The Jack Kerouac Literary Estate Controversy

© 1997 by the Cosmic Baseball Research Alliance

Property and ownership issues notwithstanding, the concern of the literary community in this distinctly legal affair is with the ultimate status and availability of Jack Kerouac's literary archive. Scholars and fans of Jack Kerouac's work only desire that the Kerouac archive should be preserved, protected, and available. The Kerouac literary estate is viewed as a national treasure.


The Controversy

Latest News about the Controversy

Links to other Resources Related to the Controversy

References and Credits

Jack Kerouac at the Cosmic Baseball Association

CBA Main Menu

The Controversy

"Money is the root of all evil"
For I will
In my will
"I regret that I was not able
To love money more."

--Jack Kerouac
from "238th Chorus"
Mexico City Blues

Jack Kerouac

Died 1969

His literary estate is now valued at US$10 million.

Jack Kerouac was an American writer of the middle 20th century. The creator of "spontaneous bop prosody" he fused the improvisational style of jazz music with the story-teller's narrative to produce a body of literature which was both influential and controversial.

Along with his comrades-in-art, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac forged a literary and cultural movement known as the Beat Generation.

When Jack Kerouac died October 20, 1969 his estate was valued at $91.

Photo Copyright
Stanley Twardowicz
Used with Permission
Gabrielle Kerouac

Died 1973

Jack Kerouac's mother

When Jack Kerouac died in 1969 he was living with his mother, Gabrielle and his third wife, Stella Sampas. Kerouac's will left his entire estate, literary and otherwise, to his mother.

Stella Sampas

Died 1990

Jack Kerouac's 3rd Wife.

Kerouac married Stella Sampas in 1966. Stella was the sister of Kerouac's boyhood friend, Sebastian Sampas. Apparently, just before he died, Jack was thinking about divorcing Stella. Nevertheless, they were married at the time Jack died. When Kerouac's mother died in 1973, she left her entire estate, which included Kerouac's literary archive, to her daughter-in-law, Stella.

Stella Sampas died in 1990 and her estate (which included the Kerouac literary archive) was left to her brothers and sisters. As a result of these various inheritances, John Sampas, Stella's youngest brother, has become the literary executor of the Kerouac archive.

Jan Kerouac

died 1996

Kerouac's daughter.

Jack Kerouac had two other living heirs when he died in 1969. A daughter, Jan Kerouac, was a result of Kerouac's marriage to Joan Haverty in 1950. By the time Jan was born in 1952, Kerouac and Haverty were separated and Jack denied that he was Jan's father. Court proceedings initiated by Haverty would eventually prove that Jack was Jan's father but the two met only twice in their lives. Jack also had a nephew, Paul Blake, Jr., the son of his sister, Nin.

"Yeah, you go to Mexico an' write a book. You can use my name."

--Jack Kerouac to Jan Kerouac

On May 17, 1994 Jan Kerouac filed a lawsuit in Pinellas County, Florida claiming that Gabrielle Kerouac's signature on her will was forged. Needless to say, the Sampas family denies the charge. That lawsuit is pending as of October 1997. If the court finds that the will is invalid because of the forgery it would mean a re-allocation of the rights to the Kerouac literary estate. Apparently the estate would be divided into three parts with one part going to Jan Kerouac, another part to Kerouac's nephew Paul Blake, Jr. and one part would remain with the Sampas family.

John Sampas

Stella's Brother

On June 5, 1996 Jan Kerouac died. Her will named Gerald Nicosia to be her "literary" executor. The will also named her ex-husband, John Lash as her "general" executor. Gerald Nicosia befriended Jan in 1978 when Nicosia was writing his Kerouac biography, Memory Babe, which was published in 1983 . Nicosia supported Jan Kerouac's claim to her father's estate. Lash contests Nicosia's rights and the issue will be decided in a New Mexico court.

