Good Egg: William S. Burroughs

Burroughs in the garden. Text reads: “W.S. Burroughs at rest in the side yard of his house looking at the sky, empty timeless Lawrence Kansas May 28, 1991. ‘But the car (dulls?) it’ he noticed when he saw this snapshot. Allen.”  Photo and text by Allen Ginsberg.

William Seward Burroughs II, American writer. February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997.

“The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” – Norman Mailer, 1962

William S. Burroughs was 83 when he died in Lawrence, Kansas, 15 years ago today. He came to Kansas from New York City in 1981, finally settling into an unassuming two-bedroom bungalow (a mail-order kit house built circa 1926-1929), in the peaceful Barker neighborhood south of downtown. Shortly after moving in, Burroughs had the house painted red, and so it remains. The house sits on nearly an acre of land, the property bordered on the south by Burroughs Creek (renamed in 2004, formerly the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe tributary). In 2005, the Lawrence Historic Resources Commission added Burroughs’ home to their Register of Historic Places.

Burroughs’ wake at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, 1997. Photo John Blumb.

For twelve years following his death, Burroughs’ house was a rental property, inhabited primarily by incurable hipsters and snake-wrangling Wild Boys, none of whom cared much for the work of gardening. Burroughs, too, was less a gardener than an aficionado of Nature, frequently bringing visitors outdoors to see his fish pond, and to sit and chat on an old couch in the shade.

Philip Heying took this picture of Burroughs House on a June evening in 2009.

Concerns about wear and tear on the now-historic property prompted James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ heir and executor of the estate, to take the house off the rental market in the summer of 2009.

I had worked with Grauerholz and William Burroughs Communications (WBC) in the past, transcribing And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks from the original typescript, helping in the office, working on local Burroughs art shows, catering the occasional WBC function and doing some woodlot management on Grauerholz’s three-acre property in East Lawrence. In June of 2009, Grauerholz asked me to be the resident caretaker of the Burroughs house.

Two things immediately caught my attention: the number of tourists visiting the house, and the tangle of plants that had claimed Burroughs’ yard as their own.

WSB feeding fish in the backyard pond. About five of Burroughs’ fish survived until this year, when three snapping turtles from the creek moved into the pond. Buster, the king bullfrog, disappeared too. The largest snapper has a two-foot carapace and a head the size of a tennis ball. While I don’t think much of gardening with snapping turtles, I imagine Burroughs would chuckle. Photo credit unknown.

The front yard was overwhelmed by Vinca minor and trumpet creeper, Campsis radicans. The back yard had become a dense thicket of Lonicera maackii, various species of Euonymus, Clematis ligusticifolia, poison ivy, Virginia creeperpokeweed and wild blackberries, and countless 10-foot saplings of hackberry, Catalpa, redbud, Koelreuteria, black walnut, elm and  silver maple. Clearly, gardening at Burroughs House was to be a process of subtraction. Three years on, it still is. Over 100 trees have been cleared to date, half an acre opened up, and the battle against the Campsis, the Lonicera and the blackberries is never-ending.

To me, a garden is wildish and green. If there must be strict order, keep it at the front of the house to please the neighbors. First job in the front yard was to hack back the Campsis and Vinca , and lay in a boxwood hedge along the walkway under the front porch. A “Darlow’s Enigma” rose went behind the box and is now climbing up the porch railing. A single plant of a non-flowering cultivar of lambs ear, Stachys byzantina “Helene von Stein,” produced enough cuttings to carpet the ground under the box. Their big, white leaves help define the walkway at night. While the front yard is still far from formal, it does look a bit neater now, which is important because the front of the house is frequently photographed.

Burroughs checking out the wildlife in his garden, probably some damned squirrel in the Catalpa tree. Wild Clematis ligusticifolia on his right, snakeroot on his left. Photo credit unknown.

At least 150 tourists visit Burroughs House each year. Most of the time, visitors take quick pictures in front of the house and move on. About 20 percent of the tourists behave badly, trespassing deep into the yard, picking fruits and flowers, and stealing garden ornaments. One man rang the doorbell at 6am demanding a tour, and I’ve caught others in the backyard with flashlights after midnight. These people are summarily booted, often having to explain their behavior to the police.

I chat with many of the polite visitors, however, and am still surprised at how many of them have no idea that Burroughs was a writer, the younger ones especially. Celebrity (notoriety?) is the sole draw for most visitors, many of whom describe Burroughs as “that punk rock guy who hung around Kurt Cobain and made drug movies.” True enough, but that’s only an iota of Burroughs’ wild and remarkable life.

Burroughs in the back yard with Ginger, 1982. Photo Jim McCrary.

Burroughs is long gone from this place. None of his things are here; his famous friends no longer come around. But when he was here, it was perhaps the happiest time of his life. This was his home for 16 years, the longest he ever stayed in one place. He wrote seven books in this house, and produced over 2,000 artworks in a variety of media. He collaborated on several music and film projects, and wrote a musical play, The Black Rider, with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson. He found financial security, some ease and comfort, and the community of people who genuinely cared for his talent and his well-being. And, at long last, he found love. At one period, Burroughs was shepherd to 20 cats.

“Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE. Pure love. What I feel for my cats present and past.” – William S. Burroughs, “Last Words,” 2000. Burroughs’ final journal entry.

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