Slum Sparrow Millionaire

In the hippie era, Richard Brautigan was everyone’s favorite poet (including the Beatles’). But his Tacoma past proved too dark to escape.

When I was fifteen, I wanted to be Tacoma’s bard Richard Brautigan, specifically as he was depicted on the cover of his bestselling 1967 poem/novel Trout Fishing in America. Brautigan was the top youth-culture writer after Vonnegut (who got him published); Kesey knew he was number three. Hippies tripped on Brautigan’s blend of early-Hemingway simplicity, early-Twain whimsy, and hallucinatory free association (though Brautigan despised all drugs but alcohol).

Guys dressed like Brautigan. Girls undressed for him. Fans mobbed him on the street. He was the first non-Beatle the Beatles signed for their spoken-word record label. Overnight, his sales went from none to hundreds to millions. His books introduced us to a Kool-Aid wino, junkyards selling waterfalls for nineteen dollars a foot, and a library for failed books.

His alternate world, utterly uninfluenced by literature’s ruling class (Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer), drew deeply on local memories: one trout stream’s flat white rocks reminded him of a white cat he had glimpsed, flung from a Tacoma hill into a parking lot: “The fall had not appreciably helped the thickness of the cat, and then a few people had parked their cars on the cat.” His work was funny, tough, lyrical by turns.

“He formed a bridge between the Beats and the hippies,” says WSU-Vancouver professor John F. Barber, a leading Brautigan scholar who created the mammoth Web archive. Barber is about to launch a free Brautigan Library inspired by the imaginary one in Brautigan’s fiction, and he supervises WSU’s first Fulbright fellow, a Ukrainian scholar studying Brautigan’s origin in “the swirling chaosmos” of the ’60s and ’70s.

Brautigan was the quintessential loner, not a joiner. He disdained LSD, politics and hippiedom. As with Bob Dylan, his chief influence was Civil War literature, and then there were Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, The Greek Anthology and an old Army fishing manual that helped inspire his literary hit.

Details from illustration by Chandler O’Leary

And it all happened so fast. From 1955 to 1965, he earned about ten thousand dollars a year in today’s dollars, just below the poverty line for a single person, and he had a wife and daughter. He walked everywhere to avoid fifteen-cent bus fares. In 1965 he wrote, “I feel as if I’m not making enough money to justify my citizenship.”

In 1967, he sold two books for the equivalent of $122,000. His 1970 contract was about $924,000. He made at least $1.5 million (equivalent to $6 million today) and blew most of it on obsessive travel, three-fifths-a-day booze binges, alimony necessitated by addictive skirt-chasing, and a $24,000-a-year habit of phoning friends long-distance in the wee hours. Once, enraged, he burned all the phones in his house in the fireplace.

His woes, and his art, are rooted in his shadowy childhood. He wrote the famous story “The Ghost Children of Tacoma,” and he was the city’s true ghost child. Tacoma hurt him into poetry. Life was war. “The children of Tacoma, Washington, went to war in December 1941,” he wrote. “It seemed like the thing to do, following in the footsteps of their parents and other grownups who acted as if they knew what was happening. . . . I personally killed 352,892 enemy soldiers without wounding one . . . I used to hunt up a couple of flashlights and hold them lit in my hands at night, with my arms straight out from my body, and be a night pilot zooming down the streets of Tacoma.”

“Brautigan’s time in Tacoma is pretty much a mystery,” says Barber. After he left the Northwest in 1956 to reinvent himself as a writer in San Francisco, Brautigan cut all ties with his mother and siblings, and seldom spoke about his life. “He adamantly refused to talk about it, even to his family,” says Barber. “All these tantalizing clues are strewn throughout the work.” When Brautigan’s daughter asked to see her grandma, Mary Lou Kehoe, he showed her an old photo, told her to get a good look, then burned it in the fireplace. When a newspaper phoned his father, Bernard Brautigan, upon his death at forty-nine in 1984, his father said, “Who the hell is Richard Brautigan?”

