Alex Constantine - January 8, 2009
The subject of Nazism came up first at Canter's, a famous Jewish restaurant on Fairfax. Bukowski and I were both working at the LA Free Press in Hollywood, and we were preparing a symposium on LA Poets including Gerald Locklin, Steve Richmond, Ron Koertge, and Bukowski, all Wormwood poets. I was to conduct the interview.
"Symposium means with drinks," Bukowski barked at the editor, Penny Grenoble. "Beer in bottles. Pabst Blue Ribbon."
Penny, who had graduated with a PhD. from RPI, agreed. "We'll have lots of beer in bottles, I promise. And don't worry about your column. You'll get your regular pay. The Symposium will fill the space of Notes of a Dirty Old Man next week. You'll get paid and you won't have to write a thing. Okay, Mr. Bukowski?”
They had a playful relationship, the slender and beautiful editor dressed in high fashion and still in her twenties, and the fiftyish satyr in down at the heel shoes and khaki pants.
Bukowski gave her a mock grimace: "You're not trying to edge me out now, are you?"
The editor of the Free Press laughed. "You're the mainstay of our adult pages. How could I do that? And we'll require the usual Bukowski drawings."
We agreed to conduct the interview on tape. Bukowski suggested the two of us meet a few days before to go over the ground rules. At that time he was living on Carlton Way in East Hollywood and I was in Beverly Hills on South Doheny Drive. When he suggested Canter's, somewhere in the middle, I told him I didn't much like Jewish food. He said he found the place entertaining, especially the hefty waitresses in gravy-stained uniforms marching around with huge trays of roast beef and whipped potatoes.
"They have good pastrami," he said. "And besides, they have a bakery."
He knew I had a weakness for pastry.
We showed up at noon a few days later, both ordering pastrami on rye with whipped potatoes and beer. One of the hefty waitresses took our order. It was a hot L.A. day and she was sweating in the heat.
While we were waiting for our food to arrive, Bukowski gawked at the predominantly Jewish diners, and swigging down a brew, yelled loud enough so all could hear: "TURN ON THE GAS."
No one looked up. I shook my head and refused to laugh.
On heavy drinking nights at his place in Hollywood, he had often howled at the Hollywood Jews and how they had ruined one writer after another, from Fante to Saroyan to William Faulkner. I agreed with him it was not a nice business.
The sandwiches on the menus were all named after Hollywood Jews: moguls, directors, actors, and comedians. One was the Buck Benny. That was a hot dog, the cheapest meal. I tried to change the subject by mentioning the time I saw Jack Benny on Spaulding Drive floating along with that delightful walk he had.
"Never mind," said Bukowski, dismissing the subject. He didn't want to talk about Jack Benny. "If those guys [Hollywood Moguls] did a film about the garment industry, the bad guys would be Eskimos."
That did make me laugh and spit up my beer. I didn't disagree, but pointed out that Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer didn't justify Hitler.
"What do you have against Hitler?" he asked. "Ever read him?"
I told him no, then confessed a little secret: "I'm a quarter Jewish on my father's side. My grandmother's family come from a little town east of Frankfurt on the Main River."
Bukowski laughed. "Being a quarter Jewish is like being a quarter crazy; it only matters if you take it seriously. My parents were both German Catholics and I could give a flying fuck about what they believed. It means nothing. The important thing is who you are. The Beverly Hills Anarchist."
He always called me that, even after I'd moved from Beverly Hills. We ate our pastrami on rye, drank our beer and went on planning the symposium.
It came off as planned on October 14, 1975, with bottled beer spiced with great humor and vulgarity, decorated with Bukowski's delightful illustrations and a few amusing photographs.
A few weeks later I suggested to Bukowski that I might want to write his biography. That was probably the biggest mistake I ever made in my life: Getting the facts from a writer of fiction is about as easy as curing herpes, but as time went by, Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. began to open up the Pandora's box of his life, Nazis and all.
This is what he told me.
* Young Outcast
From the time he was a small boy, Bukowski was super-conscious of being German. He was an only child whose parents spoke German late into the night as he slept in his room next door. At the dinner table, when they didn't want him to know what they were saying, his parents would "turn on the Deutsch." It was all around him. His grandfather, Leonard Bukowski, and his grandmother Emile (they were divorced and lived separately), both spoke German when they came to the house for Christmas.
Leonard, who was from Prussia and had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, was also a heavy drinker. "When he got drunk," his grandson recalled, "he would sing old German war songs and put on his war medals."
Then there was Bukowski's mother. He described her as "the prettiest girl in Andernach." When she received letters from her parents and brother back home, she would read them over and over, missing her family. This would occasionally annoy her husband, who would shout at his wife: "You think you're so great because your brother is the Burgermiester of Andernach." (That proved false, as Heinrich Fett told me himself when I met him in 1977).
When he was little, Charles Bukowski was a momma's boy, coddled by his mother; what irked him most was the intimate conversations his parents had late at night in a language he could not understand. Henry Sr. was fluent in German while Henry Jr. could not speak a word of it.
Sometimes, when Katherine was especially lonely and craved German company, Henry Sr. would take her to the local German meeting place, the Deutsche Haus, located at 634 15th Street, close to their home. Here, when he had a little money, he would treat his wife to a meal, buy her a German magazine, listen to a German band, or watch a travelogue on what was going on in Berlin. If they came for lunch on a Sunday after church, Henry was dragged along, but the long hours of watching people speaking a language he did not understand, bored him.
Bukowski was always very touchy when people asked him why he had not learned German. He said his parents discouraged it; they wanted him to speak perfect English.
He said that after World War One, German was not taught in most public schools; but both L.A. High School and Los Angeles Community College offered German.
Bukowski always resented the fact that his father could read and write German, and when I asked if that's why they kept him on in Coblenz after the war, he got angry and said, "No. He was only a typist."
