by Chris Dickerson
Charles Bukowski never considered himself part of the Beat Generation; in fact, he frequently disparaged the idea. He wasn’t a joiner, he didn’t like drugs (except booze), and while the Beats haunted San Francisco or New York’s Greenwich Village, Bukowski clung proudly – often on wobbly drunken legs – to his hometown, Hollywood, California.
So Bukowski prowled Hollywood, its dive bars and run-down rooming houses, writing about it exclusively. And if we can accept that, say, Ernest Hemingway was the Clark Gable of American letters – handsome, dashing, muy macho, an outdoorsman and globe-trotter – then Bukowski was akin to Humphrey Bogart.
“His special knowledge was of the jungle of the city at night,” film historian Richard Schickel wrote of Bogart in his 1962 book, The Stars. “Which clubs the syndicate ran, which one-arm restaurants served good coffee, which hotels a whore could use, which streets were safe to walk upon after midnight.” Those words fit Bukowski like a comfortable old jacket. Hollywood, the dark underbelly of it, not the glittering bastion of the Entertainment Capital of the World, was his town.
Home for Bukowski was almost Baltimore; that’s where he and his father and mother landed from Andernach, Germany when little Heinrich was nearly three years old, in 1923. Baltimore had a strong German-speaking working class (it still has), but Henry the Elder, an American soldier who’d served in World War I and decided to stay on in Germany at war’s end, was born and raised in Pasadena. His parents still lived there, so he moved his family West, to what was then the sleepy, dusty village of Los Angeles. In the twenties, the place had more in common with the Mexican pueblos from which it sprang than the undulating, traffic-stuffed, neon-lighted metropolis it would become over the next three decades.
The family settled in at 2122 Longwood Avenue, in South Los Angeles. Mother and son proceeded to become Americanized: Katrina was known as Kate and the boy, Heinrich Karl, was thereafter called Henry Jr., or Hank (his middle name became Charles). It was also the scene of Bukowski’s horrific childhood, with regular beatings from his father meeting only indifference from his mother. The foundation for life as a drunken loner was laid early.
To make matters worse, when he was about 13, Bukowski’s face exploded with boils and severe acne that would leave scars, plaguing him all his life. The lonely and beaten boy was now something of a freak. The situation didn’t improve when he transferred from Susan Miller Dorsey High to Los Angeles High School in 1937, in the affluent confines of L.A.’s Hancock Park.
Hancock Park was (and is) where the rich and the beautiful of Los Angeles lived; Beverly Hills East, before Beverly Hills and Brentwood existed. Bukowski was neither beautiful – far from it – nor from a wealthy family. He craved the attention of girls, but was too painfully shy and self-aware to speak to anyone. He was a borderline average student, and though the school had a poetry club, he lacked the confidence to join it.
He had, by now, discovered books and writing, at the sprawling Los Angeles Public Library, downtown on 5th Street. He consumed the works of Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis, and the legendary Russian writers of the previous century. The ostracized teenager found company and solace among the greats.
“Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum,” he’d write years later in his novel, Ham On Rye. “If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”
From high school, Bukowski enrolled at Los Angeles City College on Vermont Avenue, thinking of maybe becoming a journalist. The school had then, as it does now, a thriving arts, drama, and English department, but Bukowski again managed to be an undistinguished student. He dropped out in 1941, unable to get a job as a cub reporter with any of L.A.’s several daily newspapers.
He returned to the only place that gave him safety and sanctuary, the public library. One day he plucked from the shelf a relatively new novel, Ask the Dust, by John Fante. He read the first few pages. Bukowski’s world was transformed.
Fante’s Ask the Dust tells the story of Arturo Bandini, a struggling young writer living in the down-at-heels Bunker Hill section of L.A. (not far from the library). Bukowski immediately identified with Bandini, deciding then and there to set his goal on becoming a writer.
