10 Facts About William S. Burroughs
With a life as mischievous as his prose, William S. Burroughs—who was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 5, 1914—was destined for counterculture notoriety. Here are 10 facts about the Naked Lunch author in honor of what would be his 105th birthday.
1. He was a child of privilege.
Though he wasn’t extremely wealthy, Burroughs did come from money. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs, had invented the first functional adding machine and founded what later became the Burroughs Corporation, which manufactured business equipment. Following young Burroughs’s graduation from Harvard in 1936, he began receiving a monthly allowance—which lasted until age 50. This recurring gift provided him with considerable personal freedom (perhaps a bit too much at times).
2. He pulled a van Gogh of sorts.
Where the Dutch painter clipped part of his ear (or possibly the entire thing) and offered it to a prostitute, Burroughs opted to amputate the end joint of his left pinkie finger and presented it to a boyfriend he was obsessed with. He later commemorated this episode in his short story, “The Finger.”
3. He co-wrote a novel with Jack Kerouac.
Burroughs befriended Jack Kerouac in New York City, where they worked together on the crime novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (the pair wrote alternating chapters). Though completed in 1945, the book didn’t see publication until 2008. Burroughs himself wasn’t a huge fan of its literary merits, describing the novel as “not a very distinguished work.”
4. He went one year without a bath.
As vividly related in his drug-addled classic Naked Lunch, Burroughs debauched himself into crippling dysfunction while holed up in a hotel in Tangier, Morocco. Except to answer the call of the needle, he “did absolutely nothing” and “could look at the end of [his] shoe for eight hours.” He didn't change his clothes the entire time, let alone take a bath.
5. He killed his wife.
Though they never officially tied the knot, Burroughs lived with Joan Vollmer as his common-law wife. Together they had one son, Billy Burroughs. They also shared a substance abuse problem, and at a booze-soaked 1951 party in Mexico City, they performed an extremely ill-advised “William Tell act.” This involved a gun-toting Burroughs trying to shoot a glass which Vollmer, rather injudiciously, had placed atop her head. Despite being only 9 feet away, he missed—low. After spending 13 days in jail, Burroughs was bailed out, and later fled the country. The Mexican court convicted him of manslaughter in absentia and sentenced him to two years. By staying away from Mexico, he avoided the sentence.
6. He made artwork with gunfire.
Burroughs later found a less lethal and more creative outlet for his fascination with guns. As with much he did, his style was unconventional: He would generate abstract paintings by using a shotgun to blast cans of spray paint placed in front of the canvas. His splattered creations were first exhibited in 1987 in New York.
7. He disliked teaching.
As with many prominent writers, Burroughs was offered a job instructing others in his craft. But his pedagogic tenure at the City College of New York lasted all of one semester. Discouraged by what he regarded as a lack of student talent, he felt the gig was more of a hassle than it was worth. He subsequently turned down a well-paying position at the University of Buffalo and considered his teaching experience a “lesson in never again.”
8. He acted.
Despite his rather aloof persona and quintessential withered appearance, in the 1980s and 1990s Burroughs enjoyed about as hip an image as one could acquire. Using this cultural currency to pursue an acting career of sorts, he appeared in films such as Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which he played a defrocked priest.
9. He was also involved with music.
Burroughs collaborated with R.E.M. for a new version of their song, “Star Me Kitten,” which appeared on the 1996 album Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired By the X-Files. He also worked with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson on the opera The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, which premiered in 1990.
10. He was exorcised.
Still haunted decades later by Vollmer's death and the “Ugly Spirit” he felt had invaded him, Burroughs received an exorcism performed by a Sioux medicine man in 1992. The ceremony was attended by his beatnik friend, poet Allen Ginsburg.
This article originally ran in 2017.