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A small improvement upon the truth, reading Charlene Rubinski

“Bukowski’’s like my old man. And the day comes when you got to, you can’t be hangin’ around with your old man anymore.”


3:AM: And here we have “Bernice Rifko”. Who’s that?

“Bernice Rifko wanted me to introduce her to Charlene. Rifko and I met at UCLA. She conducted poetry readings and was a literary editor of the school newspaper. Now Bernice writes identical articles for the LA Times Book Review section. I knew it would be a good idea to introduce her to Rubinski.”

You know, it is very generous of you to do that, because the way you wrote this was pretty much the way it really happened.

SR: Well, that’s the way I write. You know, why make it up?

3:AM: You write here:

“Naturally a close friendship has developed between Charlene and Bernice. I started them off taking Bernice along on one of my visits to Charlene’s east Hollywood cottage. Two lionesses, two Leos that, fortunately, rubbed each other the right way, right from the beginning. […] Bernice Rifko is now Charlene Rubinski’s official biographer.”

SR: I wrote why you were Hank’s official biographer.

3:AM: Not according to Linda.

SR: Well, you were.

3:AM: How did I get there in the first place? I got there through you.

SR: You weren’t supposed to do it, you know. ‘Cause I think he…that story (‘Friends’) is very important that he wrote about Bernice, about Bernard Rifko. It is about a 15-page story. He writes about the relationship, he said, every time he turned around, you’d come out of a closet or something, you’d come out from behind a door, you couldn’t stay away from the place. [laughing]

3:AM: The only time I ever went there was when he called me and I went there because he said at that time, “I need you to come down here, because I don’t want them to turn my novel into an anti-war film, so you have to do it.”

SR: He was not into the literal truth.

3:AM: It is very funny, because there are three versions of it: There is my version in Visceral Bukowski, there is his version in ‘Friends,’ and then there is the actual tape; and the actual tape is the truth.

SR: Which he probably burned.

3:AM: No, I have the tape. He gave me the tape.

SR: Was Julius Caesar into truth? No, he was into being Caesar, being emperor. Bukowski was into being emperor, you know.

3:AM: And then you mention, we went to his house this time. I don’t remember that.

SR: Yeah, I didn’t want to go, we were both drinking at El Toril or something. And you said, “Come on, let’s go see Bukowski.” And I said, ‘Nah, let’s leave him alone…’ and I didn’t stick to my guns, so I gave in, my point of view. So we went over, and he was living on Carlton Way in that little apartment, and we went up to his door and we heard him typing, and I said “oh, he’s working, he’s working,’ and you said “Come on.” And then we knocked, or I knocked, and I said I didn’t want to go in. And then he let us in and he had his typewriter…

3:AM: Let me read it:

“Seventy-five feet from Charlene’s cottage we heard her typewriter going off like a machine gun. I knew we shouldn’t have come. She was working and definitely we should have turned about and left. ‘No no, come on with me,’ stated Bernice. I was stupid and fucked up walking Bernice Rifko to Charlene Rubinski’s front door.”

That was very funny putting us all in.

SR: That’s what made it work. It wouldn’t work if I was using a masculine name. What a bunch of bitches.

3:AM: Believe me writers are, no doubt about that. So it says:

“Better she’d stayed behind the typewriter. Better Rifko and I had never bumbled in. I have to be very careful with Bernice Rifko. She gives me lousy advice though she has written several articles about my own poetry.”

[both laughing]

I think actually, Bukowski really enjoyed it when the three of us were together, he really had a lot of fun with it.

SR: Yeah, he didn’t have to let us in.

3:AM: Neither of us were a threat to him.

SR: Nah, ‘cause he was 20 years older than us. And he knew where he stood in the hierarchy of literary dynamite. He already had Europe coming in.

3:AM: That’s true, by that time the Germans were publishing his stuff all over the place. You say:

“I regard the meeting as the start of a rupture of the friendship between Charlene and myself.”

But I think that started with 300 Poems.

SR: Well, I think I over-estimate what’s getting ruptured there. ‘Cause I don’t think he really…

3:AM: He always liked you, he did.

SR: Yeah, he’s like my old man. And the day comes when you got to, you can’t be hangin’ around with your old man anymore. Gotta put some space between you. And he wasn’t my old man. My old man was…

3:AM: And then there was the sexual adventures of you and Linda King, Which you wrote about here.

