Authors: Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli
Charles Bukowski’s persona as the Dirty Old Man of American Literature is just that: a persona, a mask beneath which there was a man better read and more cultured than most people realize. Sheri Martinelli was one of the favored few for whom Bukowski dropped the mask and engaged in serious discussion of literature and art, and for that reason the discovery and publication of his letters to her give us a more complete picture of this complicated man.
If most serious writers are outsiders in some sense—and they almost have to be to gain perspective—then Bukowski was the ultimate outsider. He was born outside the United States in fact, in Andernach, Germany, where his father, a soldier from California, was stationed after World War I. Henry Bukowski married a local girl named Katharina Fett, and on 16 August 1920, she gave birth to Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. (When he later became a writer, Bukowski used Charles for his professional name but remained Hank to his friends.) Soon after, the new family moved back to Los Angeles, where young Charles’s outsider status was pounced upon by neighborhood kids. He was taunted for being a “Kraut” as well as for dressing so formally (which his parents insisted on), and his father didn’t help matters by becoming the neighborhood ogre, chasing kids out of his yard at every opportunity. It was a strict upbringing, with regular beatings for the slightest infractions, and Bukowski grew up a lonely and sullen boy.
Bukowski discovered his talent for writing in the fifth grade. When President Herbert Hoover visited Los Angeles to give a talk, Bukowski’s teacher encouraged her pupils to attend and write an essay about the occasion. Bukowski couldn’t go, so he wrote a flamboyant account of the occasion that was so good his teacher read it aloud to the class. Later, she confronted Bukowski and he admitted he had fabricated the whole thing, but she was impressed rather than angry. The budding writer had a revelation, as he relates in a chapter of his novel
Ham on Rye
that recounts the event: “So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me.”
But the years following were anything but easy. Junior high bored him, a brief interest in religion sputtered out, and he annoyed his teachers by correcting them whenever they deviated from the truth. However, Bukowski discovered the joys of reading while in junior high: not the assigned texts, but books he found on his own at the local public library. There he devoured books written by fellow outsiders, writers who didn’t shrink from telling the truth. Sinclair Lewis’s
, Upton Sinclair’s
, and D.H. Lawrence’s writings were early favorites, and the clarity and force of Hemingway’s style appealed to him. John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson soon followed, then some of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Just as Bukowski challenged his teachers when he thought they were spouting nonsense, these writers were unafraid to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom. He had finally found a group he might fit in with, and he decided he should become a writer.
But high school threw him a few curves: instead of attending the local school with his own kind, he was sent by his father to a school farther away attended mostly by rich kids, which only reinforced Bukowski’s outsider status. Then his skin broke out with one of the most extreme cases of acne his doctors had ever seen. The outsider became a pariah. At a point when his acne was at its worst, he turned to fiction again, writing a story about World War I flying legend Baron von Richthofen, whose hand was shot off but kept fighting the enemy from the sky. Writing became one escape hatch from his problems, but at the same time he found another, which he came to prefer: drinking.
Upon graduating in 1939, Bukowski found a job at the local Sears Roebuck, hoping to make enough money to afford to move away from his parents and begin writing professionally on the side. He continued reading voraciously at the L.A. Public Library, where he came across John Fante’s
Ask the Dust
, which became a kind of blueprint for the life Bukowski intended to lead: a working man with literary aspirations who hopes one day to join “the big boys in the shelves.” But he lasted only a week at Sears, and decided instead to attend Los Angeles City College, signing up for classes in journalism in the hope he could make a living as a writer that way. He wrote voraciously, turning in a dozen essays a week when his instructor asked for only one—at the end of the semester she told him his writing deserved an A but his bad attitude resulted in a B—and continued to work on his own short stories. These stories caused him to leave home; his father came across them one day and was so outraged at what he read that he threw them, along with Bukowski’s typewriter and clothes, out on the lawn. He picked up his things, took a streetcar to downtown L.A., and moved into the first of the many rooming houses he would live in for the next twenty years.