Nicosia's support is based in part on his feeling that the Sampas family is "destroying a national treasure" by selling pieces of it to collectors. Needless to say, Nicosia's motives have also been called into question. Both sides, naturally, have engaged in a conflict-of-words, polarizing individuals who might otherwise share common ground in their love and respect for Jack Kerouac's life and works.

Gerald Nicosia

Jack Kerouac biographer

Unraveling and sorting out the various intentions and motivations of the individuals involved in this controversy may be impossible. But starting at the beginning, it's fair to inquire about what Jack Kerouac himself would want. We believe Kerouac would want his literary archive to be preserved and made available to interested scholars and fans. The best place for the Kerouac archive would be in a library or museum.

Kerouac himself might have addressed the issue of who should get the legal rights to his estate in a letter written October 20, 1969 to his nephew, Paul Blake, Jr. In that letter Kerouac writes,

I just wanted to leave my "estate" (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife's one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is.

The authenticity of this letter has been questioned by the Sampas family.

Is the letter authentic?

Was Gabrielle's signature forged on her will?

Jan Kerouac and Gerald Nicosia say yes. Nicosia sites the situation of Clifford Larkin. He was the "witness" to Gabrielle's signature on the will. Larkin, according to Nicosia, later said he didn't actually see Gabrielle sign the document.

Is everybody only in it for the money?

What can $10 million buy you these days?

The pecuniary motives of the participants must also be recognized. Kerouac's estate is worth an estimated $10 million dollars. There is evidence that the Sampas family has sold off parts of the archive, including autographed books and articles of clothing (Kerouac's trench coat was reportedly sold to the actor Johnny Depp for $15,000.) Some have made the argument that the Sampas family simply made some initial mistakes, typical of non-literary executors. Now with some experience under his belt, John Sampas and his advisors, which include Kerouac biographer Ann Charters, are in a better position to insure the preservation of the estate.

Each side is as bad as the other, only worse: so whenever anyone tells you something on this subject you must keep in mind that they will have reasons for saying the things they say, and they will also have reasons for leaving out the things they don't say.

-- Rod Anstee, Kerouac Collector

Who should manage the literary estate? John Sampas? Gerald Nicosia? Are there other choices?

Is John Sampas sacrificing literary scholarship in favor of maximizing his own family's personal financial gain? Is the Sampas family trying to protect itself by suppressing negative information contained in the Kerouac archive about family members?

Is Gerald Nicosia in it for the money or the glory or the fame?

How can the estate and the archive be properly preserved?

Unfortunately, there has been more rhetoric and passion then reason and analysis in this matter. We hope saner minds will prevail and that Kerouac's estate will be properly preserved as befits a national treasure.

Kerouac Controversy LATEST NEWS

July 28, 2009

from Associated Press article
Florida judge: Will on Jack Kerouac's estate is fake; sides with writer's daughter, nephew
Associated Press, 07/28/09 12:40 PM EDT
CLEARWATER, Florida. A lengthy dispute over the estate of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac has ended with a Florida judge ruling that his mother's will was fraudulent. Gabrielle Kerouac left all of her son's assets to his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, when she died in 1973. Ever since, the Sampas family has had control of Jack Kerouac's manuscripts, letters and personal belongings. But Jack Kerouac's daughter and nephew believed the will was fake. They filed a lawsuit that has dragged on in Pinellas County for the last 15 years. On Friday, a judge finally ruled that the will was a forgery. Bill Wagner, an attorney for Kerouac's nephew, says its unclear what action his client will take next.

Previous reports have placed the estate's value at $20 million.

August 21, 2001

The Berg Collection at the New York Public Library purchases the Kerouac Personal and Literary Archive from the Kerouac Estate. The purchase amount is undisclosed. According to news reports the collection will be under restricted access until either the completion of the authorized biography of Kerouac being written by Douglas Brinkley or the year 2005, whichever comes first. Items included in the archive include:

May 22, 2001

Kerouac's ON THE ROAD SCROLL sold at auction for US$2.43 million to James Irsay, a professional football team owner.

