Looking for Bill

Half a century ago, cult writer William S. Burroughs called Texas home. I wanted to know where—and why.

October 2001By Comments

Rob Johnson and James Grauerholz stood in the ruins of an old Mexican bar one evening in May looking for William S. Burroughs. In its heyday, Joe’s Place was a dazzling Reynosa nightclub that featured showgirls in peekaboo outfits and white feather headdresses, roaring fireplaces beside murals of volcanoes, and an array of exotic animals—monkeys, peacocks, drinking bears—that roamed the bar untethered. Burroughs was, improbably, living just across the border in the South Texas town of Pharr during the late forties and is believed to have frequented Joe’s. A good friend of his was mauled to death there when he drunkenly decided to “pet the cats” (the lions, that is). Burroughs wrote a short story about the incident called “Tiger in the Valley”; though the manuscript is now lost, Johnson and Grauerholz hope to find it. “Kerouac called it ‘exquisite and macabre,'” Johnson says.The two scholars—Johnson is an English professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Grauerholz the executor of the Burroughs estate—are studying the Beat Generation icon’s years in Texas. Theirs is not an easy task. Though Burroughs is considered one of the most brilliant and daring American writers of the twentieth century, his time here is all but forgotten. He is best remembered for the more infamous chapters of his life: the accidental shooting of his wife in Mexico City during a game of William Tell; the obscenity trial over his novel Naked Lunch; the self-imposed exile that led him to wander from North America to South America, Europe, and Africa; the addictions that consumed him. Overlooked are his alternately hilarious and lyrical descriptions of Texas, which can be found in many of his major works, and his brief residency here, which was marked by the sort of outrageous behavior that would later make him a cult figure.

This spring I tagged along with Johnson and Grauerholz as they visited Burroughs’ South Texas haunts. Joe’s Place was our last stop, a cavernous building in the heart of the zona rosa that was in a state of disrepair and was being demolished for renovation. There was no roof, only an evening sky above; shattered tiles were strewn across the packed dirt where the dance floor had once been. The plaster walls, which were the color of burnt orange, stood intact. Reynosa historian César Humberto Isassi Cantú and a short, sprightly dancer named Jorge de Anda Figueroa, who worked at Joe’s when Burroughs lived in the Valley, greeted us warmly, regaling us with stories about the old days. After listening for a while, Johnson pulled out a black and white photo of Burroughs and handed it to Figueroa. “Did you ever see this man at Joe’s?” he asked. The old man stared at the photo for a long time, then shook his head.

We all retired to a nearby bar, where we would spend the evening discussing Burroughs over glasses of cold Mexican beer. As we walked there, the tunes of mariachis drifted past us, sweet and lonesome. American girls in prom dresses teetered by, barely steadied by their boyfriends in rented tuxedos. That night, in the fading evening light, you could almost see William S. Burroughs—properly dressed in his snap-brim hat and three-piece suit, his tie slightly askew—slipping down the streets of Reynosa and disappearing into the crowd.

"A premonition of doom hangs over the Valley," Burroughs wrote in his novel Junky about the stretch of South Texas he once called home. "You have to make it now before something happens, before the black fly ruins the citrus, before support prices are taken off the cotton, before the flood, the hurricane, the freeze, the long dry spell . . . The threat of disaster is always there, persistent and disquieting as the afternoon wind. The Valley was desert, and it will be desert again. Meanwhile you try to make yours while there is still time.

"The hunt for Burroughs' lost years in Texas began two years ago when the forty-year-old Johnson was researching the Beats. "I saw these Pharr return addresses on his letters and I was amazed, because I hadn't realized he'd lived here," Johnson says. "It turned out that his land was only a few miles from the university." Ever since, Johnson has documented what little could be found about Burroughs' life in South Texas from tax records, letters, and news clippings, an undertaking whose first payoff was finding the farm that Burroughs once owned. When Johnson subsequently took his graduate students there and read to them from Junky, one student knelt down and scooped up a handful of dirt as a keepsake.

The morning we set out on our tour was hot and dry. Grauerholz—who was Burroughs' editor, manager, and companion from 1974 until his death in 1997—is writing a two-volume biography for Grove Press. Although the 48-year-old has devoted more than half of his life to the writer, the Valley years remain a mystery. As we drove past grapefruit groves and sugarcane fields, Grauerholz studied the flat, verdant landscape. We soon turned into a modest residential neighborhood in Pharr, where we stopped by a large white rooming house with peeling paint. Peering at it in the morning light, we drew the attention of an old woman who was sweeping the front porch. Johnson leaned over and said, "This is as close as I can get to saying, 'Burroughs slept here.'"

Burroughs came to South Texas to start anew. The scion of an old St. Louis family, he had spent the early forties in New York City, where he acquired a taste for morphine as part of the so-called libertine circle of future Beats that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He was arrested in 1946 for forging a prescription for opiates, and as a condition of his suspended sentence, he returned to St. Louis to spend the summer in his parents' care. There he reconnected with his oldest friend, Kells Elvins, who had recently inherited a modest farming enterprise in the Rio Grande Valley. Elvins suggested that they go into business together, and Burroughs, then 32 and directionless, struck out for Texas and bought some land of his own. He soon wrote to Ginsberg from his farm near Pharr: "Money to be made here like picking fruit off the trees. Grapefruit that is."

