Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Joan Vollmer (aka Joan Vollmer Adams or Joan Vollmer Burroughs) is the most prominent female member of the early Beat Generation circle. While a student at Banard she became the roomate of Edie Parker (later married to Jack Kerouac) and their apartment became a gathering place for the Beats during the 1940s, where Joan Vollmer was often at the center of marathon, all night discussion sessions. In 1946, she began a relationship with William Burroughs, later becoming his common-law wife. She was eventually killed by Burroughs, shot in the head in what was apparently a drunken attempt at playing William Tell.
Joan Vollmer was born in a suburb of Albany, New York in 1924. She left her upper middle class family to attend Barnard College in New York City in the early 1940s, and soon afterward became married to Paul Adams, a law student who was drafted and enrolled in the armed services during World War II, and was not on the scene during most of the early Beat years. Joan Vollmer met Edie Parker at the West End Bar and moved in together in the first of a series of apartments in New York's Upper West Side that they shared with the writers, hustlers and drug-addicts that later became known as the Beats.
- William Burroughs (later a writer)
- Jack Kerouac (writer, merchant marine, Columbia drop-out)
- Lucien Carr (Columbia student, obsession of David Kammerer who was a friend of Burroughs)
- Allen Ginsberg (Columbia student, nascent poet)
- Herbert Huncke (drug addict, small time theif)
- Vickie Russell (prostitute and benzedrine addict)
- Hal Chase (Columbia graduate student from Denver)
She broke with Paul Adams at the close of World War II.
In 1945 she was introduced by Jack Kerouac to Benzedrine, which she used heavily for many years.
Early in 1946, she began a long-term relationship with the predominantly gay William Burroughs (Joan's oft quoted comment was: "They tell me you're a faggot, but you're as good as a pimp in bed.")
Joan Vollmer had a son with William Burroughs (William Burroughs III) which they raised together with Julie (who was born during her marriage to Paul Adams), in various locations in the southern United States and Mexico.
While living in Mexico in 1951, the drunken Burroughses played "William Tell", with Joan balancing a water tumbler on her head as her husband aimed. Joan fell with a bullet lodged in her skull and died later that day. The incident has been called an accidental shooting, but many interpretations are possible ranging from deliberate murder to assisted suicide.
Ted Morgan, discusses Edie Parker's impression of Joan Vollmer:
- Joan's beauty was more than the sum of its parts. She was soft and feminine, and wore silky clinging clothes and small bandannas tied close to her head. In her reserve, in her achievement of a personal style, she reminded Edie of Garbo.
- "You should always cook eggs slowly," was Joan's advice in the kitchen on 118th Street. Joan did everything slowly, Edie reflected; she spoke walked, dressed and read slowly, as if savoring every moment. She read everything, every newspaper and magazine. In _The New Yorker_, she liked the cartoons of William Steig, particularly the one of the dejected fellow saying, "My mother loved me but she died." Joan didn't get along with her mother, and felt that she had nothing in common with her parents' country-club existence. She had rebelled against her background by living the New York bohemian life.
- Edie though Joan was the most intelligent girl she had ever met. She had an independent mind, always questioning what anyone said, including her teachers at Barnard. In one of her marginal notes in her copy of Marx's Capital and Other Writings, there are echoes of Burroughs's thinking: "Maybe Marxism is dynamic and optimistic, and Freudianism is not. Is one more serviceable than the other? Why doe it always have to be either/or?"
- Joan's idea of a good time was to go to Child's at 110th Street and Broadway and sip kummel and have deep conversations about Plato and Kant while listening to classical music. Or she would spend the entire morning in the bathtub, with bubble-bath up to her chin, reading Proust. If you wanted to talk to her you had to do it in the bathroom.
- At that time she was married to a tall, curly-haired law student named Paul Adams, who had been drafted in the infantry and was stationed in Tennessee. But like Edie, Joan had an eye for the boys. She was the first girl Edie knew who had a diaphragm. Joan made sexual appraisals of men, of the sort men usually make about women, evaluating them as "cocksmen."
In Jack Kerouac's last work, he describes the scene in the 119th street apartment as "a year of low, evil decadence", beginning near the close of 1944:
- ...and worst of all, on June's huge doublebed with the Oriental drapecover on it we had ample room for sometimes six of us to sprawl with cofee cups and ashtrays and discuss the decadence of the 'bourgeoisie' for days on end.
- I can never forget how June's present husband, Harry Evans [sic], suddenly came clomping down the hall of her apartment in his Army boots, fresh from the German front, around September 1945, and he was appaled to see us, six fullgrown people, all high on Benny sprawled and sitting and cat-legged on that vast double-doublebed of 'skepticism' and 'decadence', discussing the nothingness of values, pale-faced, weak bodies, Gad the poor guy said: 'This is what I fought for?' His wife told him to come down from his 'character heights' or some such.
Brenda Knight in The Women of the Beat Generation:
- Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution ; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; ... Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers -- Allen, Jack, and Bill -- sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.
Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, the Life and Times of William S. Burroughs(1988, Henry Holt, ISBN 0-0380-70882-5)
Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz (1967-1968, Coward Mc-Cann, ISBN 0 14 02.3639 2)
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