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the name is burroughs
by james grauerholz
William Seward Burroughs (II) was born a
few yearsafterthebeginningof“the Americ-
an
Century,”
descended
from
two
respectable upper-middle-class families, one
of which would give its name to a great
American company. His hometown of St.
Louis was a city oldand large enough to in-
corporate the traditions of the Eastern sea-
boardwhile servingas the jumping-offpoint
for the American West. He was a child of
privilege and destiny—but it was not a des-
tiny that his ancestors or his peers could
have foreseen, or even imagined.
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Burroughs’ paternal grandfather, William
Seward Burroughs, was an indefatigable in-
ventor best known for perfecting the adding
machine. As a young man in Auburn, New
York, after the Civil War, Burroughs worked
as a bookkeeper—a job that in those times
was done by hand—and after seven tedious
years as a copyist, he became obsessedwith
the idea of a mechanical device that would
make handwritten accounts obsolete. In
1880, aged twenty-three years, Burroughs
moved to St. Louis for its warmer climate.
WithJosephBoyer, he formedtheAmerican
ArithmometerCompanyfouryears later,but
it took six years more to perfect his inven-
tion.Thereafter the company prospered,but
the inventor’s health was failing; tubercular
at thirty-nine, he moved to Citronelle,
Alabama, and died there two years later, in
1898. The loyal Boyer renamed the firm the
Burroughs Adding Machine Company and
moved it to Detroit. He placed an imposing
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obelisk in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Cemetery,
over Burroughs’ grave in the family plot,
with the inscription: “Erected by his associ-
ates as a tribute to his genius.”
WilliamBurroughs’ father, Mortimer, was
the second of the inventor’s four children,
and the only one to hold on to a few shares
when the company offered to buy all the
family’sinheritedstock.Mortimer,thenonly
thirteen,displayedan acumen thatwas con-
firmed when he finally sold the stock three
decadeslater,in1929,justthreemonths be-
fore the Crash.His brother, Horace, became
addicted to morphine, and committed sui-
cide in 1915; his eldest sister Jenny
wandered drunk on the streets of St. Louis
and vanished in Seattle; and his youngest
sister, Helen, married and moved to Color-
ado.TheBurroughs familydisintegrated;the
“Burroughs millions,” with which William
Burroughs would often complain that Jack
Kerouac, in his novels, had unhelpfully
93/1780
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investedhim,neverexisted.AndyettheBur-
roughs company loomed large in American
cyberbusiness during the 1950s and 1960s,
withitsownskyscraperinNewYork,andthe
legendhadaninevitablecredibilityformany
years.
Mortimer graduated at M.I.T. and re-
turned to St. Louis. In 1908, he married an
elegant, ethereal St. Louis woman of twenty
namedLauraLee—adebutante who was tall
and thin, much given to seeing ghostly ap-
paritionsandreadingmeaningintoallseem-
inghappenstance.The daughter ofan emin-
ent Methodist minister, the Rev. James
Wideman Lee, Laura used crystal ball and
Ouija board to contact the spirits of the de-
parted. She had a gift for flower arranging,
and authored three illustrated promotional
bookletsoffloralarrangements forthe Coca-
Cola company in the 1930s. Laura Lee’s
brother, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, had graduated
Princeton at the turn of the century, and he
94/1780
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(and his contemporary Edward L. Bernays)
invented what is now called “public rela-
tions.” Ivy Lee was an interesting and
roguishcharacter, who worked to polish the
public images of such disparate figures as
JohnD. RockefellerSr.andAdolfHitler.He
lived in New York in high style, and was a
public figure of his time, mentioned in the
newspapers and even in a popular song of
the twenties. By the early thirties his work
forGermany’s rulingNationalSocialistParty
had brought him to the attention of the
House Un-American Activities Committee,
and a few months after testifying before
HUAC in 1934, he died of complications
from a brain tumor—before he could see
what the Nazis would unleash on the world.
