I TOLD FRANÇOISE SAGAN that they had to pay me one way or another, and she said with a smile, "So here you sit in a Paris garret, adoring our city while you're being paid to suffer . . ." It was true. I even managed to procure a typewriter from Russell's office and began to set down a novel about a situation not so unlike the one at hand.
I wrote to Anais Nin, having talked to her on occasion at filmmaker Curtis Harrington's in Hollywood. For years she'd been shuttling between two different lives, two different men, one in New York, the other in L.A.
My friend the novelist Bernard Wolf, once secretary to Leon Trotsky in Mexico, had recommended Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press in Paris. Bernie had published with Olympia several "apprentice novels," as he called them, and said if they were halfway good, and contained lots of sex scenes, one could always count on a few bucks from Maurice - at least enough to keep hitting the cellar-joint freak shows and "existential gin mills" on the dark side of the City of Lights. Most Americans I met living in Paris seemed to be somehow damaged, although it wasn't always apparent to the eye. They'd gone nuts in the States and drifted off, or sent away to art school or on indefinite "vacations" - as Jane Fonda had been by her father. The Beats were the worst, hanging around a Left Bank hotel scribbling nonsense, or cutting out and pasting up a bunch of scraps, or wasting good paint or boards and canvas - most of the time shooting heroin and staying so wasted they'd flop for days wherever they went on the nod.
William Burroughs was also at the hotel, genuinely in pain -- he seemed to shriek with every breath. A sad man, all static like an old radio on the fritz, he'd shot his wife in the head with a gun in Mexico, killed her, though he claimed to have only been showing off his marksmanship. The police were always looking for him. Emaciated and desperate, he was a lecherous spook. Another post-Beat American, Gregory Corso - a loud and obnoxious poet - shouted that he had to keep pulling Burroughs out of public cans, where "he's always on his knees giving blowjobs to anyone who'll whip it out!" Burroughs made him sick, he said, and he'd have "to kill Bill" sooner or later; he'd have to "beat him to death" and turn Burroughs' face into a "flattened mass of burger."
The narrow street, rue Git le Coeur (the Lying Heart), led from rue St. André des Arts to the quay. An American drunk, Bob Gardner, had lived on the top floor of the hotel and was constantly colliding with Gregory Corso. "I hated him," Gardner said. "He was one of the only people I've ever thoroughly hated. I even hated his shoes." Gardner loaned money to Burroughs on several occasions, and Burroughs was always putting the tap on him. "I didn't mind giving Burroughs money," he told me, "even though I figured I probably wouldn't get it back. But I did, you know. Years later I wrote him in New York, and he actually sent me a money order."
The Beat Hotel was surrounded by Chinese restaurants and frame shops, a couple of cafés and an African club. A few times I hung out with Gardner in one of the cafés or shared a bottle with him in his hotel room. From what I observed, these Beats just sat around continually threatening each other and stealing each other's dope. At that time, I also met Harold Norse, an American dancer-artist-writer who was working at the Beat Hotel on a series of small paintings he called "cosmographs." He told me Corso was having a fling with Jean Seberg when she wasn't on a picture, and we talked a little about Monty Clift. He knew Girodias at Olympia Press, and we discussed writing, and Jack Kerouac. One afternoon at the Deux Magots, I told Harold my idea for a novel, and he advised me to write it. "Don't let it fucking run out on you," he said. "The goddamn things'll run out like an unsatisfied lover" . . .
Burroughs knew where to find the best absinthe in a section of Paris he called "the sewer," and I went with him and another poet named Frank Milne, from Hoboken, who wore some sort of turban on his head with a bunch of fake jewels stitched to the front above the eyes. Burroughs kept staring at my crotch and almost obscenely licking his lips, or making strange remarks about "a penis colony in the desert." He drank quickly, painfully, and at one point began sweating and shaking. His eyes rolled up like an epileptic's, and he seemed to go into a kind of fit. I got up and away from him when he started frothing at the mouth and shitting his pants.
Frank Milne's turban fell off as he tried to pull Burroughs back into a sitting position and get him out of the cafe. The turban was dirty inside and I didn't pick it up, but as I followed them out I noticed Frank's bald head had a square scar like a flap on the crown, as though he had a metal plate in his head, or his skull had been operated on.
Excerpts from Laid
Bare: A Memoir of Wrecked Lives
and the Hollywood Death Trip