An outrageous anti -hero literary figure, Charles Bukowski was arguably one of the greatest American writers with detractors who charged him with being crude, vulgar and racist, while fans praised him for his wit, honesty and hard edged realism. He was a quintessential Los Angeles writer who chronicled his (mostly his own) hard knock life depicting the city in which he lived (for nearly all of his 73 years) and he loved to womanize, gamble and drink, a lot.
Heinrich (Henry) Karl Bukowski was born in August 16th 1920, Andernach, Germany, to parents, Heinrich Bukowski and Katharina Bukowski (nee Fett) His father was a Polish American serviceman who met Katharina Fett after the end of World War One. Heinrich’s paternal grandfather had also been born in Germany, so we was able to speak fluent German, wooing Katharina’s reluctant and undernourished family by bringing them rations of food and speaking their native tongue. It wasn’t long before Katharina fell pregnant and they married a month before their son was born.
They stayed in Andernach for nearly two years while Heinrich worked as a building constructor before moving to Coblenz (now spelled with a ‘K’ after 1926) where they lodged for a while with a family, the Gehrhardt’s in Schlossstrasse, in Southwest Berlin.
The Bukowski’s had intended to stay in Coblenz but after the collapse of the German economy, following the war, they had little choice but to move to the United States and settled in Baltimore, Maryland, 1923. Upon arriving, to sound more American, Katharina started calling herself Kate and Heinrich Snr and Heinrich Jr became Henry. They also altered the pronunciation of their surname from Buk-ov-ski to Buk-cow-ski.
Working hard in the construction industry, Henry soon saved enough to move his young family out to Mid-City in Central Los Angeles in 1924, the same city where young Henry’s grandfather once lived and worked.
Aside from his travels around America in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Charles Bukowski would live his whole life in and around Los Angeles, with the city becoming an integral part of his writing. Interestingly, very few writers of literature have been so closely associated with, or lovingly described Los Angeles, a place that nowadays can often be dismissed as ugly, dangerous and culturally desolate. However, In 1920’s Los Angeles, it was almost a paradise where the sky was unclouded by smog, there were still orange groves between the boulevards and neighbourhoods were safe enough for Angelenos to leave their doors unlocked and for children to ride their bicycles to the beach after school. As a city then with just over a million people, a fraction of what it became, there was a growing town atmosphere, partly because of the film studios in Hollywood. Wanting a share of that good life himself and his family, Henry had to settle for the best job he could find; delivering milk by horse and cart for the LA Creamery Company.
From the outside, home was seemingly idyllic in the Bukowski household but tension was never far and Henry Bukowski deemed a difficult man to get along with and regularly incited sadistic punishments on his son.
In later years, in his autobiographical writings, interviews and letters to friends, Charles Bukowski made it plain that his childhood was “joyless and frightening” leaving him shy and withdrawn. He was often forbidden from playing with other neighbourhood children due to his parents ‘snobbery’ considering themselves better than the neighbourhood they lived, he was bullied his classmates and his father was often unemployed. It was while attending Virginia Road Elementary that his father beat him for the first time because he was sent home with a note for fighting. His punishments at home left him with welts and bruises, but the abuse didn’t end with young Henry. His mother Kate, was also a target of her husband’s abusive tirades and countless affairs, beating her black and blue and once abandoned the family, taking a room on West Adams Boulevard where he entertained his mistresses.
The physical and verbal abuse from his father continued into his youth, not helped by the fact he also suffered from dyslexia and acne and was a poor student. Alcohol and literature became his way to cope. After graduating Los Angeles High School, he attended Los Angeles City College for two years in 1939 taking classes in Art, Journalism and Literature. However, he had little interest for his studies and eventually dropped out to pursue a writing career. Exempted from military service due to psychological reasons, he spent the war years writing, supporting himself with menial jobs from dishwasher, elevator operator and Red Cross orderly.