Burroughs hoped this get-rich-quick scheme would provide him with money of his own so that if he got crosswise with the law—as he had in New York—he wouldn't need his parents' assistance. His letters are filled with mundane calculations of the profits that were sure to begin rolling in. ("Our first crop will come off in about a week," he wrote Ginsberg. "Peas. We should gross about $5,000 on this deal. Lettuce and carrots are coming along. I should be in the $ by Xmas.") Still, he did little in the way of hard work, depending instead on hired hands to do the labor for him and Elvins. "There was no particular point in looking at the cotton since neither of us knew the first thing about it," Burroughs wrote in Junky. "We just drove around to pass the time until five p.m., when we started drinking."

Burroughs, Elvins, and their friends in Pharr "were ne'er-do-well, hard-drinking playboys—the black sheep of the country club set," explained Grauerholz. "In Texas they could drink and carry on and not embarrass their families back home." Carry on they did, with outings to Corpus Christi, where they rubbed shoulders with a rowdy bunch of oilmen and talked of striking it rich. Back in Pharr, they built an "orgone energy accumulator," a peculiar metal and plywood box that supposedly generated "good" energy. And they made excursions to Mexico, where they once had themselves injected with the Bogomolets serum, a dubious life-extension potion that was outlawed in the U.S. Though it promised to prolong one's life to the age of 125, the only discernible effect it had on Burroughs was making his arm swell and turn black.

Grauerholz recounted these and other stories as we made our way to the McAllen cemetery, where Elvins' headstone sits untended; Johnson spoke of Elvins' profound influence on Burroughs as he brushed away leaves that had fallen on the marker. We continued on to the Shary estate, a plantation house northeast of Mission that was owned by citrus entrepreneur John Shary, who brought dreams of riches to the Valley. The property had a certain faded glamour, with its lush orange groves, bougainvillea, and birds of paradise. "This is what brought Burroughs down here," Johnson said as we drank in the perfumed air. "This is the fantasy."

From there we returned to Pharr, where Johnson had used a 1939 telephone directory to locate an abandoned frame house where Elvins' father may have once lived. The house is described in Kerouac's On the Road and served as a resting spot for Burroughs. It sat on the edge of a sorghum field, its sagging pine porch and leaky roof having seen better days. We peeked through its shutters, then tromped through the overgrown weeds out back, past an old cistern and several pecan trees that shaded our path. Lizards scattered, while all other traces of life lay silent in the afternoon heat. Grauerholz walked ahead of us, lost in thought. Later he explained that the place had brought on a rush of emotions: "I got goosebumps, wondering, 'Bill, is this it?'"

Burroughs divided his time in Texas between the Valley, where he maintained a legitimate business operation, and East Texas, where he grew marijuana on a secluded 99-acre farm. Possession was a felony and a risky proposition in San Jacinto County, but the damp climate was ideal, and there was no better cash crop. In 1947 Burroughs persuaded Joan Vollmer, a young divorcée he had dated in New York, to join him in the venture. Vollmer in turn asked Times Square hustler Herbert Huncke, a mutual friend, to be their farmhand. This peculiar trio of hipsters settled in the Piney Woods southeast of Huntsville, between the towns of New Waverly and Coldspring, and tried to maintain a low profile. Their cabin lay at the end of a rutted dirt road and was lit with kerosene lamps, lacking any sense of cosmopolitan elegance. "The house is overrun with huge rats as big as possums," Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg. "I shot one who was too fat and got wedged in his hole, but the survivors are legion and gun shy."

William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born to Vollmer on July 21, 1947, in a Conroe hospital. The following month, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, the real-life protagonist of On the Road, came to visit the Burroughs homestead, and Cassady stayed on into the fall. Despite the arrival of new occupants, life at the cabin proceeded at its own leisurely pace: Each morning, Burroughs would put on his customary dress shirt and tie and drive into New Waverly to collect his mail. Huncke would tend to the cannabis plants, which were disguised with a cover crop of tomatoes, and make occasional forays to Houston to procure alcohol and any narcotics he and his friends desired. At night they would all sit out on the porch, listening to Burroughs' favorite Viennese waltzes on an old phonograph. Locals mostly kept their distance, perhaps because of Burroughs' penchant for firing his .22-caliber target pistol for sport. As Huncke wrote in his memoir, Guilty of Everything, there was so much gunfire that locals began to suspect that gangsters lived there.

The cash crop would turn out to be a bust, though. Burroughs discovered this only after driving back to New York with Cassady, Huncke, and a carload of green marijuana. Burroughs didn't have any idea how to properly dry or cure the stuff; even after he baked it to make it look more authentic, he still had no buyers. Though he had hoped to reap thousands of dollars, he didn't come close to breaking even, and in the spring of 1948, he put the farm up for sale. His luck grew worse that May when he and Vollmer, while driving to Pharr, pulled over near Beeville for a roadside tryst. The imposing figure of Sheriff Vail Eenis was soon on the scene, arresting Burroughs on charges of public indecency and driving while intoxicated. Burroughs stood little chance of finding a sympathetic jury in Beeville; he pleaded guilty, spent the night in jail, and was bailed out with money his parents wired to Vollmer. Disgusted with the whole affair, he moved to New Orleans. "Find things very uncool in Texas," he wrote to Ginsberg.

