Toward the end of writer Jack Kerouac’s life, the so-called King of the Beats was having trouble paying his mortgage. Upon his death in 1969, his estate was valued at $91 – compared with around $20 million today.
If the soft-spoken, hard-drinking author were still alive, he surely would be shaking his head, but not only because of the value of his estate. For 15 years, a bitter legal battle over who controls Kerouac’s legacy has pitted his in-laws against a destitute nephew and deceased daughter.
The drama peaked in late July, when a Florida judge ruled that the will controlling the Kerouac estate was forged. The court decision raises questions about who controls the rights to Kerouac’s works and future royalties.
The lawsuit is winding and complex, but the basic facts are: When Jack Kerouac died, he left everything to his mother, Gabrielle. When she died, she left everything, including Jack’s literary estate, to Stella Sampas, Jack’s third wife, who then left it to her six siblings. In 1994, Kerouac’s only daughter, Jan Kerouac, asserted that her grandmother Gabrielle’s will was forged, and filed a lawsuit. She died two years later, but Paul Blake Jr., the writer’s nephew, continued the litigation.
In his July 24 ruling, Florida Judge George Greer concluded: “Gabrielle Kerouac was not a well woman when her purported will was signed. Clearly, Gabrielle Kerouac was physically unable to sign the document dated February 13, 1973, and, more importantly, that which appears on the Will is not her signature. Her last will and testament is a forgery.”
“Justice has finally been done,” cheered Kerouac biographer Gerry Nicosia of Corte Madera, Calif., who supported Kerouac’s daughter and nephew in their lawsuit against the in-laws and was present at the trial. “Jack had a strong feeling for justice, including economic justice. He came from a poor family and he understood that poor people are often exploited.”
A statement from the Sampas family after the ruling downplays the decision and hints at an appeal.
“The practical effect of this ruling appears to be none,” said John Sampas, executor of Kerouac’s estate. “At her death, our sister bequeathed to us Jack Kerouac’s works and legacy, and we will continue to protect and promote them as Stella’s rightful heirs and loving brothers and sisters.”
After Stella died in 1990, her estate included the original Teletype scroll of On the Road, and Kerouac’s paintings, journals, letters and unpublished novels and stories. The scroll was sold for $2.43 million to the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, and actor Johnny Depp bought Kerouac’s raincoat and miscellany for $50,640.
Bill Wagner, the attorney for Paul Blake Jr. – who has been homeless and now lives in a trailer home – said it is unlikely that anything already sold by the Sampas family can be reclaimed.
“If you don’t contest a will over a certain period of time, it’s considered to be valid,” said Wagner, referring to Stella Sampas’ will. “So more likely than not, Kerouac’s raincoat will stay with Johnny Depp and the money he paid for it will stay with the Sampases.”
Wagner said he will pursue book royalties for his client. In addition, he plans to ask the Sampases for a detailed list of what remains of the Kerouac archive. Wagner says that until such a list is produced, there is no way of knowing what has not been sold off.
Kerouac’s On the Road, published in 1957, continues to sell about 100,000 copies a year in the United States and Canada alone. Publication of the book, along with Allen Ginsberg’s release of his poem Howl at a performance gallery, marked the beginning of the Beat generation and turned San Francisco into the Beat capital.
San Francisco Bay Area writers who have followed the case said they wished Jan Kerouac were alive today. Jan Kerouac met her father only twice. For many years, he denied her existence – a relationship eventually confirmed by blood tests.
Brenda Knight, author of a book about women of the Beat generation, met Jan Kerouac in 1995.
“What Jan wanted was what her father wanted,” Knight said. “She wanted for all of his archives, books and belongings to be in a university library. Remember, at the beginning of Kerouac’s career, he was a formalist writer. He accidentally became king of the Beats. He wanted academic credibility. Jan was really upset seeing everything being sold piece by piece, especially when her dad’s old overcoat was sold to the actor.”
Knight said that Jan frequently referenced a famous letter her father had reportedly written the day before he died of cirrhosis of the liver. (In the months leading to his death, Kerouac was drinking a quart of Johnnie Walker Red a day, and washing it down with a couple of dozen beers.) Dated Oct. 20, 1969, the letter was to Paul Blake: “This is Uncle Jack,” Kerouac wrote. “I’ve turned over my entire estate, real, personal and mixed, to Memere (mom) and if she dies before me, it will be turned to you. I wanted to leave my estate to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, and not to leave a dingblasted . . . thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives.”