Kerouac in The Sunshine State

Jack Kerouac lived in St. Petersburg, FL in two different stints from 1964 to 1966 at 5155 10th Ave N in the Disston Heights Neighborhood. In November of 1968 Kerouac moved into a newly purchased house to live in with his mother, Gabrielle and his third wife, Stella, a small block and ranch style house at 5169 10th Ave. N.  A steady stream of visitors began arriving at the house, knocking on the door in the hopes of spending time with the reluctant face of the Beat Movement.

Attempting to seek refuge from the bleak Massachusetts winters with a Florida move he spent many nights in the peaceful back yard, dragging a cot outside to sleep under the stars. 
 Stella and Gabrielle acted as gatekeepers – shooing away the college students hoping to entice the famed author of On The Road for a night on the town. While residing in St. Petersburg, Kerouac was known for his frequent visits to Haslam’s Bookstore, bringing stacks of his books to tables near the front door in order to more prominently display them.  Some say Kerouac’s ghost haunts Haslam’s to this day, with reports of his books being knocked over or having spilled off shelves in the night.

His time in St. Petersburg is mentioned frequently throughout Kerouac’s body of work and he remains a beloved icon to many in the Sunshine City.  Kerouac penned his last two complete novels, Satori in Paris about his quest to France in discovery of his families Breton roots and Pic while living in St. Petersburg.  Kerouac briefly wrote articles for local editorials, the Evening Independent and sports columns for The St. Petersburg Times.

Jack Kerouac was a lifelong sports fan and former collegiate football player at Columbia University. When he was young, he would create fantasy baseball leagues and play entire seasons out on paper. He spent a lot of time listening to baseball games on the radio. During his time in St. Petersburg, FL Kerouac attended spring training games at Al Lang Stadium.

Music was very important to Kerouac.  In New York, he was always the first to have the latest recordings and the last to leave any jazz club he was at.  He frequently talked about the importance of rhythm and flow in his writing and felt that how the sentence or paragraph moved was as important as the words within.  Kerouac kindled a friendship with Ronnie Lowe, a local celebrity of sorts and the leader of a popular band called Ronnie Lowe and the Dominoes. The band was one of the first racially integrated bands in St. Pete, and touring musicians would often stop in to play with them. Dicky Betts of the Allman Brothers, and Jim Stafford, who was a big deal musician and comedian in the 1970s. Lowe grew up in nearby Winter Haven, was a Southern gentleman and somewhat of an intellectual. He was able to go head to head with Kerouac during conversations about literature and philosophy. Lowe also had a car, which was very important to Kerouac, who didn’t drive.

Despite his reputation as a sort of spontaneous genius, it’s important to know that Jack Kerouac was a very well-read man. He devoured Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe… all the great novels. He was able to achieve these feats of writing beautiful novels, poems and short stories in one fell swoop precisely because he was such a diligent student of the written word, and had been so since a really young age.

For years after his death, Kerouac’s name remained listed in the St. Petersburg phone book, where young literature lovers would look it up and giddily call the out-of-service phone number. To this day, a steady stream of fans finds their way to the small brick house, sitting on the steps or leaving notes of remembrance in the mailbox, until the mailbox itself disappeared. “Dear Jack,” one pilgrim wrote, “your work is why I write and write to live.”

All told, Kerouac completed roughly a quarter of his novels in the Sunshine State. After a July 1957 move to pre-Disney Orlando, he tinkered with Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, and the book that brought him fame, On the Road.  At a bungalow house located at 1418 1/2 Clouser Ave, now a writer’s retreat run by the Kerouac Project, he banged out The Dharma Bums, furiously typing over ten nights onto a 100ft roll of teletype paper. Four years later, his remarkable Orlando run continued, this time in the suburban Kingswood Manor subdivision, where he worked until six a.m. in the “Florida peace” (and central a/c) to finish another major book, Big Sur.  While Kerouac complained in his correspondence about the social isolation and “heatwave horror” of Summer, the same isolation, his letters show, let him get work done.

Jack Kerouac died on Oct. 21, 1969, of a stomach hemorrhage, at St. Anthony’s Hospital. He was 47.

Bio Section made possible with excerpts of work by FOJK Board Members, Margaret Murray and Tom Hallock.