Charles Bukowski became what Time magazine termed the “laureate of American low life” with his literary portrayals of women, booze, shitty jobs and the city of angels. “I’m all for alcohol: I’ll tell you. It’s the thing,” he once said, recalling the time he was introduced to drinking in his early teens. "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 start of a method he could use to come to terms with the pointless daily pain of life. His alcoholism took him traveling across America as a wandering bum, into the hospital, through several unhappy marriages, through 12 boring years in the post office, and provided him with numerous adventures for Henry Chinaski, his alter-ago in many of his works. Bukowski died—not of alcoholism but of leukemia, on March 9th, 1994, in Los Angeles.
As eloquent expounding on alcoholism as he is writing about psychotic teen girls with telekinetic powers, horror writer and literary powerhouse Stephen King surprised everyone when he “came out” in his memoir On Writing and revealed much of the 80s had been spent in a haze of booze and drugs. In the memoir, King relates how shortly after the publication of The Tommyknockers, his family staged an intervention, and dumped the detritus of his addiction in front of him: beer cans, cigarette butts, grams of cocaine, Xanax, Valium, Nyquil, dextromethorphan (cough medicine) and marijuana. King subsequently joined a 12-step program, got sober and has proven to be a profound and interesting writer on the subject, weighing in on the whole James Frey debacle with an insightful article in EW which delved deep into the addicts’ psychology of lying: “Yeah, stewbums and stoners lie about the big stuff, like how much and how often, but they also lie about the small things. Mostly just to stay in practice. Ask an active alcoholic what time it is, and 9 times out of 10 he’ll lie to you. And if his girlfriend killed herself by slashing her wrists (always assuming there was a girlfriend), he may say she hung herself, instead. Why? Basically, to stay in training. It’s the Liar’s Disease.”
There has perhaps been no writer as unapologetic and brazen about his lifelong abuse of alcohol and narcotics than the indomitable Hunter S. Thompson. Known for coining the term “gonzo journalism” to describe his style of reporting—where the writer becomes so deeply entwined in the story he’s investigating, he becomes the central protagonist—Thompson became a legendary literary figure, immortalized in his own work. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” he once said, “but they've always worked for me.” It’s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps, that Thompson’s love of hallucinogenics, cocaine, alcohol and whatever hell else he could get his hands on was most glorified. Despite his fierce defense of his lifestyle, Thompson’s death by suicide at the age of 67 hinted that all was not quite as well as he liked to make it seem.
Few choose their addict lifestyle intentionally, but William S. Burroughs breaks that mold. A graduate of Harvard, Burroughs was a beat drifter with little idea of what to do with his life so his parents supported him while he tried out various lifestyles—including that of heroin addict. In the process, he became part of a crowd of nonconformists that included leaders of the Beat generation like fellow addict Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg. After a tragic accident in which Burroughs tried to do a “William Tell” act and shoot a glass on top of his wife’s head but killed her with a single shot instead, he ran away to Tangiers, and started writing. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped type up a mass of his autobiographical stories, and suggested that he publish them under the name “Naked Lunch.” He died in 1997 after complications from a heart attack.
“Write drunk: edit sober,” said Ernest Hemingway, and it seemed to work for him. A short story writer, journalist and novelist, his books are considered among America’s great classics and his terse, spare prose is legendary. However, Hemingway’s heavy drinking—which found its way into the lives of his fiercest literary creations—eventually descended into alcoholism. In 1961, Hemingway was admitted to a mental hospital for severe depression. Upon his release, he committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho with a shotgun.
Best known for her “misery memoir” about depression, Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel penned a less publicized follow-up, More, Now, Again, about her struggles with heroin, cocaine, and Ritalin, about which she wrote, “I crush up my pills and snort them like dust. They are my sugar. They are the sweetness in the days that have none. They drip through me like tupelo honey. Then they are gone. Then I need more. I always need more. For all of my life I have needed more." Wurtzel is now a practicing lawyer in New York City, and regularly contributes to The Wall Street Journal.
The massively prolific author and screenwriter quit the sauce in 1977. Even then, he says in a UK Guardian interview, he was mostly a pretty sociable drunk. “I always had a good time. I'd drunk from high school with fake IDs. And in the navy in the war I drank. My mother said my father used to drink but I don't ever recall seeing him drunk once.” However, he admits that “it was possibly always more of a problem than I thought...I was drinking a lot in the morning. A friend had been at AA a while and he took me along. My first wife and I were arguing a lot, and we were with a group who drank, and finally we separated and we were divorced. It was my second wife who really helped me through the most difficult time. I didn't go to a clinic. I just quit cold turkey.” Leonard says that he never relied on alcohol for the writing, and that since quitting, “The writing definitely improved: you know, I was waking up in the morning for the first time with a clear head, wanting breakfast.”
