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And The Beat Goes On

None of the items listed above appear in the Berg Collection at NYPL, which purchased close to 2,000 Kerouac documents from John Sampas for an undisclosed sum in 2001. Kerouac scholars say the Berg Collection, while deeply impressive, has some major gaps. There is nothing at all on Big Sur, and the original On the Road is, well, on the road. However, Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection, claimed, “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” (An exhibition of the Jack Kerouac Archive ran from November 2007 to March 2008, and an illustrated exhibition catalogue showing the breadth of the materials is available.)

What exactly remains of the Kerouac estate is a closely guarded secret; apparently the Sampas family keeps the archive in a bank vault, available only to hand-picked scholars and biographers, such as Douglas Brinkley, author of the unfinished and unpublished official Jack Kerouac biography, which was cancelled by Penguin after Brinkley failed to deliver the book in time for the 50th anniversary of On The Road. Rumors circulated following Penguin’s decision to cancel the book that Sampas planed to write the official biography himself. When questioned about it, Sampas declared that of all the Kerouac biographies available, “none are of any quality.”

The recent court decision seems favorable for Blake, who currently lives in a small caravan in Arizona with his family. His lawyers, Bill and Alan Wagner, aren’t convinced. Alan Wagner confessed, “What happens next is uncertain,” adding that it might still be quite some time before Blake sees any money from the estate, if at all. The Wagners are veteran Tampa attorneys who specialize in personal injury cases; they are not Kerouac fans, had never read his books, and claimed they had to research him before they agreed to take the case. Sampas has dismissed Bill Wagner as “corrupt.”

The Sampas family has already launched a number of appeals. In a recent email, Sampas wrote, “We did not inherit from Gabrielle’s will, we inherited from Stella’s will, no one has a legal claim against me.” He also made a brief statement to recapitulate a 2004 court ruling based on Florida inheritance law that “bars Mr. Blake from seeking any assets or items which came to us through Stella Sampas Kerouac’s estate, the practical effect of this ruling appears to be none.” In short, there is no turning back the clock and reclaiming assets for what has already been sold.

The royalties from Kerouac’s books—which generate a good income—continue to go to the Sampas family. On The Road alone sells upward of 60,000 copies a year. The Wagners are seeking to challenge the state inheritance law with federal copyright law in an attempt to obtain a fair share of the royalties for Blake.

Legal experts predict Blake may be entitled to a third of what is left of the Kerouac estate, but fighting the loopholes in the convoluted legal documentation and fighting the Sampas’ may prove a lengthy and difficult process. Alan Wagner explained, “It is not known what happened to all of Jack Kerouac’s assets and how they were distributed or transferred. All efforts to date to learn that information have been resisted by the Sampases.” He further detailed their ongoing attempt to get the current Kerouac estate valued independently before planning their next move, stressing that "Paul has said he doesn’t expect to get any money, but merely wants to set the record straight.”

It’s possible the Sampas family have very few assets left from the vast estate they inherited. “They sold hundreds, probably thousands of pieces, of Kerouac’s archives to collectors all over the world. We’ll never see most of that stuff,” Nicosia said. And if it is true that the Berg Collection has 98% of Kerouac’s writing, Blake would be lucky to see even a handful of his uncle’s papers.

Blake enjoyed a close relationship with his famous uncle. From all accounts, he isn’t searching for fame or fortune. As his lawyer put it, “Paul Blake is a very private person, but I can tell you having spoken to him after the decision (that the original will was a forgery), that he was very happy about it and pleased with the court’s findings.” Nicosia also spoke to Blake on the phone the day after the decision. He said Blake told him, “When I heard the news, I felt good for the first time in years.”

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Stephen Maughan is a freelance journalist and book collector based in Sussex, England. He recently graduated with a post graduate diploma from Brighton City College. He has written a number of articles on the Beat Generation and wrote his university thesis on the life of Jack Kerouac.