Cover

Gundolf S. Freyermuth

“That’s it.”

A Final Visit With Charles Bukowski

FUEGO

“That’s It” is an intimate and informative portrait of Charles Bukowski. Based on the very last interview he gave, the book combines reporting with literary criticism. It renders a final and lasting picture of Charles Bukowski and assesses his importance as a writer. A “must read“ for Bukowski fans.

... a gentle, bright, captivationg declaration of love for an old poet who, toward the end of his life, gained more lightness and learned how to play better than ever with his myths and masks.

(German news magazine “Der Spiegel” in its 1996 review of the German edition of “That's It“)

Preface @ E-Book Edition (2011)

This book was originally written in English in 1994/95, directly after my last encounter with Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski and Gundolf S. Freyermuth in San Pedro, 1993

In 1996 a German translation was published as a coffee table book, together with many of Michael Montfort’s best Bukowski photos or BukShots as “‘Das war’s.’ Letzte Worte mit Charles Bukowski” (Hamburg 1996).

Buchcover

An English version came out in 2000.

This e-book edition now presents a slightly improved version of the original text and - as an epilogue - for the first time in English a portrait of Bukowski’s favorite photographer and friend Michael Montfort, written in 2004 for the yearbook of the German Bukowski Society.

Gundolf S. Freyermuth

Canyon Creek Ranch, AZ

Summer 2011

Preface (2000)

When the blare of yellow finally swept over Charles Bukowski and enveloped him forever, as he had foreseen in the last paragraph of Pulp, a man greater than life died. Someone who challenged my understanding of this sad and glorious world as only two or three others have.

Many of those who met Charles Bukowski can and will say the same. But most of his readers never met him. And to them my confession about Bukowski the Man might sound like the uncritical adulation of a fan. They may think I was unduly impressed by someone who, in his last years, rose from being an outcast to a celebrity.

In my experience, however, Charles Bukowski was the exact opposite: a minor celebrity, though a major writer - and an extraordinary person. Hence, before I pay my dues to the people who made this book possible, let me tell you a few things about myself. It might prove my point that it was not Bukowski the Celebrity that left such a lasting impression on me.

When I met with Charles Bukowski for the last time in 1993, I was 38 years old and had been a professional writer for almost 15 years. I had written half a dozen non-fiction books and two novels and I had just started a third. To pay the bills, I had also dabbled in other, less solitary work. For five years, I had taught literature at Berlin’s Free University, and I had slaved as a reporter since the early 80s.

In that line of work - profitable, but uncomfortable for a shy writer like myself - I had interviewed quite a few nice and intelligent people. And even more who were not-so-nice and not-so-intelligent, but famous - actors and actresses, rock stars or, for that matter, best-selling authors. Though I had become a bit jaded and tired over the years, quite a few of the many men and women I met managed to amaze me in one or another strange way.

There was, for example, Jerry Lee Lewis. He drove a shimmering Redneck-Rolls Royce with spurs for hubcaps through a hot Memphis night and stopped to make his young wife pump gas at a self-service station. This, by the way, was in 1985 and only a few days before I met Charles Bukowski for the first time.

There was Andy Warhol. He frantically signed everything within his reach - my notes, my bare arms, the poster of a truckers convention that’s now hanging in front of my desk – while he kept non-answering most of my questions with dead-pan retorts like: “Please, ask the janitor. He knows so much more about this place than I do …” This place being Warhol’s legendary factory.

And there was Hunter S. Thompson. He was so sweet and nice and courteous, basically as calm as a hurricane’s eye, that he almost scared me to death during that long and fuzzy night that we spent in his kitchen cum office consuming mostly legal stuff in almost illegal quantities.

Several others, of course, stood out from the many people a busy reporter interviews year after year. Weird, wonderful and singular geniuses like Chuck Berry and Umberto Eco, Robert de Niro and Billy Wilder, Traci Lords and Tom Wolfe. But only a few of them made a real difference by changing my view of the world, of courage and honesty, of life and death, of everything.

One was Hans Sahl, who during World War II had helped many others to flee the Nazis before he himself escaped to New York. He died in 1990 virtually unknown in this country where his only novel as well as his heartbreaking and intelligent and cold-blooded memoirs have never been published.

Another writer who has become more than an interview subject is Curt Siodmak, author of the classic Donovan’s Brain. Curt will turn 98 this summer, and his sharp insight and unforgiving memory have forever shaped my view of Germany, where I was born, as were Hans Sahl, Curt Siodmak - and Charles Bukowski.

For him, of course, I have written this book, a mixture of reporting, literary essay and personal memoir. However, not every gift is welcome. I deeply hope Hank would have liked it, but I have no way to know.

