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For Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday, we remember his St. Petersburg years

The late Beat Generation writer is still celebrated around the Sunshine City. What was his life here like?
 
Young Jack Kerouac.
Young Jack Kerouac. [ Times (undated) ]
Published March 3, 2022|Updated March 7, 2022

Jack Kerouac lived in St. Petersburg only a handful of years before he died here in 1969. But the Sunshine City still claims him as its own.

Jack Kerouac with a cat.
Jack Kerouac with a cat. [ Times ]

One hundred years ago on March 12, Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass. While the Beat Generation legend was known for wandering, his family ties drew him to Florida again and again. Kerouac was known to visit his sister and mother in Central Florida, and even wrote Dharma Bums during a two-week period there. Today, the Orlando Kerouac House is preserved as a writer’s retreat.

“He got a fourth of his writing done while living in the Sunshine State,” said James E. Hartzell, president of the Friends of Jack Kerouac.

For a few years in the mid-60s, Kerouac lived in a ranch house in St. Petersburg’s Disston Heights neighborhood with his mother, Gabrielle.

“These were not particularly his glory days, but it was very consistent in what his entire adult life had been,” said Ken Burchenal, a retired literature professor who purchased the former Kerouac home with his wife, Gina, for $360,000 in 2020. “He had two modes: One was at home with his mom, where he would write and be more or less a hermit. And then he would go on the road.”

Related: St. Pete's Kerouac house has a new owner who will preserve its history

St. Pete lured the beatnik author back in the late 1960s. This time he brought his third wife, Stella, when he moved in with his paralyzed mom at 5169 10th Ave. N — next door to his first St. Pete home.

“People from all over the world idolized Kerouac,” Burchenal said. Before his purchase, a nonprofit called the Friends of the Jack Kerouac House tended the property. The group often found letters from fans in the mailbox, shot glasses and candles left as tributes.

“Ironically when he lived here, his star had diminished,” Burchenal said.

The former home of the late author Jack Kerouac was renovated and sold by Paige and Frank Viggiano, St. Petersburg, center, who own The Flip Side LLC, in 2020. Ken and Gina Burchenal purchased the ranch style home, built in 1963, which includes 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, and is 1750 square feet.
The former home of the late author Jack Kerouac was renovated and sold by Paige and Frank Viggiano, St. Petersburg, center, who own The Flip Side LLC, in 2020. Ken and Gina Burchenal purchased the ranch style home, built in 1963, which includes 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, and is 1750 square feet. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Hartzell said the writer would sometimes drag an army cot out to the backyard so he could sleep under the stars. He celebrated his final birthday at a spring training game at Al Lang Field and contributed a handful of sports writing pieces to the Evening Independent, the afternoon paper of the then-St. Petersburg Times. A lover of jazz, Kerouac was said to have listened to live music at the Manhattan Casino.

Related: Read the stories Jack Kerouac wrote for a St. Petersburg newspaper in the 1960s

“Famously he would go to Haslam’s and rearrange his books so they were on a more prominent shelf,” Hartzell said. “He would hang out there a lot and read.”

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times published on Oct. 12, 1969, — a little over a week before he died — Kerouac admitted that he had been feeling lonesome and was thinking of writing a new book.

“Stories of the past,” he said. “My story is endless.”

Related: When will Haslam's Book Store re-open in St. Petersburg?

Kerouac was spending a lot of time then drinking at local watering holes. The Flamingo Sports Bar, a green building tucked along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, is one of the last ones left from his time here. He was said to have enjoyed his final drinks there before dying of a massive hemorrhage at St. Anthony’s Hospital. These days, it’s become a shrine of sorts to the writer. The bar’s owner, Dale Nichols, spent some time there with Kerouac.

“I came back from Vietnam and I went down to the old pool room and all of my buddies were hanging. They said, ‘Dale, you gotta meet this guy. He’ll party three or four days without sleeping.’”

At the time, Nichols was 22 and Kerouac was 46. Nichols remembers him as “just a regular person.”

“I drank a lot of wine with him and did a lot of crazy things, but wasn’t really smart enough to know who he was,” Nichols said. “I asked him what he did and he said, ‘Well, when I’m not partying or drinking, I like to write.’”

