by Tim Gilmore, 5/10/2019
1. Disembodied Voice Reciting the Sunflower in a Room in Springfield
In 1952, while the Beat novelist William S. Burroughs awaited trial for killing his “common law” wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City, he wrote most of the novel Queer, in which a fictionalized Burroughs named William Lee pursues a fictionalized Adelbert Lewis Marker named Eugene Allerton with undisguised lustful aggression through Mexico City.
Lewis Marker, who grew up in Jacksonville and lived in several houses in the historic neighborhood of Springfield, was present with Eddie Woods, another Jax native, when Burroughs killed Joan Vollmer. Burroughs suppressed the publication of Queer for more than three decades, until in 1985, he wrote an introduction in which he claimed, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death.” He says otherwise elsewhere.
Since, by New Year’s, 1954, Burroughs’s fellow Beat writers and comrades Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg still didn’t understand if Joan’s death were murder, suicide or accident, Ginsberg hitchhiked from Washington State to Florida, where he got out in Jacksonville to hang out with Marker.
Ginsberg had fashioned himself Burroughs’s amateur literary agent. Burroughs had published his 1951 first novel Junky in ’53, but was already writing Queer in 1952. When Ginsberg came to Jacksonville, it was still nearly two years before his legendary reading of the long poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where publisher and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti heard it and decided he had to publish it. Kerouac’s On the Road wouldn’t appear until ’57 and the Beats were not yet the most infamous writers in America.
In his mammoth 2006 biography I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, Bill Morgan describes how Ginsberg hitchhiked 3,000 miles from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South. Hitchhiking was still an easy thing to do in the mid-1950s. “It was the Christmas season and people were friendly.” So Ginsberg “jumped out at Jacksonville,” made his way through the city to a dilapidated boarding house in Springfield, just north of downtown, to drink rum with Lewis Marker and ascertain “the circumstances surrounding Joan’s death.”
Ginsberg wrote Kerouac, “Saw Marker in Jacksonville—a sweet fellow who donated $12 to my trip on his own hook, very simpatico.” He stayed with Marker “in big moldy apartment in slums house that he owns,” where the two got drunk and had a “great long talk about mystical ignu’s personality.”
Ginsberg would publish a poem called “Ignu” in Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960, in which Ignu appears as a great comedic mystical force: “Ignu has sought you out he’s the seeker of God / and God breaks down the world for him every ten years / he sees lightning flash in empty daylight when the sky is blue / he hears Blake’s disembodied Voice recite the Sunflower in a room in Harlem.”
2. Sickly Scarecrow
Ginsberg probably stayed with Marker in the boarding house at 118 East 4th Street where city directories listed “A. Lewis Marker,” roomer and student, in 1950, though it’s doubtful his family owned the building. Later biographical profiles referred to Marker as being from “a good family,” but if that designation were meant to infer wealth, as usual, it wasn’t accurate.
Marker was a student on the newly established G.I. Bill, having left the Army after three years working counter-intelligence in Germany. From 1955 into the early 1960s, Lew Marker roomed at 331 East 10th Street, the other side of Main Street from where his mother, in a rare position for a single woman, now owned her own home.
In 1937, Marker had lived with his parents, rooming at 111 East 6th Street. Though the reasons have blurred into time, Marker’s mother Edna filed for divorce in 1940, when few women made such claims and fewer still were granted them. The divorce finalized in 1945, Lewis’s father Leo moved south, and Lew stayed with his mother in Springfield. The year prior, he’d roomed with her at 516 West 10th Street. The year after, Edna bought the handsome little woodframe house where Lew lived at 117 East 11th Street.
In the 1940s, to be a teenage boy living with a single mother who’d entered a suit of divorce and won was to be a freak. It was a time when mothers were blamed for everything that might go wrong with a child, and when, most garishly, mothers too flagrantly independent were thought to put their sons in danger of homosexuality, then a recognized mental illness. By 1950, Lew lived in his own apartment on East 4th, having served the United States Counter-Intelligence Corps for a short stint in post-Hitler Germany.