Whatever attitude his parents had toward their son learning German, they did expose him to the Deutsche Haus, a little island of German culture in a sea of American white bread. There Bukowski discovered German music, German films, German food, and German books and magazines, some written in English. It was there he first observed the German-American Bund in full uniform. His parents even took him on an outing to Hindenburg Park in La Crescenta where he celebrated Hitler's birthday with a torchlight parade. It was the year of the 1936 Olympics.
At his most forgiving, he would say of his parents, "Living in that house I never learned German except for the songs."
What brought Bukowski around to the Nazi viewpoint, and more particularly to the ideas of Adolph Hitler, is hard to say. It began in the depth of his solipsism, at the time of puberty when his skin erupted and in the eyes of many he became a monster. Though he says over and over that he was some kind of leader among the friends he had, their own words betray him as an outcast and a loner. Girls feared him; teachers taunted him, his fellow students would talk about him behind his back.
This taught him the lesson of the gifted misanthrope: writing can be the avenging sword. All the bitterness that welled up in him as he broke out in boils and huge, exploding pimples, became the fuel that drove his writing. He looked for writers with similar views and found Celine, Ezra Pound, Jeffers, Hamsun, and Adolph Hitler.
Nazis loved outcasts. Nazis loved vengeance. Nazis always blamed their problems on someone else! This pattern repeats itself through Bukowski's whole life. Here's an example from Mount Vernon High School.
Bukowski told me he had a gym teacher named Wagner who had it in for him:
"My friend Mullinax and I were always in trouble over little things. We were put on the garbage can crew. I forget where we were carrying them. I guess where they got loaded. There was a place where the trucks would pick them up. We had to go around carrying these garbage cans to the loading area. And pick up little pieces of paper with a sharp stick. It was small things, but we were always on the outs.
"Especially with this guy Wagner, the gym guy. He was always on us and we would have to stay after school. We did nothing, really. We were just outcasts. We felt it. We didn't have it; they landed on us. I remember one time I had to stay after school and rake out the sawdust pit. You get stuff that's fallen in. I made all kinds of money. I got dimes and nickels. The money looked good. It always did. I remember that was interesting getting all that free money from raking up the sawdust pit.
"Then, on Graduation Day, I was standing on line with my friend Baldy and this guy Arnold Woodchurch and his buddy, who had the longest cock in school. I forget his name. He was always in trouble because the girls were after him. Anyway, Wagner came up to us in the graduation line and he walked over to me and said: 'Listen, you guys are graduating. You think you can get away from me, but I'm gonna get you! You can't get away from me.' This guy was crazy."
When I played back the tape for William "Baldy" Mullinax, he replied: "One or two times it happened. That's what he remembers from Mount Vernon?" Mullinax recalled the first dance he ever attended, his first girlfriend, his growing interest in science, while Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. could only recall his humiliations, his battles against authority, his struggles: In Hitler's phrase, Mein Kampf.
Bukowski's one triumph of childhood was his essay on President Hoover and the L.A. Olympics, though Bukowski had to admit to his teacher, it was a fiction; he hadn't attended. And then there was the walk he took from home all the way to the beach with Eugene Fife, who would later become a Commander in the US Navy.
School for Bukowski was always torture. Later, speaking of poetry, he told me his one great mission was to "get the bullshit out of it; the stuff about learning." To Bukowski teaching was a dishonest profession and those who were scholars were phonies!
Life on the page was about three things: the battle for position, money, and sex. Out there in the arena of life those were the three things that mattered.
When I came back with Baldy's corrections, Bukowski got angry and curt and commanding: "Go find Arnold Woodchurch," he said. "Woodchurch was laying all the girls. He was doing a lot of fucking and the guy with the big cock was doing a lot of fucking. I wasn't and Baldy wasn't. Baldy's pathetic."
Much of Bukowski's high school career in his words and others have been carefully altered to conceal his humiliations, failures, and loneliness. The myth that his father forced him to attend Los Angeles High School is just that: a myth. Bukowski lived walking distance from campus and was assigned to L.A. High along with his companions, Jim Haddox, Bob Stoner, Ray Shuwarge, Bill Cobun, Hal Ortner, and Bill Mullinax.
On paper Bukowski was a bright student. He tested well, especially in language and mathematics, and his father had high hopes that his son would find his way in the one of the professions. Henry Sr. felt his son's abilities lay in technology, science, and engineering. He thought that if he applied himself and kept up with his homework, Henry Jr. might make it into a good college and become the "success" he was not.
But his son had other ideas.
"My course," Bukowski told me "was mixed up. My father wanted me to be an engineer. I was taking drafting and Spanish and all. I ended up in a vocational program because I couldn't pass Spanish and I didn't like drafting. My father just gave up and said, 'Okay, give it up.' So I took whatever was easiest. My mother just went along."
Oddly, when I read Hitler's Mein Kampf upon Bukowski's request, I came to the following passage:
"My father forbade me to entertain any hope of ever becoming a painter. I went one step farther by declaring that under those circumstances I no longer wished to study. Naturally, as the result of such declarations, I got the worst of it and now the old man relentlessly began to enforce his authority. I remained silent and turned my threats into action. I was certain that, as soon as my father saw my lack of progress in school, he would let me seek the happiness of which I was dreaming. I do not know if this reasoning was sound. One thing was certain: my apparent failure in school. I learned what I liked, but above all I learned what in my opinion might be necessary to me in my future career as a painter. In this connection, I sabotaged all that which seemed unimportant or that which no longer attracted me."
[p.14 of the 1940 Reynal & Hitchcock edition]
I pointed the passage out to Bukowski. "Yeah, I know," he said.
