Jonathan "Yony" Leyser
Jonathan "Yony" Leyser Credit: Akasha Rabut

Jonathan “Yony” Leyser’s brief career has been all about celebrating outsiders, in sordid but sympathetic portraits of transgender and anarchist communes, addicts and migrant workers. Now the 24-year-old filmmaker and photographer, who’s been kicked out of two art schools, is nearly finished with an ambitious assessment of perhaps the greatest literary outlaw of the 20th century.

Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is the first full-length documentary to look at the entire life of the Beat and punk icon, author of Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch. “I’m trying to figure out who the man was behind the persona, behind the monster,” Leyser says. “He opened up queer and junkie culture and new avenues of thinking, but in his personal life he really struggled. You see through the interviews a deeply tortured man, who spoke openly about queer things yet couldn’t bear to be in a relationship.”

Over the past four years, with help from Burroughs editor and executor James Grauerholz, Leyser has interviewed more than 100 friends, associates, and admirers of the writer, including John Waters, Gus Van Sant, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Jello Biafra, Amiri Baraka, and a poisonous snake collector named Dean Ripa.

Leyser screens a 22-minute trailer for the documentary Friday, August 28, at a benefit celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch headlined by Peter Weller, who starred in David Cronenberg’s loose film adaptation of the novel. The event also features an exhibit of some of Burroughs’s “shotgun” art and appearances by Bill Ayers, poet Anne Waldman, beat record producer Hal Willner, and other writers and scholars.

The son of Israeli immigrants who’d come to Chicago in the 70s, Leyser was just 12 when Burroughs died in 1997, at age 83. Leyser’s mother, Ayala, was a criminal psychiatrist at Elgin Mental Health Center, and his father, Yona, taught special education at Northern Illinois University. He started writing and performing early, in elementary school and Park District theater programs. In high school at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, he got turned on to documentaries through the works of Errol Morris and the Maysles brothers and became taken with the Beats.

“My respect for Burroughs, the queer icon, is equal to my respect for him as a literary artist, a counterculture superstar and a rabble-rouser par excellence,” Leyser says. “His being queer was only one of many ways in which his proclivity to spit in the face of religious, conservative, thoughtless moral judgments attracted me.

“I remember sitting by the lake, in awe of these writers,” Leyser says. “[Their work] was criticizing everything I disliked, and it was able to transcend it into another world. The fact that it was written in the 50s, when everything seemed so drab—if these worlds could be created then, what could be created now?”

Burroughs also spent some formative years on the shores of Lake Michigan, though he didn’t speak as fondly of them. In a passage he later excised from Naked Lunch, he wrote, “There is something about Chicago that paralyzes the spirit under a dead weight of a formalism dictated by hoodlums, a hierarchy of decorticated wops . . . And everywhere the smell of atrophied gangsters, the dead weight of those dear dead days hanging in the air like rancid ectoplasm . . . You suffocate in the immediate past, still palpable, quivering like an earthbound ghost . . . Here the dream is suffocating, more real than the real, the past actually, incredibly, invading the present.”

William S. Burroughs and James Grauerholz
William S. Burroughs and James GrauerholzCredit: Jose Kuri Ferez

Burroughs was born in Saint Louis in 1914, heir to the fortune of his grandfather, adding machine inventor William S. Burroughs. He came to Chicago for the first time in 1939, a few years after graduating from Harvard. He stayed at the Hyde Park YMCA, which was “probably . . . fairly cruisy,” James Grauerholz writes in his 2004 essay “William S. Burroughs Tour of Chicago” and attended a seminar by Alfred Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics.

After failed stints in grad school and the army (and a month in Bellevue for cutting off the tip of his own finger in a fit of jealousy), Burroughs returned to Illinois and enrolled at the Lewis School of Aeronautics, run by Catholic monks in Lockport, to get his pilot’s license. In the summer of 1942, he moved into a rooming house in Buena Park. He worked as an accounting clerk at a rubber plant, a fraud investigator, and an exterminator, according to Grauerholz’s research.

“They call me the Exterminator,” Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch. “At one brief point of intersection I did exercise that function and witnessed the belly dance of roaches suffocating in yellow pyrethrum powder (‘Hard to get now, lady . . . war on. Let you have a little . . . two dollars.’) Sluiced fat bedbugs from rose wall paper in shabby theatrical hotels on North Clark and poisoned the purposeful Rat, occasional eater of human babies. Wouldn’t you?”

During this period Burroughs attended weekly therapy sessions at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in River North. He hatched frustrated plans to rob an armored car and a bathhouse (fueled, Grauerholz speculates, by a desire for manly achievement after his aborted military career). But as he wrote in his 1995 memoir My Education: A Book of Dreams, “My criminal activities (minimal to be sure) were as hopelessly inept as my efforts to hold a job in an advertising agency or any other regular job.”

