William Seward Burroughs II
Much of Burroughs' work is semi-autobiographical, drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition that marked the last fifty years of his life. A primary member of the Beat Generation, he was an avant-garde author who affected popular culture as well as literature. In 1984, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Burroughs was born in 1914, the younger of two sons of a prominent family in St. Louis, Missouri. His grandfather, William Seward Burroughs I, founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company, which evolved into the Burroughs Corporation. Burroughs' mother, Laura Hammon Lee (1888-1970), was the daughter of a minister whose family claimed to be related to Robert E. Lee. His father, Mortimer Perry Burroughs, ran an antique and gift shop, Cobblestone Gardens, first in St. Louis, then in Palm Beach, Florida.
Burroughs attended John Burroughs School in St. Louis where his first published essay, "Personal Magnetism," was published in the John Burroughs Review in 1929. He then attended The Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico, which was stressful for him. The school was a boarding school for the wealthy, "where the spindly sons of the rich could be transformed into manly specimens.". Burroughs kept journals documenting an erotic attachment to another boy. These remained undiscovered, and in fact he kept his sexual orientation concealed well into adulthood. He was soon expelled from Los Alamos after taking chloral hydrate in Santa Fe with a fellow student.
After leaving Harvard, Burroughs' formal education ended, except for brief flirtations as a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard and as a medical student in Vienna, Austria. He traveled to Europe, which proved a window into Austrian and Hungarian Weimar-Era homosexuality; he picked up boys in steam baths in Vienna, and moved in a circle of exiles, homosexuals, and runaways. There, he met Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the country's National Socialist government. The two were never romantically involved, but Burroughs married her, against the wishes of his parents, in Croatia to allow her to gain a United States visa. She made her way to New York City, and eventually divorced Burroughs, although they remained friends for many years. After returning to the U.S., he held a string of uninteresting jobs. In 1939, his emotional health became a concern to his parents, especially after he deliberately severed the last joint of his left little finger to impress a man with whom he was infatuated. This event made its way into his early fiction as the short story "The Finger".
Burroughs enlisted in the U.S. Army early in 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II. But when he was classified as a 1-A Infantry, not an officer, he became dejected. His mother recognized her son's depression and got Burroughs a civilian disability discharge — a release from duty based on the premise he should have not been allowed to enlist due to previous mental instability. After being evaluated by a family friend, who was also a neurologist at a psychiatric treatment center, Burroughs waited five months in limbo at Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis before being discharged. During that time he met a Chicago soldier also awaiting release, and once Burroughs was free, he moved to Chicago and held a variety of jobs, including one as an exterminator. When two of his friends from St. Louis, Lucien Carr, a University of Chicago student, and David Kammerer, Carr's homosexual admirer, left for New York City, Burroughs followed.
In 1944, Burroughs began living with Joan Vollmer Adams in an apartment they shared with Jack Kerouac and Edie Parker, Kerouac's first wife. Vollmer Adams was married to a GI with whom she had a young daughter, Julie Adams. Burroughs and Kerouac got into trouble with the law for failing to report a murder. The murder involved Lucien Carr, who had killed David Kammerer in a confrontation over Kammerer's incessant and unwanted advances. During this time, Burroughs began using morphine and quickly became addicted. He eventually sold heroin in Greenwich Village to support his habit.
Vollmer also became an addict, but her drug of choice was an amphetamine, Benzedrine, which was sold over the counter as a decongestant inhalant at that time. Because of her addiction and social circle, her husband immediately divorced her after returning from the war. Vollmer would become Burroughs’ common law wife. Burroughs was soon arrested for forging a narcotics prescription and was sentenced to return to his parents' care in St. Louis. Vollmer's addiction led to a temporary psychosis, which resulted in her admission to hospital and the custody of her child was endangered. Yet after Burroughs completed his "house arrest" in St. Louis, he returned to New York, released Vollmer from the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital, and moved with her and her daughter to Texas. Vollmer soon became pregnant with Burroughs' child. Their son, William S. Burroughs, Jr., was born in 1947. The family moved briefly to New Orleans in 1948.
Burroughs was arrested after police searched his home and found letters between him and Allen Ginsberg referring to a possible delivery of marijuana. Burroughs fled to Mexico to escape possible detention in Louisiana's Angola state prison. Vollmer and their children followed him. Burroughs planned to stay in Mexico for at least five years, the length of his charge's statute of limitations. Burroughs also attended classes at Mexico City College in 1950 in Spanish, "Mexican picture writing" and codices, and the Mayan language.
In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed Vollmer in a drunken game of "William Tell" at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and distributed funds to Mexican lawyers and officials which allowed Burroughs to be released on bail while he awaited trial for the killing, which was ruled culpable homicide. Vollmer’s daughter, Julie Adams, went to live with her grandmother, and William S. Burroughs, Jr. went to St. Louis to live with his grandparents. Burroughs reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City while his prominent Mexican attorney worked to resolve the case. According to James Grauerholz two witnesses had agreed to testify that the gun had gone off accidentally while he was checking to see if it was loaded, and the ballistics experts were bribed to support this story.
Nevertheless, the trial was continuously delayed and Burroughs began to write what would eventually become the short novel Queer while awaiting his trial. However, when his attorney fled Mexico after his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided, according to Ted Morgan, to "skip" and return to the United States. He was convicted in absentia of homicide and sentenced to two years, which was suspended.