Happy Birthday, Charles Bukowski! Pay Tribute to the Man Behind the Myth

If he hadn't died of leukemia in 1994, Charles Bukowski would have been 91 years old today. And with the rumors that James Franco is adapting the author's semiautobiographical novel Ham on Rye for the screen, we'd like to remind everyone of the bizarre, true facts from ol' Hank's life. We all know he was a drunk and that he wrote beautiful prose about unbeautiful subjects ranging from the scatological to the downright raunchy. 

And although he did his best to offend the mainstream (he once wrote "Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people. What a horror show. The earth swarmed with them"), the most surprising facts about his life are the most mundane. What's more, his contradictions, neuroses, commonness, and failures will make you feel better about your own. Here are little-known facts about the man Salon called the "human embodiment of a raised middle finger."

  • His real name was Heinrich Karl Bukowski, and he was born in Germany. Growing up, he suffered horrible, scarring acne and an abusive father. As an adult, he once worked in a pickle factory and for many years as a postman. Now imagine that the person handing you your Netflix envelopes has a work like Bukowski's novel Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness floating around in his or her head.
  • Bukowski failed the military's psychological exam, which cited that the author's "extreme sensitivity" made him unfit for service. So while his poems had titles like "The Night I Fucked My Alarm Clock," his stanzas read with heart:

"I drink and cough like some idiot at a symphony / sunlight and maddened birds everywhere / the phone rings gamboling its sounds / against the odds of the crooked sea / I drink deeply and evenly now / I drink to paradise / and death / and the lie of love."

  • When he was 24, Bukowski published his first story. At 35, he began writing poetry. Yet even though he was quite a character in the Los Angeles circuit, Bukowski didn't enjoy widespread fame for his writing until he was 47 years old. And he didn't earn true money from his work for another 12 years. The lesson? You still have time.
  • Despite his bravado and confidence, Bukowski suffered from performance anxiety. He allegedly threw up in the parking lot before each of his poetry readings. Well, it was either nerves or booze.
  • One of his ex-lovers, Amber O'Neil, self-published a chapbook about their affair, titled "Blowing My Hero." This was likely revenge for having their relationship blatantly depicted in Bukowski's novel Women.
  • Bukowski was a David Lynch fan. One of his favorite films was Eraserhead, which he cited along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Elephant Man, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Bukowski, deemed the laureate of American lowlife, spent his final years in a ranch-style house in San Pedro, California, with a young wife, a wine rack filled with expensive bottles, and a BMW in the driveway.
  • His headstone reads, "Don't try," which alludes to his classic answer to the question "What's your secret to writing?" His response was, "There is a time to stop reading, there is a time to STOP trying to WRITE, there is a time to kick the whole bloated sensation of ART out on its whore-ass." Another curious tidbit: Buddhist monks officiated his funeral.

Get the whole story in Howard Sounes's Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life.

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