CLEARWATER — It has been nearly 40 years since Beat Generation icon Jack Kerouac died of chronic alcoholism in St. Petersburg, his popularity at low ebb and his estate worth less than $30,000.
Decades later, actor Johnny Depp paid half that price for just Kerouac's raincoat. The scroll manuscript for Kerouac's On the Road fetched $2.43 million.
Did Kerouac want his in-laws to get all those riches?
In one of the longest-running probate battles in Pinellas court history, a judge on Friday declared the will purportedly signed by Kerouac's mother — the mom who inherited Kerouac's belongings at his 1969 death — to be a forgery.
The will had been contested by Kerouac's nephew, Paul Blake Jr., who said Kerouac told him before his death at age 47 that he wanted Blake to get something upon his mother's death. She died in 1973.
Her will left everything to Kerouac's third wife, Stella, who in turn gave everything to her own siblings when she died in 1990.
Blake, Kerouac's last surviving blood relative, got nothing.
Pinellas-Pasco Judge George Greer — no stranger to complicated family feuds as the judge in the Terri Schiavo case — said handwriting experts and testimony from doctors during an April trial convinced him that Kerouac's mother had been too sick to sign the will.
"Gabrielle Kerouac was not a well woman when her purported will was signed," the judge said in an 11-page opinion. "She could only move her hand and scribble her name. She would have lacked coordination to affix that signature."
The upshot of all this is less than clear.
Bill Wagner, a Tampa lawyer representing Blake, said he needs to research whether Blake can now claim part of the Kerouac estate — worth as much as $20 million. It's now in the control of Stella's brother, John Sampas.
Sampas, who could not be reached to comment, was a childhood friend of Kerouac's whose family ran one of the writer's favorite strip joints in Massachusetts.
Given the amount of time that has passed, and the fact that many of Kerouac's possessions have since been legally sold by Sampas, Wagner acknowledges it will be a difficult fight. Blake may not get a penny, though lawyers have said he may be due a third of the estate.
It may take more litigation to pry anything from Sampas, Wagner said. "Paul has said he doesn't expect to get any money," Wagner said.
Blake, 61, lives in Arizona, and could not be reached to comment.
Why the estate of a writer dead and buried 40 years is still chugging through the courts is a tale that might be worthy of one of Kerouac's novels.
The seeds of the contest were planted when Kerouac, shortly before his death, wrote Blake a letter saying he would leave something for him.
"I just want to leave my estate . . . to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line . . . and not to leave a ding-blasted . . . thing to my wife's one hundred Greek relatives," Kerouac wrote.
Then in 1994, Kerouac's estranged daughter, Jan, was invited to the San Francisco home of Gerald Nicosia, who wrote Memory Babe, considered by some the definitive Kerouac biography.
Nicosia showed her a copy of Gabrielle's will. It looked like Gabrielle had misspelled her name in the signature. Both were convinced it was a forgery.
In 1994, Jan filed suit in Pinellas County, where the will had been entered into probate. Kerouac and his mother had lived at a home on 10th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.
Jan, who battled her own demons with alcohol, died of kidney failure in 1996 before her case went to trial.
Nicosia tried to pursue the case as Jan's literary representative. But after a time, the court refused his request.
Then Blake took up the fight.
In 2004, Greer put the case on hold because nobody was representing the interests of Gabrielle's estate. Her probated estate had been closed 30 years previously. Nobody was around to represent her side, and Sampas had been dismissed as a party to the litigation.
Greer came up with a solution. Placing an ad in the Florida Bar Journal, the court sought a lawyer to represent the interests of the estate pro bono.
In an interview Tuesday, Nicosia said the ruling was vindication for him and Jan.
"A huge wrong has been done to the Kerouac family," Nicosia said. "Jack Kerouac believed in the honor of the family name more than anything."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Gerald Nicosia, author of a biography on writer Jack Kerouac, does not know who forged the will of Kerouac's mother, Gabrielle. A story Wednesday was incorrect on this point.