Wine, women, and a gnarly old poet
Buried but ever present, Charles Bukowski keeps rolling along
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Most of us won’t be here to blow out the candles on our 95th birthday, nor did Charles Bukowski reach that milestone. Even so, a number of people will be celebrating for him this Sunday afternoon at the Warner Grand Theatre and surrounding venues in downtown San Pedro.
Bukowski’s gritty tales of urban lowlife, many of them semi-autobiographical, were chronicled in poetry and prose, including “Post Office,” “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” “Love is a Dog from Hell,” “Ham on Rye,” and “Pulp.” “Barfly” (1987), with Mickey Rourke, briefly cast Bukowski into the spotlight. In 2005, Bent Hamer brought “Factotum” to the screen with actors Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei, and Lili Taylor. The latter film — didn’t see it? Now you can — screens on Sunday.
All’s well that ends well, perhaps, but one can imagine that it would have ended much earlier and under cloudier skies if Hank (Bukowski) had never met Linda Lee.
Anyway, let’s rewind the tape all the way back to 1976. Linda Lee Beighle, a willowy, waifish, and spirited young woman, was running an un-Bukowski-like health food cafe in Riviera Village called the Dew Drop Inn.
And drop in he did
“That’s where Hank and I formally met,” Linda Lee says, sitting on the floor while I’m sinking into the couch at her home in San Pedro. “I’d met him at the Troubadour (at one of this readings). I talked to him and he got my phone number. And then he called me.”
Bukowski then did something unimaginable: He ventured into the South Bay.
“He got lost coming from East Hollywood in his blue Volks(wagen),” Linda Lee explains. “He ended up on the freeway past Lakewood, and he called me up, desperate — and I can just see an R. Crumb drawing of Hank in his Volkswagen, looking out, like, panicked mouth and eyes.”
Perhaps she’s thinking of the R. Crumb illustration that now graces the cover of “The Bell Tolls for No One,” a collection of Bukowski’s short stories newly published by City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s imprint.
Linda Lee fed him directions (no one wants to stay lost in Lakewood!).
“An hour and a half later I got another call, and he said”–Linda Lee assumes a low drawl — ”Hey. Linda Lee. This is Bukowski.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m a block away, at the Bull Pen.”
“He admitted he was really nervous,” Linda Lee says. And nothing like a drink to calm the nerves, right? Especially if you’ve just made the trek from Hollywood via Lakewood to rendezvous with a good-looking young woman.
She sees him from inside the window driving by, driving back.
“He tried to figure out how the hell this was gonna work, what’s going on, why am I here? You could see that feeling in him. Then he came in, and it was the funniest thing.
“I had this cute little hippie-style, health-natural food-eating cafe, and all this stuff from that era,” Linda Lee says, and one might think that Bukowski had never before been in such a place.
“And I realized, I wasn’t nervous… and HE was really nervous.”
Sure, Linda Lee knew darn well who it was who’d just entered her establishment, but “It had nothing to do with the writer; it was the man, and that’s how it evolved. And then months later we became a couple after being friends for a long time while he was researching the novel ‘Women,’ and that took about a year. And then, when the women were researched enough, he said sayonara (to them) and that was it: We were there for each other forever. That’s amazing to me; yeah, it is.”
She gets a little too caught up in these poignant memories, and so we change the subject…
Good timing, and a bit of luck
After Charles Bukowski died in 1994, at the age of 73, Linda Lee began to think about what she should do with his papers. She considered turning their San Pedro home into a research center or even a museum. Some parts of the home still seem to be leaning that way, but several years ago Linda Lee met Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington in San Marino, and the question of what to do with Hank’s papers soon found an answer.
“I was obviously interested in the papers,” Hodson says, “but to me the most important part was for Linda to know the right thing for her to do with Hank’s papers that would be good for her.”
A trip up to the Huntington and Linda Lee was convinced that this would be a perfect place for the Bukowski archives. Like many of us, she’d already had a favorable impression of the institution and the gardens that surround it.
“It was near Santa Anita Racetrack where Hank liked to go,” she says, “and sometimes I’d drive up there with him, drop him off at the track, and then spend the afternoon at the Huntington walking the gardens.”
Afterwards she’d head back to Santa Anita, “meet up with Hank, bet on a race,” and they’d head out while the last race was still running but listening for the results. “And dependent on that,” says Linda Lee, “was how Hank would be that night, would he be in a good mood or a bad mood.” (A story in “The Bell Tolls for No One” contains these lines: “You see why I go to the racetrack? I learn all these things about humanity.”)
“It just all came together,” Hodson says, “all the right things at the right moment. The Huntington is enormously honored to have Charles Bukowski’s papers.” They were acquired in 2006. “It’s been a tremendous, exciting ride — for me, personally and professionally.”