Some known facts: Mary Lou, a bootlegger’s daughter, married Bernard at eighteen, left him while pregnant with Richard (her first child), and thereafter lived in dire poverty, forever on the run. She moved from welfare hotels to the homes of “a succession of ‘uncles’ with whom his mother was more or less involved,” says Ron Loewinsohn, a Berkeley professor and the mentor to whom Brautigan dedicated Trout Fishing. Brautigan claimed he once lived upstairs from a Tacoma candy factory — tantalizing for a kid who could only afford stale candy bars — and next door to a slaughterhouse. He said the screaming hogs traumatized him, and that his kid sister was beaten for wetting the bed; he was likely beaten, too.

Brautigan grew up a social outcast, ashamed of his worn-out tennis shoes. He resented the elites all his life. At Harvard, he made rude comments to his adoring audience; as Caltech’s poet in residence, he wrote, “I don’t care how God-damn smart / these guys are: I’m bored.”

Brautigan poses for Playboy in San Francisco in 1970; © Erik Weber.

His most prominent stepfather, itinerant fry cook and barfly Richard Porterfield, starred in a primal scene Brautigan obsessed over all his life. In 1944, Mary Lou (known as “Tootie”), who had separated from Porterfield (whom she called “Tex”), took her son, aged nine, and his sister to Great Falls, Montana, for a Valentine’s Day reunion with him. Revolted by his foulmouthed drunkenness, Tootie fled back to Tacoma two weeks later, leaving the kids alone in a rooming house above Tex’s kitchen. Brautigan claimed he was fond of Tex, because when Tex tied him to the bedpost, he left enough rope for Brautigan to get to the bathroom and the window. According to William Hjortsberg, who is just finishing a mammoth Brautigan biography (see excerpt, p. 19), Brautigan said he “stayed up night after night staring at the closed door, waiting for his mother’s return.”

Eventually she took them back to Tacoma, where they lived at 1346 Fawcett, 721 Fawcett, and 1004 ½ S. 11th, Apartment 3. But he never forgave her. Tootie was to Brautigan what Daddy was to Sylvia Plath. In “dear old mommie,” he writes, “My mother / was quite / a gal. / Yup. / God bless / her soul / that / did a perfect / imitation / of a mole.” She vanished down the mole-hole of memory. So he abandoned her (and every subsequent woman in his life).

At twenty, he showed up at a Eugene police station demanding to be arrested, in a fit of neurotic lovesickness when a girl rejected his verse. Told he’d broken no law, he broke a glass partition with a rock — and wound up not in jail, but in the same mental hospital Ken Kesey later worked at, where he was tormented by brutal electroshock treatments for weeks or months. His sister said he was never the same. Bitter, he left the Northwest for San Francisco, bent on literary fame. It was an ambition utterly baffling to everyone he’d grown up with.

Not everything about his Tacoma youth was bad. He fell in love with trout fishing, which kept him fed and gave him his deepest poetic theme. And his books are full of privileged glimpses into life here in the ’30s and ’40s: snow on wildflowers in the shadows of trees one sunny day in Mt. Rainier meadows, where the home-craving kid played house in a huge hollow rock; cheating at Chinese checkers with a ninety-three-year-old widow; the feel of “plodding through Tacoma twilights” with a childhood chum, another “slum sparrow.”

Processing highly charged memories — what he called “gunk” — was the key to his inspiration. “Whatever happens to me or any ideas I have sink back in the gunk until the time comes to write,” he told his friend and biographer Keith Abbott. “Then if they come out, fine. I type very fast and I let the first draft come out as fast as it can.” Not in a Kerouac logorrhea, but in a tight, simple style — like a wise child’s.

“Richard always seemed to me split down the middle between the tough-guy persona he cultivated and the truly pathetic gigantic hole in his emotional life that he had to fill with what scraps he could find,” says Loewinsohn. “When fame came to him it came like an addictive drug. It took him over and poisoned him and claimed him for itself.”

The flower of Brautigan’s fame wilted as the ’80s came. Annual royalties plunged under fifty thousand dollars. A planned movie by Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude) fell through. Divorce, failure and liquor proved perilous to a man with a family tradition of suicide. “Those Brautigans!” Mary Lou exclaimed. “Always killing themselves. One sister killed herself, and a brother did too.” Once while drunk, he shot out all the hours on his kitchen clock, then framed it with the caption, “Shootout at OK Kitchen.” In his last hour, he shot out eternity.