Bukowski, was in fact so grateful to Fante, that years later when Black Sparrow Press was established exclusively to publish Bukowski’s novels and poetry, he’d only agree to the contract if Black Sparrow also reissued all of Fante’s work, long out of print.
Bukowski moved to the predominantly-Mexican neighborhood of Bunker Hill, into a crumbling stucco boarding house (just like Bandini). And, like Bandini, he pounded out short stories for the pulps and lower-level “literary” magazines, while working a series of menial jobs in factories, or in the train yards of nearby Union Station. He drank in the seedy bars and ate in the greasy spoon diners, his stories racking up rejection slips, one after another. None of them sold.
With America flung into the turmoil of World War II, Bukowski decided that what a young writer needed was experiences to write about. He left Bunker Hill by bus, heading off across the country; it was here, over the next years, that Bukowski established his legend, what he called his “lost years,” a “ten-year drunk,” of flophouses, whores, dead-end jobs, low-life bars, and drifting, yet all the while, writing, writing, writing.
As with most legends, the facts are somewhat different: yes, Bukowski made sojourns across the country, but unlike his self-created mythology of the “hobo poet,” he was seldom gone from Los Angeles for more than two months at a time; he was never homeless, never slept on the streets; he watched his money carefully, always maintaining a bank account; and when he did go home to L.A., it was to his parents’ house on Longwood Avenue.
None of that meant that he was getting along any better with his father, and he wouldn’t stick around for long. But something must have clicked: in 1944 he had his first professional sale, to Story magazine, a humorous little piece entitled “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” The byline read, “Charles Bukowski,” because he didn’t want to use his first name (as it was the same as his hated father’s), and he didn’t think “Hank” sounded sophisticated.
The story didn’t launch his career as a writer; it was little more than a one-off. He was disappointed, but he kept writing, and from then, in print, he was Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski returned to Los Angeles in 1947 (he’d been willing to serve in the Army, but was declared 4-F for unspecified physical reasons), getting a job as a department store stock boy. He moved into MacArthur Park, another predominantly-Mexican neighborhood bordering downtown, spending his evenings drinking in the cheap Alvarado Street bars.
It was in one of these bars that he one night talked with Jane Cooney Baker, the woman ten years his senior who would become mistress, muse, drinking companion, and sparring partner. Bukowski would immortalise their combative booze-fuelled relationship in the novels Post Office and Factotum; in many poems, such as the ones collected in 1969’s The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills; and in the screenplay Bukowski created for Barfly, where she’s played by Faye Dunaway.
Bukowski and Baker lived in a succession of rooming houses around MacArthur Park, but their drunken fights were often so loud and violent that they were evicted time and again. They finally took up residence together in a tiny wood-frame house on North Westmoreland Avenue – and Bukowski went to work for the postal service.
Neither situation lasted. Bukowski suffered a severe haemorrhage. He was told by doctors that if he ever drank again, he’d die. He had to quit his post office job, and Jane left him. He was thirty-four years old.
He threw himself back into writing – and drinking, doctors be damned –submitting poems to a host of little magazines. With one, Harlequin, his poetry made a hit. Not only did Editor Barbara Frye agree to publish his work, she wrote him a long fan letter, telling Bukowski he was a great poet, as great as William Blake. Their correspondence became so “friendly” that Barbara eventually quit her job in Texas, moved to Los Angeles, and, in October 1955, became the first Mrs. Charles Bukowski. The couple moved into a house in Echo Park, smack between Downtown
Los Angeles and the bohemian, working class community of East Hollywood.
Barbara encouraged Bukowski’s writing, and prompted him to go back to Los Angeles City College, but nothing lasted – except the writing and drinking. Bukowski again dropped out of school, and after only fifteen months of marriage, he and Barbara divorced.
Bukowski was now in Hollywood, after living for years on its fringes, though not on the glamorous West Side, but in the blue collar confines of East Hollywood, an area of family-owned shops and liquor stores, old apartment buildings and neighborhood bars. East Hollywood was where he would spend most of the rest of his life, and, somewhat like Raymond Chandler, capture the time and place forever in his work.