What I do know, though, is that you would not be reading this if it were not for the kindness and help of three people. I’d like to thank them in the order of their appearance in the rather long detour-history of this short book.

First, there was photographer Michael Montfort, “The Man Who Shot Charles Bukowski” as Salon magazine recently wrote in a review of a remarkable exhibition of Montfort’s BukShots. Michael and I have worked together on many assignments, and it was he who first introduced me to Bukowski, his long-time friend. As we drove home on the Hollywood Freeway after that very last interview and a quick dinner – Hank drinking herbal tea - Michael was blinded by his tears and almost killed us both.

After Hank’s death, a short account of my last visit with him ran in the German magazine I was working for at the time. But I couldn’t use most of the material I had collected. I felt that I owed it to Bukowski and to his readers to make the real thing available - though it was a frightening idea to attempt it in a new language. Michael encouraged me and helped me in every possible way with the research for this book.

As did Linda Bukowski. And she did much more than that. She led me to her husband’s grave and generously offered to read the manuscript. She corrected factual errors, and she added personal insights and information that no one but her possessed. In the end, Linda even went out of her way to recommend the manuscript to Bukowski’s publisher. Such help and encouragement no writer will ever forget.

Last but not least, Michael Montfort introduced me to Gary Eisenberg. Gary corrected the many grammatical and idiomatic mistakes a non-native writer is prone to make. I have had many editors in my writing life, and too many of them tried to “fuck with copy” as they say in journalism. Gary didn’t. He was a great editor, and he made this manuscript as good as anybody possibly could.

Habent sua fata libelli – books have their own fate. This edition ends a long journey. Of course, I’d love to quote here Black Sparrow’s rejection letter, as these letters tend to be pretty funny - at least, if you read them years later. (Trust me on this, I’m an expert. My second novel, for example, was rejected by 17 major German publishing houses, until it was finally picked up by a smaller one, garnered a prestigious German Mystery Award and was optioned by the inevitable producer.)

Unfortunately, I can’t quote such a rejection letter, as I never got one from Black Sparrow. Later, a 2000-word-excerpt from the book won the 2nd prize for feature articles in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. And Buzz Magazine, once well-paying, but now defunct, published an almost identical excerpt. No book publisher, however, would take the little book.

Somewhere along the road, I translated the manuscript into German and sold it within days. In 1996, “‘That’s it.’ A Last Visit With Charles Bukowski” became “‘Das war’s.’ Letzte Worte mit Charles Bukowski”, a colorful coffeetable book with many of Michael Montfort’s best BukShots.

This electronic edition cannot include Michael’s pictures - or Gary’s beautiful BukShot gravures. I can only hope that some of the following words will succeed in making the account of my last meeting with Charles Bukowski as unforgettable for the reader as it has been for me.

Gundolf S. Freyermuth

Canyon Creek Ranch, AZ

Summer 2000

For Leon Who Was Born the Year Hank Died

I

Open Casket.

- Prologue -

“Death cancels everything but truth;

and strips a man of everything but genius and virtue.

It is a sort of natural canonization.

It makes the meanest of us sacred -

it installs the poet in his immortality,

and lifts him to the skies.”

William Hazlitt

(on Lord Byron’s death)

“It doesn’t matter what happened.

What I write is what happened.

And guess what? I’m always the hero.”

Charles Bukowski

“Charles Bukowski, the prolific writer and poet laureate of Los Angeles low life, whose rough-hewn autobiographical poems, short stories, novels and 1987 film ‘Barfly’ chronicled his hard-bitten alcoholic youth, died Wednesday. He was 73,” the “Los Angeles Times” reported on March 10, 1994.

Three days later, on a Sunday evening, Linda Lee Bukowski said, “Let’s go and visit Hank.”

Shortly before nine o’clock two cars, a beige Jaguar and a silver-gray Toyota, rolled up the wide driveway of the Green Hills Memorial Park in Palos Verdes. Linda Bukowski was accompanied by three men around fifty. They all were friends of her late husband: Dick Ellis, a physician and great storyteller, whose company the poet enjoyed in his last months; Michael Montfort, Bukowski’s favorite photographer; Carl Weissner, his German agent and translator.

The sun had set some time ago, and the air had cooled down quickly. The cemetery lies in a quiet residential neighborhood high above San Pedro. Its green hills command a clear view of downtown and the harbor with its cranes and tanks. When the mourners arrived, the main building of the mortuary was glowing neon bright in the dark. Inside, the expensive carpeting deadened most sounds.