Burrough’s early writing, Ginsberg’s too, stakes an outlaw morality, rebelling wildly against the conservative postwar culture. Marker’s childhood history, combined with a wanderlust enabled by the U.S. military, led him to assume Burroughs, 16 years older, knew his sexuality better than he himself did. He acquiesced to Burroughs sexually when the older writer hounded, harassed and stalked him. Then Ginsberg arrived in the center of this Southern’s city’s midcentury decay, its grand houses moldering, wanting to know the truth, but already defensive of Burroughs and of himself.
Though Marker gave Ginsberg twelve bucks toward his further travels (more than $100 in today’s money), Ginsberg described his looks viciously in his letter to Kerouac. Whereas Ginsberg calls Marker “starved-looking and rickety,” with bad skin, and “pursey-mouthed,” Burroughs writes, in Queer, “Allerton was tall and very thin, with high cheekbones, a small bright-red mouth, and amber-colored eyes that took on a faint violet flush when he was drunk.”
“The first sight of him was a shock,” Ginsberg wrote Kerouac. “Poor poor Bill! To be in love with that sickly myopic pebblemouthed scarecrow!”
3. “Never Write Again”
In his 2002 thesis for the University of Kansas, “The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened?” James Grauerholz mentions Lewis Marker 93 times. Grauerholz, heir to and executor of Burroughs’s estate, never answers definitively the question in his title.
“It was at the Bounty Bar, in May 1951,” Grauerholz writes, “that Burroughs met Adelbert Lewis Marker and began to woo the owlish-looking 21-year-old American boy from Jacksonville, Florida. Lewis Marker was a veteran of postwar service […] and an indifferent student at Mexico City College.” Burroughs dedicated his first novel, Junky, “To A.L.M.,” Adelbert Lewis Marker.
Marker testified in Burroughs’s trial in Mexico that he’d heard the writer tell his wife, “It’s about time for our William Tell act. Put a glass on your head, Joan.” The trial entertained questions about whether this “act” were something Burroughs and Vollmer had done before. Everyone who testified said it was not. Supposedly the glass fell from Joan’s head without breaking, though four recently emptied gin bottles banged about beneath.
Friends said Joan was always drunk and frequently suicidal. One story had a suicidal Joan mocking Burroughs, who was almost as fascinated with guns as he was with younger men, and making fun of his marksmanship. In New York, however, before moving to Mexico City to support Burroughs’s flight from drug charges, Joan had written poetry and turned her apartment into an impromptu literary salon.
Meanwhile, Burroughs, later associated with the down-and-out counterculture of the Beat Generation, loafed the world as the wealthy heir of the Burroughs Corporation, his grandfather’s business machine company. Headlines referred to him not as some subversive street novelist, but as affluent business heir.
Furthermore, Burroughs’s tone in Queer toward the Latin American countries he wanders is unrelentingly racist, smug, entitled and elitist. The “William Lee” of Queer isn’t rebellious, he’s just irresponsible, and his supposed counterculture is paternalistically conservative: toward Latin America, toward Adelbert Lewis Marker, and toward Joan Vollmer.
Whatever Vollmer might later have written and created, she became background for Burroughs’s biography. Burroughs turned her death into the reason he became a writer, though he was already writing, wrote a novel about Lewis Marker that fails to mention Joan at all while awaiting trial for killing her, and in late summer 1952 told Allen Ginsberg that Marker, not Joan, was his reason for writing, even saying that if Marker didn’t like the novel Queer, Burroughs would never write again.
Neither, he failed to mention, would Joan.
4. Suppression and Suspension in Absentia
Joan knew about her husband’s insatiable and predatory lust for young men and his unrequited obsession with Lewis Marker. In Queer, Burroughs, awaiting trial for Joan’s murder, writes of William Lee reading aloud to Allerton [Marker] from a newspaper “a story about a man who murders his wife and children.” Meanwhile, something about Lee always “put Allerton on guard,” since when Lee talked, “He seemed to mean more than what he said.” Though Lee finds easy assignations in fiendish bars, he always botches his interactions with Allerton, over whom he runs “ectoplasmic fingers” as the two drink deep into the night.