He first found apartment 303 at 1623 North Mariposa Avenue, between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard; a cold water flat with the communal shower upstairs, where the hallways with their ratty carpeting were lighted by an overhead fluorescent strip. He went back to work for the postal service, at the Terminal Annex downtown. He worked the nightshift, leaving his days free to write and to play the ponies at Hollywood Park Racetrack.
It wasn’t long before he took up again with Jane Cooney Baker, though by now, whatever sexual attraction they’d had for each other was gone. They were simply drinking buddies. But when she died in 1962, Bukowski was one of the few at her funeral. He described the scene in Post Office:
“There was the coffin. What had been Betty (her name in the novel) was in there. It was very hot. The sun came down in one yellow sheet. A fly circled around. Halfway through the funeral two guys in working clothes came carrying my wreath. The roses were dead, dead and dying in the heat, and they leaned the thing up against a near-by tree. Near the end of the service my wreath leaned forward and fell flat on its face.”
It was around this time, the early sixties, when Bukowski’s fortunes as a writer slowly began to shift. From his bug-ridden flat on Mariposa Avenue, still working nights for the postal service, he kept pounding away at his “typer,” classical music wafting through his little cell, a bottle of beer and a deck of smokes always at hand. He was suddenly getting published on a regular basis, his work appearing in cheap chapbooks or tiny literary magazines which paid next-to-nothing, if anything at all. Bukowski somehow became the bridge between the fading Beat Generation of the fifties, before the likes of poetic songwriters such as Bob Dylan or Lennon and McCartney became the new voices of poetry. Publishers Jon and Louise Webb included Bukowski in their high-octane literary magazine, The Outsider, alongside established writers like Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Robert Creely. Bukowski the loner was suddenly in heady company, finally getting noticed. Persistence, if nothing else, was paying off.
It was also in the early sixties that Bukowski met avant-garde poet Frances Smith. Their friendship flowered into an affair, with Frances becoming pregnant. Neither of them were happy about it; Frances was 41, and believed her child-bearing years were over. Bukowski offered to marry her, but she declined. Still, they moved in together to another ramshackle East Hollywood neighborhood, a one-bedroom bungalow at 5126 De Longpre Avenue. Bukowski’s only child, Marina, was born there in 1964. Frances soon moved out, taking Marina, but Bukowski kept his word and provided child support, seeing his daughter frequently.
But if it was yet another relationship down the hole, Buskowski’s literary ship was coming into port, all flags flying. He’d been writing a column, “Notes Of A Dirty Old Man,” for the underground L.A. magazine Open City. When the magazine folded, he moved the column to the underground weekly newspaper, the Los Angeles Free Press. The column became one of the paper’s most popular features. He was a journalist – of sorts – at last. His poetry continued to be regularly published, but he still wasn’t secure enough financially to quit the daily grind of the post office.
All that changed in the early seventies. John Martin, an independent (though by no means affluent) businessman, struck a deal with Bukowski: Martin would guarantee Bukowski $100 a month for life if Bukowski quit the post office and wrote full-time, giving Martin exclusive publishing rights to any of Bukowski’s future books. Done deal. Martin founded Black Sparrow Press, with Bukowski as its sole author. Black Sparrow published Bukowski’s collections of poetry (and later, reprints of John Fante’s books) and, in 1970, Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office.
To augment his $100/month from Black Sparrow, Bukowski accepted invitations to read his poems at small venues around Los Angeles. All that was fine and good, reading for fifteen, twenty, or maybe thirty people, until Beat legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti invited Bukowski to San Francisco for a solo poetry reading in 1972.
Filmmaker Taylor Hackford, then an aspiring young director, was in the midst of crafting a black and white documentary on Bukowski for the L.A. PBS outlet, KCET. Hackford decided to tag along up north and record the City Lights event.
