updated 08/18/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/18/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Born in St. Louis, the Harvard-educated Burroughs was a grandson of the adding-machine inventor who founded the Burroughs office equipment empire. But the family fortune was largely wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash, and Burroughs embarked with only a small stipend on a life of travel and searching that led him to Mexico, South America, Tangier and Greenwich Village. Along the way he became addicted to morphine, accidentally shot and killed his second wife during a drunken game in Mexico City and, with fellow adventurers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, upended America's literary conventions. Naked Lunch—"that wretched book," his own mother called it—was banned by U.S. authorities until 1962.
The central event of his life, his wife's death by his own hand, turned his countenance dark—"He looked like death eating a sandwich," says novelist Ken Kesey—even as it turned a self-indulgent sensualist into a writer. "I have had no choice," Burroughs once explained, "but to write my way out." Says poet Gregory Corso, a fellow Beat and friend: "If we are writers, our words do not die. William Burroughs left behind a beautiful cargo."