Somewhere out there, Jack Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia is yelling “I told you so”.
A news announcement just came out of nowhere: a judge in Pinellas County, Florida has ruled that the much-debated will that bequeathed Jack Kerouac’s entire estate to his wife Stella Sampas after the great novelist’s death in 1969 was a fake. The will in question is not Kerouac’s will but that of his mother, who died in 1973. While this ruling is unlikely to be the last word — I’m sure the Sampas family will appeal — it is a very surprising new turn in a battle that raged for years, broke many friendships, and outlived its main would-be beneficiary, Jack’s daughter Jan Kerouac, who died in 1996. (Paul Blake, Kerouac’s nephew in Florida, might be the beneficiary of this new ruling.)
There’s a lot of baggage here, and I experienced much of it first-hand as a member of the online BEAT-L community in the mid-1990s. Jan Kerouac’s cause against the Sampas family of Lowell, Massachusetts became an all-consuming obsession for Gerald Nicosia, author of the most acclaimed Kerouac biography, Memory Babe. Nicosia’s strident tirades against the Sampas family eventually caused the entire BEAT-L community to disband, as documented in a 1999 Salon article by Austin Bunn that quotes me and a few other participants who became so sick of the increasingly ugly controversy that for a while we couldn’t even enjoy reading Kerouac anymore (the Salon article is broken on the Salon website, but is archived here).
The furor eventually died down, and I gradually came to assume that the Sampas’s control of the Kerouac estate was a fait accompli. As I said often during the height of the unpleasantness, I didn’t really care very much who owned the Keroauc estate, but I wanted everybody to shut up because it was disturbing my reading. I have a feeling it may get to that point again real soon.