Mortimer and Laura’s first child, Mor-
timer Jr., was bornin 1911, after which Bur-
roughs pèrewas knownas “Mote,” todistin-
guish himfromhis son, “Mort.” Three years
after Mort came along, William Seward
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Burroughs IIwasbornathome,onFebruary
5,1914,at4664PershingAvenueintheCen-
tralWestEndofSt.Louis,nearthecity’svast
ForestPark,in aredbrick house whichMote
had ordered to be built for his family on a
tree-lined street secluded behind wrought-
irongates.AftersixyearsattheprivateCom-
munity School, Billy was sent to the John
Burroughs School (named after the Americ-
an naturalistandwildlife conservationist, no
relation to Burroughs’ family), in the St.
Louis suburb of Ladue Woods, in Clayton,
Missouri.In1926,whenBillywastwelve,the
Burroughs family moved to a new house at
700 South Price Road, nearer to the school.
His classmates were other members of the
whiteupper class—mostofthemfromfamil-
ies wealthier, in fact, than Burroughs’ own.
Their teachers werewell paid,andtheir cur-
ricula were based on the classical education
by which these scions-in-waiting were to be
prepared for social and business leadership.
96/1780
Mostofthemalegraduatesofthe Burroughs
SchoolwentontoIvyLeaguecolleges,as did
Burroughs himself.
The public environment of William Bur-
roughs’ childhood was shaped by traditions
ofclass andquality, withroots inthe British
origins of the first American settlers. It was
calculated to produce worthy heirs to great
fortunes,newcaptainsofindustryforthena-
tion. But Billy Burroughs and his brother
Mort were at the lower end of the social
scale, based on their family’s middling for-
tune, and Billy in particular was keenly
aware of never quite fitting in. The private
environment of Burroughs’ childhood may
have contributed to this. His father was re-
served in demeanor, and closer to his elder
son,Mort;father andyoungersonwere nev-
er able to connect on an emotional level, a
fatethatwouldplayoutagainintherelation-
ship between Burroughs and his own son
years later. Burroughs’ mother was distant
97/1780
and vague, but she doted on Billy, and may
havecontributedanelementofnarcissismto
his personality.
But young Billy was also raised by the
householdhelp,forhisparentshadsufficient
means to retain a small group of servants.
Otto Belue, the African-American gardener,
was only about a dozen years older than
Billy,and he oftenplayed withtheboy as he
worked in the garden. And there were ser-
vants tohelpwiththe children,two ofwhom
left lifelong impressions upon Burroughs.
The cook taught him old Irish curses and
witchcraft, which much intrigued him; and
the Welsh nanny, Mary Evans, took him
along on apicnic with her veterinarian boy-
friend, who apparently sexually abused the
four-yearold boy. This incident of childhood
molestationleft Burroughs withwhathe felt
was a repressed psychic wound—which he
was not able to recall to consciousness until
forty years later, in the late 1950s, during
98/1780
whatwouldbethelastofalongseriesofpsy-
chiatric and psychoanalytic relationships for
Burroughs, beginning when he was twenty-
six.
Young Burroughs, a thin, bookish boy,
whoalready at age eightentertaineddreams
of a glamorous life as a writer, immersed
himselfin the pulpfictionofthe day—anex-
posure to popular-entertainment forms of
writing that would be apparent in his later
writing.His earliestknowncompositionthat
survives is a short essay published in his
school magazine, the John Burroughs
Review, in February 1929 when Burroughs
was just fifteen. “Personal Magnetism”
shows adeftness andbalance thatprefigures
Burroughs’ adult talent, and reveals his fas-
cinationwithmagic,sensationalpowers,and
control. There is no way to know how much
his school editor changed the text, but it
reads like Burroughs.
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Aseriousaccidenthappenedin1927,when
Burroughs was thirteenyears old:he caused
an explosion while playing with his chem-
istry set, and badly burned his right hand.
He was taken to a doctor’s office just a few
blocks from his home and given “nearly an
adult dose” of morphine, by injection. Bur-
roughs later recalled that this made a deep
impression on him: “As a boy, I was much
plagued by nightmares. I remember a nurse
telling me that opium gives you sweet
dreams, and I resolved that I would smoke
opiumwhenI grew up.”Also in1927abook
was published which Burroughs read, with
profound consequences: Jack Black’s You
Can’t Win. This autobiography of a turn-of-
the-century opium-smoking safecracker and
itinerant stickup man in the American West
captured the imagination of the teenaged
boy.JackBlackmovedinaworldwhere “the
Johnson Family” (of fair, compassionate
strangers of the road, with the natural
100/1780
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