What Was in Janis Joplin’s Handbag?

by Mary Miller

During the summer of 1970, a young Rolling Stone writer named David Dalton had the Almost Famous-like experience of traveling with 27-year-old Janis Joplin on the Festival Express tour, just three months before her death. The tour, which traveled Canada by chartered train and was basically a nonstop party/jam session, included acts like The Band, The Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, Sha Na Na, and Eric Andersen (who’s pictured below with Janis and her purse in Winnipeg). A soon-to-be-released film written by Dalton about their experience together (and directed by Penelope Spheeris), Gospel According to Janis, stars Zooey Deschanel as Joplin.

The book that inspired the film is Dalton’s paperback, Piece of My Heart. Available here and published in 1972, it’s a book I’ve carried with me on all the bookshelves of my life since my obsession with Janis began at age 14. It’s incredibly detailed, and I could swear it included a photo of her purse contents — but it turns out his description is so vivid I’d just imagined what they looked like. There’s the photo of her with the purse in question, though, which is scanned below because it’s not printed electronically (Hairpin exclusive?). As a teen I found a similar purse, filled it with the same contents he’d listed, then carried it around as if it were my own messy purse of Janis-y items which I’d self-selected and definitely needed with me, oh yes!

Here’s what Janis Joplin was carrying in her purse, during the summer of her 27th year. David Dalton is describing the scene as they’re riding in a limo:

“Now where in the hell did I put that lighter…? Probably left it in that bar. I’m real sloppy. Lose more damn things in bars. Left a wallet with a grand in it in a bar last week. Just can’t seem to hang onto anything, man. In desperation Janis dumps her bag onto the floor of the limo. Its contents are truly awesome. Janis has a baglady’s compulsion to carry her whole life with her. There are: two movie stubs, a pack of cigarettes, an antique cigarette holder, several motel and hotel room keys, a box of Kleenex, a compact and various make up cases (in addition to a bunch of eyebrow pencils held together with a rubber band), an address book, dozens of bits of paper, business cards, match box covers with phone numbers written in near-legible barroom scrawls, guitar picks, a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty), a hip flask, an opened package of complementary macadamia nuts from American Airlines, cassettes of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, gum, sunglasses, credit cards, aspirin, assorted pens and writing pad, a corkscrew, an alarm clock, a copy of Time, and two hefty books-Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.”

So there they are, the charmingly haphazard bag-contents of the lady who David Dalton called “The One Night Stand Existencialista.” If these items speak to you in sheer magnitude and variety, if you identify with occasionally being mocked by observers (eight chapsticks, anyone?), just shake them off and take a line from Piece of My Heart, tell them you’re “Our Lady of the Perpetual Party.” And may your Southern Comfort bottles always be full.

Mary Miller lives in Portland, Oregon, where by day she works as a public historian and by night she writes and edits her blog, Rats Off.