William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac (AKA ‘The Beats’) are my passion. Their art, literature, poetry, and extraordinary lives began to change my life as an 18-year-old during the spring semester of my freshman year in college. I could write pages about each one of these men, but this essay is about Jack Kerouac and, specifically, about the last house Jack Kerouac lived in and was living in at the time of his death on October 21, 1969. Jack lived in this house in St. Petersburg, FL. This picture is from my first visit there back in 2015.
A friend of mine retired and moved to Clearwater (just north of St. Petersburg) that year, and, ever since then, I’ve made trips down there for visits a couple times a year (including a recent trip during “the Polar Vortex week” in January). Every time I’m there, I go to Jack’s house and shed more-than-a-few tears. The time he lived in this house was not the happiest time in his life. His books were out of print, he was drinking heavily (more heavily than any other time in his life), and he felt out of touch and removed from a lot of hippies and “flower children” who opposed the Vietnam War and who were flouting authority for the sake of flouting authority (at least in Jack’s mind). His mother, who he lived with off and on throughout most of his adult life and was extremely influential (another subject for another essay!), was an invalid after a massive stroke, and his wife, the sister of a childhood friend from Lowell, MA, was more of a caregiver to Jack and his mother than she was a wife to Jack. Jack was prone to bouts of extreme paranoia and sneaking out of his house any chance he got to walk a little over 3 miles to his favorite bar in St. Petersburg, the Flamingo Sports Bar.
On October 20, 1969, Jack was eating a tuna sandwich in his home and watching The Galloping Gourmet (a cooking show before the time of The Food Network). Jack suddenly became violently ill and was vomiting blood in his bathroom. He blamed food poisoning, but he was in the process of dying what’s known as a “classic alcoholic’s death.” After years of abuse, his liver was destroyed by cirrhosis, and blood vessels were bursting in his esophagus and inside of his body. Transfusions totaling the entire blood volume possible in a human being were done – some of them involving tubes down his throat while he was fully conscious. The next day, Jack Kerouac died. His mother and wife moved back to Lowell, MA soon after, and the house was vacant and has remained largely so ever since.
Time, the elements, the Florida climate, and occasional squatters and break-ins have not been kind to this house. It needs a new roof, a new air conditioning system, a bit of foundation work, and probably a complete rework of plumbing, electrics, etc. just to get it structurally sound.
For reasons too complicated and time-consuming to go into here, possession and the continual deterioration of the house have largely been ignored by the Kerouac Estate for many years. This is a travesty! Jack Kerouac began to leave this world in that house, it deserves respect, and it deserves to be preserved. Contrary to his seeming lack of popularity and enthusiasm for him and his writings at the time of his death, if you Google ‘Jack Kerouac’ today, you will come up with thousands of entries about him and his contribution to literature and culture in the past half century.
In my ideal world, ownership and possession of the house would be finalized, and a responsible person would live there full-time and perhaps make it available for tours for “Beat fans” and scholars for a few hours most days of the week for a minimum donation to a group in St. Petersburg called Friends of the Jack Kerouac House. This group is doing the best they can to honor Jack Kerouac’s place in the history of St. Petersburg and in our culture. Friends has a Facebook page with contact information.
This October 21 will be the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death. Let’s do what we can to give his house some TLC before then!