To mark the release of Edward Bunker’s autobiography, Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade, we unleashed CT’s master of the retrospective on a life like no other…
Despite assurances from scientists about the nature of earthquakes, supernatural beliefs regarding the significance of seismic land-upheavals still persist in some parts of the world. Of course, in ancient times, natural disasters were often perceived as punishment from an angry deity. Although now, in the late twentieth century, we live in the epoch of the global village and at a time when science is regarded as an infallible avatar, superstitious notions are still harboured by many of the world’s inhabitants. One such person who didn’t accept earthquakes at face value was Edward Bunker’s mother, Sarah. A sense of profound foreboding (call it superstition if you will) affected the troubled mind of this young woman who, during the 1930s, had worked in vaudeville theatre and been a chorus girl in Busby Berkeley’s extravagant Hollywood musicals. She sensed some portentous event had occurred at the moment of her son’s conception. That was March, 1933, in Southern California. A major earthquake – resulting in fatalities and extensive damage to buildings – terrorised Los Angeles’s inhabitants. It also mortified Bunker’s parents, who were coupling at the exact moment the first tremors of the earthquake struck. To make matters worse for Bunker, at the time he made his unpropitious entry into the world (at Hollywood’s Cedar Of Lebanon Hospital on December 31st, 1933), Los Angeles was in the grip of a torrential downpour of almost Biblical proportions with trees and even houses being swept away by dangerous currents. The alarming synchronicity of both cataclysmic events confirmed in his mother’s mind that Edward would be trouble. For her, there was no denying that Bunker Junior was born under a bad sign, and sadly, she instilled this belief into him when he was an impressionable youngster.
Well, for young Edward and his parents, it was not long before the seeds of that pair of bad omens seemed to bear substantial fruit. At the age of two, Edward wandered off from a family picnic in a local park but was eventually located after a search-party of two hundred men had combed the area. Then he accidentally set fire to a neighbour’s garage! On the face of it, young Ed may have seemed the toddler from hell but it’s more likely that these incidents resulted from his parents’ abject lack of supervision rather than any innate inclination on his part to do harm. Indeed, Bunker’s abiding memories from this period focus on the deteriorating relationship of his parents, who fought and argued with an intensity that resulted in the police frequently being called out to intervene. Bunker’s father, incidentally, Edward Snr, like his wife, worked in Hollywood. Principally he was a stage-hand although occasionally he worked as a grip (a specialised technician who builds film sets). He was almost fifty when his only son, Edward Junior was born. As the marriage became increasingly acrimonious (fuelled in part by alcoholism), so young Ed was left to his own devices.
Fight and Flight
Bunker was only five when his parents’ troubled marriage was finally dissolved. A consequence of the divorce proceedings was that he was sent to a boarding/foster home. Profoundly unhappy, he ran away for the first time and found himself roaming the city streets at night. For this, the foster home rejected him and Bunker then went through a succession of draconian institutions which attempted to curb his defiant, rebellious nature with harsh discipline and sadistic, often brutal practices. He attended a military school for a couple of months (where, through peer pressure, he took to theft). He ran way from here, boarded a train and found himself 400 miles away in a hobo camp. The authorities were alerted and Bunker was accosted but this chaotic, peripatetic lifestyle persisted throughout his formative years. Shoplifting and the theft of ration coupons eventually landed Bunker in a heap of big trouble and he was sent to an institution known as a Juvenile Hall, a kind of borstal or reform school. Here, Bunker became acquainted with hardened young criminals and quickly realised that if he wanted to survive this experience or at least avoid being somebody’s punk (being sodomised) he had to learn the rules of the jungle. Although younger and smaller than most of his fellow inmates, Bunker was smart (his IQ had been estimated at 152), highly literate, streetwise and recalcitrant. He soon became fearless and inured to the dog-eat-dog brutality of the place. After a fight with a fellow inmate, Bunker was sent to a state hospital for observation from which he soon escaped, living rough on the streets. He was caught by the cops after a car he hot-wired crashed. He was then sent to an insane asylum to be assessed and was almost beaten to death by an attendant. Fortunately, Bunker was declared sane, and was allowed to leave with his life just about intact. It was not long before he escaped reform school and was back roughing it on the streets. Three months later, he was apprehended by the cops living in an a old car in someone’s backyard. He was then shunted on to the Preston School of Industry which was designated for older teenagers. Bunker was still only fourteen. Eventually, he was paroled to his aunt. By this time his estranged mother had remarried and his father (now 62) languished in a rest home because of premature senility. While with his aunt, Bunker continued to keep bad company and late hours. It was only a matter of time before he fell foul of the law again, this time for an outstanding parole violation. But Bunker’s reputation as a troublemaker had catapulted him beyond the remit of California’s Youth Authority. Despite his age, he was in the big league now. This time it was serious. This time it was prison.
