A guest posting today from our friend Dave Moore, on the anniversary of the death of the enigmatic Bill Garver.
William Maynard Garver was an important associate of the Beats, a junky friend of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Huncke, who cropped up as a character in their works. This article is an attempt to fill in some details about this rather shadowy figure. Checking through some books – mainly Beat biographies -to see what had been previously written about Garver, I discovered much discrepancy concerning his origins –
“He was “the son of an Ohio banker”. [Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography]
“His father was a bank president in Philadelphia” [Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs: A Life]
“He was “the son of a prominent Philadelphia banker” [Steve Watson, The Birth of the Beat Generation]
“He was “the son of a banker somewhere in Ohio” [John Tytell, The Beat Interviews]
He was “of the Philadelphia Garvers … his father was a banker” [Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs]
Garver’s death notice shows that he was, in fact, born in New Brighton, PA, near the beginning of the century. Checking US census records reveals that his father, far from being a banker, was an assistant manager at Ing-Rich, a New Brighton enamel works. It seems that Kerouac knew Garver’s true origins all along. As he wrote to Malcolm Cowley in May 1956 (published in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters) – “Mr. Garver (William Maynard Garver) is from Pittsburgh, his father was lifelong general manager of a big plumbing manufactory and left him an inheritance and an income.”
The young Garver enrolled as Midshipman at Annapolis Military College in 1918 but was expelled for drunkenness seven months later. He later attended Harvard and became a Mason (1923) and member of the Knights of Columbus. Garver visited Cuba in 1925, and on his return to the USA drifted into the gambling world of the Red River steamboats. He developed a morphine habit and was a patient at Dixmont mental hospital, Allegheny in 1940. On release he moved to New York where he worked as a con man and a thief, stealing expensive overcoats and pawning them to support his habit. He was arrested at least ten times, all for petty larceny. During one of his imprisonments, in Rikers Island, New York in 1946, he met and shared a cell with fellow junky Herbert Huncke, who described Garver as “a very distinctive looking person. He was tall, gangly with a very high hairline and a thin face. He had expressive eyes and sort of a nice, not a big open smile, but a little twist at the corners of the mouth. I always thought of him as being somewhat Ichabodish, the Ichabod Crane type.” (According to Burroughs, Garver had a “little cat smile.” Kerouac described him as “a tall, cadaverous, indistinct-looking man.” No photos of William Garver have yet been located.)
In jail, Garver served time as a librarian. Upon release, Huncke introduced him to William Burroughs and his circle of friends, including Ginsberg and Kerouac. While they hung around Times Square, Garver would lecture them on anthropology and archaeology, although Kerouac claimed to have been the only one who actually listened to what he was saying.
On the death of his father in 1952, Garver inherited $150 a month from a trust fund, which enabled him to move to Mexico City, where Burroughs was then living, and satisfy his habit without stealing. There his drug connection was Dave Tercerero, and, after Dave’s death in 1954, his widow, Esperanza (Kerouac’s “Tristessa.”) When Kerouac visited Mexico City in the 1955 and 1956 he stayed in the same house as Garver, at 212 Orizaba Street, Burroughs having fled to Tangier at that time, and Jack got to know him well. In the afternoons, while Kerouac wrote in his notebooks, Garver would talk at length on his favourite topics. He claimed to have read H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, Alexander the Great, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ancient Crete, the Minoan civilization, Petronius, and French Symbolist poetry – Mallarmé and Rimbaud. Garver would also recount tales from the old days in Boston, Tallahassee, Lexington and New York. As he talked, some of his words would find their way into Kerouac’s writing. Many of the choruses of Mexico City Blues, written at this time, were inspired in this way. A section of Kerouac’s “Orizaba 210 Blues” (31st to 41st choruses – “I had a slouch hat too one time …”) is a transcription of a long autobiographical story by Garver, now published in Book of Blues. Kerouac can be heard reading it on his 1958 album “Poetry for the Beat Generation,” where it provides a valuable insight into the character of Bill Garver.
In 1956 Kerouac tried to enlist the help of Malcolm Cowley in negotiating a contract for Garver to write an historical novel about the Zapotec Indians, but nothing came of it and in February 1957 Garver died alone in Mexico City at the age of 58. His death notice listed his occupation as “Geologist.”
Garver is referred to, as an overcoat thief, in the first draft (only) of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955), and is also mentioned in Ginsberg’s 1958 poem, “Back on Times Square, Dreaming of Times Square.“
In Kerouac’s work, the character Bull Gaines in Desolation Angels, Tristessa and Book of Dreams was based on Bill Garver. In Visions of Cody he was Harper, and in The Town and the City, Al. In Mexico City Blues, “Orizaba 210 Blues,” Pomes All Sizes and Some of the Dharma he is referred to simply as Garver.
Garver’s own description of himself in his younger days (from “Eleven Verses of Garver” in Kerouac’s “Orizaba 210 Blues” (1956)) –
I had a pointed mustache/ and I mean pointed/ half inch from here/ Double breasted vest/ and a Derby hat/ and striped trousers/ English shoes, black,/very pointed, they were/Hannah Shoes/ People on Broadway’d turn/ and look at me
The worst is yet to come/ I had a pince nez/ with a long black ribbon/ to my buttonhole/ And I wore a carnation/ white or red/ Boy did I look like somethin'”
William Maynard Garver (December 3, 1898 – February 6, 1957)