William S. Burroughs has emerged as one of those artists whose personal life draws nearly as much fascination as his work. Scion of a typewriter company fortune, icon of the Beats, closeted queer (his word), and inspiration to a generation of madniks. And, of course, the man who on a September night in 1951, shot dead his common-law wife, Jean Vollmer, in a drunken game of “William Tell”.
And so we have Jean: a woman of 28 years, mother of two, spiritual mother to a movement that barely remembers her name. Nucleus of the Beats, and best remembered for the way she died. In this one-woman production, Mrs. Vollmer finally finds her voice. As her body cools on the floor of a Mexico City apartment waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she tells us all about her life: the brief time as a war bride, her trips in and out of Bellevue, finding herself in the middle of what would eventually become known as the Beat Movement, and the often-rocky, drug-fueled years with the man she called “Old Bill”.
No point in spoiling the ending. We know the ending. For the longest time, it was the only bit we have known. But Dan Born’s script (drawn wherever possible from firsthand narratives and anecdotal evidence) fills in the rest of the story, leaving us a fully-realized picture of one who is, in fact, a most fascinating individual.
Some years later, family friend Allen Ginsberg wrote, “Joan, what kind of knowledge have the dead? Can you still love your mortal acquaintances? What do you remember of us?” We may never have the true answers, but this will probably be as close as we can ever hope to get.