -- and again in August 1951, with Allen Ginsberg. I'm not sure where Steven Watson (whose book, The Birth of the Beat Generation, is extremely good, by the way) got this idea about a "divorce" -- Joan and William were never legally married. There is, however, a brief mention in one of the contemporary 1951 Mexican newspaper accounts of something like this, in Cuernavaca in September 1950. Note that if Lucien was "carrying a torch" for Joan, he would not have brought along his girlfriend, Lehrman, for their 1950 reunion in Mexico. His 1951 trip with Allen was undertaken for the occasion of the wedding of a UPI friend of Lucien's in Mexico.


Please note that the "beatmovie" website offers an email address to which comments from the Public may be sent: it is one of the producers, an experienced Hollywood fellow named Alain Silver, and the address is

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