“And thereby hangs a tale.”

Naked Lunch in Lawrence, Part One

“Party Time in Academe.”  Reprinted from The Wayward Professor by Joel J. Gold.  Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1989.  Pp. 119-121.  The piece appeared originally in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

”…One of our most dashing graduate students, who had earlier rented a Chinese restaurant and ordered a special dinner for about half of the English faculty, now decided to give a ‘Naked Lunch’ party in honor of author William Burroughs, who was visiting the campus.  I do not recall seeing the guest of honor that night, but then I seem to have missed a number of other sights as well.

“We were welcomed at the door by our convivial host bearing a tray of pale drinks he informed us were Fallen Angels.  A sensible man would have put the glass right back on the tray after the first sip.  It carried an overwhelming taste of mothballs and was, I later learned, a deadly combination of four parts of gin to one part crème de menthe.

“The action was already lively when we began to move about.  Threading my way among animated students and professors clutching their Fallen Angels, I wandered into the room where masses of food, hot and cold, covered a long trestle table.  Amid the platters of spiced shrimps, hot cheese rolls, cherry tomatoes, clam dip, and hot meatballs was a long low centerpiece.  It took up most of the length of the table.

“Sipping warily at my Essence of Mothball, I nibbled my way down the table, maneuvering carefully past what might almost have been called the extended limbs of the centerpiece.  About halfway through the Swedish meatballs I became aware that the centerpiece did indeed have arms and legs:  it was clad in blue jeans, a white tee shirt, Adidas, and tan socks.  It was curled up on its side in a fetal position with its head resting against the bowl of fresh fruit.  Inspecting the head more closely, I discovered beneath a glaze like that on a breakfast doughnut the face of a young man.  Other guests were picking their way thoughtfully around the display and were discussing the possibility that the centerpiece was actually one of our undergraduate students.  The glazed expression seemed to confirm the hypothesis.

“By the time I had disposed of my third cheese roll and fourth spiced shrimp, I was positive the centerpiece was breathing.  As I dipped some raw cauliflower into the sour cream, the figure arose carefully from its cluttered bed and wandered off to the toilet.  It returned a few minutes later sans Adidas and socks.  All conversation ceased as it climbed onto the table, curled up comfortably among the hors d’oeuvres, and became comatose.  I decided to pass up a fifth shrimp in favor—God help me—of another Fallen Angel.  This one seemed to go down more easily, and I could at least assure myself that I was protecting my wool jacket from the inside.

“Out of the corner of my good eye (the other was beginning to fog over) I saw the Glazed Man walking past and then, a few moments later, returning to the place of honor, now without tee shirt.  The food, which had been disappearing from the table at a rapid rate, seemed to be lasting longer as professors and students alike were growing more timid about reaching for anything on that table.  I finished my third drink at about the time the centerpiece shed its blue jeans and resumed the fetal position clad only in a pair of flowered briefs.

“Even through the haze—internal and external—the symbolism broke through for all us befogged academics—Naked Lunch!  The next twenty minutes were going to be crucial.  I sloshed into a chair near the trestle table and sipped slowly while I peered intently at the stuffed mushrooms, the avocado dip, and the flowered briefs.  A sociable Milton specialist insisted on getting us each another Fallen Angel, singing loudly as he returned, of man’s first disobedience and the fruit.  We awaited the final unveiling.

“I blush to admit it, but I never saw the fig leaf drop.  I understand that it did, but by then I had been poured into the passenger seat of my automobile and unloaded gently on my doorstep.  My wife says I got myself to bed, but I recall no details.

“What I do remember vividly is just how sick I was.  All that night and all the next day I cursed those Fallen Angels with a ferocity that would have made Milton proud.  I added a few unkind words for my host as well.  When the epic hangover lasted until mid-afternoon two days later, I wrote him a curt note indicating my low opinion of a man who would poison his friends—to say nothing of his professors—under the guise of conviviality.  I did not mention the glazed centerpiece because I was no longer certain that I had actually seen it.

“Later, however, when my head and stomach had returned to their accustomed sizes and functions, and I no longer felt a compelling urge to accept the first offer of euthanasia I could find, I sought out others I thought I could recall at the party.  We shared our blurred and somewhat incoherent memories.  Evidently, it had all happened pretty much as I remembered.  There had been a young man couched among the plates of food.  He had risen occasionally to divest himself of some article of clothing.  There had been a final revelation—a naked lunch!

“In retrospect, now that I was no longer in fear of immediate dissolution, I felt rather proud of having been there.  It was like those fabulous parties Scott and Zelda used to give.  People are always interested when I tell them that I attended the famous Naked Lunch party, and they are fascinated when I describe the periodic disrobing of the glazed figure on the table.  In the retelling, I always stay to the end, and what my auditors like best is my detailed description of the shedding of the final garment.  I mention the huzzahs, the glasses being smashed, the young man hoisted on shoulders.  Envy clouds their faces, and they go away wishing they had been privileged to be a part of that wild party scene.

“I do believe I have learned how those novelists do it.”

Naked Lunch in Lawrence, Part Two

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.