This is a very brief Charles Bukowski biography. If you wish to read an account with more depth then I would heartily recommend Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, by Howard Sounes, which follows the life of Charles Bukowski from birth to death in full, fascinating and well-written detail. (You can also read more about the wives and girlfriends of Charles Bukowski in my HubPages article.)
Henry Charles Bukowski (born Heinrich Karl Bukowski and later known as Hank to his friends) was born in 1920 in Adernach, Germany to Roman Catholic parents. His mother was German and his father was an American serviceman with German/Polish blood. After the German economy collapsed in the early 1920s, the family moved to the USA, eventually settling in South Central Los Angeles. The young Charles Bukowski suffered physical and emotional abuse from his father, who was often out of work, and his mother passively went along with it. Charles Bukowski also experienced acute shyness and severe acne as a teenager. He later wrote about his childhood in his novel, Ham on Rye.
It was during his teenage years that Charles Bukowski first began drinking, a habit that would last pretty much his entire life and viewed by most people as alcoholism, although Bukowski himself as a method for making his life bearable. Bukowski went to Los Angeles High School, then attended Los Angeles City College for a couple of years, where he studied journalism, art and literature. Charles Bukowski didn’t serve during World War II and was arrested for draft evasion by the FBI in 1944. After spending 17 days in prison, he failed the psychological tests that were part of his military entrance exam. He was declared unfit for military service and released.
Charles Bukowski was aged 24 when his first short story was published. The story was called “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip” and was published in Story magazine. His successes at this time were limited however and after failing to make it as an author, Bukowski claimed that he gave up writing and went on a 10 year bender that he called his “ten-year drunk”. This period would feature heavily in some of his later fiction, such as the novel, Factotum. He did a variety of unskilled and temporary work and roamed around the country during this period, often staying in cheap rooming houses.
In the early 50s, Charles Bukowski began working for the US Postal Service, initially as a letter carrier, before leaving and later rejoining as a letter filing clerk. He would use his experiences of the job in his novel, Post Office. In 1955 Bukowski almost died from a bleeding ulcer. He was told by the hospital to stop drinking, advice he ignored, and he began writing poetry. A couple of years later, he married Barbara Frye, a poet from Texas but the marriage was short-lived.
Charles Bukowski became attached to Jane Cooney Baker, a self-destructive and heavy drinking floozy, who was older than he was. She became the love of his life, although the relationship was stormy and unstable. She died in 1962 and left him deeply traumatized, resulting in more heavy drinking, but some great poetry. Bukowski began a relationship with Los Angeles poet, Frances Smith and in 1964 they had a daughter. Bukowski’s luck began slowly to change and he found his work appearing more regularly in the poetry small-press. Then he was given a regular column in an underground newspaper called Open City, which brought his writing to a younger and wider audience.
In 1969 Bukowski received an offer from publisher John Martin. In return for allowing his work published by Martin’s Black Sparrow Press, Bukowski would receive $100 monthly stipend, money which would allow him to become a full time writer. Bukowski accepted and left the Post Office, although he wasn’t confident about his financial prospects in the longer term. The venture was successful however and Bukowski stayed with Black Sparrow for the remainder of his life.
As his fame and fortune grew, Charles Bukowski experienced more attention from women and went through an extended period of relationships, affairs and one night stands that he later documented in his novel, Women. At the time, he saw it as making up for what he’d missed out on as an alienated teen and young man, but later he regretted his behaviour and settled down to marry health food restaurant owner, Linda Lee Beighle. They lived in San Pedro. In 1987 the film, Barfly hit the cinemas, starring Mickey Rourke as Charles Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski. Bukowski’s involvement with the movie inspired his novel, Hollywood.
Bukowski died of leukaemia in 1994 not long after finishing his final novel, Pulp. A phrase from one of his poems, “Don’t Try” was written on his gravestone.