He stayed on at City College for a while, taking some art classes, but he knew he didn’t have a future in academia. He left college in early 1941 without a degree, never to return. He remained an outsider, a civilian at a time when most men his age were joining the armed forces, a defector from the middle class his parents had emulated, wanting only to be alone to write and drink. For the next ten years he led an itinerant life, going “on the road” long before it became fashionable, working odd jobs, hanging out at bars, and sleeping in flophouses. He continued to write and stopped in at libraries when he could. (In a public library in El Paso he came across Dostoevski’s
Notes from Underground
, which had the same thunderous impact on him as on the Beats a few years later.) He also developed a life-long passion for classical music, which he would always prefer over newer forms. He wound up in Philadelphia, where he held down a barstool at a local dive for a while before eventually returning to Los Angeles.
Bukowski published a few stories and poems between 1944 and 1948, but they attracted little attention, and he wouldn’t be published again until the mid-fifties. In L.A. he continued working at odd jobs, few of them lasting more than a week, and drifted into a relationship with the woman who was to become his lover and drinking buddy, Jane Cooney Baker. (Their relationship was the subject of the 1987 film
, whose screenplay Bukowski wrote.) In 1952 he got a job at the post office, which he assumed would be temporary but lasted for three years and which he would return to later for an even longer stint. One day in 1955, he became violently ill and was taken to the charity ward of the county hospital; years of hard living and harder drinking had resulted in a bleeding ulcer, from which Bukowski almost died. It was a turning point in his life and recalled him to his vocation as a writer. He resigned from the post office, dusted off his typewriter, and, instead of fiction, began writing poems. He didn’t know where they came from, but he knew instinctively that poetry was the right vehicle for his reawakened creative drive.
He also discovered the racetrack at this time and the thrill of gambling and soon learned he had some skill at predicting winners. He had similar luck predicting which magazines would be interested in publishing his work; knowing instinctively that his poems weren’t appropriate for the big city slicks, he picked up a copy of a little magazine called
, which listed other magazines that welcomed submissions. Running his finger down the list, he randomly chose something called
, published out of Texas. He mailed off some poems and not only wound up getting published, but getting a wife.
’s editor, thought Bukowski was a genius. A warm correspondence ensued, and after she confessed her fear that no man would ever marry her—she lacked two vertebrae from her neck that prevented her from turning her head side to side—he wildly proposed marriage in his next letter. He was drunk at the time, but Frye took him at his word and boarded a bus for L.A. to meet her intended. They drove to Las Vegas and got married on 29 October 1955, and the newlyweds returned to Frye’s home in Wheeler, Texas. But after three months there, Bukowski insisted they return to Los Angeles.
Eight of Bukowski’s poems appeared in
in 1957, including one of his best, “Death Wants More Death.” Frye made enough money to support both of them, so Bukowski spent his time writing, drinking, co-editing
, and visiting the racetrack. But this relatively prosperous period didn’t last; Frye and Bukowski became divorced the following year. Though Bukowski wouldn’t appear in
again, he found new outlets:
published two poems,
took three, and others appeared in such places as the
Beloit Poetry Journal, Compass Review, Approach, Quicksilver
, and the
San Francisco Review
. A contribution to
was especially fruitful: its editor, E. V. Griffith, was very taken by Bukowski’s poems and in 1958 offered to publish a small collection in his chapbook series, to which Bukowski enthusiastically agreed. (It
didn’t appear until two years later, a delay Bukowski found exasperating.) By this time Bukowski had returned to the post office and once again settled into a routine of working, writing, and gambling. New poems were published in
Nomad, Coastlines, Epos, Wanderlust
, and a dozen other now-forgotten “littles.” Most had small print runs and paid only in contributor’s copies, if that.