But suicide is not his only legacy. Novelist and screenwriter Don Carpenter called him “the most important writer to come out of the Pacific Northwest — ever. •


Brautigan’s Tacoma Moonshiner Grandmother

(Book Excerpt)
By William Hjortsberg

The nineteen-twenties provided unparalleled opportunity for those with ambition and vision. Bessie Dixon, a natural-born businesswoman, discovered she possessed ample amounts of both. By decade’s end, the farm girl from Illinois was known in the Pacific Northwest as “Moonshine Bess.” In 1921, Mary Lou’s mother worked at Manning’s Coffee Shop on Converse Street in Tacoma. Bessie struck up an acquaintance with one of the regular customers, an Italian named Frank Campana who spoke broken English and had been a machine gunner during the World War. Mary Lou remembered him as an insulting man, “very crude and insolent.” Bessie Dixon never married her Italian lover. Bessie became both his paramour and his business partner. They opened a restaurant on Pacific Avenue and 25th Street housing a “blind pig” in the rear. Fried eggs and pork chops up front and a bartender pouring shots behind the secret door out back. Frank and Bessie maintained a still hidden in the woods. They brought the hooch into town in gallon jugs and hid it out at Bessie’s place on 813 East 65th Street, just off McKinley Avenue.

It was a respectable blue-collar churchgoing neighborhood. No one suspected an illicit bootleg ring operated in an average home on an ordinary street. The evenings were scented by baking bread while handsome young men sat out on the mansion’s balcony playing guitars and singing songs in French. Enclosed by a nice yard, Bessie’s place had a woodshed out back. The gang hid jugs of moonshine under the sawdust in a potato bin in the woodshed and filled orders for pints and fifths from the gallon bottles. Playing in the woodshed, Bessie’s two boys, Edward and Sone, discovered the hidden jugs. The mysterious rainwater-clear liquid suggested a great new game. The brothers hauled several gallons out to the curb and waved at passing motorists like kids with a lemonade stand. “Want to buy a bottle of pop? Only a nickel . . . ” They looked so damned cute, six or seven years old, two little tikes in homemade coveralls. “The buttons were always broken off the traps on the backs,” Mary Lou remembered. “Their fannies always seemed to be showing.”

The boys sold a jug to an old lady who lived in the neighborhood. She called the police and the dry squad arrived out on 65th Street, armed with a warrant. Through some error it had been made out for Eveline Kehoe [Mary Lou’s sister], then little more than ten years old. In a true Keystone Kop frenzy, they served the warrant on the little girl and set to work searching the place, tearing up the sidewalk out front. The potato bin had been emptied out and sold off at five cents a jug. Nothing incriminating was found. Also, the warrant was invalid. Bessie nailed them dead to rights. She made the police replace the sidewalk and put all the rest back into proper order. Al Capone could not have played it better.

Along with their blind pig behind the restaurant on 25th Street, Moonshine Bess and her Italian cohorts operated another joint known as Ruth’s Place above a branch of the Bank of California in downtown Tacoma. Customers slipped furtively up the side stairs to buy hooch while the honest johns down below negotiated short-term loans. The bankers never suspected bootleggers prospered above their heads.

Eventually, Ruth’s Place got raided. Johnny Pisanni was upstairs taking a bath when the cops pounded on the door. His brother George went to admit what he took for an overeager client. The police stormed in and nabbed him. With the dry squad was an undercover agent who had recently made a purchase there. Hearing the commotion below, Johnny slipped out the bathroom window onto the roof of the bank, clad only in a towel. A neighbor spotted Johnny Pisanni prowling around the roof in the rain and called the police, claiming a naked bandit was robbing the bank. Somehow, towel-wrapped Johnny Pisanni eluded the law. His brother and Robert Columbini went to the slammer but kept their mouths shut and didn’t rat out their partners. After a trial, George Pisanni was deported back to Italy and Columbini sent to McNeil Island penitentiary for a three-year stretch. Frank Campana and Bessie Dixon got off scot-free. When Columbini was released from prison they paid him off for his silence. Bootlegging made other demands on Bessie. She was away from home a good deal and found little time for her kids. They were a wild bunch. Hooligans. Bessie hired housekeepers and boarded them out; nothing seemed to work. “We were so bad no one would take care of us,” Mary Lou said.

— excerpted with permission from the author