[“Jim King beat on my door at 2 a.m. He was obviously angry with Charlene about something and he was here to make her jealous. He and I talked, and while we talked I realized I too was mad at Charlene for something she had recently written about me.”]

SR: Which amounted to… it didn’t even exist. It didn’t happen. I did get an erection though. And she saw it up through my sweatpants and she immediately got up and left. She said “Uh-oh!” I think she just came over at 2:30 in the morning to try and find out some secrets on Bukowski. I don’t know.

3:AM: I mean actually, that’s exactly what… it’s more really about Linda King and Bukowski than about Linda Bukowski and Bukowski.

SR: Yeah, Linda King is a fine artist, fine sculptress, good writer too; but she was real screwed-up. These fuckin’ artists are really screwed-up.

“Forgive my diatribe. Who am I to bitch about Rubinski and her 20 pieces of paper on the floor? And to attack one of her past lovers, Jim King, so strenuously? Both of them are fine artists.”

SR: It’s the truth.

3:AM: That’s true and how you get there, is how you get there; everybody does it differently.

“Bernice Rifko recently told me over lousy Sambo’s coffee that Charlene is worried…last year she only made $90,000 instead of the $100,000 she made a year previous.”

But that never happened, because Bukowski continued to make…

SR: You told me, he told you he got worried whenever he got less than 20 grand in the bank.

3:AM: I can remember this very clearly, what happened was he sold one story to Hustler, and then he wrote two more for them and they didn’t take the other two stories. And that scared him. For some reason he thought…I mean, they paid him like $2500 a story. And then [Harold] Norse, of course, sold a couple stories and that bothered him a lot. And even I sold one. So I don’t know, that’s probably what I told you.

SR: I never got into Hustler. Oh, what’s his name? The guy who was the editor, a realist, he was publishing Hustler, or was editing it.

3:AM: Yeah, that’s right, I had a friend who was one of the editors there, so that helped me get in there. Bukowski was surprised about that.

“These folks now buy her books by the tens of thousand and revel and verily identify with Charlene’s new Jaguar and harbor-view home…much as Harlem folk identified with Adam Clayton Powell’s Caddy, jewels, and mansion.”

SR: BMW, yeah, I didn’t want to say BMW.

3:AM: And then you go into Bensenville, Illinois, “Diane Badoolzdek.”[both laughing]

[“In 1964 I first walked into her east Hollywood cottage with a six-pack. I’d been advised to take the six-pack along by Diane Badoolzdek, Small Press Lane editor from Bensenville, Illinois.”]

3:AM: And that was?

SR: Doug Blazek, you know.

3:AM: You know, Blazek is really an important editor, it’s too bad Bukowski and Blazek never really hit it off.

SR: They just didn’t hit it off. They met, Blazek visited him on Delongpre, and they just didn’t, who knows why. I mean, astrologically, Blazek’s a Capricorn, Bukowski’s a Leo, I’m an Aquarius, you know, hocus-pocus people put down astrology. But if it is good enough for Jung, it is good enough for me. So, you know, opposites attract. Blazek probably walked in the door shooting photographs or something, maybe jealousy…

“My first impression upon first seeing Charlene was that she had no more than one month to live. […] It was her big red swollen alcoholic’s nose that made so strong an effect on my eye. The nose dominated her appearance.”

3:AM: It’s almost like Bill Clinton in a way.

SR: Yeah, except there is a big difference between Bukowski and Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton is a very interesting person.

“Charlene once told me, ‘I spill the beans…watch out for me.’”

3:AM: Did you spill the beans?

SR: Yeah, but how many people have read that?

3:AM: Well, a lot more people are going to read it soon. And then we have the “Free Press” adventure. The “Free Press” adventure that was kind of interesting, why did you write about that?

[“Sam also wrote a weekly column for the LA Free Press. He would write a tale about Charlene…she would write about him…all in the same issue. This went on for months.”]

SR: That was the symposium. That was an important day.

3:AM: And actually, Berlinski stole it. He didn’t pay anybody for it, he just took the god damn thing and put it in there.

SR: With Berlinski you have to demand some money, Berlinski’s really tight. Berlinski, the thing he is mad about most is he hasn’t made a lot of money off of Sun Dog Press. ‘Cause I think he really got into it, but he’s got a conflict working there: he’s got the creative, he did a drawing of me and put it in the Santa Monica Poems, that’s like a Raphael. You could put Berlinski’s drawing in with a bunch of Raphael’s and no one would pick it out as not a Raphael. So he’s got that kind of talent. And that kind of talent inside someone doesn’t go with this real desire to make it as a publisher. [laughing]. Doesn’t go with the material motive, you know.

