Who Was Joan Vollmer, the Wife William Burroughs Allegedly Shot While Playing William Tell?

Pop­u­lar cul­ture knows William S. Bur­roughs pri­mar­i­ly for three of the things he did in life: using drugs, writ­ing Naked Lunch, and killing his wife. If pop­u­lar cul­ture remem­bers that wife, Joan Vollmer, it most­ly remem­bers her for the man­ner of her death: shot, they say, as a result of Bur­roughs’ drunk­en imi­ta­tion of William Tell. But in life she played an impor­tant role in the intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment of not just Bur­roughs but oth­er major Beat writ­ers as well, includ­ing Allen Gins­berg and Jack Ker­ouac. As Bren­da Knight writes in Women of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion, Vollmer “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.”

When her first hus­band Paul Adams was draft­ed into World War II, Vollmer moved in with her fel­low future woman of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion, and future wife of Jack Ker­ouac, Edie Park­er. Into their series of Upper West Side apart­ments came a wide vari­ety of sub­stance-abus­ing artists, Bur­roughs, Ker­ouac, and Gins­berg includ­ed. Vollmer’s new coterie, as well as her own amphet­a­mine addic­tion, so appalled Adams that he left her upon his return from the mil­i­tary. She took up with Bur­roughs in 1946, lat­er becom­ing his com­mon-law wife and the moth­er of their child, William Bur­roughs, Jr.. In seem­ing­ly con­stant flight from the law, they moved from New York to Texas to New Orleans to Mex­i­co City, where the fate­ful game of William Tell would hap­pen in 1951.

But did that game of William Tell hap­pen? His­to­ry has record­ed that Vollmer did indeed die by gun­shot, but as to exact­ly how or why it hap­pened, nobody quite knows. Hence the inves­ti­ga­tions that aca­d­e­mics, Beat Gen­er­a­tion enthu­si­asts, and oth­ers have con­duct­ed since. The Bur­roughs-themed site Real­i­tyS­tu­dio has one page on Bur­roughs and the William Tell Leg­end and anoth­er gath­er­ing doc­u­ments on the death of Joan Vollmer. You can get fur­ther in depth by read­ing “The Death of Joan Vollmer Bur­roughs: What Real­ly Hap­pened?”, a 70-page research paper by James Grauer­holz, Bur­roughs’ biog­ra­ph­er and the execu­tor of his lit­er­ary estate.

Despite his con­sid­er­able inter­est in Bur­roughs, Grauer­holz does­n’t show an out­sized inter­est in absolv­ing the writer of his crime. But he does know more than enough to cast doubt on, or at least add nuance to, the sim­ple sto­ry every­one “knows.” Bur­roughs him­self, though he gave con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts of the event at dif­fer­ent times, nev­er denied shoot­ing Vollmer. He did, how­ev­er, blame a kind of demon­ic pos­ses­sion for it: “I am forced to the appalling con­clu­sion that I would have nev­er become a writer but for Joan’s death,”  he wrote in the intro­duc­tion to a 1985 edi­tion of his nov­el Queer. “I live with the con­stant threat of pos­ses­sion, and a con­stant need to escape from pos­ses­sion, from Con­trol.”

Vollmer’s death, in Bur­roughs’ view, “brought me in con­tact with the invad­er, the Ugly Spir­it, and maneu­vered me into a life long strug­gle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” Sound like self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion though that may, the fact remains that Bur­roughs’ life freight­ed him with plen­ty of con­di­tions to write his way out of. It also went on for 46 years after the end of Vollmer’s which, though short, saw her become, as Knight writes, “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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Reads & Sings His Exper­i­men­tal Prose in a Big, Free 7‑Hour Playlist

How William S. Bur­roughs Embraced, Then Reject­ed Sci­en­tol­ogy, Forc­ing L. Ron Hub­bard to Come to Its Defense (1959–1970)

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

How to Jump­start Your Cre­ative Process with William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

Hear a Great Radio Doc­u­men­tary on William S. Bur­roughs Nar­rat­ed by Iggy Pop

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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