October 7, 1999

Beat Auction at Sotheby's in New York City

October 4, 1999

Jan Kerouac's Florida lawsuit against the Kerouac Estate is dismissed.

September 22, 1999

Gerald Nicosia resigns as Literary Personal Representative of Jan Kerouac's estate. (Click here to read Nicosia's letter of resignation to a district court judge in New Mexico.)

September 14, 1999

Excepted from Associated Press article by BARRY MASSEY

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The state Supreme Court reversed itself and has decided not to get involved in the fight over the estate of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, paving the way for another lawsuit over the estate to go forward.

Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia said Monday [September 13] that the court's decision, made Thursday [September 9], probably will stop a lawsuit by the author's daughter, the late Jan Kerouac, to recover a part of her father's estate and house his literary archives in a university library.


Jack Kerouac's estate includes unpublished manuscripts, journals, thousands of letters as well as the house in Florida where he lived at the time of his death. The estate could be worth as much as $20 million, according to Nicosia.


The Supreme Court had been asked to sort out the powers of representatives of Jan Kerouac's estate.


Last month, the high court heard arguments from lawyers in the case. It gave no explanation for its one-page order, which left in place a 1998 ruling by the New Mexico Court of Appeals that said [John] Lash [Jan Kerouac's ex-husband] had sole authority in deciding how to handle the Florida lawsuit.

Lash, who lives in Belgium, had asked a Florida court to dismiss the lawsuit. After Nicosia objected, a Florida judge asked the New Mexico courts to clarify who is representing Jan Kerouac's estate in the lawsuit.

Proceedings in the Florida lawsuit have been on hold pending the outcome of the New Mexico case.

October 30, 1998

From combined Email messages to the SUBTERRANEANS internet mailing list

Today, October 30, 1998, the New Mexico Supreme court issued an order stating that "[Nicosia's] petition hereby is GRANTED and a writ of ceritorari shall issue to the New Mexico Court of Appeals; and it is further ordered that a subsequent order shall be entered identifying the issue(s) upon which the petition is granted and setting forth instructions regarding a briefing schedule, if any... NOW, THEREFORE, the writ of certiorari hereby is issued, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals is ordered to proceed no further in cause numbered 18,495 pending further order of this court." [Jo Grant]

This usually means that [there] is concern that the Court of Appeals made a mistake. It means there is a chance the earlier ruling [of September 11] will be reversed, but the Supreme Court will hear the case and then make its own decision. It is good news for Gerry Nicosia. [Bentz Kirby]

September 11, 1998

From Email message to the SUBTERRANEANS internet mailing list

The New Mexico Court of Appeals today ruled in favor of the heirs of Jan Kerouac in their desire to dismiss the forged will lawsuit in Florida. This action was opposed by Gerald Nicosia, who wanted to continue the Florida lawsuit. [Diane de Rooy]

October 15, 1997

From Email message to BEAT-L internet mailing list

The Sixth Circuit Court of Pinellas county (Florida) ruled against dismissing the lawsuit regarding the contention that Gabrielle's will was forged. Judge Shames in Florida decided to wait until the New Mexico appellate court decides who is Jan Kerouac's literary executor. The New Mexico judges will be making their decision in the next few months. [Gerald Nicosia]

April 28, 1997

From combined newspaper reports

In a New Mexico State district court, judge Gerard Thomson ruled that Gerald Nicosia could appeal the judge's January ruling that John Lash, as "general executor" of Jan Kerouac's estate could make decisions regarding the Florida lawsuit which challenges the authenticity of Gabrielle Kerouac's will. Nicosia claims that Lash has made a deal with the Sampas family to drop the Florida lawsuit filed by Jan Kerouac in 1994. The appeal is now in the hands of three judges of the New Mexico appellate court. This panel of judges will determine whether Nicosia can, as Jan Kerouac's "literary" executor, pursue the Florida lawsuit. Lash claims that Jan's dying wish was that the lawsuit be stopped. Nicosia states that Jan's main goal towards the end of her life was the preservation of her estranged father's literary estate. Depending on the result of the New Mexico litigation, we may or may not be off to Florida for some more dead reckonings.


