Jack Kerouac is known in the popular imagination as the harbinger of the Beat movement – a free-wheeling spirit who “hit the road” in search of a good time and the meaning of life and in the process developed a blazing new literary style. When he died in 1969, Kerouac left an estate valued at ninety-one dollars. Needless to say, at the time few people were very concerned about getting their piece of the Kerouac pie. Today, however, that same estate is estimated to be worth approximately ten million dollars. Not a big deal in and of itself, but, almost inevitably, when large sums of money are involved, strange things start to happen. And in this case, they are still happening.
Upon his death, Kerouac’s ninety-one dollar estate – which included his unpublished literary output – went to his mother, who subsequently died in 1973, leaving the estate to the author’s third wife and widow Stella, who, herself, died in 1990, leaving the estate to her family. Her brother John Sampas assumed the role of executor of the estate.
But there was one rather obvious glitch, and this glitch’s name was Jan Kerouac, who just happened to be the daughter of the late writer. Not surprisingly, Ms. Kerouac found the whole Sampas situation rather questionable and so in 1994 she took the Sampas family to court to contest the validity of the family’s claim to the estate. This claim centered around the validity of Kerouac’s mother’s will, namely, that her signature had been forged. There was, in fact, some basis for this claim, since the man who supposedly witnessed the signature later said that he, in fact, witnessed no such thing. In addition, there was a letter Jack Kerouac wrote to his nephew in 1969, in which he stated his desire to leave his estate to his blood family and also mentioned his intention of divorcing his then-wife. The Sampas family claimed the letter was a forgery.
The story took yet another turn when Jan Kerouac died in 1996, leaving Gregory Nicosia – a Kerouac biographer – as her “literary executor.” As if this wasn’t enough, Ms. Kerouac appointed her husband John Lash as her overall executor, thus further complicating matters because Lash did not agree with the lawsuit, claiming it was his wife’s dying wish to see it dropped. Nicosia eventually resigned as literary executor in September of 1999 and Jan Kerouac’s lawsuit was thrown out of court a month later.
With all of the legal wranglings finally winding down, the Sampas family began looking for a buyer for the state. They found it on August 21, 2001, when the Berg collection of the NY Public library bought the estate for an undisclosed amount of money. Plans are to release it to the public by 2005 or the completion of the authorized Kerouac biography – whichever comes first. Just months before the sale, the original “On the Road” manuscript fetched over $2.43 million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction.
This whole convoluted matter calls to mind the place of a writer’s oeuvre in the public domain. Is a literary work any different than a painting that is sold at auction? Does anyone ever really own something as timeless and as wonderful as a great work of art? Is it right to deny the public access – for whatever length of time – to the unpublished work of a seminal writer just because people with little relation to him or his work can’t seem to agree on things? Was everyone just in it for the money? What would Jack Kerouac – a man who esteemed simplicity, meditation and contemplation of life’s deeper issues – have thought of the whole affair? The one good thing we can say about this whole situation is that at least poor old Jack never sold out. You can bet ninety-one dollars on that!
Patrick Raftery is a writer, painter and musician who lives in Staten Island, New York with his wife and cat. He holds a Master’s Degree in English from St. John’s University and is currently at work on a screenplay.
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The Estate of Jack Kerouac