Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, on the night of August 16, 1920, as Heinrich Karl Bukowski. His mother, Katharina Fett, a native German, met his father, Henry Bukowski, a Polish American serviceman, after the end of World War I. Coincidentally, Bukowski's paternal grandfather had also been born in Germany, so Henry was fluent in German and managed to woo Katharina's reluctant and undernourished family by bringing them rations of food and speaking German. Bukowski was fond of claiming that he had been born out of wedlock, but Andernach records show that his parents were in fact married on July 15, 1940, a month prior to his birth.
After the collapse of the German economy following the war, the family moved to Baltimore in 1923. To sound more American, Bukowski's parents began calling him "Henry" and altered the pronunciation of their last name from Buk-ov-ski to Buk-cow-ski. After saving money, the family moved to suburban Los Angeles, where Bukowski's father's family lived. During Bukowski's childhood, his father was often unemployed, and according to Bukowski, verbally and physically abusive (as detailed in his novel, Ham on Rye). When Bukowski's mother, Katharina, was called to the school nurse's office to be informed that her son had dyslexia, her immediate reaction was fear of her husband's disappointment in Bukowski.
During his youth, Bukowski also suffered from extreme acne vulgaris and shyness. Bukowski was a poor student, partially on account of his dyslexia. He claims that in his youth, the only award he ever won was for an ROTC drill at his high school, which he described in a book of collected essays entitled, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism, and literature; however, as in high school, he was a poor student. Around this time he spoke of fascism and Hitler, causing his family to worry. He later attributed this to a case of childhood rebellion, claiming that he never had any affiliation with any political ideology.
In the early 1940s, Bukowski traveled through the United States, taking odd jobs and then quitting them to write (and drink). This lifestyle led him to near-starvation, and eventually he wrote home to his family for money. All he received was a letter from his father stating how ashamed he was of Bukowski. According to Bukowski, this was when he first knew he was destined to be a writer. Upon receiving the letter he was depressed and contemplated suicide, but even while having suicidal thoughts he couldn't crush his desire to write. Feeling both an intense desire to kill himself, and an intense desire to write, he started scribbling in the margins of a newspaper.
At 24, Bukowski's short-story "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip" was published in Story Magazine. Two years later, another short-story, "20 Tanks From Kasseldown," was published in Portfolio III's broadside-collection. Bukowski grew disillusioned with the publication process and quit writing for almost a decade. During part of this period, he went on living in Los Angeles, but also spent some time roaming around the United States, working odd jobs and staying in cheap rooming houses. In the early 1950s, Bukowski took a job as a letter-carrier with the United States Postal Service in Los Angeles, but quit after less than three years.
By 1960, he had returned to the post office in Los Angeles, where he continued to work as a clerk for over a decade. Bukowski lived in Tucson briefly, where he befriended Jon Webb and Gypsy Lou, two people who would be influential in getting Bukowski's work widely published.
The Webbs published The Outsider literary magazine and featured some of Bukowski's poetry. Under the Loujon Press, they published Bukowski's It Catches my Heart In Its Hand (1963) and A Crucifix in a Deathhand, in 1965. Jon Webb bankrolled his printing ventures with his Vegas winnings. It was at this point that Bukowski and Franz Douskey began their friendship. They argued and often got into fights. Douskey was a friend of the Webbs, and was often a guest at their small Elm Street house that also served as a publishing venue. The Webbs, Bukowski, and Douskey spent time together in New Orleans, where Gypsy Lou eventually returned after the passing of Jon Webb.
Beginning in 1967, Bukowski wrote the column "Notes of A Dirty Old Man" for Los Angeles' Open City underground newspaper. When Open City was shut down in 1969, the column was picked up by the Los Angeles Free Press. In 1981, he published a book, Notes of A Dirty Old Man, which contained several of the pieces he wrote for the column.
Bukowski often writes and speaks extensively about his relationships with women and his sexual encounters, often humorously. In the documentary, Born Into This, he speaks of losing his virginity at age 24 to a "300 pound whore" and breaking all four legs of his bed in the process. In an essay, he described the experience as terrible.