With little homework and no interest in team sports, no job, no clubs, few friends, and only his chores--which included taking out the garbage, going to the store, and mowing the lawn once a week--Bukowski had his afternoons free. These he spent alone at the library at La Brea and Adams, or as a hanger-on with Baldy, Ray Shumarge, and Jim Haddox.
Bill Mullinax, who he describes as pathetic in all his poems, stories and in Ham on Rye, his childhood novel, was really the popular one. Both Mullinax and Haddox were in the ROTC Officer's Club by their Junior Year. Mullinax had various girlfriends including Marla Morton, who wrote him: "To more and better astounding stories." Lonetha Davidis congratulated him on his skills in chemistry. Hal Ortner called him his "bosom pal," while Bob Stoner congratulated him on his success in ROTC and Elaine Lettice consoled him as a "fellow-sufferer in Geometry." A girl named Betty wrote: "To a boy who tried to change me and did." She left her telephone number. Ray Shuwarge wrote: "Be sure and don't join the navy as you have a good future in the medical field, and I wouldn't like to see our trio (Lobdell, Ray, Bill) broken up."
There's no mention of Henry Bukowski, who did not take chemistry or geometry, did not join Buildings and Grounds along with Mullinax, Haddox, and Shuwarge, and ran away from girls.
Bukowski did nose around the newspaper, The Blue and White Daily, but disliked the editors: Matthew Rapf, editor; Morton Cahn, managing editor; sports editor Melvin Durslag; and news editor Robert Weil.
He told me he read the Examiner at the time because William Randolph Hearst published Hitler and Mussolini, though he fired Hitler because he missed his deadlines!
One student he did single out, but not as a friend, was Harold Mortenson, treasurer of the Senior Class. "I knew an honor student," he told me. "He got straight A's. His name was Mortenson. I forget his first name. He was a straight A student and he was an idiot. I mean he was just dumb. All he did was study the books for tests. He'd spit on his hands and wipe it in his hair. He didn't have women either."
In Ham on Rye he's Abe Mortenson to make him Jewish. He's the one Bukowski runs into in a baseball game and his mother fears he'll sue them. "She'll get a Jewish lawyer. They'll take everything we have." (Chapter 42, p. 185)
He had even more fun with Jim Haddox, who is Jim Hatcher. Haddox lived at 1782 W. 22nd Street with his mother, Nina Ruth Haddox, who Bukowski described as "café society." She becomes the grotesque sex object in chapter 38, Claire, the barmaid, whose husband had committed suicide. The real story, the one Bukowski held back, is far more interesting, more tragic and ironic. It appears in the course of this narrative.
When Bukowski reached his eighteenth birthday on August 16, 1938, he was heading into his senior year with serious problems. Publicly he showed interest in military service and wrote in Baldy's yearbook: "Best wishes to a good army man. I hope you will be a Nevins' sergeant next term. NAVY. Hank Bukowski. 1st Class Seaman."
John Nevis was the Captain of Company B, Mullinax's company, while Jim Haddox was in Company C, serving under Captain Maynard R. Chance, and Bukowski was in Company A under the command of Captain Harcourt Hervey Jr. Privately, as Germany gobbled up the Sudetenland and moved into Austria, Henry Jr. cheered Germany on to war in Europe.
All this came to a head in the summer of 1938, when he had to prove his citizenship. Was he German or American? On August 1, 1938, he wrote to the U.S. State Department requesting a record of his birth in Andernach through the offices of the US military. On August 9, the division chief of the Foreign Service Administration wrote back:
My Dear Mr. Bukowski:
In accordance with the request contained in your letter of August 1, 1938, I am pleased to enclose a certified copy of the Report of Birth of Henry Charles Bukowski, who was born August 16, 1920, at Andernach, Germany.
His final year in school was not memorable to him, though he did give me some insights into his mindset in June of 1939.
"L.A. High School was a rich man's school at the time. They all had sports cars. We walked or rode bicycles. They came from huge distances just to attend this special school. The women wouldn't pay any attention to you. The other guys got the girls. We were the outcasts. I didn't allow myself to like girls. The report cards were very important to my parents. They were always disappointed. It was not so bad. I had mostly C's and a couple D's."
But in typical Bukowski fashion, he did recall one bit of zaniness:
"This one time there was a teacher in high school. I was making good grades and I was passing her tests. It was the next to the last day before report cards.
"She said, 'Henry, I'm going to flunk you.'
"I said, 'Why?'
"'I'm going to, that's all.'
"Strange, I thought. She must be in love with me. She wanted me to stay in high school. See me another term. She was an old thing. That was my only thought. I felt the hate, like she didn't want me to go, but I also felt the love. That was the first time I felt somebody really cared about me.”
I looked for that wrinkled smile of his when he was being ironic, but I could see he was dead serious. I asked for the teacher's name. He couldn't recall it. It all seemed so pathetic: MACHO BUKOWSKI, the Hemingway warrior, and here he was telling me this old lady was the first person who ever loved him.
I asked if she carried out her threat and flunked him.
"No," he said. "My mother found out. She went over there and cried and cried for hours. So she gave in. It was so strange. I was getting passing grades and she wanted me to stay."
I had to laugh. "So you were saved by your mother!"
He nodded. "It wasn't the last time, either," he said.
Though he remembered in detail this crazy, deranged event, he could hardly recall his graduation from high school. "They played Wagner," he said. "I went up and got my diploma. This gets sadder and sadder. I'm about to weep. I should have been traveling with Stravinsky's grandson and going to operas."
In Ham on Rye, Bukowski mourns the state of his lonely life as he watches through the windows as the senior class enjoys their prom. He neglects to mention that Bill Mullinax, Jim Haddox, Bob Stoner, and most of the friends he knew in ROTC were all at the dance, and that all of them would be in the military before Pearl Harbor.
