Joan was William Burroughs’ common-law wife. William and other beats were greatly influenced by her. Allen Ginsberg, in “Dream Record,” said:
I went back to Mexico City and saw Joan Burroughs leaning forward in a garden chair, arms on her knees…
Before Bill, she lived with Edie Parker (Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time) in New York City. Their pad was a meeting place for Jack Kerouac, Hal Chase, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other Columbia University students. The place was a haven for Tequila, Benzedrine, long midnight talks, and writing. Joan was described as intelligent and beautiful, and she got into Kant, Plato, and classical music. Kerouac described Joan, Allen, and Bill as Oscar Wilde types.
Soon her abuse of Benzedrine and drinking became destructive. At a party in 1952, William told guests he was going to show them the “William Tell Act” and attempted to shoot at a glass of water on top of Joan’s head. He missed (everyone had been drinking). Joan died immediately, and William spent less than two weeks in jail (with the help of a good lawyer). He credited Joan’s death to his writing thereafter.
Joan is the main character in Gary Walkow’s Beat, a movie selected in the American Spectrum category for the Sundance Film Festival 2000. Sundance’s movie description of Beat says,
“Joan was the center of a circle of friends who would later become the beats. They all lived on the edge, and they all shared a gift for falling in love with the wrong people. It is 1951, and William (Kiefer Sutherland) and Joan (Courtney Love) are living in Mexico City. When old friends Ginsberg (Ron Livingston) and Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus) drive down for a visit, William has taken off to Guatemala with another man. Joan is feeling low but is captivated by the idea of a car trip to an erupting volcano. On the road, Joan and Lucien fall in love. When William returns home, there is a confrontation over the obvious flaws in their marriage which ends in a drunken game of William Tell.”
Note that the film is rather controversial in its implications about Joan and Lucien’s romance, so the reasons behind their quote of the William Tell Act may or may not be true. Joan was known as “Jane” in On the Road and Subterraneans, “Mary Dennison” in Town and the City, and “June” in Vanity of Duluoz.