The elegant lady sitting at the reception desk called for somebody to take them to the viewing room. While they were waiting, Linda Bukowski’s eyes fell on double doors at the other side of the lobby. They lead to a huge showroom that was dominated by a solid brass casket for thirty-five thousand dollars. Upon entering a few days ago, Linda Bukowski had learned that only four such caskets had been sold in the past ten years, all of them to Asian customers. She had settled for a plain coffin made of poplar.

“The veneer was so smooth,” she explains to me when I meet her half a year later, “and the grain in the wood was ... absolutely beautiful. But not ostentatious. It was sort of just right for Hank.”

Eventually their guide appeared. He walked the group down the lobby and into a long hallway lined by doors. Hidden loudspeakers provided a constant stream of classical music. The first door on the left was open. A coffin was on display in the room. An extended Mexican family had gathered around it, almost a dozen people, young and old. Beyond that room, there was another small one occupied by two older women. They were sitting on a couch staring silently at the open casket in front of them.

“It was very quiet,” Linda Bukowski says, “quiet and peaceful.”

She and her escorts followed their guide towards a closed door at the end of the hallway.

“I don’t remember where my thoughts had wandered,” Michael Montfort recalls over the phone, “however, somehow I didn’t realize beforehand how soon we were going to see Hank ...”

The room behind the door was large, much larger than the other viewing rooms, and it was barely furnished. Two couches, some easy chairs, and two or three coffee tables with flowers and arrangements were lost under the very high ceiling. The muted lighting focused onto that part of the room where the open casket was set out.

“And there was Hank,” Linda Bukowski says. “I had visited him before, so I already knew what to expect.”

A few steps behind her, Michael Montfort entered the room. Linda Bukowski could feel his tension and reluctance.

“Oh, my god ...,” he uttered recognizing his dead friend.

Michael Montfort, almost shaken, crumbled on to the nearest couch. His perception was very different from Linda Bukowski’s. This evening he had seen - and was still seeing - scenes more damaged and shabby, cheaper and sadder. The reality he was suffering from had just as much to do with life and death in Charles Bukowski’s short stories as with the poet’s real life and death.

In this bleak world the mortuary was a semi-industrial building. Its long corridors resembled the hallways of hospitals. Absent was only the antiseptic smell, a byproduct of a fight against disease and death that in here had been given up. Muzak covered the soft noises, but every now and then a loud laugh or sob reverberated through the music mash. The doors lining the corridor were open. In each room was a coffin; white, brown, black ones. They rested on spindle-legged stands with their upper parts taken off. Small crowds of mourners were having fun. More Spanish than English was spoken. Boom boxes played softly, Pepsi cans and pizza boxes were spread all over. Everybody seemed to be in a sort of elated party mood. Toasts were made to the dead. And at the end of the nightmare, there was Hank in an open casket.

“They had stuffed him well,” Michael Montfort says. “His cheeks were full, and he seemed to smile; more than he ever smiled when he was still alive.”

“Hank’s cheeks weren’t full,” Linda Bukowski says. “And he was not smiling. They had done him up very nice. Very subtle. They didn’t splash on some weird make-up or anything.”

The well-weathered face, which, as an admirer had put it, would look well on Mount Rushmore, next to Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Roosevelt, was shaved clean. Charles Bukowski wore a windbreaker and a plaid shirt. The protective cover for his pens was in his breast pocket; one pen stood out. In his pant’s pockets were his comb - and a love note Linda had written. Bukowski looked ready to go to the race track, where he would place his bets during the half hour between starts as he had done so often before.

“I sometimes ask myself,” he wrote a couple of years ago, “whether on my deathbed (if I am lucky, I’ll die in one) I will long for that thirty minute break between the races.”

“Come on, Michael! Be a man!” Michael Montfort heard Linda Bukowski saying. Her voice was firm and certain. The slim, delicate woman stood next to her late husband: “Touch him!”

“I think Michael just couldn’t take it. He is such a Hank freak! He has his mythology about Hank, which continues on. And in this mythology, everything is a little bit exaggerated ...,” Linda Bukowski says. “I saw him hovering over, and so I just told him, ‘it’ll be alright, try to relax, you can touch him ...’”

“I felt Hank’s fingers. They were hard, hard like cold cement,” Michael Montfort says. “The others embraced each other looking silently at Hank. I left the room and smoked a cigarette.”

“I had brought in another pen that night,” Linda Bukowski says. “Hank never took just one when he went to the track. He had to have two. In case one of them didn’t work.”

Linda Bukowski stuck the second pen in the little pocket. Then she gently touched Hank’s face.

“It was all hard and cold. But his eyebrows were still Hank’s. The same. They hadn’t changed. These big bushy eyebrows, especially the left one. It was sort of funky, so I sort of pushed it into, you know, which I always did anyhow ... But everything else was cold and hard, though the skin was still moveable. You knew, there was nothing in that form. It was devastating. It was just the form.”