After describing Jimmy Hatcher (Jim Haddox) as "soft and standard" in Ham on Rye (p. 160), and telling him to his face "I don't like anything about you," he lines up the rest of his acquaintances for fictional assassination as they dance at the prom:
"I hated them. I hated their beauty and their uncontrolled youth…"
While Jim Haddox went directly into the Army Air Corps, Bill Mullinax was preparing himself for a career in engineering at LACC, while Henry Charles Bukowski Jr. remained in the same bedroom he'd been since childhood, drinking, nursing his anger, without a job, afraid to be seen with women, waiting for that blinding light that would propel him forward into greatness.
His epiphany came on September 1, 1939, as the armies of Adolph Hitler marched into Poland, dividing it up with their new partners in crime, the USSR.
When he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, located on Vermont Boulevard in Hollywood, Bukowski said, "It was like I never left high school. I just went from one place to another. I was supposed to be taking a journalism program, but I just took the courses I wanted to take. It was basic journalism. I'd open the book, but I wouldn't follow it."
His parents gave him a typewriter and their blessing. They just wanted their son to get a job and survive. Bukowski never blamed LACC on his father; he had others to blame: the non-published professors who held good writers back.
The first issue of the school paper, The Collegian, on September 18, 1939, gives us a taste of what Bukowski experienced. First there was the Howdy Hop, a dance Mullinax attended and Bukowski did not. Then there was the note from the Journalism Club from president Irwin Simon: "Our purpose is to better acquaint new journalism students." The Aero Corps, looking for new members, warned "subject to call in time of war." And then there was the German Club, Deutscher Verrien, headed by Lillian Morrill, "a girl for Christ's sake."
Again, I asked Bukowski about his interest in the school newspaper, The Collegian, a tri-weekly. After all, he was a journalism student. Did he try out? He said no. "I walked in and looked around. There were these guys with little paper hats on. Tremendous egos. I couldn't stand it. So I walked right out. I never did get into it. Never liked the look of the place. I got into the Nazi trip instead."
I tried to follow the logic of that: Nazism instead of journalism.
I asked what he meant by the Nazi trip. He said he'd been thinking about Hitler's Germany ever since the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He looked me straight in the eyes and asked: "Tell me who won them?"
"The 1936 Olympics?" All I could remember was the Hitler slight of Jesse Owens. "I guess the U.S. did. Right?"
He laughed. "Hollywood propaganda. The Germans won by a mile. The U.S. wasn't even close. Look it up."
I did. He was right. The Germans had an overall count of 89 medals, while U.S. had 56.
It all fit. His anger at women, his hatred of the standard American type with straight teeth, like Jim Haddox and his father. He felt the Germans had been slighted by the U.S. newspapers, except for The Examiner, the one Hitler wrote for. I tried to understand. He was sensitive about his German birth. In 1936 it wasn't very important, but when the peacetime draft bill was passed, in September of 1940, he started to worry. His worst fear was to be drafted into the army and sent to Germany to fight against his own people. That was the way he put it.
I reminded him that in 1940 the U.S. was neutral.
"They were and they weren't," he said.
He learned to be careful about expressing his feeling on the war. In his political science and history classes he said most students favored the British and the French over the Germans. As he read The Examiner and delighted in the German victories in Poland and France, he discovered an odd fact: Most of his teachers were against the U.S. getting into a war.
"I think they were Marxists," he said. The Moscow line was all about peace. They'd signed a treaty with the USSR. A Non-aggression pact. "As for myself, I have the feeling that any creative person is a rebel. Whichever way his country goes... everyone is saying this one thing... believing this one thing. There's a tendency to believe the opposite. What the hell are the masses? They read the papers and are easily fooled!"
Bukowski even recalled a peace demonstration on campus where Dalton Trumbo, the famous Hollywood screenwriter, attacked the U.S. government for being too friendly to Britain and France.
As school became boring and drab for him, Bukowski was drawn more and more to the "Nazi trip."
* German-American Bund
The only place he could express himself comfortably about his love of Hitler and his growing distaste for the U.S. was at the Deutsches Haus, which was just a walk from his home. Now it was no longer a boring place.
The D.H., as it was called, had become a front for Hitler. Here he could find books, magazines, and pamphlets in German and English praising Nazism. They were available cheap at the Aryan Bookstore, which was located on the first floor of the D.H.
It was at the D.H. that Bukowski viewed the German war film, "Blitzkrieg in the West," a Nazi propaganda feature that depicted the crushing defeat of Holland, France, Belgium and Denmark before the advancing German army. It played to packed houses of enthusiastic German sympathizers who roared with delight at the triumph of the Fatherland, Bukowski among them.
His parents by that time were not enthusiastic and did not attend. His father openly opposed Hitler and when Bukowski defended him his father would say, "Why don't you find a job? You live in this house and do nothing but read." It was a sore point.
The D.H. gave Bukowski his introduction to the German-American Bund, Hitler's front organization for American youth over eighteen years of age. While fellow students at LACC tried to forget the war, drowning their fears in the Swing Music of the era, petting in the parking lot, or dancing at the Howdy Hop, Henry Bukowski showed up with pamphlets from the Aryan Bookstore and defended the Nazis in class. It made him feel unique!
Meanwhile, the same old problems with teachers occurred. In an English class with a Professor Richardson, who "played Gilbert and Sullivan and was big on enunciation," Bukowski brought up the usual complaints:
"The class started at 7:00 a.m. I never showed up till 7:30 'cause I was drinking, even though I was living at home. The first piece of writing I turned in, Richardson said, 'This is great writing, Bukowski, but women aren't that bad.' But then the grades dropped down. Finally, three-quarters of the way through the class he said, 'Well, Bukowski, you're showing up at 7:30 again. I'm gonna give you a "D" whether you show up or not.' So I stopped showing up. It was a strange class."