Burroughs moved back to New York in 1943, where he soon met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He lived in Greenwich Village with Kerouac and Joan Vollmer, a married woman who became Burroughs’s common-law wife after her divorce. He collaborated with Kerouac on the novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (finally published in 2008) and worked on his own novels Junky (1953) and Queer (1985).

Between 1946 and ’49, the Burroughses moved to Texas, then New Orleans, then Mexico after New Orleans police intercepted a letter from Ginsberg alluding to a marijuana shipment. In 1951, when Burroughs was 37, he was arrested in Mexico City for the shooting death of Joan—a crime he confessed to, then denied, claiming the gun had misfired. The most popular explanation is that they were playing a William Tell game with a drink glass on Joan’s head. Burroughs jumped bail and was later handed a two-year suspended sentence for negligent homicide. “He liked to say, ‘There are regrets too monstrous for remorse,'” Grauerholz told Leyser in an interview for the documentary. “He thought that to dally with remorse was hubristic and prideful, predicated on the idea that you had the power to fix it.”

Credit: Photo by Carl Fischer

Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch from 1954-’58, while living in a rooming house in Tangier, Morocco. The novel careens through a series of nightmarish, orgiastic vignettes involving sexual and pharmaceutical exploration, brutality, double identities, and various kinds of domination. In 1958, portions of it were published by a University of Chicago student literary magazine, the Chicago Review. After Chicago Daily News columnist Jack Mabley condemned the issue as “one of the foulest collections of printed filth I’ve seen publicly circulated,” the university suppressed it. Most of the editors resigned to found Big Table magazine, printing another excerpt in the inaugural issue. The Chicago post office seized all 10,000 copies, triggering an obscenity trial that attracted enough publicity to get the full manuscript of Naked Lunch published by Paris’s Olympia Press in 1959 (as The Naked Lunch) and launching Burroughs’s literary star. (This series of events is detailed in Gerald E. Brennan’s two-part 1995 Reader story “Naked Censorship.”)

Burroughs returned to Chicago in 1968 to cover the Democratic National Convention for Esquire, and went on to play Chicago Seven judge Julius Hoffman in an off-Broadway show in the 70s.

Jean Genet, Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs
Jean Genet, Allen Ginsburg, William S. BurroughsCredit: Jack Wright III

Grauerholz was a 21-year-old Kansas transplant to New York in 1974, when he met Burroughs through Ginsberg. “I was, in this sequence roughly, his fan, his live-in boyfriend, his otherwise-romantically-coupled secretary and friend, his tour booker and road manager, his personal editor, etc, etc,” Grauerholz says.

Soon after Grauerholz’s arrival, Burroughs was adopted as an icon of the burgeoning punk scene. One of a cadre of young musicians who traveled to Lawrence for inspiration and target practice in the 8os, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore tells Leyser in footage for the film that Burroughs was attracted to punk as “a real breaking away from the standard counterculture that had gotten wishy-washy and self-satisfied. He saw [punk] as a manifestation of the future he had predicted.”

In 1979, Grauerholz returned to Kansas. “I was tired of New York,” he says, “specifically the effect of celebrity on friends’ and strangers’ behavior with William and me.” Burroughs followed in ’81, fleeing rising rents and dangerous streets for nature and seclusion. His son with Joan, Billy, had died earlier that year from alcohol-related illness at the age of 33. Burroughs legally adopted Grauerholz in 1985, mostly, Grauerholz says, “to limit state inheritance tax rates.”

In Lawrence, Burroughs lived on a steady diet of vodka Cokes—a drink someone in Leyser’s footage refers to as a “Burroughs”—and nursed his interests in guns and deadly snakes. He slept with a gun under his pillow and wore one on his belt when he went out. “Burroughs said a paranoid is someone who has all the facts,” Leyser notes. “Freud said a paranoid is a repressed homosexual. [Burroughs] was a deeply paranoid person. He believed all these guns would be a protection. He carried a cane that had a sword in it. He had blowguns and a throwing star.”

Burroughs wrote less in his later years and experimented with visual art. He’d shoot cans of spray paint, exploding them against sheets of plywood. Some of these pieces will be on display at the 50th-anniversary event.

Leyser made his first film, Bill and Anna, not long after his first expulsion. He says he was kicked out of the Chicago Academy for the Arts after insulting an administrator whom he felt had slighted him at a group exhibition—the final straw after prior disciplinary problems. “I’ve kind of always had a difficult relationship with administrators,” Leyser says. He earned his diploma through correspondence courses and classes at Harper College in Palatine, instead.

