Charles Bukowski was born as Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, to Heinrich (Henry) Bukowski and Katharina (née Fett). His paternal grandfather Leonard had emigrated to America from Germany in the 1880s. In Cleveland, Leonard met Emilie Krause who had emigrated from Danzig (today Gdańsk, Poland), then part of Germany. They married and settled in Pasadena. He worked as a carpenter, setting up his own very successful construction company. The couple had four children, including Heinrich (Henry), Charles Bukowski’s father.
Charles Bukowski’s parents met in Andernach in western Germany following World War I. The poet’s father was a sergeant in the United States Army serving in Germany following Germany’s defeat in 1918. He had an affair with Katharina, a German friend’s sister, and she became pregnant. Charles Bukowski repeatedly claimed to be born out of wedlock, but Andernach marital records indicate that his parents married one month prior to his birth.
Afterwards, Henry Bukowski became a building contractor, set to make great financial gains in the aftermath of the war, and after two years moved the family to Pfaffendorf. However, given the crippling reparations being required of Germany, which led to a stagnant economy and high levels of inflation, Henry Bukowski was unable to make a living, so he decided to move the family to the United States. On April 23, 1923, they sailed from Bremerhaven to Baltimore, Maryland, where they settled. Bukowski’s parents began calling their son the Anglophone version of his first name (‘Heinrich’), ‘Henry’, in order to help him assimilate, which the poet would later change to ‘Charles’. Accordingly, they altered the pronunciation of the family name from /buːˈkɒfski/ boo-kof-skee to /buːˈkaʊski/ boo-kow-ski. Bukowski’s parents were Roman Catholic.
The family settled in South Central Los Angeles in 1930, the city where Charles Bukowski’s father and grandfather had previously worked and lived. In the ’30s the poet’s father was often unemployed. In the autobiographical Ham on Rye Charles Bukowski says that, with his mother’s acquiescence, his father was frequently abusive, both physically and mentally, beating his son for the smallest imagined offence. During his youth Bukowski was shy and socially withdrawn. Neighborhood children ridiculed his German accent and the clothing his parents made him wear. Although he seemed to suffer from Dyslexia, he was highly praised at school for his art work. This depression later bolstered his rage as he grew, and gave him much of his voice and material for his writings.
In his early teens, Bukowski had an epiphany when he was introduced to alcohol by his loyal friend William “Baldy” Mullinax, depicted as “Eli LaCrosse” in Ham on Rye, son of an alcoholic surgeon. “This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time”, he later wrote, describing the genesis of his chronic alcoholism; or, as he saw it, the genesis of a method he could utilize to come to more amicable terms with his own life.After graduating from Los Angeles High School, Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College for two years, taking courses in art, journalism, and literature, before quitting at the start of World War II. He then moved to New York to begin a career as a writer.