Few exemplify the tragedy behind comedy as perfectly as Dorothy Parker. As well known for her drinking and suicide attempts as she was for her scathing sarcasm and sparkling wit, DP was a brilliant prose, verse and screenwriter, earning two Oscar nominations before being thrown onto the Hollywood Blacklist for championing left leaning causes like civil rights and civil liberties. Parker’s alcoholism increased dramatically in later years and she was eventually admitted to a sanatorium. (The story goes that she told the doctor she would have to go out every hour or so for a drink; he warned her that she must stop drinking or she’d be dead within a month. "Promises, promises," she said with a sigh.) Despite Parker's irreverent and seeming lust for life and fun, a growing sense of desperation haunted her, as her short poem "The Flaw in Paganism" indicates: "Drink and dance and laugh and lie, / Love, the reeling midnight through, / For tomorrow we shall die! / (But, alas, we never do.)" Dorothy Parker eventually died of a heart attack at the age of 73, having survived several suicide attempts in her earlier life.
While he never explicitly stated that he was an addict or alcoholic, David Foster Wallace clearly identified with, and was fascinated by, the world of recovery, particularly in his most famous novel, Infinite Jest, which was half-set in a halfway home for addicts and alcoholics. After his suicide in 2008, DFW’s list of self-help and recovery materials were discovered and it was concluded that he did identify as an addict in recovery, and had spent time at Boston’s Granada House while recovering from drug addiction in the 80’s. Sadly, he felt that he’d never really achieved his literary goal: “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing, he thought, should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Despite his success, DFW thought, like many alcoholics, that he’d fallen short of his own impossibly high goals.
Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and the Oscar-winning writer of The Social Network, said in a revealing interview in W magazine that “the hardest thing I do every day is not take cocaine.” He talks candidly about his struggles with crack and cocaine abuse, and says that “You don’t get cured of addiction—you’re just in remission.” That attitude probably stems from a highly publicized 2001 arrest. “I had a window where I could fly to Vegas on a Friday, get high all night and then return to L.A. the next day," Sorkin explains. "I'd do this three times a year." Eventually one of these trips led to trouble when security guards at Burbank airport noticed a crack pipe in Sorkin’s luggage. They searched the bag, finding ‘shrooms and crack. After his arrest, Sorkin and his wife separated. “My daughter, Roxy, was only a few months old," he said in the same W interview. "She's now nine. I'm dreading the moment she goes online and reads about my arrest. But at least I'll have credibility with her when it comes to drugs. I won't be some old guy who doesn't know how to have fun."
It has long been reported that Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap in 1983, but, as it turns out, this was a “compassionate cover-up”: The famed playwright actually died as a result of his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and prescription drug addiction. Williams’ now-iconic plays featured sulking, dipsomaniacially inclined men and glamorously distraught women enmeshed in torturous love affairs, but despite the beautiful young male playthings who surrounded him in his later years, he was never really willing to lean on anyone. “I was still always falling down during this time,” he wrote in his recently published memoirs. “And I would always say, before falling, ‘I’m about to fall down,’ and almost nobody, nobody ever caught me.”
Master of misanthropy and courter of controversy, Christopher Hitchens called Johnnie Walker Black Label the “breakfast of champions,” and has said that he drinks “because it makes other people less boring.” He is more famous for his radical political stance than for his unapologetic zeal for liquor and cigarettes (although he gave up the latter in 2008), but his drinking is indeed legendary. When politician George Galloway called Hitchens a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay,” Hitchens replied, “He says that I am an ex-Trotskyist (true), a 'popinjay' (true enough, since the word's original Webster’s definition is a target for arrows and shots), and that I cannot hold a drink (here I must protest).” A cancer diagnosis in 2010 might have slowed Hitchens down just a little bit; he now says that he drinks “relatively carefully.”
Norman Mailer wrote, “Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square, the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.” A writer whose work challenged social mores during a particularly conservative chapter of American history, Paul Bowles gained notoriety as a polished, educated member of the literati who used kif and hashish alongside Beat writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs; he also took a public stand against criminalization of cannabis in Morocco, where he spent most of his life. In 1961, he wrote to Allen Ginsberg: “Kif—weeks fly by, seasons change, the sun shines, one works and writes letters, people come and go, and one remains in just the same position that one was in a good while ago.” Most stoners know this phenomenon all too well.
For someone who never went to AA, Truman Capote certainly had a knack for shameful self-admissions; he is quoted as saying, “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.” Flamboyant and overflowing with quotable bon mots, Capote juggled literary credibility, mainstream success, and a social life like no other: His legendary masked ball, the Black and White Ball, was considered “the party of the century.” In and out of rehab during his golden years, Capote first underwent plastic surgery and weight loss in a bid for reinvention, but eventually became reclusive. He died at the age of 59 from “liver disease, phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.”
For a writer who was known to introduce himself as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic,” Fitzgerald had a prolific—if brief—career. He and his wife Zelda lived nomadically, pulling geographics from one wealthy community to another, where Fitzgerald often finished off a quart of gin in a day. Though his writing, like the seminal novel The Great Gatsby and his giddily neurotic The Crack-Up were underappreciated in their time, he and his work have since been thoroughly canonized. It’s a shame Fitzgerald never lived to see it: He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 42.