The Great Valhouli Fauxlore: Atlantic Uncovers Truth Behind Kerouac-Burroughs Fight

9 Aug

No5

Those of us who devote our time studying the life and work of Jack Kerouac and yet who simultaneously spend a lot of our time on Facebook already called “hoax” on that photograph that was being circulated around about a plaque on how Kerouac and William S. Burroughs got into a drunken fight over the Oxford comma. I assumed it was a digitally manipulated photograph. As it turns out, though, it has a fascinating back story. Alexis C. Madrigal uncovered the truth behind the plaque — which actually exists — in the story “Facebook Fauxlore: Kerouac, Burroughs, and a Fight Over the Oxford Comma That Never Was” in The Atlantic.

It’s a great piece — minus the odd portrayal of the Greek American behind the plaque. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Hot on the trail of something fishy, Madrigal contacted sources Paul Marion; The Morgan Center; Martha Mayo, head of the Center for Lowell History; and Tony Sampas. Marion, author and employee at UMass Lowell Center for Arts and Ideas, had seen the plaque and knew that it was created to promote Mill No. 5 at 250 Jackson Street in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Marion referred Madrigal to Ted Siefer’s article “Mill No. 5 brings transformation to Lowell” in The Boston Globe, which explained that developer Constantine Valhouli, with business partner Jim Lichoulas III, was transforming the former textile mill into an office building:

with a kind of fun-house brio to attract the eclectic, off-beat, and hip: boutique movie theater, yoga studio, farm-to-table restaurant, a lounge/library in the style of an English manor — the whole thing decorated with architectural materials salvaged from the likes of Dr. Seuss’ house.

It would appear that Valhouli ascribes to the same Beat philosophy of improvisation as Kerouac. Siefer says:

Valhouli likens the development of the project to how jazz musicians build a song. “We’ve not built from a plan,” he said. “You play a theme, and you just keep playing improvisations over it.”

Madrigal points to the pivotal paragraph in The Globe story for proving the plaque is a fake:

And there, in the 13th paragraph, was proof that we were looked at a false sign: “Inside the entry hall will be a reconstructed early 19th-century New England schoolhouse,” the Globe wrote, “an exhibit that will be part of what Valhouli calls the Lowell Atheneum [AHA!], which will also feature a collection of hand-painted pseudo-historical plaques from New England history [DOUBLE AHA!].”

Madrigal, who went on to interview Valhouli, then explained that Valhouli and Lichoulas thought up the idea of creating “a series of plaques commemorating events that never happened” to support Mill No. 5. They hired Ould Colony Artisans‘ Robert and Judy Leonard to paint the plaque by hand. The artists had created many other historical signs in the Massachusetts area.

I found Madigral’s investigative reporting enthralling.

Still, I was put off by this aside:

I had to get in touch with this Valhouli character, who was, no doubt, swirling his mustache near some railroad tracks looking for damsels.

Okay, I’ll concede that Constantine Valhouli certainly sounded like a “character” for faking people out — although I’m not sure we generally refer to conceptual artists or those who come up with brilliant marketing schemes as “characters.” Instead, I think we tend to use terms like “inspired” and “business-savvy” to describe people who manage to get others talking about their work. A quick look at Mill No. 5’s Facebook page, and the tongue-in-cheek branding is evident:

We’re working on the bathrooms at Mill No. 5 today. Which made us think of the central question of paleontology:
Q: Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?
A: Because the P is silent.

Brilliant Subway Panhandling Prank Flips the Script

Hahahahahaha. This. Oh this. The Hipster Logo Design Guide.

But there was “no doubt” in Madrigal’s mind that Valhouli had a mustache and that he swirled it, like some sort of old-timey Western villain? Is the mustache assumption because he’s Greek American or because The Boston Globe article referred to his work as “Disneyland for hipsters”? Where did the leap from real-estate developer to someone who hung out at a train station get made? Was this supposed to tie him closer to Kerouac — or make him sound like some sort of train-hopping hobo? He was out “looking for damsels”? What??

With today’s access to personal information on the Internet, it took only seconds to find Valhouli’s LinkedIn page, and — unless it too is a hoax — discover he (fittingly) received his BA in English and fine art from Georgetown University, where he went on to get his MA in interactive technology. From there, he got his MBA from Columbia University’s Business School. He received the Charles G. Koch Fellowship and was a Peter Agris Fellow. He did equity research for Morgan Stanley and was director of business development for Incogniti before becoming principal at The Hammersmith Group, which describes itself as “a boutique strategy consulting firm with concentrations in real estate and technology.” His LinkedIn summary reads, in part:

Constantine has been featured in the BBC, Businessweek, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal. He has guest lectured at Columbia Business School, MIT, New York University, and has served as a panelist on internet industry events and at the U.S. Department of State.

There wasn’t a profile picture to verify him peeking out of a train tunnel to leer at women. The Atlantic has created its own “fauxlore” about Constantine Valhouli. Oh, how the tables have turned.

* * *

This post has been updated to correct the publication to The Atlantic.

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5 Responses to “The Great Valhouli Fauxlore: Atlantic Uncovers Truth Behind Kerouac-Burroughs Fight”

  1. David Amram August 12, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Dear Stephanie

    Thank you for your illuminating article, as well as showing the fact that fake mythology and ethnic stereotyping are still found in many places and are always worth CORRECTING WITH FACTS!!!

    So BRAVA to you for bringing to attention the comic=book reading mentality of those who think all Greeks, Turks, Italians, Irish, Jewish, Catholic, Asian, African and Native Americans, (and all disenfranchised Caucasians who live south of New Jersey are all sub-humans) can all be dismissed by the various stereotypes assigned to them!!!

    I was brought up in the 1930s reading comic books so was and still am privy to the same misinformation, but fortunately hung out with others to hipped me, among other things, to the Herodotus Happenings, so I realized that ancient Greece and the Greece of today were all parts of a Whole world I knew nothing about, and that the Greek=Americans i knew and hung out with all had their own special ETHOS and worlds (Plural) of their own to deal with (old world, new world, no world).

    So a big Ephraristoh Poli for sending to all bigoted shmucks (including whoever wrote about the moustache-twirling skirt-chasing man whom they never even met) a message saying that everyone should put down their comic books and listen to some of the FANTASTIC music from Crete, Sounion, Delphi,Marathon, Aegina, then go buy some postcards or go on the internet and see the art treasures of antiquity, read the poetry and hear the songs of contemporary Greek artists and see the great films and then try to learn ONE DANCE of a culture so complex and sophisticated that folkloric arts are more advanced than most classical art forms we study!!!

    Jack loved the comic book characters we all grew up with in the 30s…(also on the radio) like the Shadow, Major Hoople et al and he was brought up in a rough and tumble Lowell and was himself marginalized, but understood the BEAUTY of his heritage and therefor was able to honor everyone else of EVERY heritage!

    So thank you for staying on the case!!

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