“A photographer once called and asked to do a portrait of me. He said he worked much in the tradition of Man Ray. I had read Man Ray’s book Self Portrait and was flattered by this offer.”

3:AM: Do you remember the photographer? Is that Lorie? Who was the photographer?

SR: No it wasn’t Lorie, it was, it’s just a fleeting memory, I can’t remember who it was. Somebody came down from City Lights, I think the manager of City Lights, came to the door once asking for photos of Bukowski. I was like, ‘I don’t have any of ‘em.’ I mean the race was on, back then.

“I was wise to introduce Bernice to Charlene. Frequently Charlene Rubinski is drunk-alone lonely with suicide her greatest weapon. Fame didn’t change this. She needs a friend at 4 a.m. often. If it’s now Bernice Rifko’s ear that’s so employed and honored with Charlene’s early-morning friendship…I’m pleased both their needs are being satisfied.”

3:AM: I was pleased too. We used to walk around in Hollywood at 4:00 in the morning, the two of us.

SR: Yeah, before he knew you, he’d call me at 4:00 in the morning, drunk, lonely, suicidal, and I’m sure he’s probably called Murray about 1000 times at 4:00 in the morning, Murray’s paid some dues I’m sure. [laughing]

3:AM: That leads us to “Zelda Fulbright:”

“Zelda Fulbright was a quite serious small magazine collector before she began publishing Charlene Rubinski on a full-time basis. I had a small poetry bookstore and Zelda came weekly to buy 15 to 20 little books of modern verse. Each sold for an average of a dollar.”

I think a lot of those were like 35 cents.

SR: Well, the first time John Martin walked into Earth [Rose] Books, the first time I met her [him], she [he] was wearing these, you know how people wear loud leather shoes? She [he] had kind of an authoritarian thing, you know, it’s almost military, ‘don’t fuck with me, I’m a power figure.’ And that’s how she [he] walked into Earth [Rose] Books, you know, I didn’t like that, I just can’t, where I live now, I sit there, where you pick me up, and one out of every seven people, mostly women, will be wearing these, I can hear them coming from a half a block away. These boots’ll walk all over you.

3:AM: Yeah, “Business first, art second, business first, art second,” that’s what “Zelda Fulbright” said.

[“Zelda had her own personal slogan that she vocally repeated as she’d walk about my bookstore. Over and over she would stammer… ‘business first, art second… business first, art second’…”]

SR: Yeah, you know, she [he] did it. If you are used to material rewards…she [he] devoted her [his] life to editing and publishing Bukowski.

3:AM: Did you ever go to John Martin’s house?

SR: I went to his office once, on Motor, before he went up to Montecito luckily he got out of there before the fire, he went to Santa Rosa. The office was impeccable. It was elite: South American Indian rugs on the walls and the books were meticulously arranged and put together. He gave me about 10 free books, generous guy, and he said: “I’m not busy, how about if I publish you.”

“Once, in a fit of erroneous treasure hunting, I decided to publish all 82 of Charlene’s letters to myself under the title of Letters to a Young Poetess. I received Charlene’s oral permission to pursue this project and sent out circulars everywhere advertising it. Book orders came quickly from City Lights, Either-Or Bookshop, Chattertons, and half-a-dozen other stores. I sent a circular to Zelda Fulbright knowing she would want copies for Charlene’s loyal collectors. Zelda quickly contacted me with the encouraging news I would be sued if I proceeded to publish the Rubinski letter book.”

3:AM: Is that true? So he threatened to sue you. He would always send out these letters, but beyond that he would never do anything.

SR: Well, he’s protecting his right…

3:AM: He was a bluffer. For instance, John Thomas got $50,000 for Bukowski in the Bathtub… LittleBrown was going to publish the book, and John Martin sent them a letter and said, “If you publish the book, I”ll sue you.” So John Thomas kept the $50,000 and he put it out himself. And Martin was so pissed, that he went all over the place trying to find the book and stomp it out of existence. I mean, what kind of shit is that? He’s still afraid of your letters and Bukowski’s letters back and forth scared him.

SR: Aw, I don’t think they really scared him. You know what I really think? I think…he published about 20 of them, not mine, but 20 of Bukowski’s letters to me, in the five volumes of Bukowski’s letters scattered throughout the thing.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 11th, 2009.