Who Owns Jack Kerouac?

Jack Shea produced and directed this film about the estate controversy. Shea provides one answer to his question:

"No one owns Jack Kerouac. Jack Kerouac is a spirit embodied in words, in honesty, in art, in truth, in life. Anyone who reads Kerouac participates in that spirit but no one owns it. It's free for the taking. ...The fight for ownership of the physical stuff of Kerouac is interesting only insofar as it is an ironic illustration of the suffering and transience inherent in material things, which Jack wrote about and knew all his life, but that's as far as it goes. "


This is one of the more comprehensive sites for information about the controversy.

It takes a decidedly pro-Jan Kerouac point of view and includes several articles written by Nicosia about the controversy between Jan Kerouac and the Sampas family.

A copy of part of Jan Kerouac's will is also available at this site.

Inside the Kerouac Legacy

This is an "independent section" of the Literary Kicks web site dedicated to the legacy of Jack Kerouac. Maintained by Ralph Virgo it currently includes an article by Nicosia, and an open-letter Jan Kerouac wrote to New York University after the 1995 Kerouac conference which excluded her input. Despite Mr. Virgo's invitation to John Sampas to provide some information on his side of the story, this site, like BookZen provides mostly pro-Jan Kerouac material.

Road to Kerouac's Riches

Lest anyone think that the controversy is not about money, this link is to an article by Monica Corcoran at the Worth OnLine Financial Intelligence web site. It provides a general overview of the estate controversy and how it relates to dollars and sense and good estate planning.

The Cult of Kerouac

This is a link to a condensed version of a book by Diane de Rooy regarding the Kerouac estate controversy. It provides another view on the relationships between Jan Kerouac, her family members and Gerald Nicosia.

It's difficult to find any information provided directly by the Sampas family with regard to this controversy. To date, we know of no online environment where Mr. Sampas has directly commented or responded.

In addition to Ralph Virgo's site, John Sampas has been invited to air his views on the BEAT-L mailing list. In a message dated October 15 and sent to the BEAT-L internet mailing list, Paul Maher, editor of The Kerouac Quarterly reports that he contacted John Sampas for a comment on the estate controversy. According to Mr. Maher, this was Mr. Sampas' reply:

Gerald Nicosia's poisoned hand will never touch the Kerouac archive. His touch is the touch of death.

While this comment contributes little to the debate it does serve to underscore the inflamed passions that surround the issue.

Many of the points of contention in this debate apparently will be settled in various courts of law.

Our agenda, as stated above, is simply the desire to see the Kerouac literary estate properly preserved. We support whatever efforts are taken to realize this objective.

Credits & References

Most of the research for this plate was done using published newspaper accounts and online articles.

I would like to thank the members of the BEAT-L mailing list for contributing to a lively discussion about this issue.

--Andrew Lampert

NOTE: On March 27, 1998 the BEAT-L list was shut down. The reason for the list's demise was the acrimony created by the the Kerouac Literary Estate controversy. Bill Gargan, the list owner, wrote the following in his farewell message to the list members:

...things have become impossible because of the Kerouac estate feud. I've done everything in my power to try to keep the list free of the acrimony associated with this dispute but it seems I've failed. My personal mail in recent days has been full of complaints and attacks from both sides. Frankly, I no longer have the time or the energy to devote to this conflict.

The BEAT-L List will be missed.


CBA Menu

Vol. 16 Contents

Main JCBA Plate

Kerouac Literary Estate Controversy
Published: October 20, 1997
JCBA Vol. 16: November 25, 1997
Updated: August 26, 2001; November 9, 2003; November 11, 2003; July 28, 2009
Copyright © 1997-2001 by the Cosmic Baseball Association