As Hackford recalled in the 2003 documentary on Bukowski, Born Into This, they found themselves confronted by eight hundred rabid, noisy fans. Bukowski was a hit, and collected the princely sum of $400 for the hour-long reading.
Now free to write full-time, becoming a celebrity in the bohemian circles he claimed to dislike, Bukowski moved one more time in Hollywood, to an apartment at 5437 Carlton Way, smack on the demarcation line between East Hollywood and “Hollywood Proper,” the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue. It still wasn’t “Ritzy Hollywood,” by any means. Most of the movie studios had long ago folded their tents (though Paramount Studios was – and is – still going strong on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard). Bukowski’s neighbors were sex shops and low-life saloons like “The Study” on Western Avenue (still standing, if long out of business, until the building was levelled in early 2013), and liquor stores like the Pink Elephant, where he bought his beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. He’d wander as far as the Frolic Room, next to the Pantages Theater, near Vine Street (a neighborhood dive from which he was often 86ed; his portrait now hangs over the bar, an irony he might appreciate).
He kept his name and address listed in the phone book, so the girls who loved his poetry could find him, and they did, showing up in droves on his doorstep. Bukowski, now in his early fifties, ravenously made up for lost time.
And he wrote. In his second novel, Factotum, he solidified the character of “Hank Chinaski,” who – like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, or Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, or Fante’s Arturo Bandini – would be the alter ego for which he’d become famous. Other novels – Women and Hollywood – followed, along with the poetry collections. He used all the people he was meeting in his work, especially all the “girl friends” who peopled Women. John Martin at Black Sparrow Press saw his investment pay off, with the $100 he’d promised Bukowski blossoming into as much as $7000 a month, as more and more books sold.
Hollywood itself soon came calling, in all its glamour and glory, in the form of actors like Sean Penn, or the Irish musician Bono. Bono, in the documentary Born Into This, recalls that he loved the Beats because, being Irish, “you could eat the language.” But Bukowski was different. “Here was a guy,” Bono said, “who stripped the language down to the bone, down to the marrow of the bone. He was like, ‘I have no time for metaphor.’”
More documentaries chronicled Bukowski: The Ordinary Madness of Charles Bukowski in 1981, and Mirrored – The Charles Bukowski Tapes by Barbet Schroeder in 1987. Then movies: Tales of Ordinary Madness in 1983, featuring Ben Gazzara as Hank Chinaski, Barfly (directed by Schroeder) in 1987 with Mickey Rourke in the Chinaski role, and Factotum in 2005, starring Matt Dillon.
True to form, Bukowski claimed to be unimpressed by any of it. He savaged both Gazzara’s and Rourke’s portrayals (Bukowski would be dead for over a decade by the time Dillon came up to bat, but the odds are, he wouldn’t have liked him, either).
At first more popular in Europe than in the United States, Bukowski received speaking and reading engagements from France and Germany, capping it all with a notorious drunken appearance on Bernard Pivot’s über-intellectual talk show in Paris, from which Bukowski was unceremoniously evicted mid-interview.
By now, the late eighties-early nineties, it was all part and parcel of the party. Henry Charles Bukowski Jr., the tortured little boy, the shunned teenager with the horribly scarred face, the man who worked dozens of mind-numbing, back-breaking minimum-wage menial jobs for decades, but who never quit writing, was somehow now a well-to-do and famous author. He married again, a young and beautiful health food restaurateur, Linda Lee Beighle, and he made his last move, with her, to a spacious and comfortable home in San Pedro, California. He swapped his battered “typer” for a computer, his beer and whiskey for wine. He wrote his last novel, Pulp, a surreal private eye pastiche (maybe in revenge for all those now-gone pulp magazines which rejected him in his youth). It was set… where else?… in Hollywood.
Bukowski died of cancer in 1994, age seventy-three. On his gravestone at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes are two words: “Don’t Try.” Like most things about his legend, the words belie his actions; nobody ever tried harder; and finally made it…
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