Ostensibly fiction, Queer reads more like a memoir. Reading the novel alongside Burroughs’s letters and diaries shows that he made up almost nothing in Queer except for names.
All of which brings us back to the fact that Burroughs suppressed Queer for 33 years. Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs knew that writing about sex in the 1950s often led to arrest. In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was briefly jailed for publishing Ginsberg’s Howl. Queer is crass, but it contains no explicit sex scenes and plots a much more straightforward narrative than Burroughs’s later work. Never not controversial, Burroughs infamously wrote, in 1959’s The Naked Lunch, of “the man who taught his asshole to talk,” until the “asshole” grew teeth and told “the man who taught” it, “It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here anymore. I can talk and eat and shit.”
Burroughs wrote Queer as his trial encountered repeated delays. Finally Burroughs “skipped,” re-entering the United States through Louisiana. He’d first fled to Mexico City after being arrested in New Orleans for possession of heroin, but upon his reentry, Louisiana hadn’t issued a new warrant. In Mexico, he received a suspended sentence of two years for manslaughter in absentia.
5. “As Far as I Know, It Was All Nice and Quiet”
In 1985, when Ted Morgan interviewed Lewis Marker in Jacksonville one late Sunday night, January 27th, and into the early hours of the 28th, he noted, “Lewis Marker becomes very noticeably drunk and slurred, and his recollections are progressively less and less clear.”
Morgan’s book Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs was published in October 1988. Contrary to newspaper reports of Marker’s testimony, he doesn’t recall his Jacksonville friend Eddie Woods at the death scene at all. Instead, he remembers Eddie’s sister Betty. Here’s the stream-of-consciousness Cliff Notes version:
“I think he probably had a three-room, I don’t remember. Must have been about five stories high. Joan was a little withdrawn from the scene downstairs. Crippled, as I recall, probably polio or something like that. Attractive, in a low-keyed sort of way. It wasn’t unusual for people down there to have guns. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t extraordinary for people to get shot. One of them right there in the Bounty. Above the Bounty, it was his apartment. Betty Jones and I were up there for a couple of drinks. Just the four of us, me and Betty and Bill and Joan. Betty Jones, she was married but she was not all that close to Glenn.
“I always had the hots for Betty. For the only reason that she happened to be handy. But we were never all that close. At the time, it didn’t occur to anybody that there was anything especially alarming. Whatever conversation there was previous was the usual sort of drivel. Then some mention of William Tell. Probably even mentioned the glass on the head, since they didn’t have an apple. You could ascribe it to confidence in his marksmanship, or anything you want to ascribe it to, but there was no particular indication that I could see.
“As to why she was agreeable to the little act. It was a little different than how it came out in the court. It was a little William Tell act, but the shot was three inches low. All of us sat around completely stunned. I was the first to move. I don’t even think Betty had the presence of mind to scream. As far as I know, it was all nice and quiet. Everybody sitting there, staring. Once you see the red trickle, you’re past the disbelief point, you know what happened.”
6. The Last Sex Dream
After wandering together through Ecuadorian rain forests in search of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca, Marker had finally had enough of Burroughs and gone back to Jacksonville.
Burroughs, who’d visited Marker at least twice in Springfield, wrote him letter after letter. Marker did not respond. In March 1952, Burroughs wrote Ginsberg, “Marker is in Florida, and plans no trip North. He is short of $ and hates cold weather. He has bought a boat, and we may sail back to Ecuador.” In August 1953, Burroughs wrote Ginsberg, “I never heard from Marker after I left Mexico, though I wrote ten letters to his home address in Florida.” In other letters Burroughs wrote Ginsberg fantasies about starting a hog farm with Marker in Panama, then wrote that he was “deeply hurt and disappointed” that Marker wanted “to take Army Exchange civilian job in China or Europe.”
