The Boston Phoenix
September 30 - October 7, 1999



Dead beats

by Chris Wright

The 12th annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival promises everything you'd expect from an event honoring the town's most famous native son. But in between the beat poetry and the jazz, festival organizers have found themselves presiding over an unanticipated sideshow: a power struggle between Kerouac scholars and family members.

The story boils down to a bitter fight between two men: Gerald Nicosia, a Kerouac biographer and the literary executor for Kerouac's late daughter, Jan; and John Sampas, brother to Kerouac's third wife, Stella, and executor of Jack Kerouac's estate. For years, the two have been wrestling in and out of court for control of Jack's letters, journals, and personal items -- valued at around $10 million.

The situation is as ugly as it is complex. Nicosia has accused Sampas of selling Kerouac's belongings for profit. The other side has shot back with allegations that Nicosia manipulated Kerouac's sickly daughter for personal gain. Nicosia has charged Sampas with making death threats against him. Now, amid the bickering and litigation, Nicosia has taken aim at the Lowell celebration, claiming he has been unfairly banned from taking part.

"John Sampas calls the shots and he doesn't want me there," says Nicosia, noting that Sampas is a sponsor of the festival. "Mr. Sampas takes the position that no one can speak on Kerouac without his permission." Festival organizers, Nicosia claims, are intimidated by Sampas's clout and indentured to his cash -- thus their decision to blackball Nicosia.

Nonsense, says UMass Lowell professor Hilary Holladay, who organized the festival's showcase "Beat Attitudes" conference and rejected a bid by Nicosia to take part. His proposal "didn't fit with the theme of the conference," she says. "He attached some vitriol that wasn't in the spirit of the event. It would have been foolish of me to invite someone who wasn't behaving professionally as a scholar."

Holladay allows that Nicosia is "unpopular among organizers of the festival," but she dismisses as paranoia his claims of a Sampas-led blacklisting. "He's persona non grata among Kerouac scholars," she says. "He's caused a lot of bad feelings in the city."

Nicosia chalks this attitude up to Sampas's alleged campaign to discredit him. "You'll hear that I'm a mad dog with foam coming out of my mouth," he says. "I'm tired of it. I'm a respected scholar." Accordingly, Nicosia is planning a few events of his own to coincide with the official celebration, including a protest by "nationally prominent writers."

Nicosia also plans to attend the Beat Attitudes conference. "I will be there if they let me in," he says. In 1995, Nicosia was thrown out of a similar event at New York University for arguing loudly with Allen Ginsberg. Does he plan a repeat performance? "I want to make some statements," he says. "If they allow a Q&A, I plan on asking some questions."

While Sampas and Nicosia duke it out, one wonders what Jack Kerouac would have made of this mess. As Nicosia puts it, "It's totally antithetical to what Kerouac stood for: compassion, tolerance, brotherhood."

The Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival runs September 30 through October 3; call (978) 441-3800. Gerald Nicosia sponsors a "Free Kerouac" reading at the Old West Church, 131 Cambridge Street, Boston, September 30 at 7 p.m.; a reading of Jan Kerouac's work at Barnes & Noble, 151 Merrimack Street, Lowell, October 1 at 6 p.m.; and "Kerouac: The Lost Legacy," a presentation at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, 400 John Street, Lowell, October 2 at 1 p.m.

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