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100 Years Ago, Writer William S. Burroughs Was Born


William S. Burroughs was born 100 years ago today. His books included "Naked Lunch." He was a member of the Beat Generation, writers who rose to prominence in the 1950s, for the most part, and had a huge influence questioning society's standards and traditions.

Burroughs was openly gay, and wrestled with heroin addiction much of his life. He lived all over the world, but spent his last years in Lawrence, Kan., where we go next. Frank Morris, of member station KCUR, reports on his odd but enduring place in a Midwestern city.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Here in Lawrence, Kan., you can still get a haircut from William Burroughs' barber.

MARTY OLSON: My name's Marty Olson, and I cut William's hair for 13 years. And I cooked dinner for him a few times, and went to a few parties over at this house.

MORRIS: Can I get William Burroughs' haircut?

OLSON: Certainly. You want one like him?

MORRIS: Burroughs moved to Lawrence in 1981.

JAMES GRAUERHOLZ: He needed to get out of New York - away from the fame, the media, the thrill-seekers, the, you know...

MORRIS: The heroin. James Grauerholz became, briefly, Burroughs' lover, then his agent and the man who brought him to Lawrence.

GRAUERHOLZ: I lured him, but there's something called the genius loci, which means the spirit of a place, and he, within a year or two, became the spirit of the place.

MORRIS: Right after he moved, Burroughs wrote this song for a local punk band, The Mortal Micronotz.


MORRIS: And collaborated with other local artists, including Phillip Heying, a photographer who was a freshman at the University of Kansas when Burroughs came to town.

PHILLIP HEYING: On the one hand, it was very normal. Like, it was just this guy I knew that was kind of eccentric. In other ways, it was like all of a sudden having a volcano erupt in your backyard.


MORRIS: That's Burroughs on YouTube, blasting Ralph Steadman's portrait of William Shakespeare. The writer also shot paint cans, creating hundreds of visual art pieces out of their splattered remains, and Steadman was hardly the only famous visitor. Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Patti Smith and many others dropped by his small bungalow.


JIM MCCRARY: Come in, come in.

MORRIS: Jim McCrary, a poet in Lawrence, met me at the house. He spent a lot of time with Burroughs here.

MCCRARY: I would come in and sit down over there and he'd say, Jim, roll me a joint. I'd roll him a joint. He would take three hits and hand me back like an eighth inch of a roach. That was the funny old guy that I just could not help but love.

MORRIS: A lot of people loved Burroughs here. Well, enough anyway, and McCrary says the old man, as folks called him, was very comfortable because the rest of the town just let him be.

MCCRARY: A lot of people, particularly in New York, think that he was taken away and sequestered in this small, craphole, Midwest town. And maybe that's true, but maybe that's what he wanted.

MORRIS: Burroughs finished several books in Lawrence. He created a mountain of visual art, and wrote until he died in 1997. Since then, Lawrence officials have dedicated a creek, a trail, a park.

MCCRARY: The fact that there is a Burroughs playground is a little bit ironic.

MORRIS: Especially since Burroughs wrote about sexual encounters with young boys, accidently shot and killed his wife, and took lots of drugs. Not everyone here is crazy about him, though you wouldn't know it by the hundreds who turned up for one of the art exhibitions celebrating his centennial. James Grauerholz says that despite a very hard turn to the right in Kansas politics, the qualities of Lawrence that made Burroughs feel at home still stand.

GRAUERHOLZ: And now, it is my hope that the fact of his association with Lawrence will shine brightly like a beacon to indeed, attract the different and the strange and the alien and the intelligent and the daring to this town.

MORRIS: Grauerholz wants it understood that in Kansas, Lawrence is the capital of weird - and that William Burroughs still represents the genius loci. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris