The Huntington Library
Los Angeles writer Charles Bukowski
The Huntington Library is wrapping up a colorful exhibit about the late L.A. writer Charles Bukowski. The library is the permanent home of his manuscripts and artwork.
Bukowski’s San Pedro home may become a living literary archive to the hard drinking, hard-living poet.
Charles Bukowski spent decades holed up in seedy rooms across L.A. before increasing book sales let him to settle in a handsome two-story house overlooking the San Pedro waterfront.
“Behind a 6-foot hedge / with a long driveway leading to a two-car garage." Bukowski wrote about the place, satirizing his success in a poem called “Secret of My Endurance.” Among its creature comforts: “With a young boy to write my stuff now / I keep him in a 10-foot cage with a typewriter, feed him whiskey and raw whores, belt him pretty good three or four times a week / I'm 60 years old, and the critics say my stuff is better than ever.”
“He came here and started typing right away, energized," says Linda Bukowski, the writer's widow.
Linda Bukowski is dressed in black slacks and a black jersey. She settles into a spacious wood-paneled living room with a rum and coke. Her late husband’s whimsical abstract paintings line the walls.
“This house, upstairs where he had his little typing room it has this balcony that overlooks the whole industrial harbor there. It’s the seaport and it’s gritty and it’s the element. It’s perfect. He didn’t want the pastoral ocean view." Linda Bukowski laughed.
But Charles Bukowski did want out of L.A. Bukowski was in his mid 50s and living a debauched life in a seedy part of Hollywood when he met Linda. She was 20 years younger and running a health food restaurant. Bukowski was looking for change.
“And that wasn’t able to be done until he got out of that quagmire," Linda Bukowski said. "But he didn’t know how to get out, where was he gonna go?! And he said one time, ‘You know if the taxman came and said, 'You gotta move somewhere,' I’d be in some barren apartment building somewhere. I wouldn’t have known where the hell to go!'”
The next 15 years in San Pedro were prolific. Bukowski wrote his magnum opus, “Ham on Rye” – a raw, bittersweet coming of age novel based on the traumas of his youth. “With one punch, at the age of 16 and 1/2, I knocked out my father, a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath, and I didn’t go home for some time, only now and then to try to get a dollar from dear momma. It was 1937 in Los Angeles and it was a hell of a Vienna."
Linda Bukowski opens a door. “This is the same as it was, I haven’t changed anything."
Bukowski’s small, sunny studio is as it was when he died 17 years ago. Dust and the faint smell of tobacco smoke hang there.
Cigarette butts are piled in a pair of ashtrays. There’s a Kirin beer bottle.
A faded Santa Anita racetrack beach towel covers Bukowski’s '80s-era Macintosh computer. There’s a stack of yellowing poems that Linda Bukowski has yet to archive.
“This is nothing that’s been seen before," says Linda Bukowski, ruffling through papers.
As reluctant as she may be to disturb the room’s spirit, Linda Bukowski is adamant about preserving her husband’s legacy. She wants the house to become a museum after she passes away – an adjunct to the treasure trove of manuscripts, letters and art she’s given the Huntington Library.
“I don’t like the idea of his archive going to a university because they get stuck in these nooks and crannies where only 10 people a year see them and then go back to those places where they get dusty and forgotten about.”
Bukowski never discussed what should happen to his papers. He was a literary bricklayer worried more about the next line.
He lost some ground after being diagnosed with leukemia at age 73. He got it back with transcendental meditation. "It allowed him to open up a space within himself to say these words about himself dying," said Linda Bukowski. "These later poems, death poems, are so acute and so awake and aware and I think that had a lot to do with how meditation allowed him to be creative in his later months and write these poems, that I still cannot read.”
In one of those last poems, “Sun Coming Down,” Bukowski writes: “It’s my turn/each of us, like worms bitten out of apples/deserves no reprieve/and I wonder if I am frightened of this voiceless, unsorrowful dying that is/like the drying of a rose.”
Charles Bukowski was buried near his San Pedro home. His epitaph is succinct: “Don’t Try.” As in, don’t try to create. Bet on the muse. And wait.