Joan Vollmer

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Joan Vollmer (February 4, 1923September 6, 1951), was the most prominent/important female member in the early Beat Generation. While a student at Barnard College (a private women's liberal arts college in the USA), she became roommates with Edie Parker (later married to Jack Kerouac). Their apartment became a gathering place for the Beats during the 1940s. In 1946, she began a relationship with William S. Burroughs, later becoming his wife.

In 1951, Vollmer was balancing a water tumbler on her head, while Burroughs was aiming a gun at it. Burroughs fired, missed the water tumbler, and shot Vollmer in the head, in which she died that day from a gunshot wound to the skull, at age 28.


  • Joan's beauty was more than the sum of its parts. She was soft and feminine, and wore silky clinging clothes and small bandannas tied close to her head. In her reserve, in her achievement of a personal style, she reminded Edie of Garbo.
  • You should always cook eggs slowly" was Joan's advice in the kitchen on 118th Street. Joan did everything slowly, Edie reflected; she spoke, walked, dressed and read slowly, as if savoring every moment. She read everything, every newspaper and magazine. She liked the cartoons of William Steig in The New Yorker, particularly the one of the dejected fellow saying, "My mother loved me but she died." Joan didn't get along with her mother, and felt that she had nothing in common with her parents' country-club existence. She had rebelled against her background by living the New York City bohemian life.
  • Edie thought Joan was the most intelligent girl she had ever met. She had an independent mind, always questioning what anyone said, including her teachers at Barnard. In one of her marginal notes in her copy of Marx's Capital and Other Writings, there are echoes of Burroughs's thinking: "Maybe Marxism is dynamic and optimistic, and Freudianism is not. Is one more serviceable than the other? Why does it always have to be either/or?
    • Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, discusses Edie Parker's impression of Joan Vollmer:
  • kummel and have deep conversations about Plato and Kant while listening to classical music. Or she would spend the entire morning in the bathtub, with bubble-bath up to her chin, reading Proust. If you wanted to talk to her you had to do it in the bathroom.
    • Joan's idea of a good time was to go to Child's at 110th Street and Broadway and sip
At that time she was married to a tall, curly-haired law student named Paul Adams, who had been drafted in the infantry and was stationed in Tennessee. But like Edie, Joan had an eye for the boys. She was the first girl Edie knew who had a diaphragm. Joan made sexual appraisals of men, of the sort men usually make about women, evaluating them as "cocksmen".[1]
  • ...and worst of all, on June's huge doublebed with the Oriental drapecover on it we had ample room for sometimes six of us to sprawl with coffee cups and ashtrays and discuss the decadence of the 'bourgeoisie' for days on end.
  • I can never forget how June's present husband, Harry Evans, suddenly came clomping down the hall of her apartment in his Army boots, fresh from the German front, around September 1945, and he was appalled to see us, six fullgrown people, all high on Benny sprawled and sitting and cat-legged on that vast double-doublebed of 'skepticism' and 'decadence', discussing the nothingness of values, pale-faced, weak bodies, Gad the poor guy said: 'This is what I fought for?' His wife told him to come down from his 'character heights' or some such.
    • In Jack Kerouac's last work (The Vanity of Duluoz), he describes the scene in the 119th street apartment as "a year of low, evil decadence", beginning near the close of 1944:
  • Joan is brittle, blasé brittleness is her forte. With sharpened laughs and dainty oblique statements she fashions the topic at hand. You know these things, I need not elaborate. But you ask for an angle, well, Julie's hair is matted with dirt I am told; oh fuck it, normal disintegration of continued habit patterns (child raising here) has Joan laboring in a bastardized world wherein the supply of benzedrine completely conditions her reaction to everyday life. ETC. I love her.
    • A letter from Neal Cassady to Allen Ginsberg, dated March 15, 1949, San Francisco:


  1. "Cocksmen" were what Joan Vollmer referred to as men whose only use was sex. Christopher Carmona, Beat Scene #58, p. 5

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