It was standard American fare. It bored him. On the other hand, the Nazis offered him excitement. Whenever he spoke of them, his eyes brightened:
"At LACC, Veloff and I got into the Nazi trip. We were drinking hot buttered rum and Veloff had an actual gun. He wanted it to be a Luger because that was a German gun, but it was a revolver. He used to play Russian roulette with it. He wanted me to play but I refused. Together we attended a Bund meeting in Glendale. Of course it was Glendale. We went down into a cellar. They had this great big American flag there. They had all these chairs. It was an upper middle class house. Very large. The speaker (Hermann Max Schwinn, Los Angeles Bund leader) had his desk onstage. We all stood up to pledge allegiance to the flag, which I didn't like to do. Then he started talking about the Communist menace. How we had to fight force with force. These guys were ready."
So was Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., and when he stood up and shouted for the Nazis he got noticed. He was outrageous, he was frightening, and he was funny. Quoting Henry Ford, "Don't complain and don't explain."
In June of 1940 Henry dropped out of LACC, but not before contributing two pieces to the school newspaper, in the form of letters to the editor. This section was called Cubby Hole, and Bukowski had to pay to get his efforts into print. His first letter, published on May 24, 1940, is amusing and well written. He wrote:
Dear Cubby Hole: In answer to R.D.'s complaints about our streetcar service, I would like to step forward as a valiant defender of that vehicle.
I find that the violent rocking not only awakens me for class, but also allows me to kick hell out of the guy next to me if I don't like his looks. I never have to give my seat to a lady – I never get one. I have developed a marvelous muscular coordination by the continued process of holding the strap with one hand, my books with another, while treading heavily (and of course accidentally) upon some person's feet in an effort to blitzkrieg my way to a seat.
All this for 7 cents. Why crab?
In the LACC Library stacks we found it together when looking for a book by Robinson Jeffers. He told me his father got mad because he used HIS name. All the elements of Bukowski's Darwinian humor are present in this little essay: humor, brutality, competition, failure, and an attention-getting German word.
The second letter was published in the June election supplement; Bukowski didn't look for it and I could never find it. It was his swan song from LACC. By that time his father had had enough. With no job and LACC an incomplete, he told his son to get a job, go into the service, or pay rent while living at home.
Henry, Jr. moved downtown and took handouts from his mother. He spent all his time reading in the library, walking through Pershing Square at night where he hoped he would find John Fante, or lying in his flop room drinking. By early 1941 he was a full-fledged Nazi and the stories he wrote reflected that point of view. None survive! When he was hungry he would sometimes sneak back home for food when his father was at work.
That summer, the summer of 1941, Bukowski's mother came through for him again. He was twenty-one and he had never worked. As he tells it:
"My first job was with the Union Pacific Railroad. My mother got it for me through a friend of hers. He took me down to the railroad tracks in his car. I was supposed to work in the roundhouse, which had a little sense of dignity, but I ended up scrubbing the sides of trains. Boxcars and all that. I had to go to work on the bus. I didn't much care for it. I turned out to be the clown; one of those guys who was always fucking up."
He laughed. I asked him how old he was.
"I was pretty fucking old. I was twenty-one."
"And your mother got you the job?"
"Yeah." He laughed but looked ashamed.
Along with Mein Kampf, he was reading Knut Hamsun's Hunger, just the right fix on work and starvation. He also read John Fante's Ask the Dust, the book that changed his life, and Hemingway's Men Without Women, a little Nietzsche, some Schopenhauer, D.H. Lawrence, and a hell of a lot of Robinson Jeffers, especially the long poems.
On June 18, 1941, Germany attacked the USSR and the fragile peace between the world's two most powerful dictatorships collapsed. Overnight, Marxists like Dalton Trumbo went from peace doves to war hawks, and Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. found a new hero in Charles Lindbergh and his America First Committee.
Lindbergh complained that American Jews, especially in Hollywood, were egging America into a war with Germany. When Lindbergh, the famous aviator, came to Los Angeles and spoke to an overflowing crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, Bukowski and some of his Bund companions led a torchlight parade up into the Hollywood Hills, where they could watch their new hero from the heights as he moved the enormous crowd to their feet over and over again. That was a memory he could recall vividly, from beginning to end.
The crowd was estimated at 20,000 plus and the FBI were on hand to keep tabs on the audience. In his speech that night Lindbergh made three points and Bukowski agreed with them all:
(1) We are still unprepared for war, and it would take us years to prepare adequately for the type of war we now consider entering. It would mean turning this country into a military nation that exceeds Germany in regimentation.
(2) Even if we were fully prepared at this time, we would face the superhuman task of crossing an ocean and forcing a landing on a fortified continent against armies stronger than our own.
(3) We in America have the best defensive position in the world. No foreign power can invade us today.
Bukowski was thrilled. With Fante the humanist in one hand and Hitler the monster in the other (both published by the same publisher) he was writing up a storm, and without his mother's help he switched to a more civilized job as a stock boy at Sears Roebuck in Hollywood; his boss liked him so much he gave him a reference when he left.
The pay was poor, but he wanted a job that demanded no security clearance. "In 1941, before the war," he said, "jobs were hard to get unless you went to work in a shipyard. I could never do that. Those guys with lunch pails and tin hats and badges making the big money. I couldn't bear to do that 'cause that was again being part of the flow."
I knew exactly what he meant.
In October of 1941, the California State Assembly opened an investigation into Un-American Activities; the German-American Bund was first on the list. Next came The America First Committee.
Bukowski nervously read the newspaper as Hermann Max Schwinn and Hans Diebel were dragged before the committee and required to testify. They were both born in Germany but unlike Bukowski, Schwinn and Diebel were not American citizens. Still, Bukowski was a German-American, born in Andernach to a German mother who still had family in the old country, some of whom were now serving the military of Adolph Hitler. At the end of the hearing charges were filed and papers were confiscated.