On October 29, 1955, Bukowski and writer/poet Barbara Frye drove to Las Vegas and were married there. Frye was the editor of Harlequin magazine. During a period where Bukowski was having trouble getting published, he sent a stack of poems to Frye in response to an ad requesting submissions. Frye accepted several of his poems, responding that they were some of the best she had ever read. They corresponded through letters for some time. Frye would often lament about her spine deformity and how she would never find a husband because she was missing two vertebrae in her neck, causing her head to practically rest on her shoulders. Bukowski said he'd marry her, so she responded with a letter telling him when and at which train station to pick her up.
Frye wanted a child. Bukowski didn't. When she finally became pregnant, she miscarried. The young couple was convinced that it was because Bukowski drank so much. They divorced in 1958, on March 18. Frye insisted that their separation had nothing to do with literature, though after their marriage she often doubted his skill as a poet. As she continued to edit Harlequin, Bukowski insisted that she not publish certain writers, often out of revenge for those writers not publishing him in their publications. Following the divorce, Bukowski resumed drinking and continued to write poetry.
Jane Cooney Baker was Bukowski's next girlfriend, an alcoholic. She died in a hospital on January 22, 1962, after going on a severe alcohol binge. With cancer, cirrhosis, and hemorrhaging, there was little that could be done. Her death sent Bukowski into a long bought of depression; he continued being an alcoholic and suffering from a suicide complex.
On September 7, 1964, a daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski, was born to Bukowski and his then live-in girlfriend Frances Smith. Marina's conception had been a mistake, due in part to Bukowski's hatred of condoms and the expectation that the 42-year old Frances Smith was too old to have a child. Bukowski proposed to Smith out of a sense of responsibility, but she said no, opting rather to live together and raise the child together while out of wedlock. She later remarked that he was a wonderful father, constantly attentive. Whenever Bukowski had suicidal thoughts, he now had two reasons to continue living: His daughter and his writing.
Bukowski also dated fellow writer and sculptor Linda King for some time, despite being about twenty years older than she. Although immediately repulsed by him, she sculpted a bust of his head and slowly became attracted to him. She encouraged him to write about the women in his life. Between then and his second marriage, he had a strong cult following and lots of young female fans would show up to his readings and insist on having sex with him. At the height of his sexual popularity, women would show up on his front porch and wait for him to wake up (often in the afternoon) so that they could could have sex with the "famous writer."
In 1976, Bukowski met a fan of his work that caught his eye: Linda Lee Beighle, a health-food restaurant owner. She was different from the other fans, particularly because she refused to have sex with him for quite some time. Two years later, the couple moved from the East Hollywood area, where Bukowski had lived for most of his life, to the harborside community of San Pedro, the southernmost district of the city of Los Angeles. Bukowski and Beighle were married by Manly Palmer Hall on August 18, 1985. Linda Lee Beighle is referred to as "Sara" in Bukowski's novels, Women and Hollywood.
Work and death
Bukowski published extensively in small literary magazines and with small presses beginning in the late 1950s and continuing on through the early 1990s; the poems and stories were later republished by Black Sparrow Press (now HarperCollins/ECCO) as collected volumes of his work. John Martin, who started Black Sparrow Press, visited Bukowski in search of material for his publication. A nonchalant Bukowski invited him in, offered him a beer, and told him to look in the closet, where a waist-high heap of approximately 5000 manuscripts were waiting to be discovered. Later, John Martin would offer him a $100 monthly stipend "for life" for writing pieces for Black Sparrow Press. Bukowski quit his job at the post-office to make writing his full-time career. He was then 49 years old. As he explained in a letter at the time, "I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." Less than one month after leaving the postal service, he finished his first novel, titled Post Office.
As a measure of respect for Martin's financial support and faith in a then relatively unknown writer, Bukowski published almost all of his subsequent work with Black Sparrow.
Bukowski acknowledged Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robinson Jeffers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, and others as influences, and often spoke of Los Angeles as his favorite subject. In a 1974 interview he said, "You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every bitch on the street corner and half of them you have already messed around with. You've got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are. …Since I was raised in L.A., I've always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I've had time to learn this city. I can't see any other place than L.A."
One critic has described Bukowski's fiction as a "detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: The uninhibited bachelor, slobby, anti-social, and utterly free."
Bukowski died of leukemia on March 9, 1994, in San Pedro, California, at the age of 73, shortly after completing his last novel, "Pulp." His funeral rites were conducted by Buddhist monks. His gravestone reads: "Don't Try."