Bill and Anna is an explicit, 20-minute documentary portrait of the relationship between a severely obese fortysomething Palatine carpet cleaner and a crack-addicted prostitute. “I’d always been fascinated with outsiders,” Leyser says, “and Bill was the ultimate outsider.”

Upon earning his diploma in 2002, Leyser enrolled at Northern Illinois University, where he submitted Bill and Anna to the student film festival. “We submitted a version without nudity,” he says, “and slipped in the nudity before the film screened.” The movie was stopped, and the projectionist went on to the next film.

The incident didn’t lead to disciplinary action, but in 2003, after only one semester at NIU, Leyser transferred to CalArts, “following some people I respected in high school who said this was the art school where you could be experimental,” he says. He was disappointed by what he found there—not a sense of experimentation, he says, but a corporate atmosphere dominated by an animation program tied to Pixar. “A lot of people were shutting down their imagination to be professionals,” he says. “I didn’t fit in very well. I got into a lot of trouble.” At CalArts he started a documentary about migrant orange pickers in Valencia but never finished it.

In 2004, angered by what he felt was an inadequate response from the student council and administration to racist graffiti on campus, Leyser forged a satirical note on student council letterhead, enlarged it, and mounted it in a student group show without authorization from the show’s curator. The letter purportedly dismissed Leyser from the council on the grounds of his “strange nickname, curly hair and olive complexion.” The dean of students told Leyser to take a “medical leave.”

“They were saying that I seemed emotionally distressed,” he says. “After a semester, if I felt I’d changed I could talk to them and potentially come back.”

Instead Leyser transferred to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where his sister Ophra was a sociology grad student. “I thought it was cool that Ophra lived in the town where Burroughs lived and died,” he says. “I had a pipe dream that maybe I’d be able to work on a documentary about him.” Writing for the University Kansan, Leyser began researching a story on the 1987 River City Reunion arts festival that Burroughs hosted in Lawrence with Keith Haring, Marianne Faithfull, Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Jello Biafra.

Leyser approached Grauerholz, who was teaching American studies at KU, about making a documentary on the festival. “When I saw that it was more than a collegiate’s dream, I joined forces with him,” says Grauerholz, who calls Leyser “Johnny.” “Students have been known to have ambitions they don’t act on. Johnny had perseverance. He kept in touch. He kept going to see people. There have been a handful of other orphaned projects [about Burroughs] that have gotten scooped up by Johnny. The way he assiduously looked for other projects impressed me. And above all he was getting on with my friends.”

Grauerholz had been unhappy with a previous Burroughs documentary, Howard Brookner’s 1983 Burroughs, in which he’d also played an active role. “I was surprised to see how my role in William’s life had been handled in the final editing process,” he says. “Basically, the BBC editors took a dislike to me. They . . . couldn’t resist a ‘controversial’ angle on the Grauerholz guy. So they chopped together dozens of different speeches by me into a phony voice-over ‘monologue’ accompanying a montage of scenes of me and William working together, etc. If you listen on headphones you’ll hear many, many audio splices. They made me look like a usurper and a smug, self-satisfied wise guy.”

Grauerholz got Leyser access to VHS footage of the Reunion and many of the local participants. The circle began to widen, encompassing Burroughs’s friends and admirers on the coasts, and the scope of the film expanded as well, to a holistic examination of Burroughs’s life and work with an emphasis on his time in Lawrence.

Sometimes alone and sometimes with a camera operator or sound recordist, Leyser traveled around the country on and off for the next four years, grabbing interviews on a shoestring budget. “I’ve gotten rides with bands passing through town,” he says. “Sometimes I’d do Craigslist ride share. I drove a lot of it with friends. There were a few flights.” In between, from 2006 to 2008, he managed to complete his BA at New York’s New School.

He moved back to Chicago last year, working as a telephone fund-raiser for nonprofits to pay for A Man Within. Last summer he cohosted a 40th-anniversary reenactment in Grant Park of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, with friends Chip Butler and Brett Koontz. Leyser portrayed Ginsberg and a friend went as Burroughs. Leyser’s mother played Jean Genet. “She speaks French and she enjoys acting,” Leyser explains.

Proceeds from the 50th-anniversary party go toward the film’s low-five-figures postproduction budget. Leyser hopes to have A Man Within ready for fall festival deadlines.

“I have high hopes for Johnny’s film,” Grauerholz says. “I welcome a closer look at William’s life in Lawrence. From the viewpoint of his friends in Europe and New York, he pulled up stakes and vanished into a backwater. And according to some bloody-minded versions, there have been statements that ‘Burroughs is under Grauerholz’s control. He keeps his guns under lock and key and only lets him handle them when he decides.’ We read that and we were like, ‘We wish.’ Film is a great way to show the truth with self-evident veracity. I can hear William saying it’s more distorting for that reason. But it will show the truth and you’ll get the idea.”