* Pearl Harbor
On December 7, 1941, a Sunday, Bukowski was sitting downtown reading a book. He heard the news of Pearl Harbor with alarm. The whole city of Los Angeles was on alert. Two days later Schwinn and Diebel and a number of other German and Japanese sympathizers were arrested. His hero, Charles Lindbergh, signed up to be a fighter pilot and was a hero no more.
As the draft went into high gear, Bukowski grabbed up all his Bund materials, his copy of Mein Kampf, and his grandfather's medals and threw them down the sewer. Tossing his writings into a bag, he climbed on a bus headed for New Orleans. Much of his travels can be found in Factotum; much cannot.
His major fear was the FBI. A few months after he left he returned to Los Angeles to see if the Feds were looking for him; to his relief they had bigger fish to catch. His second fear was his draft board. He told me he had a high number and it had not come up, but he wasn't waiting around until it did. For almost two years he played cat and mouse with his draft board.
"I kept going back and forth," he said. "From the East Coast to the West. I hit New Orleans three times. New York once. I was in Philly two or three times. San Francisco twice. There was St. Louis twice and a little stop in East Kansas City. Then Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta, where I nearly froze to death. In Houston I stayed quite a while."
In each city he would use his reference from Sears to get a new job. Since most of the young men were in the military, jobs were not hard to find. "I'd stay a few months in each place," he said, "dragging my typer along with me."
He worked as a stock clerk, a sorter in a dog biscuit factory, a packer in an auto parts store. Again, no security checks. Those types of jobs were going begging as half the men in America were in the service and the other half were working in defense plants; women too! Lugging his typewriter from city to city, still hating the government and hoping the Nazis would win the war, Bukowski had found a crack in the universe where he could crawl in safely and write.
He said of his short stories during that time: "They were full of complaints. I wanted too much too fast, and I was weeping in the wind. The unrecognized artist shit. THE WORLD SHOULD KNOW THAT I HAVE THIS GIFT! I wrote a lot of that out of me then."
His early stories he sent to Harpers, The Atlantic Monthly, and Story with a SASE addressed to Longwood...
He returned to Los Angeles in early 1942 to pick up his mail, check on his friends, and see if the FBI had been looking for him. To his delight they were not. He was a small fish in a big ocean. His friends were all in the service. Jim Haddox was training as a pilot; Baldy Mullinax was in the Navy along with Eugene Fife who was a naval officer. Harold Mortenson Bukowski had no interest in finding, but he was in college getting all "A's."
So back and forth across the country Henry Charles Bukowski went.
"When I was absolutely broke," he said, "I'd come home. My parents would put me up. I still had my bedroom. They'd bill me for food and lodgings, which I had to pay when I got a job."
Mr. and Mrs. Bukowski became more and more impatient with their son. What was wrong with Henry they wondered? Why did he not enlist in the service? Was he sick or unbalanced or simply a coward?
His mother must have felt some sympathy, with a family on the other side of the world and her former country at war. Her brother, Heinrich Fett, would later be appointed head of the Volkssturm for the Third Reich in Andernach, local commander, but that was toward the end of the war when Germany would welcome the Americans (they hoped). They needed a man who knew them and could speak English...
With no letters from the FBI, Bukowski had no intention of enlisting; his loyalties were elsewhere. In 1942 he read D.H. Lawrence's short story, "The Prussian Officer," and that helped him write. He had found his subject: "Ultimate human cruelty. It could have been anybody," he told me. "It happened to be the Prussian officer. The way he did it was sooo very good. There's a tightness of line there."
Bukowski loved the story and he loved what it said: human beings are vicious animals. He went looking for his own Prussian officer and found it in his namesake, Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr.
In later years, Bukowski would blame his father for everything that went wrong in his early life: he was a brute, a philanderer, a child beater, a cheat and a liar; he could not hold a job. He sent his son to a school where rich boys teased him; he took poor care of his mother when she was ill and did not appreciate his son's great gifts: "My father was standard American type. Dull, holding a job, showing up to work on time."
For the purpose of fiction, and as a vengeance upon him for eternity, Bukowski turned his father into the Prussian officer. His Uncle Heinrich Fett had very warm things to say about Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr. when I met him in 1977, things Bukowski did not want to hear.
Bukowski told me on tape he only got to write what he really felt after his father died. "When I could get out all the poison." Much of Bukowski's poems, stories, and novels are all about getting out the poison. "It saved me from madness," he said. It also saved him from World War Two!
When Bukowski was arrested by the FBI seems to be a problem. In his biography, Howard Sounes says he was arrested on a July evening in 1944.
Sounes got the month right but not the year. On July 7, 1942 the FBI and the Justice Department launched an all-out push on members of the German-American Bund, including Hermann Schwinn. Bukowski was caught in that net and taken to federal prison.
Here is what he told me about his adventures in Moyamensing. Verbatim.
Pleasants: You had one big-timer in jail when you were a draft dodger.
Bukowski: Oh, Moyamensing. Yeah, seventeen days.
P: That was when?
B: Hell, I don't know. It must have been...
B: Uh-uh. Much earlier. 1942.
P: I'll have to research that.
B: Moyamensing. You think they'll still have the records? Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.
P: You'll be in there. They'll have your photo and everything.
B: It was quite nice after a while. You've read it. I won all the money with the craps. Food. After lights out. Better food than I ever ate on the outside. It's real ancient. When they take you in it's like a castle. These great big gates. They must be sixty feet high. They open just for you as you go inside. I made more money in there than I ever made on the outside. I almost hated to leave when they let me go.
P: You were in there on draft evasion. Right?
B: I guess that's what they called it.
P: Did you go to court?
