Lunch at the Beat Hotel.
Naked Lunch, William S.Burrough’s wild depiction of the life of excess he lead as a homosexual heroin addict, living and travelling in the prudent generation of the fifties, celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year. It was one of the three defining works of the radical Beat Generation of writers, poets and artists, along with Jack Kerouac’s, ‘On The Road,’ and Allan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl.’ The novel was completed with the help of Ginsberg after it’s nine years of fabrication, at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur; ‘The Beat Hotel,’ in the Latin Quarter of Paris.
The inconspicuous building that was owned by Madame & Monsieur Rachou is located on a street that according to the artist, Brion Gysin, was residence to Henri IV’s mistress and so named after the first Bourbon King of France passed the street and exclaimed, “Ici gît mon coeur” (“Here lies my heart”). The Rachous never gave the hotel a name, making it distinguishable as a place to stay only because of a small, ‘Hotel,’ sign hung over the door.
The building acquired the name ‘The Beat Hotel,’ after the poet Gregory Corso introduced Ginsberg and his lover at the time, Peter Orlovsky to the hotel in 1957 and it eventually housed a number of writers and artists of the generation during the late fifties and early sixties. The hotel was popular with the bohemian artists, as aside from encouraging them to stay, Madame Rachou, who had prior experience working at a hotel that Monet frequented, would permit them to decorate their rooms how they pleased and occasionally allow them to pay rent with manuscripts or paintings.
Burroughs had been communicating with Kerouac and Ginsberg throughout the time he was writing Naked Lunch; one letter in fact revealed that Kerouac inadvertently created the title of the book after suggesting it should be called, ‘Naked Lust,’ and was misread by Burroughs. Ginsberg had been championing his friend’s writing and while staying at the hotel secured a publishing deal for Naked Lunch with Olympia Press in Paris. Given two weeks to complete the final draft, which had already been passed between the three writers to re-edit numerous times, Burroughs joined Ginsberg in Paris to complete his seminal near auto-biographical novel.
The area around the hotel reflected the interests of the beats; it contained a huge mix of cultures, owing to the multi-racial environment in the district as well as being incredibly liberal and forward-thinking for the time, with artist’s cafes such as ‘The Monaco Bar,’ and ‘La Palette,’ where one could organise a reading, exhibition or purchase drugs.
The soundtrack to the writing of the generation, Jazz, was also widely available in the area, the writers all ‘dug the children of the great bop innovators,’ Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis acting as their musical muses. Burroughs had a passion for Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust,’ in particular and referenced many of his other pieces in Naked Lunch. Jazz was the punk of it’s day, radical and containing a sub-culture that meshed neatly with the beats, in it’sexperimentation with drugs, alcohol, sex and freedom in life.
Throughout the prolonged residence of The Beats, the hub of creativity spawned many works of art and literature; Corso’s mushroom cloud shaped poem, ‘Bomb,’ and Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish,’ which spoke of his gradual detachment with religion, to name but two. The book of photographs, ‘The Beat Hotel,’ was made up of pictures produced by the British photographer Harold Chapman, taken while he stayed at the hotel. Chapman started his career as a wedding photographer, before moving on to street photography which lead him to Paris and in to befriending the residents of 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur.
Burroughs on the set of The Naked Lunch film.
A number of the photographs depict Burroughs and the artist Ian Sommerville experimenting with the latter’s creation, ‘The Dream Machine,’ a piece of card with a pattern of holes cut in to it and containing a light. When it is rotated it projects a moving pattern, the viewer must have their face close to the contraption and the spinning projection supposedly causes a psychedelic experience. The hotel was also witness to the introduction of ‘The Cut-up technique,’ to Burroughs by Brion Gysin, whereby one cuts up an existing piece of text and re-arranges the words to form a new piece of literature. Burroughs remarked close to his death that, ‘Brion Gysin was the only man I ever respected,’ and adopted his method, theorising that, “When you cut in to the present the future leaks out. The method of writing fit perfectly in to The Beats approach to spontaneous creativity and was a technique later picked up by lyricists such as Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain in the production of the words they sang.
The impact that Naked Lunch has had upon the literary world is evident in the mass scale of celebrations taking place around the world this summer to mark its legacy. Paris is to play host to a number of readings, comedy performances and concerts from artists who were involved with or inspired by the Beat Generation. Similar events will be taking place in London and New York.
With floods of fans flocking to the events in Paris, The Beat Hotel is bound to be a sought after location to stay in during the festivities. The building which was, until it’s closure in 1963, a ‘Class 13’ hotel, one that was only required to meet the most basic of health & safety standards, is now according to it’s current owner, Madame Claude Odillard, ‘A boutique four star hotel.
We completely renovated the interior in 1991 to turn it in to a stylish, luxury hotel.’ The building no longer resembles the hotel where The Beats stayed, the establishment that only changed the sheets on the bed once a month. There are still a few signs of their occupation however; Madame Odillard told me that she hangs Chapman’s photographs in the lobby and around the building and that ‘The guest books containing the signatures of the writers and artists are still available to see on request.’ The current owner hung a sign on the façade of the hotel that reads ‘BEAT HOTEL,’ this summer to do her bit in commemorating the anniversary of Naked Lunch.
Defining members of the Beat Generation.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs was slightly older than his contemporaries, a Harvard graduate when introduced to Columbia undergraduates, Kerouac and Ginsberg. The grandson of a wealthy businessman, Burroughs lived off an allowance from his parents and began to experiment with an array of recreational drugs, one of which, heroin, ultimately dominated a large period of his life. The writer became particularly infamous when he escaped jail after killing his wife in a stunt where he believed he could shoot an apple off the top of her head.
Although not such a prominent writer as his circle of friends, the anarchic vagabond, Cassady is said to have been the ‘real beat.’ After being introduced to Jack Kerouac in New York by mutual friends, Cassady’s letters to his new acquaintance inspired the writer to travel across the U.S.A to meet and travel the continent with him. The experiences that they had together were documented in ‘On the Road,’ as the characters Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Cassady).
Ginsberg studied at Columbia University, New York, where he met a number of other writers from the Beat Generation and specialised in poetry over the writing of novels. His book ‘Howl and Other Poems’ was subject to an obscenity trial in San Francisco, which was hugely publicised, bringing ‘Beat,’ to the attention of critics of the time. The poet was prevalent until his death in and was a strong advocate for other writers during the rise of the Beats.
Born in to an immigrant French-Canadian family, Kerouac always had the intention of becoming a traveller and writer, inspired by Tom Wolfe and Ernest Hemmingway. His novel, ‘On the Road,’ defined the Beat Generation and their new way of approaching life. It was released shortly before the verdict for Ginsberg’s obscenity trial was decided, which garnered much interest to the writer’s depiction of what the lives of the Beats were really like, forcing him in to the position of the face of the generation.