Joan Stuart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980. She survived ten years. During that time, according to her daughter Jan, Joan’s “constant preoccupation, aside from the garden, was to write this book.”
Cleaning out her worn little house in Oregon after her death in 1990, Joan’s daughter Jan Kerouac and son David Stuart found a mountain of paper under the bed. Typewritten pages were also discovered stashed in kitchen drawers and hidden in dismantled walls.The bones of the house contained draft after unfinished draft of Joan’s memoirs.
Jan and David put all the crumbling paper-clipped pieces into a box, and the box went into David’s attic.A couple of years later, I persuaded David to haul the box down and allow me to rummage through it. The box went home with me, and I began indexing the scattered pages.I asked Joan’s family to give me the chance to try to prepare the manuscript for publication. Why would Joan Stuart’s life be of interest to a publisher? Because she spent two tumultuous years in the early 1950s as the wife of Jack Kerouac, while he was writing his pioneering novel On The Road.
I never got to meet Joan. I hope she would have approved of the work I did to get her book into print as Nobody’s Wife. She possessed a critical nature, which often exasperated Jack and the other men in her life—that was apparent from her pages. Joan had obsessively re-worked chapters and episodes, grasping for perfection. She drank endless pots of coffee and rolled her own cigarettes with Bugler tobacco, typing on a manual typewriter with two fingers. Jan later wrote in her introduction to Nobody’s Wife: “I don’t think she would have ever finished this book if she had lived, because she used to write the first sentence over and over again, and she was never satisfied with it.”
Born Joan Haverty, Joan took the married name Kerouac in 1950. Later there was yet another married name. Then at some point, Joan became tired of carrying any man’s name, including her father’s. Joan Stuart was a name she adopted in honor of her own independence. It wasn’t any family’s name, but it had a sound she liked.
Writing was a way Joan worked out her own thoughts. She didn’t necessarily intend to share her words, and she may have hidden the pages that were most private and intimate to her. Joan’s written insights were often introverted and rich with self-awareness. But she also felt she wanted to respond publicly to the heroic portrayal that had grown around her ex-husband Jack since his death in 1969. She felt somewhat disgusted that this man who had treated her so poorly, so faithlessly and dishonestly, became a larger-than-life icon to millions. She couldn’t even get him to pay his child support. In 1961, she sold an angry article to the scandal sheet Confidential magazine titled “My Ex-Husband, Jack Kerouac, Is An Ingrate.” It was the only time she was published in her lifetime.
When Joan started to write her book after the cancer diagnosis, she took role-model inspiration from her daughter Jan, who became a successful novelist on her own in the 1980s. The autobiographical Baby Driver came out in 1981, then Trainsong in 1988. I’ll have more to say about Jan Kerouac in my next blog post.
Editing Joan’s box of disconnected pages, I spent hour after hour comparing different versions of the same scene, trying to weave them together into the best and most comprehensive telling. Joan’s manuscript engagingly told many charming stories: Jack imitating W.C. Fields (“Doncha wanna wear diaphanous gowns?”), or Jack’s mother Gabrielle helping set up a seamstress workroom, struggling to communicate in English with her daughter-in-law (Jack and Gabrielle only spoke French to each other). Figures like Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, who took on legendary status in Jack’s books, appear as mere imperfect humans in Joan’s unsentimental remembrances. Many scenes in the book illuminated moments of literary history. Joan tells the story of throwing the key down to Jack on their first meeting, an episode Jack related at the culmination of On The Road. She also offers a revealing portrait of Jack sweating out night after manic night writing the scroll manuscript of On The Road, with Joan encouraging him to simply “Write what happened.”
It was my privilege to act as compiler, organizer, and editor of Nobody’s Wife on behalf of Joan’s family. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, while that box of papers was languishing and disintegrating in David’s attic, and to have the self-confidence to ask for the job.
After getting a final manuscript pieced together from Joan’s pages, I had to act as the book’s agent as well. I contacted Creative Arts Book Company in San Francisco, because they had published Carolyn Cassady’s well-regarded beat-wife memoir Heart Beat. They accepted the manuscript and offered a generous advance. It was the last good news I had the chance to give Jan Kerouac in her lifetime. She passed away only a few days later, on June 5, 1996.
My dealings with Creative Arts Book Company were mostly positive. Not surprisingly, they didn’t care to use “Joan Stuart” as the author’s name. Joan was re-christened Joan Haverty Kerouac. I was not pleased that Creative Arts did not give me the chance to read the page proofs before publication. The book came out with way too many typos!
Creative Arts Book Company issued Nobody’s Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats in August 2000.
The book attracted plenty of attention, with enthusiastic reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Jan’s introduction and Joan’s “wedding chapter” were excerpted in an anthology called Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Brenda Knight. Nobody’s Wife took a firm place in the constellation of books that are essential to understanding the backstory of Jack Kerouac and the other Beat Generation writers.
Sad to say, Creative Arts Books didn’t stay in business much longer. You can find remaindered copies of Nobody’s Wife at bargain prices on the used-book sites. Even fifteen years later, it’s still attracting new reader reviews on amazon.com.