Writing under his middle name, Charles, Bukowski had some early success at 24 when a story he titled, “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” appeared in the March/April edition of Story Magazine in 1944, followed by “20 Tanks from Kasseldown” published in the literary journal, Caresse Crosby’s, Portfolio: An Intercontinental Quarterly in 1946. However, a steady stream of rejection slips soon followed and discouraged Bukowski, causing him to abandon his dreams of publication in favour of the bottle and for the next ten years, known as ‘the lost years’ would devote himself to boozing and bar room fighting.
These ‘lost years’ would form the basis of semi-autobiographical chronicles and it was during this time he continued living in Los Angeles in cheap housing rooms, working at a pickle factory for a short time and roaming about the United States. In the early 1950’s, he took a job as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service in Los Angeles only to quit less than three years later. His constant drinking nearly killed him and landed him in the charity ward of Los Angeles County Hospital with a bleeding ulcer in 1955. Upon his release, he began writing poetry and met Barbara Frye, the editor for Harlequin who accepted some of his poetry. They married in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 29th 1955 and upon returning to Los Angeles, published a special edition of Harlequin containing eight of Bukowski’s poems. The marriage would only last three years and by March 1958 they were divorced, having no children.
Shortly after, he moved into an apartment and resumed his on/off again affair with Jane Cooney Baker, whom he had met in a bar in 1946. Following her death, 22nd January 1962 inspired his poem, ‘For Jane, for all the love I had, which was not enough’.
With the exception of Jane’s death, the rest of the1960’s were good to Bukowski. He had returned to U.S Postal Service in Los Angeles as a letter filing clerk (a position he held for ten year despite his misery) and although dull, his job along with a $15,000 inheritance gave him financial security. His first collection of poems, ‘Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail’ appeared in 1960, along with the 1963 Loujon Press edition of, ‘It Catches My Heart in Its Hands’ receiving high praise from the New York Times Book Review. However, it was the legendary publisher John Martin, the founder of Black Sparrow Press that would go on to change his life forever.
In 1969, John Martin offered Bukowski $100 per month salary to quit his job and devote himself to writing full time. About to be fired anyway from his postal job, he gladly accepted.
The 1970’s and 1980’s were Bukowski’s most productive years and in 1971, Black Sparrow published his first semi- autobiographical novel, Post Office, based on his years in the postal service. A critical and financial success, it sold 75,000 copies in the United States and more than half a million copies abroad. His next three autobiographical novels, Factotum (1975) Women (1978) and Ham on Rye (1982) followed the same style. In 1987 the comedy drama film, Barfly, a semi autographical film based on Bukowski’s ‘lost years’ drinking in Los Angeles was released starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway making him famous at home.
For the first time in his life, Bukowski got a taste of success and his lifestyle changed dramatically. By 1984, he was earning more than US$100,000 a year and purchased a BMW 320i and a US$80,000 house in San Pedro, Los Angeles. His childhood poverty was a distant memory as he was able to indulge in expensive wines and keep company with movie stars. On August 18th, 1985 he married Linda Lee Beighle in Los Feliz, California. Having met in 1976, she proved to be a stabilizing influence on Bukowski, encouraging him to lose weight and drink more moderately. His 1989 novel, Hollywood fictionalized his life during this time.
By 1987, Bukowski was in poor health and contracted tuberculosis. Despite this, he continued work on his Hollywood novel and his poetry, The Roominghouse Madrigals: 1946-1966 (published in 1988) followed by a new anthology of new poems and stories. As his health deteriorated, he was diagnosed with leukaemia in the spring on 1993. During a brief remission he finished work on a tongue-in cheek detective novel, Pulp and died in San Pedro Peninsula Hospital on 9th March, 1994. He was surrounded by his wife and daughter, Marina (the child he fathered with a fan whom he lived with from 1963 to 1965).
He was buried at Green Hills cemetery in San Pedro, March 14th 1994 following a Buddhist service. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, “DON’T TRY”.