Senses Deranged: Joan Vollmer, William S. Burroughs, And The William Tell Act

Jamie Hayes

In the 1940s and 50s, a group of outcasts and degenerates fled conformist postwar American life and found each other on society’s margins. The Beat Generation, centered on Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, created some of the most influential countercultural works of the past century. Their books and poetry have inspired countless musicians and writers, from the Beatles (why do you think there’s an “A” in Beatles?) to Thomas Pynchon—but their dark side made a victim of one woman: Joan Vollmer. 

The Beats

But while so many young people read the wild, untethered writing of the Beats and pined for a life of such freedom, the reality of Beat life was usually nothing to be jealous of. Many of them were deeply influenced by a French poet named Arthur Rimbaud, who believed that in order to become an artist, you had to endure “a long, intimidating, immense, and rational derangement of all the senses.”

Essentially, what that means is doing every substance under the sun, drinking every night, and living in squalor. Intoxication was a huge part of Beat life, but it wasn’t one just big party. As Rimbaud put it, “The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet.

Senses Deranged: Joan Vollmer, William S. Burroughs, and the William Tell Act

With this neverending quest to derange the senses, the members of the Beat Generation suffered a lot. Jack Kerouac drank himself to death before he was 50. William S. Burroughs was a lifelong addict, and his son, following in daddy’s footsteps, died of cirrhosis at just 33.

But no tragedy sums up the dangers behind the Beat lifestyle as much as the death of Joan Vollmer, slain by her own husband.

Eyes Wide Open

Joan Vollmer was born in Upstate New York, and like many members of the Beats, she came from an upper-middle-class family. She went to Barnard College in NYC in the early 40s and met a young man named Paul Adams. Adams was in law school at the time, and the two soon got married. However, not long after the wedding, the United States entered WWII and Adams was drafted.

Her husband overseas, Vollmer was left alone in the city to attend school. Eventually, she met a girl named Edie Parker at a bar in the West End, and the two became fast friends. They moved in together. One day, Parker brought home her new boyfriend, who’d recently come to the city after being discharged from the Navy. His name was Jack Kerouac.

Amy Adams as Joan Vollmer in On the Road, 2012

Kerouac introduced Vollmer and Parker to the other Beats, like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and, most importantly for Vollmer, William S. Burroughs. Vollmer and Parker’s apartment became a hub for the group, and together, they all embarked on a journey to derange their senses, utterly and completely.

When Vollmer’s husband returned from the War, he found a very different wife than the one he’d left just a few years earlier. She was surrounded by vagrants and addicts, and had joined their ranks with glee. He divorced her almost immediately.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Vollmer’s husband was her last real tie to mainstream society, and she threw herself in the Beats’ bohemian lifestyle with glee. In 1946, at the behest of Allen Ginsberg, she entered a relationship with one of the groups most enigmatic figures: William S. Burroughs. Their partnership would be fiery and passionate, would give birth to one son, and would eventually see the darkest day in the history of the Beats.

Courtney Love as Joan Vollmer in Beat, 2000

Unsurprisingly, Vollmer and Burroughs’ life of drug-use and debauchery came with consequences. Run-ins with the law saw them constantly on the move. They left New York for rural Texas, but after Burroughs’ failed attempts at farming cash crops, they made the jump to New Orleans—a setting that was undoubtedly more suited to their lifestyle.

But while in New Orleans, Burroughs was busted for possession. The police searched his home after his arrest, where they found a letter to Ginsberg that implied Burroughs might be smuggling illegal substances across state lines. This led to the worst criminal charges of Burroughs’ life thus far—there was a very good chance that he’d be sent to Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Prison.

On the Lam

So Burroughs and Vollmer hit the road once again, this time heading south of the border to Mexico City. Maybe they hoped their troubles were behind them, but things quickly just went from bad to worse. Their once-passionate affair had become tired and bitter. Burroughs started cheating on Vollmer with other men. Vollmer became depressed and started drinking heavily.

By all accounts, Burroughs and Vollmer’s time in Mexico was miserable—but they couldn’t have had any idea what they were hurtling towards: September 6, 1951. That night, the couple was out drinking with friends. Nothing out of the ordinary for them. But on this particular night, Burroughs drunkenly pulled his gun out of his bag and cried to his wife, “It’s time for our William Tell act!”

Courtney Love as Joan Vollmer in Beat, 2000

Vollmer, just as drunk as her husband, quickly grabbed a highball glass and put it on top of her head. But this was not some silly party trick they’d performed countless times before. They were both in the depths of drink and also, withdrawal. The gun was loaded.

Burroughs took aim and fired, hitting his wife in the head. She died instantly.

The Aftermath

He eventually spent 13 days in jail, but after his brother bribed several Mexican officials, he got out on bail and fled the country. Vollmer’s daughter from her first marriage went to live with Vollmer’s grandparents. Their son, William S. Burroughs Jr., went to live with Burroughs’ parents. And Burroughs’ life simply…went on.

Burroughs went on to write the groundbreaking novel Naked Lunch, one of the most influential Beat works. Despite his ever-present addiction, he lived to be 83 years old—no doubt in part thanks to the monthly allowance that his wealthy parents sent him for nearly his entire life.

William S. Burroughs

He was undoubtedly wracked with guilt over Joan’s death. He came to see his writing as a way to escape the “Ugly Spirit” that possessed him—the same “spirit” that held sway over him when he’d drunkenly acted that fateful day. But Joan Vollmer had no chance for such an epiphany. She was dead.

Arthur Rimbaud believed you needed to embark on “a long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses” to become a poet. William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer certainly endured that. You can even imagine that Burroughs believed he succeeded in such a quest. He spent his life on one drug or another and undoubtedly died a famous artist—but there was a terrible cost, even if he wasn’t the one who had to pay it.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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