The Soul of a Writer

Underground literary icon Charles 'Hank' Bukowski lives in memories of wife and daughter and in his many books

Wednesday, August 16, 2000
Long Beach Press-Telegram
By Joe Stevens - Staff writer

Linda Lee Bukowski is leaning against her living-room sofa, holding a pina colada and watching a videotape of her husband, Hank. Barroom fights, a tale with a gun pointed to his head and his combination of talent and hard work -- Hank talks in an abrupt, yet charming way as he sips red wine.

Linda laughs at his one-liners. At certain thought-provoking moments, she has tears in her eyes. She doesn't cry in front of her guests, but in her perpetual grief and solitude, may shed a tear after the guests leave.

"Every day I don't get over it," Linda says. "Every day I cry. It's almost absurd. It's like when somebody loses an appendage. What do you do? The other half of me is gone."

While underground literary icon Charles "Hank" Bukowski is gone in body, he is alive in spirit in the couple's San Pedro home. More than six years after his death, Bukowski continues to attract a large reading audience. The voice of the working man isn't close to being forgotten today, which would have been his 80th birthday.

Bukowski was a loner. He didn't have many close friends and bet at the racetrack about four or five days per week. He wrote prolifically, coming out with more than 50 books of prose and poetry. Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), Post Office (1971) and Ham On Rye (1982) are a few of his books that have famous passages about drinking, women, madness and failure. The film "Barfly" (1987), written by Bukowski, is a biographical story about a flawed protagonist.

In addition to his terse, Hemingwayesque writing style, he is known internationally for his image as a seedy drinker-writer who wrote about brothels and bars. While some dismiss him as just an image, a writer without substance, many consider him one of the most influential and innovative underground authors. To these readers, he is an icon with literary depth that is emotional, spiritual and intellectual.

"There were times when I'd be lying next to him and I'd have a quick thought like, 'Are you kidding me? This is the genius, Charles Bukowski, next to me,' " Linda says. "But that feeling wouldn't last long. He was first my man, and second, he was the writer."

The other side

Beyond his work, there is another side to Bukowski, his everyday life, in which only a few people witnessed. Linda, his daughter Marina Bukowski Stone, and book publisher John Martin are the only three who saw his true personality.

While readers may feel close to him through his books and through biographies about him, these three have insights that aren't confined to ink and paper. One of the first thing each says is that Bukowski's literary persona, Henry Chinaski, is far from the actual person. Regardless, it is unlikely that Bukowski's image ever will be seen differently.

"People believe what they want to believe," says Martin, who still runs Bukowski's Black Sparrow Press and was the best man in his wedding. "What was Shakespeare like personally? Nobody knows. Great writers, from William Faulkner to Walt Whitman, have these public personas that are much different than what their friends know. Faulkner is known as this big drinker who liked young girls. Was that really him?"

Some truth lies in Bukowski's persona. He was a big drinker, but one reason he is perceived as a drunk is because he was afraid of crowds. He often drank when he gave readings to cope with all the people.

Frequently, Bukowski wrote about fringe elements, sometimes borderline criminals. But that doesn't mean he was one.

"He wasn't like what you'd expect from his writing," says Marina Bukowski Stone, his only child. "He was like your typical dad. He'd pick me up from school, and we'd do pretty typical stuff, talk, have dinner. To the rest of the world, he was (the literary) 'Charles Bukowski.' To me, he was my father."

Marina, 35, is a computer programmer who lives in San Rafael with her 3-year-old son, Nikhil. She says she never had a fight with her father, never saw him drunk when she was a child and can remember only one thing she and her father ever had a disagreement over - jazz. She loved it; he hated it. Her memories of Bukowski sound across-the-board positive.

"I miss just knowing he's there," Marina says. "It's definitely surprising how much I still miss him. I'd say that it's a profound loss...I don't have any regrets. We both knew we loved each other. I told him that. But I wish my dad could have seen his grandchild. I'm so happy with my son, and I wish I could've seen him as a grandfather."

Marina was raised by her mom, 77-year-old Santa Monica poet Frances Dean Smith who has the pen name "Franceye." The couple never married. Bukowski was married twice, once for only two years to Barbara Frye, who is deceased. His other marriage was to Linda, who he was with for 18 years.

Love and fighting

Linda and Hank (his full name is Henry Charles Bukowski) perhaps had one of the most fiery relationships of any writer and muse. In some circles, they were known for their outrageous fights.