Author Jack Kerouac laughs during a 1967 visit to the home of a friend in Lowell, Mass.
Author Jack Kerouac laughs during a 1967 visit to the home of a friend in Lowell, Mass. [ STANLEY TWARDOWICZ | AP ]

Nichols ended up purchasing the bar in 1969, a few months before Kerouac’s death. Sometimes he would come to work at 8 a.m. and find the writer sitting on a bench reading the newspaper, waiting for him to open up. Save for some new pool tables and a display of family photos donated by Kerouac’s brother-in-law, not much else has changed inside the bar since those days.

“It still looks the same as when he used to come here,” Nichols said.

Related: Jack Kerouac found the end of his road in St. Pete five decades ago

The Friends of Jack Kerouac host monthly poetry readings at the Flamingo Sports Bar, and international Kerouac fans flock there to pay homage. Nichols likes to give them a shot glass as a souvenir. They often ask: Did Jack have a special seat? (Yes, in the corner.) Did he have a favorite drink? (“He didn’t care what he drank,” Nichols tells them. “He’d mix it all together.”) Many opt to buy Kerouac T-Shirts.

The Flamingo Sports Bar in St. Petersburg embraces its connection to the life of Jack Kerouac like few other businesses in the Tampa Bay area. It may be the only bar left in St. Petersburg where the author actually drank. The price of the special has gone up since this photo was taken. [ Times (2011) ]
The Flamingo Sports Bar in St. Petersburg embraces its connection to the life of Jack Kerouac like few other businesses in the Tampa Bay area. It may be the only bar left in St. Petersburg where the author actually drank. The price of the special has gone up since this photo was taken. [ Times (2011) ]

Outside the bar, a large black-and-white picture of the writer in his younger years, outlined in a frame of white lights, stares at patrons as they approach the front door. Next to it, the window advertises the bar’s running “Kerouac Special” — a shot of whiskey and a swig of beer for $2.50.

Several years ago, Hartzell painted a colorful mural of Kerouac on the side of the building. He just finished adding a new typewriter mural.

“I think that initially St. Pete was a little ashamed and embarrassed in the way that his death was portrayed,” Hartzell said.

“There is still a universal appeal to reading his work and having that sense of wanderlust and wanting to experience things firsthand in an increasingly digital world. There’s a deep sense of connection and friendship in his writing.”

The Jack Kerouac mural outside the Flamingo bar at 1230 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg.
The Jack Kerouac mural outside the Flamingo bar at 1230 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of the Flamingo ]

Celebrating Jack

  • An art show curated by Hartzell will be at The Studio@620 on 1st Avenue S in St. Petersburg through March 31. From 6-10 p.m. on Friday, the Friends of Jack Kerouac will host the Age of Kerouac opening reception there. The show will feature 47 works of art and poetry in honor of each year that Kerouac was alive. The reception will feature live jazz, an hourlong poetry showcase, a Beat Generation costume contest and catering by Gateway Subs.
  • From 10 a.m. to noon on March 12, radio host Peter B. Gallagher will host a live broadcast of the Florida Folk Show on Sunshine Radio from the Jack Kerouac house. Listen on 96.7 FM or visit radiostpete.com to tune in. Following the show, the Burchenals will host an open house from 12:30 to 6 p.m. There will be live music, poetry readings and refreshments. Registration via Eventbrite is required for this free event. The festivities will pick back up at the Flamingo Sports Bar at 7 p.m., with live music running until about midnight.
  • Green Light Cinema will screen On the Road (2012) at 7 p.m. on March 12 and 2 p.m. on March 13. 221 2nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg
  • Friends of Jack Kerouac is hosting two poetry readings on March 14 at the Studio Public House (2950 Central Ave., St. Petersburg) and March 17 at the Flamingo Sports Bar (1230 9th Street North). Both will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
  • From 10 a.m. to noon on April 3rd, there will be a guided “Tour de Kerouac” bike tour hosted by the Friends of Jack Kerouac. The 7.6-mile ride, which is part of the 6th Annual SunLit Literary Festival, will feature live poetry readings. The route traces places that Kerouac interacted with during his time in St. Petersburg. The tour is free, but participants must email friendsofKerouac@gmail.com to book a spot.

Information from the Times archive was used in this report.

correction: Kerouac's first stint in St. Petersburg was in the mid-60s. This story has been updated