Paying respects to Kerouac’s daughter
Amy Haders is a big fan of Kerouac. As soon as she read the first autobiographical novel, she was hooked.
“I was really touched. It was such an incredible story,” she says. “I thought, ‘Who is this chick?’”
Haders is talking about Jan Kerouac, the only child of renowned Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac. For the 13th time since 1988, Jack Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell will host a literary conference: Lowell Celebrates Kerouac.
This year’s festival, Oct. 6-10, features tours of the late writer’s favorite haunts, musical tributes, and a 50th anniversary commemoration of “Satori in Paris,” a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s trip to France on a genealogical search.
One thing the festival calendar does not feature is a memorial marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Kerouac, the author’s daughter. That will take place Oct. 8 at Edson Hall of St. Anne’s Church in Lowell. Gerald Nicosia, author of “Memory Babe,” a biography of Jack Kerouac and a longtime friend of Jan, says he asked that his program be part of the festival. It isn’t, so he’s staging it on his own.
Nicosia acknowledges that he long ago fell out with the Sampas family, who control the Kerouac estate as the surviving heirs of Stella Sampas, Kerouac’s wife at the time of his death in 1969. Jan Kerouac brought a legal challenge against the estate just two years before she died in 1996 at age 44. She met her father only twice.
Born to the “On the Road” author and his second wife, Joan Haverty, Jan grew up with her mother but also on the streets. She chronicled her rough, wayward adolescence and young adulthood in “Baby Driver,” a critically acclaimed novel published in 1981. Kerouac, who split with Joan while she was still pregnant, always denied paternity, but it was confirmed by a blood test taken when Jan was 9.
At the memorial event, Nicosia will unveil a new chapbook, “The Last Days of Jan Kerouac,” a precursor to a full-fledged biography, he says. The memorial will feature several guests and some of Jan’s friends, including children’s writer Carol Ross Shank.
Like her father, says Nicosia, Jan Kerouac wasn’t very good at taking care of herself. She was a “tumbleweed,” he says, a rootless vagabond who drank and took drugs, prostituted herself at a very young age, and lived most of her life in poverty.
Yet “almost anybody who spent time with Jan ended up caring about her,” he says. “She was a vulnerable, tender, special person. It didn’t take long for her to charm people.” Jan Kerouac spoke in Lowell just once, at Middlesex Community College, in 1994. She died of kidney failure two years later.
While researching “Memory Babe,” published in 1983, Nicosia spent considerable time in Lowell, where he befriended Stella Sampas’s brothers, he says. The youngest brother, John, now in his 80s, has been the Kerouac estate’s literary executor since 1990, when Stella died. The estate has reportedly been valued at $20 million, in stark contrast with the $91 that Kerouac, then a forgotten man, was said to have to his name at the time of his death.
Jan Kerouac is buried in Nashua, N.H., in a family plot, where she once sought to move her father’s remains. Despite Jan’s dispute with the estate, at least one member of the Sampas fold agrees she deserves some acclaim of her own.
“She was an incredible writer. She had some serious chops,” says Jim Sampas, nephew of John Sampas, and a film and music producer who has developed several Kerouac-related projects.
Just as legions of readers have visited Kerouac’s gravesite in Lowell over the years, Amy Haders has visited the cemetery where Jan is buried, to pay her respects.
While there, she drank White Russians — Jan’s drink of choice — and read aloud a poem she wrote for her favorite writer. It’s called “Little Streaks of Re-Entry.”
The 2016 Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival takes place Oct. 6-10 at various venues, with a pre-festival screening of the documentary “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur” at 7:35 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Luna Theater, Mill No. 5, 250 Jackson St. Visit www
.lowellcelebrateskerouac.org. The memorial for Jan Kerouac takes place at noon on Oct 8, at St. Anne’s Church, 8 Kirk St., Lowell.