In 1960, Bukowski was still largely unknown to the literary world, his name recognized only by a handful of other poets who contributed to the same small magazines he did. Always looking for new places to publish, Bukowski learned that year (probably from poet Jory Sherman) of a new magazine published out of San Francisco called the
Anagogic & Paideumic Review
. Without seeing a copy, he submitted some poems to its editor, and received the rejection letter that opens this book. The editor complained that she didn’t find a “thump” in his work, denigrated his subject matter, and gave all sorts of gratuitous advice in an oracular tone, citing Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and even the
She was a protégée of Anaïs Nin and is described at length in Nin’s infamous
; she was the basis for a major character in William Gaddis’s novel
and then became the muse and mistress of Ezra Pound (she appears in various guises in the later
); Charlie Parker and the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet hung out at her Greenwich Village apartment; Marlon Brando was an admirer and Rod Steiger collected her art, as did E.E. Cummings; she knew and was admired by all the Beats—Ginsberg was an especially close friend and mentions her in one of his poems—and she was known in San Francisco in the late 1950s as Queen of the Beats; H.D. identified with her and wrote about her in
End to Torment
; Pound wrote the introduction to a book of her paintings, and her art is now in collections around the world. She wrote unusual prose and poetry, much of it published in her own magazine, the
Anagogic & Paideumic Review
. She was one of the first to publish Bukowski, and her magazine was the very first to review his work. In recent years, she appeared under a pseudonym in
Kafka Was the Rage
, under her own name in David Markson’s novel
, as Lady Carey in Larry McMurtry’s 1995 novel
Dead Man’s Walk
, and she was anthologized in Richard Peabody’s
A Different Beat
. When younger, she even modeled for
and acted in one of Maya Deren’s experimental films. And yet no notice was taken by the press of her death in November 1996, and few people today aside from Pound scholars know her name. For her own sake, and as background to the remarkable letters gathered in this volume, a brief account of her life follows.
Sheri Martinelli was born on 17 January 1918 in Philadelphia—on Ben Franklin’s birthday and in his city—with the given name Shirley Burns Brennan. Her father, Alphonse Brennan, was the son of a fisherman, and in later years Sheri liked to refer to herself as “The Fisherman’s Granddaughter.” Her mother was Mae Trindell, who was from New Orleans. Sheri’s grandmother claimed descent from Scottish poet Robert Burns. Shirley Burns Brennan began using the name Sherry by the time she was a teenager, but she was later told that her first name had the wrong numerological value; to rectify this she modified it to Sheri. (All her life she had a weakness for occult and metaphysical notions.) She was the oldest of three girls and a brother and was largely responsible for raising them. As she indicates in her letters to Bukowski, she lived in near poverty and was considered an eccentric child. At some point her family moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey, but in the late 1930s Sheri moved back to Philadelphia to study art, specifically ceramics under John Butler at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts.
In Philadelphia she met Ezio Martinelli, a painter and sculptor who was studying at the Barnes Foundation in nearby Merion, Pennsylvania. Born in 1913, he was five years older than Sheri. They got married at the beginning of World War II, and in 1943 Sheri gave birth to a daughter, Shelley (named after the poet). The family moved to New York City, but by the end of the war they had grown apart. Sheri and Ezio separated; she kept his surname, and he kept the daughter.
Sheri stayed in Greenwich Village, moving into an apartment at 23 Jones Street in the West Village. Talented, beautiful, and intriguingly eccentric, she made a striking impression on everyone she met, as is evident from the writings of those who knew her. In her diary entry for December 1945, Anaïs Nin recounts how she learned that a “romantic-looking girl” was reading her short-story collection
Under a Glass Bell
and had told her publishing partner Gonzalo Moré that she wanted to meet Nin but was too shy to approach the older woman. Nin suggested that she attend a lecture of hers at Mills College. When Sheri approached her at the end of the lecture, Nin writes, “I recognized her. She was like a ghost of a younger me, a dreaming woman, with very soft, burning eyes, long hair streaming over her shoulders.” At first, Sheri didn’t say a word: “She merely stared at me, and then handed me a music box mechanism, without its box. She finally told me in a whisper that she always carries it in her pocket and listens to it in the street. She wound it up for me, and placed it against my ear, as if we were alone and not in a busy hall, filled with bustling students and professors waiting for me. A strand of her long hair had caught in the mechanism and it seemed as if the music came from it.”