Bukowski’s public persona was of someone a little coarse, with a beer can or wine bottle permanently glued to his hand, by turns obnoxious and inebriated, if not both at once, but people who match that description would be unlikely to turn out over 45 books because the writer’s craft demands solitude, discipline, and concentration. Black Sparrow publisher John Martin has said that Bukowski would write between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., seven days a week.
I don’t know about those early years, the ‘40s, ‘50s, etc., before he met Linda Lee, but one can grasp a sense, at least, of his later writing habits by walking up the stairs of his home, making a sharp right, and entering a little room with a desk in one corner and Bukowski’s Apple Macintosh still sitting on it, as if waiting patiently for the Master’s return.
“It’s 99 percent just how it was when he was here typing,” says Linda Lee. “So it looks like he could be coming home (“from the racetrack,” Hodson adds) in a couple of hours.”
Come home, slip into the jacuzzi, “saunter upstairs, come down and play Jeopardy, eat dinner, and then he’d saunter back upstairs with a lovely bottle of excellent red wine, and type.”
From the balcony just outside this room there’s a panoramic view of the Port of Los Angeles. A million dollar view. Bukowski used to bet on the ponies at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, but was the payoff ever this rewarding? It was his good fortune to meet Linda Lee, and to make that trek down to Redondo Beach. As George MacDonald Fraser wrote in “Flashman in the Great Game,” “all that matters about luck is that it should run good on the last throw.”
First a house, then Hamburg
In 1978, two years after they’d met, Bukowski and Linda Lee bought a house. It seems that this came at the urging of Bukowski’s tax accountant or financial advisor, especially now that larger checks had begun to roll in.
“I don’t think he’d ever considered buying a house,” says Linda Lee. “We looked around for three months and there was a deadline because he had to do his first public reading in Germany.
“And so by the good grace of karma we found this one, one hot day. The windows were wide open, there was this balmy breeze, and we looked through (the windows, the house), and we went upstairs.”
One of the upper rooms was a bedroom, the other one an office. Bukowski stepped into the latter:
“He walked in and then I could feel the energy because — I don’t want to sound metaphysical — it had a good vibe. It really did. And Hank felt something too, just a positivity about it. Anyhow, we had a very short time to make a decision, and we made the decision and went into escrow, and we went to do his big fancy reading in Hamburg, Germany. Became a star! He was like Bob Dylan over there!” And she has a good laugh at the memory.
Bukowski recalled his trip overseas in “Shakespeare Never Did This” (1979), a travelogue of sorts with photographs by Michael Montford. As Bukowski writes on the first page:
“Not much on the way over: Linda Lee and I were accused of smoking dope. After a good ten or twenty minutes we convinced the captain, or whoever he was, that we were not smoking dope. We drank all the white wine on the plane, then all the red wine. Linda went to sleep and I drank all the beer on the plane.”
It’s a book I know well because Linda Lee herself gave me a copy of it on June 8, 1995. As I told her in an e-mail, we were both just kids back then.
“I love to look through that (book),” she says. With a lot of good pictures of the two of you, I tell her. “And it’s also a great, funny story. Everything (in it) actually happened. People often say to me, ‘He’s got a really creative mind.’ I said, ‘It is a creative mind, but those things were real.’”
And more to come?
Did Hank keep all his manuscripts?
“He’d keep the originals,” says Linda Lee. “They’d just sit there in his room or in a closet and then sort of get a little bitten, eaten, and chewed up and brown.”
“I’ve seen a lot worse,” Hodson says. She adds that the Huntington thoroughly examines each collection that comes in. “Because you can imagine, if something’s been in a damp garage, it’s gonna have livestock — I call it livestock. We can’t ever risk bringing livestock into the library. That would be catastrophic.”
Are there more manuscripts here in the house?
Hodson says yes.
Linda Lee laughs. “They’re like Easter eggs that you can find every now and then; a few years later you’ve found an old gray Easter egg in the corner.” She pauses. “Hank was so prolific. Hundreds and hundreds of poems in manuscript, just single pages, original things that we still have to go through.”
Sue Hodson concurs: “Our work is not done.”
“Charles Bukowski – the laughing heart: a 95th Birthday Celebration” takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday in the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro, and in nearby venues. In addition to a screening of “Factotum,” City of Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez will read selected works by Bukowski, a panel discussion with Q&A will take place, and there’s a photographic exhibit plus a poetry and art contest. Bukowski’s books and related items will be available for purchase. The event was organized by Ziggy Mrkich, director of the San Pedro International Film Festival. Tickets, $15; students with valid ID, $10 (special passes $30). Information: spiffest.org.