P: Did you have a lawyer?
P: You just went in there?
B: They figured I was nuts. What they did... they made me go to the draft induction center. They said, if you make the draft, if they draft you, okay, you're in. If they don't draft you, we'll let you go. I said okay I'll go along with that. But I couldn't get past the psychiatrist's three questions.
P: What were the three questions?
B: To begin with, they raided my room after I was gone. They found all these writings. These mad, garbled writings. So eventually, the psychiatrist had read these ahead of time.
P: Your short stories.
B: Yeah (laughs). My short stories. Jesus. So I sat down and he said, "Do you believe in the war?" I said, "No." "Are you willing to go to the war?" I said, "Yes." "By the way, we're having a party next Wednesday at my place. Artists, writers, intellectuals, doctors. All kinds of interesting people. I know you're an intelligent man and I'd like you to come to my party. Will you come to my party?" I said, "No." "All right, you can go." I looked at him. He said, "You don’t have to go to the war. You didn't think we'd understand, did you?" I said, "No." That was all. Pass on through. That was after jail, except I had to wait for a ride back to jail to be signed out. There were a whole bunch of us sitting there. Hours went by. I just got up and I walked out of the doorway. I just walked out into the daylight.
The fact that Bukowski remembers specifically it was NOT 1944, but much earlier, he says 1942, is important. It means from that time on he could travel where he wanted with an UNFIT FOR SERVICE draft rating and not worry about the FBI any more. The writings they took from him they kept; they were his Nazi ravings coming off his reading of Mein Kampf, his experiences in the German-American Bund, his participation in the America First Movement and his hatred of Hollywood. All three, much to my amazement, would appear in his work later in life.
On December 11, 1943 his friend Jim Haddox was shot down over Emden, Germany. He and all of his crew but one perished. He had made pilot and was a First Lieutenant of the 100th Bomber Group, 351st squadron, training in Thorpe Abbots, East Anglia. He left only his mother, Nina Ruth Haddox, who Bukowski described as a barmaid and an oversexed temptress.
Baldy later said of Haddox, "He was a real war hero. A damned decent guy." Peggy Harford, who worked with me on the drama desk at the L.A. Times and graduated with Ray Bradbury from LAHS a year before Bukowski, said she could not remember Bukowski at all, but she did recall Jim Haddox as "gracious and brave."
Bukowski never mentioned Haddox's war record. To him, Haddox was the standard American, a hanger-on who followed the great writer around because "I always draw the weak instead of the strong." He hated Haddox because he worked hard, was liked by the girls and bombed the Fatherland.
In 1943, with the draft board off his back, he sat at his typer and the stories rolled out week after week. "I just pushed them along, four or five a week," he told me. "And I didn't keep carbons."
Still roaming from city to city, he sent on his manuscripts to Harpers, The Atlantic and Story. Every short story he ever sent to Harpers and The Atlantic came back with the usual form rejection, but Story was different. Story had published John Fante and Hemingway and William Saroyan. Story showed interest in his work.
For the first time in his life Bukowski was thrilled about writing:
"Whit Burnett (the editor) always sent me a hand-written note. They were fairly short. He'd say, 'Send more.' He kept saying it. He'd say, 'Hell, this one is very, very close.' I think he meant it. There was an awful lot of competition at that time. He was the only one who cared!"
After Bukowski hocked his typewriter and hand-printed his fiction, Whit Burnett continued to read him and write back. "Story was the only one who responded," Bukowski said in animated tones. "The others, Atlantic and Harpers, must have thought, 'Here's that nut again who prints his own stuff.'"
Finally, in their March/April 1944 issue, Story published "Aftermath Of A Lengthy Rejection Slip" in the end papers of the magazine. Bukowski was disappointed. The piece shows wit and brilliance, and he was approached by an agent who wanted to represent him; but there is something else all his biographers have left out: the bio he wrote describing his life:
"CHARLES BUKOWSKI was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920. His father was California born, of POLISH parentage, and served in the American Army of Occupation in the Rhineland where he met his mother. He was brought to America at the age of two. He attended LACC for a couple of years and in the two and one-half years since has been a clerk in the post office, a stockroom boy for Sears Roebuck, a truck-loader nights at a bakery. He is now working as a package wrapper and box filler in the cellar of a ladies sportswear shop."
Three things jump out at the reader: the fact that he mentions his German birth; the lie about his father's POLISH parentage; and the change of name.
If Sounes is correct with his dates, the story that Bukowski changed his name in 1944 from Henry to Charles because he hated his father is as much a lie as the comment about his father's Polish parentage. He changed it because he knew the war was still on and his draft board was out there trying to contact Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. about his 1A status.
If Bukowski's dates are correct, it's more than likely he did it to protect his father's job.
Whichever way it went, he published no more work during World War II under any name.
When I asked him where he was when World War II was over, he said, "I can't remember. Really. It didn't mean anything to me. It wasn't important."
I told him even I remembered the end of World War II, VJ Day. My parents set off Roman candles. I was five. He just laughed uncomfortably. When I showed him the bio lines in Story about his father being Polish, he looked back sheepishly and said, "You got me."
My view about Bukowski's fascination with Nazism at the time was simply one of youthful rebellion; his desire to shock. That's what I believed at the time. That's what I wanted to believe.
Sometime after the Symposium, when we were returning from Santa Anita in his little blue Volkswagen, I began to have different thoughts. Bukowski liked to drive, but he had the habit of avoiding the freeways when he could. "Too many DUIs," he told me.
On our way back, he took a little detour to Hollywood proper and stopped the car. There were two teenagers in uniforms, one male and one female, blonde and attractive, looking almost like Brownies until I saw the armband. It was a swastika. They were Nazis.