Burroughs sent Ginsberg a poem called “To M.,” which ends, “I let it happen like I let the habit happen. / I knew it would hurt. / I didn’t care. / O.K. So you won’t. / So you can’t. / Nothing to come down with. / Kick it cold. / I won’t be sick forever. / Muscles twitch to rest. / The gut unknots and turns over.”
In another letter, Burroughs wrote Ginsberg that he’d written Marker another “five or six letters,” with “fantasies and routines in my best vein but he doesn’t answer.” Burroughs crossed out “and I feel I am making a nuisance of myself.” Later, he mentions a book he sent Marker for his birthday, several “clippings from newspapers and magazines I think might interest him,” even a life insurance policy for which he’d make Marker beneficiary.
In October 1952, Burroughs wrote Ginsberg, “I don’t see myself writing a sequel to Queer or writing anything more at all at this point. I wrote Queer for Marker. I guess he doesn’t think much of it or of me.”
On November 5, 1952, just more than a year since Burroughs killed Joan Vollmer, he wrote Ginsberg, “Marker and I are reconciled.” Burroughs had visited Marker in Jacksonville where, once again, he clumsily and aggressively seduced him, and now wrote, “He likes me well enough in his way. I know how far his way is from my way.” He scratched out lines saying that Marker agreed to sex, “even if he doesn’t like it, and just does it to oblige once in a while.” Burroughs then bought Marker’s “way back to Mexico City for a few days.”
After that last stay in Mexico, it’s unclear whether Marker and Burroughs ever met again, and if so, when, how often, and under what circumstances. When Marker’s mother, remarried as Edna Rehberg, died in Jacksonville in 1975, Lew Marker was living in Isfahan, Iran, working as accountant supervisor for Bell Helicopter International. Throughout his life, Lew Marker made a pattern of moving abroad from Jax, then moving back to Jax. In the 1990s, he ran Jacksonville Maytag Homestyle Laundromat.
Burroughs wrote Marker into cameo appearances as Allerton in several more novels, the last of which was The Western Lands in 1987. Allerton appears twice in Burroughs’s 1997 My Education: A Book of Dreams. On April 15, 1997, Burroughs wrote, in his personal diary, “Last night sex dream of Marker.” Not four months later, Burroughs was dead. He suffered a heart attack on the first of August and died the next day.
Adelbert Lewis Marker died a year and 10 days after Burroughs recorded his last dream of him. When he died on Saturday, April 25, 1998, he left behind his Vietnamese wife, with whom he’d raised two sons with Vietnamese names, and two grandsons. He’d worked for years supervising accounts for Philco-Ford Corp. in Vietnam before moving back to Jacksonville. Whether or not he really had plans to sail to Ecuador with Burroughs when he bought a boat in the early 1950s, his obituary 45 years later called him a “sailing enthusiast.”
Nobody wrote Joan an obit. In one scene in Queer, Burroughs writes, “The busboy had caught a mouse and was holding it up by the tail. Lee pulled out an old-fashioned .22 revolver he sometimes carried. ‘Hold the son of a bitch out and I’ll blast it,’ he said, striking a Napoleonic pose. The boy tied a string to the mouse’s tail and held it out at arm’s length. Lee fired from a distance of three feet. His bullet tore the mouse’s head off.”
Burroughs wrote this scene just months after shooting his wife in the head and killing her. Joan, who liked to taunt Burroughs’s manhood, was no mouse. If her death was an accident, Burroughs, as Lee, this time, was a sure shot.
Whether or not this scene serves as some roman à clef confession, Joan should write the next chapter. Somebody resurrect her. Somebody start the séance. Somebody bring her back to life, age 28, and let her launch a career. So what that Joan entered Bellevue after psychotic episodes during amphetamine use in 1946. Burroughs always looked like a corpse, so stand his up, and let Joan fire the next shot. We’ll pretend it’s an old-fashioned duel. Joan’s next move might just be the truest, most beautiful thing anyone’s ever written.