II

First Encounter.

- A Flashback -

When I first met Charles Bukowski, we were surrounded by glamour and death. It was September 23, 1985. Beyond the broad glass façade Los Angeles sparkled. On our side of the looking glass the tables were covered snow white and the guests showed great beauty. At that time no Hollywood-birthday could be celebrated more spectacularly than at “Spago,” Wolfgang Puck’s illustrious restaurant above Sunset Boulevard. The party was more or less a German affair, arranged by Michael Montfort in honor of Frances Schoenberger, his then wife. Arnold Schwarzenegger, now and again his arm on Maria Shriver’s shoulders, kept sucking enthusiastically on an enormous cigar and didn’t say much. Actress Hildegard Knef, frail and drunk and suffering from cancer, ruled the room. Her daughter, so pale and waxen that it worried you, never left her side. George Hamilton drifted through the crowd like a tanned angel, always chaperoned by two or three female stars of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” who since then have fallen into oblivion.

The unhappy few who were not beautiful or famous kept to themselves. Charles Bukowski was notorious; yet he was not slender, but beer-bellied. His face was not soft, but battered. He was not aesthetic, but had a great deal of intelligence, which gave him ugly ideas. Linda Lee Beighle, his long-time companion, whom he had married only a few months before, was very attractive. However, she was merely the former owner of a health-food joint - her beauty was discreet and not of the shrill show business variety. And besides that, she was not world-famous. So Linda and Charles Bukowski got a table at the edge - next to me.

I had discovered Bukowski’s stories and poems for myself when I was still in school; though not in class. When I finally met him, my notion of Bukowski was prejudiced like that of his average German reader: The life of this underdog as well as his work had to be a unique and wonderful load of filth. His screwing-couch, for example, I imagined to be quite similar to the strange image conjured up by a book reviewer a couple of months before: the sofa, he wrote, “as I would like to maintain without having ever seen it,” had to be “a little messy with stains from sperm and hemorrhoid ointment. The man who crouches on it, at the beginning of his seventh decade, has a face that is scarred from acne, a red veined boozer’s nose, and a smile that uniquely mixes the expressions of a goat and a fox. He may not inspire confidence, but he is the North American poet of the second half of our century.”

When the Bukowskis took their place next to me, I thus thought to know all about them and their life. There was no reason for many words. To begin with, Mister Bukowski thrust his menacing skull with the heavy jaws forward till he almost touched my face, demanding that I stopped calling him “Mister” Bukowski. “Hank” was OK; “Buk” as well. Thereafter, our boozing became quite taciturn. The long pauses, which were interrupted by short sentences only now and then, created more mutual agreement than the few meaningless words we exchanged.

Charles Bukowski looked and behaved exactly as his numerous visitors had described him. He was a little under six feet tall, but he appeared to be “smaller and sturdy, because he draws his head with its Buffalo-Bill-hairstyle between his shoulders and has the symmetrically round stomach of a well-fed baby.” His damaged face was “friendly, good-natured, melancholic like a lump of old baboon meat.” His mouth was frozen in a permanent satiated smirk, and his movements showed a tiredness that betrayed not a sleeping disorder, but existential exhaustion. A fitting description of it, I had found only in the words of his best portraitist - Hank himself: “Looks very tired. Does not talk much, and if he says something, it is somehow flat and meaningless. You would never think that he has written all these poems. He has been sorting letters in the post office way too long.”

The real Charles Bukowski with his “sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders,” resembled indeed “one of the Beagle Brothers who had been barred from Disneyland.” Behind his slow motion gestures, however, I felt a constant strain, an uneasiness and anger. His pointed composure seemed to vibrate from inside.

Later on in the evening, Bukowski would be drunk as a skunk. He then would start looking for the strongest man in the room. This, of course, would be Arnold, the cigar-smoking muscle-monster. Bukowski would walk over and stand up in front of his table, showering him with a torrent of insults: “You little piece of shit! You and your big shitty cigar, who do you think you are? Just because you make these shitty little movies, you’re nothing special, you megalomaniac piece of shit ...” And Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking startled, would listen helplessly.

But for now, Charles Bukowski showed nothing but taut indifference. He was only preparing himself, by drinking methodically, for what would be the highlight of the evening. Amid all the hilarity of the birthday crowd, the silence at our table thus simulated the deceptive calm in the eye of the hurricane. I at least enjoyed it. Until the big news of the day was announced.

Axel Caesar Springer Dead! There were but a few Germans in the room who had not at some time sold their soul to the conservative press czar. For decades Springer had been the Antichrist to liberals. When the seventy-three year old self-made mogul died, the villain of a whole generation pegged out. Therefore, the excitement was considerable.