Jeannie Codova, a reporter for the FREEP, had been doing articles for weeks on all the organizations that were beyond the limits of good taste in politics, but protected by the First Amendment: The KKK, Jewish Defense League, Black Panthers, and the American Nazi Party.
There they were in all their glory. Nazis collecting for their party. I turned to Bukowski laughing. What a joke, but he had tears in his eyes. I shook my head in disbelief. "See those two? That could have been me," he said. Then he started up the car and drove off.
I shook my head. I was beginning to wonder if writing his bio was the right thing for me. I'd recently bought him a hard to find Celine novel: Nord. He loved Celine. Nord was about Celine's flight from France after the Nazi defeat.
"Maybe YOU should write a novel about it," I said.
"Being a Nazi."
"You write it," he said. "But make it funnier."
For years and years I thought about doing it, and then I did.
* Jewish Roots
My next adventure with Bukowski and the Germans was in his own town of Andernach. In 1977, the Los Angeles Unified School District gave me a sabbatical leave, and with my marriage falling apart I decided to spend it in France: Paris and Grenoble. Those six months of my life were probably the happiest time I ever had.
Bukowski wrote me and he made a simple request: He asked me to go to Andernach, his birthplace, to see if an uncle of his was still alive. "His name is Heinrich Fett," he said. "He wrote me for a while until I sent him a copy of Notes of a Dirty Old Man in German. Then nothing. You'll probably find him in the graveyard."
In March 1977, I managed to get to Andernach. I did find his Uncle Heinrich. He was very much alive, delighted to see me, and looking forward to meeting his nephew. He took me to the graveyard and pointed out all Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.'s relatives in Andernach. One name stood out: Bukowski's maternal grandmother. I looked at the stone and rubbed my eyes. Pointing to the gravestone, I asked the old man: "Are you sure THAT stone there is part of his family?”
Heinrich spoke very good English. He'd learned much of it from Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr. "Yes," not "Yah," he said. "That is the stone of my family and my sister's family and Henry. My mother."
The name was ISRAEL. I didn't have the courage to ask if she was Jewish.
Upon my return, when I saw Bukowski, I showed him pictures of the graveyard and I pointed to the stone.
"Buk, that's your mother's mother. It has to be Jewish.”
He didn't answer. His face grew grim and he changed the subject.
Many years later a member of the Fett family confirmed that Bukowski's grandmother was named Nannette Israel. Andernach is on the French border and has many French-speaking people, so that would explain the Nannette. "The Nazis investigated and found nothing," said Heinrich Fett's nephew. "But who knows?"
A few years later when Bukowski and I attended a reading given by Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Occidental College, a fan rushed up to Bukowski and said, "All that suffering. So much pain in your work. You must be Jewish."
"Not a drop," said Bukowski. "Not a drop."
By Jewish law, if Bukowski's grandmother was Jewish, his mother was Jewish and so was he. The idea that he could betray Hitler by being Jewish was too much for him to bear.
What Bukowski really wanted to be was the most famous Nazi writer in the world!
In 1978, when Bukowski returned to Germany, he insisted on singing the forbidden German anthem, "Deutschland Uber Alles," and wrote about it proudly in his book Shakespeare Never Did This. In Ham on Rye he referred to Harold Mortenson as "just a fool," and to Jim Hatcher (Haddox) as "a betrayer." When Chinaski breaks Mortenson's arm in a sandlot baseball game (he doesn't even change the last name, though Abe is more Jewish than Harold) Chinaski's mother is afraid a Jewish lawyer will take everything they have. He says of his father, "He was proud of his son who could break somebody's arm." This adds to the brutality and viciousness Bukowski would heap on his father.
On the first page of his novel Hollywood, Bukowski gets back at all those old movies he hated and all the old Jews who produced them:
"There we were down at the harbor, driving past the boats. Most of them were sailboats and people were fiddling about on deck. They were dressed in their special sailing clothes: caps, dark shades. Somehow, most of them had apparently escaped the daily grind of living. Such were the rewards of the Chosen in the land of the free. After a fashion, those people looked silly to me. And, of course, I was not even in their thoughts."
The Chosen, Jews in America, MOST OF THEM, did not work. That's what Bukowski thought. They got money through deals and false promises and schemes. That's what the whole book is about. It's right out of Mein Kampf.
The last time I saw Bukowski was at the track at Hollywood Park. I took my girlfriend, Marlene Sinderman, and introduced her to Bukowski. I wanted to tell him she had met John Fante, was also a diabetic and John had been fond of her; but before I could open my mouth Bukowski drew me aside and said, "Get rid of that one. Too Jewish!" I never told her what he said.
At the end of his life, when they buried him a Buddhist, was Charles Bukowski still a Nazi or an anti-Semite or both? I'm not sure. I didn't know him then.
My four great heroes through history have been Spinosa, a lapsed Jew who preached reason and was ex-communicated by the Jews of Amsterdam; Edmund Husserl, a Jew who converted to Lutheranism in order to invent Phenomenology and was kept from the university library by the man he mentored, Martin Heidegger; Hannah Arendt, author of
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Heidegger's lover, and a philosopher of great merit in her own right, loathed by many Jews; and Mary McCarthy, Arendt's best friend, the great novelist and critic who hid the fact she was one-quarter Jewish until half her lovers were Jews.
Add to this my own quarrels with Art Seidenbaum, book editor at the L.A. Times, over censorship of Noam Chomsky's book on the Palestinians, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians; Bill Mullinax's protestations about Bukowski's "setting me up with lies;" Bukowski's ratcheting up his rage in print on the friends who disputed his memory lapses; and it's easy to see how I put off writing about this for almost thirty years.
But an understanding of Bukowski's Nazi loyalties is key to everything he ever wrote.
Maybe he was right when he said, "Being a quarter Jewish is like being a quarter crazy. It only matters if you take it seriously."
I doubt he ever did.