William S. Burroughs: A century ago St. Louis gave birth to the wildest Beat writer of them all

William S. Burroughs: A century ago St. Louis gave birth to the wildest Beat writer of them all
Kevin Cannon

As a child growing up in St. Louis, William S. Burroughs had ideas of what it would be like to be a writer. A writer, thought the young Burroughs, was rich and famous and possessed a powerful appetite for both debauchery and adventure.

"You could read his books with St. Louis in mind, and it is right there in most of them. The city runs right through."

"They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee suit," wrote Burroughs in a 1985 essay. "They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle."

View an illustrated map of Burroughs' St. Louis.

Kevin Cannon
Kevin Cannon

It's unclear if Burroughs ever accomplished the latter — owning an antelope. But as for the drugs, fame and adventure? He had those in spades. The Beat writer spent nearly two decades as a heroin addict, traveling the world on his parents' dime while filling notebooks with what would become his controversial 1959 masterpiece, Naked Lunch, in which Burroughs ripped apart the conventions of linear narrative and dared to write openly — disturbingly so, at times — about his fantasies and homosexuality.

From there he would go to stand alongside the likes of fellow Beat luminaries Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, influencing generations of disillusioned outcasts, hippies and punks alike. Burroughs is that guy in a tie sandwiched between Marilyn Monroe and the guru Sri Mahavatar Babaji on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Decades later the author would collaborate on spoken-word projects with Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits and many other musicians.

"He was the first person who was famous for things you were supposed to hide," explained boundary-pushing director John Waters in the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. "He was gay, he was a junkie, he didn't look handsome, he shot his wife, he wrote poetry about assholes and heroin. He was not easy to like."

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, would have turned 100 this month. (February 5, to be exact.) And although he left St. Louis as a young man, he remained tied to the prewar city of his childhood, a place he called "a different world" in a 1982 interview with the counterculture and conspiracy-theory magazine Steamshovel Press. It's here in St. Louis that Burroughs first expanded his mind as a hallucinating and fevered child, first dabbled in the underground scene and had his first clumsy forays as a writer. And it's here, too, that he came to rest for eternity in the Burroughs' family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

In the novella The Wild Boys, Burroughs refers to St. Louis as the "the old broken point of origin." Barry Miles, a British counterculture historian who first met Burroughs in London in 1965, says the city of Burroughs' youth exerted powerful influence on his work.

"The magical kingdom of his childhood was something he always tried to preserve and always tried to bring back," says Miles. "You could read his books with St. Louis in mind, and it is right there in most of them. The city runs right through."

But what besides his grave remains of Burroughs' time in St. Louis? And is anything left of that "magical kingdom" of his childhood?

Pershing Avenue St. Louis Missouri in the 1920s.... Red brick three-story houses. Lawns in front, large back yards with gardens separated by high wooden fences overgrown with morning glory and rose vines and at the back of the yard an ash pit and no one from Sanitation sniffing around in those days. — Cobble Stone Gardens (1976)

William S. Burroughs II arrived in the dead of winter 1914, born in the master bedroom of his family's well-appointed home in the Central West End. The Burroughs manor, designed and built by Burroughs' father, Mortimer, is still there — a three-story brick home on stately Pershing Avenue. Scott Duellman, a 36-year-old accounting professor at Saint Louis University, purchased the house just six months ago. He is well aware of its literary significance.

"I read Naked Lunch when I was sixteen or seventeen years old," says Duellman, who keeps a copy of Burroughs' most famous work in his living room. It's right there, perched on a mahogany bookcase beneath a row of Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Franzen novels.

"I think a lot of the Beat Generation writers speak to us at a certain time, usually between the ages of fifteen and twenty. This house hearkens me back to a time when I felt those things. It's like the house's past and my own past, they're just boiling together."

Across town, on Price Road in Ladue, the woman who opens the door of the home Burroughs moved into at the age of seven (in order for his family "to get away from people" the author would later write) has no idea about its former occupant. Carol Hager thought her home was once owned by that other Burroughs family — the ones behind John Burroughs School. Nope, although there is somewhat of a connection. The teenage William S. Burroughs attended the prestigious John Burroughs School, just a three-minute walk down the street. As a student there, Burroughs was something of an outcast. Though still unsure of his sexuality at the time, he became obsessed with a male classmate, to the point where his fawning devotion became embarrassingly obvious to his peers. They mocked him.

Next Page »