As Linda watched the tape of Hank, one scene came up in which the two were sitting on the same sofa that she was now leaning on. The two had a horrific fight in which Hank called her profane names and threatened to hire attorneys to kick her out of the house. He ended up kicking her off the sofa, causing her to spill a glass of red wine.

"That was the worst it ever got," Linda says. "He never, ever laid a hand on me. That wasn't like Hank. That time he was drunk and mean and pushed me. He had about four or five bottles of wine. ... When the wine spilled, he ruined the upholstery and my ego. He was brilliant with abuse, brilliant with verbal abuse."

Hank stepped over the line when he pushed her and yelled obscenities. But until that moment, the argument seemed partly in jest. Some actually argued that it was staged because of the couple's well-known love. Linda insists that it wasn't staged.

"He was the love of my life," Linda says. "I used to call him 'the love of all my lives.' Sometimes he was difficult, but he was also the dearest person to me."

Linda, a small woman about 5 feet tall, was nearly as fierce as her 5-foot-11 husband. However, she came from a much different place than Hank, who was born in Andernach, Germany, but moved to Los Angeles when he was 2.

Hank often said he started drinking at 13 to endure the pain of continually being beaten by his father. By contrast, Linda had a cultured, nurturing upbringing in Bryn Mawr, Pa.

"He had such a painful life," Linda says. "I knew his anger was how he acted against it. He would look for a scapegoat, someone to take it out on, and sometimes it was me."

Linda and Hank started seeing each other in September 1976. They met after Linda, who is 25 years younger than he, approached him after a reading at the Troubadour. The couple bought their San Pedro home in 1978 when Hank wrote and Linda owned a health-food restaurant in Redondo Beach. Fighting wasn't the focus of their relationship, but it caused Linda to leave twice, each time for one year. In 1985, the two were married in San Pedro.

Long-lasting relationships weren't common for Hank. But Linda and he broke new ground. While he offered her wisdom and his numerous life experiences, Linda reciprocated with her strong and caring personality.

"I taught him about being vulnerable," Linda says. "He became more in tune with the vulnerable side of his personality."

The gruff 'n' tough Hank no longer shunned this side of himself. It enabled him to grow as a person and writer. In fact, most critics agree that Bukowski's best work came later in life -- when he was with Linda, who convinced him to give up hard alcohol and improve his diet.

Garden, sales blossom

Barefoot, Linda walks through the front yard of her San Pedro home. She points out each tree and plant -- bananas, peaches, apricots, figs, lemons, grapes, grapefruits and more. The garden is an awesome site. It's been Linda's project since Hank died in '94.

She also is fond of cats, and so was her husband, she says. She has 11 felines, which scatter and hide when she has company.

Linda's home is a homage to her man. The writer's upstairs workspace, perhaps more cramped than expected, has not been touched since Hank died of leukemia. Some of the writer's clothes are scattered through the room.

"Sometimes I can go up there, and his scent is in the air," Linda says. "It feels like he's there."

Numerous pictures of Hank hang throughout the house. The actors Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton and the filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, who directed "Barfly" and "The Charles Bukowski Tapes," became friends with the Bukowski's in the early '80s. There are pictures of those celebrities with Hank and Linda.

With a Jacuzzi and pool and a tastefully decorated home, the Bukowski's is quite a contrast to the difficult, grimy lives Hank often portrayed in his books.

"Of course, he was like 'I don't know, kid. I don't know about this bourgeois stuff.' But he used to go right into the Jacuzzi after being at the track," Linda says.

She keeps an extensive library of his work. In the archive, Linda pointed to a stack of books in Japanese, Hebrew, German and about a dozen other languages. Those translations came out this year alone.

Martin at Black Sparrow Press didn't have exact figures, but estimated that Bukowski has sold more than 1 million books worldwide and soon will be approaching 2 million.

Each year, sales get better for Bukowski's books. More than 30 are in print. Post Office is in its 40th printing, and Black Sparrow periodically has released books of unpublished poetry by Bukowski after his death. Another new poetry collection, Open All Night, will be published in October. By Hank's 90th birthday, Martin, who is 69, expects he'll say that sales still are increasing.

Linda's not certain what she'll say then. But to celebrate his 80th birthday, Linda plans on visiting his grave in the Green Hills Memorial Park. She'll close her eyes and remember her man.

Who knows? Maybe she'll get a new insight into the two simple words on his grave marker: Don't try.

©2000 Press-Telegram