East Texas is featured less prominently in Burroughs' work than the Valley, though it makes an unsentimental appearance in Naked Lunch, in which he describes an East Texas town he dubs Pigeon Hole. ("The inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area of swamps and heavy timber are people of . . . great stupidity and barbarous practices.") Around New Waverly and Coldspring, the locals' view of Burroughs is no less withering. His books cannot be found in any library, his residency is not recorded in any local histories, and old-timers deny any knowledge of the man. "No one I've talked to knew William Burroughs," said New Waverly city secretary Sara Bartee with a wry smile. "No one who will admit to it, at least."

Burroughs returned to South Texas in 1949 after yet another arrest, this one in New Orleans. Charged with possession of narcotics—following a high-speed car chase with the police, no less—he waited in Pharr while his attorney tried to have the case dismissed. This time, the charges were serious. Burroughs was facing a possible five-year sentence in the Angola State Prison, one of the most formidable prisons in the country, and his return to a place with easy access to Mexico was no doubt by design. He viewed the Valley with bitterness, since his venture had been an abject failure. He had lost crops in severe freezes and paid dearly for equipment and labor. "He tried to make an honest living in the Valley," said Johnson. "Failing at it convinced him of its futility."

The lasting impression Burroughs gives of the Valley in his fiction—particularly in Junky—is of a place populated by con artists and suckers, where "the very rich are getting richer and all the others are going broke." He relates the story of a twenties scam in which South Texas land promoters persuaded prospective farmers to buy plots around an artificial lake, only to drain the lake when the sale closed, leaving the buyers high and dry in the desert. This sort of deeply cynical view of Texas echoes throughout Burroughs' own writing. South Texas farmers, he wrote, "are always tampering with the past like the two-dollar bettor on the return train from the track: 'I should have hung on to that hundred acres on the lower lift; I should have took up them oil leases; I should have planted cotton instead of tomatoes.' A nasal whine goes up from the Valley, a vast muttering of banal regret and despair."

For Burroughs, Texas "reinforced his conviction that conventional morality was a hoax," in the words of biographer Ted Morgan. Johnson expands this idea in a paper published in this spring's Southwestern American Literature, arguing that Texas taught him "the limits of freedom in America." Johnson finds particular significance in a letter Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg in 1948 railing against the criminality of "respectable" farmwork: "We farmers in the Rio Grande Valley depend entirely on Mexican laborers who enter the country illegally with our aid and connivance. The 'civil liberties' of these workers are violated repeatedly. They are often kept on the job at the point of gun . . . Workers who try to leave the field are shot. (I know of several instances.) In short my ethical position, now that I am a respectable farmer, is probably shakier than when I was pushing junk. Now, as then, I violate the law, but my present violations are condoned by a corrupt government."

Burroughs left Texas behind in October 1949 when his attorney informed him that his case was going to trial and agreed that his taking a "vacation" in Mexico wasn't such a bad idea. Burroughs would not reside again in the United States until 1974. "There's a quality of exhaustion when he leaves the U.S.," said Grauerholz. "It's one disaster after another." In Mexico City, where Burroughs took Vollmer, he flirted with the idea of opening a bar, then settled on writing his first novel at the urging of Elvins. On the evening of September 6, 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer were drinking with friends when he suggested that she put a gin glass on her head. Intending to shoot it off, he took aim with his Star .380 automatic pistol. Ginsberg would learn the following day in Galveston—where he was having his car repaired on the way back from Mexico City—that Burroughs had missed. "Heir's Pistol Kills His Wife" read one Associated Press headline. The article described Burroughs, not yet a known writer, as a "wealthy cotton planter from Pharr, Tex."

There are, of course, no historical markers commemorating Burroughs' time in Texas—no statues or bronze plaques remembering the man whom Norman Mailer once called "the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius." Having himself scorned anything as conventional—and unreliable—as recorded history, Burroughs most likely would have wanted it that way. There is talk of having a symposium, "The Beats and Mexico," in the Rio Grande Valley, which Johnson would organize. But for now, Burroughs will live on in Texas as he always has, through rumor and perhaps less-than-benign neglect.

The tour at last brought us to Burroughs' old farm, a few miles northeast of McAllen. The fields looked, from a distance, as they must have half a century ago, with neat rows of purple cabbage stretching toward the Rio Grande. As we drove nearer, the sky darkened and it began to rain. Raindrops drummed on the car while we looked and tried to imagine how it had once been. "I can picture Burroughs standing here and surveying this place, hands on his hips, saying, 'Pretty good piece of land,'" observed Grauerholz with a grin. "Then he probably checked his watch and said, 'Is it drinking time yet?'"

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