A Burroughs Christmas Story
For many years, William S. Burroughs sent Otto Belue of Saint Louis, Missouri a Christmas card with a check in it. The cards arrived like clockwork, from London, Paris, New York…wherever Burroughs had landed at the time. Letters in the William S. Burroughs Collection of Papers sent by Belue in late December and early January during the sixties and early seventies to Burroughs offer interesting insight into one of Burroughs’s strongest ties from childhood.
Burroughs grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri, the grandson of his namesake William S. Burroughs, the inventor of the first marketable adding machine. Barry Miles writes in his biography, William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible that the Burroughs household employed a butler, a cook, a maid, a yard man, and a gardener to run the three story red brick home where they lived in Saint Louis at 4664 Pershing Square. The garden in the back teemed with roses, peonies and iris, surrounding a pond. A fence, overgrown with rose briars and morning glories separated the Burroughs' grounds from their neighbors. One imagines the young future author of Wild Boys and The Western Lands in the backyard, protected by the riotous overgrowth, nestled from the world like a boy Sleeping Beauty.
Tending that garden was Otto Belue. According to Belue's letters, it was William--more often than his brother Mort--who played in the garden with Otto and his son, Harold. It was also William who used to spend hours talking to Otto. As an adult, the conversations continued.
Over the years, the bulk of the correspondence between the two men was exchanged at Christmastime. Belue always wrote in response to Burroughs's Christmas cards. He reminded Burroughs how grateful he was that his father had found him a position almost forty years earlier, when the Depression hit in 1932, and the Burroughs family could no longer afford to keep him on. He wrote sentimentally of glass salt cellars and their small spoons, brought back from Paris by Burroughs when he was a boy as a gift, as well as a number of other items given to him by the Burroughs family over the years: a bed, a lamp, a dictionary. These objects, wrote Belue, reminded the gardener of the kindnesses done to him by the Burroughs family, decades before. On both occasions after his parents died, Burroughs wrote to Belue, expressing his sadness at the loss. When Belue responds after Burroughs’s father’s death and mails the writer an ashtray sculpted by his father, Burroughs thanks him, and notes the ashtray is one of the only keepsakes from his father that he has. Burroughs was not known for maintaining regular correspondence with his family, or with other early connections from his St. Louis years (apart from his childhood friend Kells Elvins, who later attended Harvard with him). And yet, Belue and Burroughs wrote warmly, and regularly.
Two of the archival folders fashioned by Burroughs are pictured. The first, decorated with the cover of the special section from the New English Library Magazine 1920s Christmas issue, houses Burroughs's Christmas cards from his family. Affixed to the second folder is an envelope originally housing a Christmas card post-marked 1972, the year of the archive's assembly, sent to Burroughs by Belue. [The folder is labeled in Burroughs's hand "family post cards and Christmas cards.”, and contains letters from Burroughs's mother, father, and brother, in addition to Belue].
For other Christmas correspondences, be sure to check out The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection's Literary Christmas Miscellany, on display in the Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through January 3, 2010. In addition to Dickens's Christmas classic, "A Christmas Carol" and a portrait of Harry Burnett, Dickens’s nephew and the real-life model for Tiny Tim, you’ll find Christmas cards sent by James Joyce, Maurice Sendak, Jack Kerouac, e.e. cummings, and others.
Related: "Burroughs at the Berg"