- Views & Opinions
Letters pile up outside the vacant corner house on 10th Avenue North at 52nd Street South in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Some are folded neatly into envelopes and sent through the Post Office to jam the mailbox to overflowing.
Others are written on crinkled scrap paper, hand delivered and stuffed inside the front screen door.
Jack Kerouac, once the home’s owner, died at a St. Petersburg hospital in 1969, but you wouldn’t know it from the correspondence he receives from grateful fans of his novel “On The Road” and other works.
“You remind me to stay true to who you are and to nurture the wanderlust gene in all of us,” reads one letter, handwritten by “Cindy” on stationery adorned with colorful butterflies and flowers. “I hope you’re writing, unrestrained, with a shot & a beer.”
A nonprofit group wants to create a Kerouac museum from the 1,700-square-foot, one-story house, built in 1963 and valued today at about $190,000. But John Sampas, Kerouac’s brother-in-law and executor of his estate, told the Tribune last week he has changed his mind and doesn’t want to sell.
Meanwhile, the letters keep pouring in.
“It’s become a cosmic mailbox that can reach the heavens,” said Pat Barmore of St. Petersburg, president of the Friends of the Jack Kerouac House, which took care of the house until a property manager was hired a year ago.
Tour buses also park out front so sightseers can try peering through the curtains inside, Barmore said.
Margaret Murray, secretary of the friends group, said she rarely drives by without seeing fans in the yard or parked across the street, catching a glimpse of where their hero lived.
“Drive by tomorrow and you’ll likely see someone staring at it,” she said. “Visit a few days after the current stack of letters are taken away, and there will be new ones.”
With permission from executor Sampas, the Tribune read a handful of the notes recently left inside the screen door.
“Cynthia” of Texas put her thoughts on yellow Post-it notes. She said she not yet read “On The Road” but plans to as soon as she returns home from her Florida vacation.
“I feel blessed to have been able to drink your favorite drink at your favorite bar ‘Flamingo,”” she wrote, speaking of The Flamingo Sports Bar at 1230 Ninth St. N., St. Petersburg, where Kerouac spent time during a stint in the area that stretched from 1964 to his death on October 21, 1969, at the age of 47.
His favorite drink, according to the Flamingo, was a shot of a whiskey with a beer wash.
“I hope you are writing in peace wherever you are!” Cythia added.
Another letter written on a small piece of lined, white paper is signed “Friend of Jack” and says, “I prefer to think of myself as a free spirit and a person who follows a path of her own choosing. You have always been my inspiration.”
It’s a common theme, Barmore said — appreciative fans making a pilgimage to a site associated with their idols.
One prominent example, Murray noted, is the burial place in Paris of “Doors” frontman Jim Morrison.
Throngs of tourists surround Morrison’s grave. Gifts are left. Some people scribble on the tombstone.
“I think people still reach out to Jack Kerouac out of a desire to connect with something bigger than themselves,” said Kristy Anderson, a filmmaker producing a documentary on Kerouac’s life in Florida. “He has touched the lives of many and will continue to.”
Kerouac’s longtime friend, musician David Amram, said he believes the late author would appreciate the attention.
“This new generation has come to Kerouac by reading his books, as he wanted,” Amram said. “That is opposite to what he felt happened when he was alive.”
Kerouac struggled with his fame because he thought it had more to do with his pop culture identity than his books, Amram said.
“He would say, ‘They are ignoring me,’?” Amram said. “And then he would say in his Lowell, Massachusetts, accent, ‘I’m an author, I’m a writer, why don’t they read my book?’ Even in the times before reality TV, when being a celebrity seduced most people, he was a modest person who didn’t want that. He only wanted people to read his books.””
Amram believes this contributed to the alcoholism that would kill Kerouac.
“People looked to him to perform for them, to be the Jack Kerouac character they envisioned rather than himself. They expected him to be a vocal leader in this new movement. He just wanted to write.”
There were two sides of the St. Petersburg version of Kerouac, filmmaker Anderson said _ one who wished to be left alone by fans who would stalk the house and one who openly pined for attention.
This Dr. Jekyll half usually appeared with some liquid encouragement, Anderson said.
“That Jack was usually the drunken Jack. And he drank a lot while living here. As much as he sometimes hated his fame, he would also go to a party and introduce himself as the ‘famous Jack Kerouac.’?”
On another occasion, she said, Kerouac and a friend were at an upscale bar in the Tampa Bay area dressed like “bums” and very drunk. The gameshow “Jeopardy” was on the television and the answer in need of a question was “He wrote ‘On The Road.’?”
“His friend, who wants to remain anonymous, said Jack jumped up and started yelling, ‘Me. I did.’ And they were kicked out,” Anderson said. “I don’t think the bartender believed he was Kerouac and thought he was just a loud drunk.”
A typewritten letter from Kerouac to his agent from September 1968 recently was sold by Boston-based RR Auction. Who made the purchase has not been announced, and it is up to the buyer whether to go public.
The letter was a pitch for his next book, to be titled “Spotlight.” He died before he could finish it.
“Spotlight” was to be an autobiography on the years following his rise to fame from “On The Road.”
“That would have been a fascinating account,” Anderson said. “It may have included his time in Florida.”
Among the episodes described in Kerouac’s letter are bar fights in a number of cities, bad experiences during television appearances and his frustration over people always recognizing him in public.
“I order my lunch but everybody’s yakking so much around me I begin to realize right then and there that ‘success’ is when you can’t enjoy your food anymore in peace,” he wrote, speaking of a meal experience in New York.
The auctioned letter was written in Kerouac’s native town of Lowell, during a brief visit away from St. Petersburg.
But considering St. Petersburg was his full-time home at the time, it is possible the book might have been written here, which would have added further allure to his local home, Anderson said.
The Friends of the Jack Kerouac House wants to buy the author’s house and use it in a way that honors Kerouac. Barmore, the group’s president, was disappointed to learn it’s off the market but said the group will keep raising money in case it becomes available. Options they’ve discussed include a Kerouac museum, a rent-free residence for talented writers where they could concentrate on their work, and moving it to a local college campus for a writing program.
The next time friend Amram vacations in Florida, he plans to stop by the house and perhaps leave a note of his own.
“I am so happy that people are still moved by his words and go out of their way to thank him,” he said. “Fortunately, Jack’s beautiful spirit has survived.”
One letter left at the home by “Jackie Z,” written on a piece of paper torn from a notebook, speaks of how Kerouac’s spirit has affected her. The letter seems to capture Amram’s own memory of his friend.
“When your books became popular, maybe it wasn’t like the be all end all experience, but I respect that so much,” Jackie Z says. “You wrote your personal, beautiful books not for glory or fame, but because you needed to write, needed to commemorate the people you met & experiences you had because they were transformative, colorful, MAD. You’re pretty mad & you lived it right.”