I was riding high in 1977, coming off, as it were, from the “success” of my first play, Conpersonas. Marshall Fine, the Arts Editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, had somehow convinced the editor that the local paper should cover the invitational performance of the K.U. production of the play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Marshall filed stories and photographs every day about what the cast and crew were doing that week in the nation’s capital, and so we were all minor celebrities upon our return to Lawrence.
At that time, I was living in Grant Goodman’s house at 934 Pamela Lane, house-sitting for him while he was off teaching in the Netherlands. The house has five bedrooms, much too big for one person, so I took in a roommate. Charlie Williams was a student at K.U., a short, stocky, blond, blue-eyed, sweet-tempered kid from Texas. I don’t remember now how I met him, but he was a fun roommate, always ready for new adventures.
I also don’t remember now how I met James Grauerholz, most likely through the K.U. English Department, because James wrote poetry at that time. In any case, James turned out to be a good friend of William Burroughs, and when I heard that Burroughs was coming to visit Lawrence, to check out the scene to see if this was a place he would eventually want to live in, I asked James if I could give an evening cocktail party for Burroughs. James gave the go-ahead signal…and that’s how The Naked Lunch Party came into being.
I remember having formally invited 70-75 people to the event, mostly friends and colleagues from the English, Theatre, and History departments, and a sprinkling of other assorted cronies. But word got around that William Burroughs was going to be at the party, so there were lots of gatecrashers. I have no idea how many people were actually in attendance, perhaps over a hundred.
Right from the beginning, because of the notoriety of the “novel” by Burroughs, I knew I wanted to have an attractive young man as a centerpiece on the buffet table. Charlie Williams was willing to be the centerpiece, but I needed him to be the bartender. When I found the recipe for a cocktail called “Fallen Angels” in the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, Charlie decided he wanted to dress up as a “fallen angel,” barefoot and bare-chested, with strap-on wings and a bowtie, looking like a beatific Chippendale outcast from heaven.
The food, as I recall, was mostly prepared by Mrs. Mildred Tryon, a devout Catholic housewife who lived at 1334 Pennsylvania in East Lawrence. I never had any trouble finding her house, because she had a big statue of Our Lady of Fatima on her front lawn, arms outstretched in friendly greeting. Mrs. Tryon catered many of my parties in the 70s and 80s , and people loved her fancy finger sandwiches, no doubt inspired by the BVM Herself.
Joel Gold in his humorous essay about the party, which first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and later anthologized in his book The Wayward Professor, says he wasn’t sure if William Burroughs was actually at the party. He was. As a matter of fact, Burroughs and James Grauerholz were the first guests to arrive. But when Burroughs learned that Marshall Fine of the Lawrence Journal-World was going to try to interview him at the party, he escaped to the backyard and stayed there for quite a while until he heard about the disrobing centerpiece on the buffet table inside the house.
As I recall, the disrobing centerpiece was a law student I had met at some other party, who said he would “do it” for $20 but only if he could wear some kind of a mask, so people wouldn’t recognize him, and only if no photographs were taken of him in the nude. The “glazed look” on the boy, which Joel Gold describes in his essay, is actually a translucent mask which I bought for 99 cents from a store called Fun and Games in downtown Lawrence. I later used the same sort of masks for the two models in the poster for my play Homerica.
Meanwhile, back at the party, the plan was for the centerpiece to start discarding various pieces of clothing, every half hour on the half hour, and that he would be THE NAKED LUNCH in his full frontal glory at the stroke of midnight. This did, in fact, happen. It was really quite funny, to see all the faculty wives gathered within spitting distance around the centerpiece as the bewitching hour approached.
Joel Gold was right about the “Fallen Angels” being absolutely lethal. For anyone who’s interested, here’s the recipe that Charlie Williams was supposed to have used:
Juice of 1 Lime or ½ Lemon
1 ½ oz. Gin
I dash Bitters
½ tsp. Crème de Menthe (White)
Shake with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Serve with a cherry
After the first couple of guests were served, I think Charlie abandoned the recipe altogether. He had nearly a hundred people waiting impatiently to be served. At one point, I saw him simply pouring everything unceremoniously into an old bucket, but no one seemed to mind…until the morning after. Speaking of which, the morning after, I found three or four mismatched women’s shoes around the house and in the backyard. I kept them around for a couple of months, dreaming of Barefoot Contessas, but no one called to claim them.
William Burroughs eventually moved to Lawrence in 1981. He bought a house at 1100 E. 19th St., and lived there until he died in 1997. Although William and I saw each other frequently in Lawrence in subsequent years, we never talked about The Naked Lunch Party. But James Grauerholz tells me the party helped to convince William that Lawrence might be a fun town to settle in.
I remember it well.
Hmm… Lawrence in the 70s and 80s! Missed all the fun; 21st century is so tame. Or am I wrong?