Crime and Punishment
While most teenagers were still at high school, Edward Bunker was a veteran of California’s stern custodial institutions for young offenders. From his earliest days, his life had been hurtling on a relentless trajectory towards a life in crime that would ultimately lead to lengthy incarceration in prison. And that’s where he found himself at 16 years-of-age. But it didn’t chasten him one iota. To the proud, hardened Bunker, prison was an underground university of life. He gained the acquaintance of some of America’s most notorious criminals and from this experience gleaned knowledge which not only helped him to survive on the inside but inspired schemes and scams when he was back on the outside. But back on the inside, Bunker was hard and vicious and proud of it. He stabbed a mass murderer in the showers while at LA’s notorious County Jail. He was feared and he was respected (some regarded Bunker as a little crazy but in Mr Blue, he stated it was a protective mechanism on his part so that people would leave him alone). The last vestiges of civilisation’s thin veneer had been scraped away in prison, leaving the inner core of one’s being. In prison, men reverted back to animalistic behaviour: the predator and the prey. In spite of his youth, Bunker made it patently clear he was not in the latter category. If anyone messed with him, they’d find themselves either dead or in hospital (in truth, Bunker was not a cold-blooded killer but would not hesitate to ruthlessly defend himself). Furthermore, he knew the consequences of his lifestyle, heedful of the old prison adage “if you do the crime you do the time.” It was a simple equation that Bunker understood implicitly and accepted without
Hollywood’s Helping Hand
During his rampant teenage years, Bunker made an important acquaintance with an affluent fifty-something woman who was to help him change his life. She was Louise Fazenda Wallis, wife of the legendary Hollywood movie producer, Hal B. Wallis, the mogul behind such cinematic classics as Little Caesar, Casablanca and Gunfight At The OK Corral. Louise Wallis had been a movie star herself in the 1920s, a slapstick comedienne starring in some of Max Sennett’s riotous silent reels. In the 1950s, when she met Edward Bunker, she was involved in helping out those less fortunate than herself. When Bunker left LA County Jail she gave him work. Initially, Bunker was perplexed by Mrs. Wallis’s interest in him and was under the impression that her motives were less than honourable: he imagined she might want a teenage gigolo or else wanted to hire him to kill her husband. But Bunker’s suspicions were soon allayed by Louise Wallis’s warm, ingenuous nature and zany sense of humour. She really did want to help him and gave strong words of encouragement without reproaching him for his past. Bunker was more fortunate than many of his peers in having such a magnanimous benefactress. He spent many pleasurable hours in her company, not only doing chores for her but also lounging in the swimming pool at her mansion. He also met many of that period’s celebrities, including the boxer Jack Dempsey, the writers Aldous Huxley and Tennessee Williams and even the media magnate, William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane). By this time, Hearst was infirm and wheel-chair bound. Bunker actually was taken to Hearst’s palatial residence at San Simeon and was there, dipping in the old man’s swimming pool, the day the mogul died.
But apart from his friendship with Louise Wallis, Bunker continued to hang-out with low lifes: pimps, whores, dope-addicts and boosters. He tried heroin and then began selling crudely-harvested marijuana. While out on a delivery a police pulled up alongside him, indicating him to stop. Bunker drove off but crashed into a car and a mail truck. Apprehended by the law, he was sent to LA county jail. Fortunately, Bunker didn’t have the proverbial book thrown at him (he was charged with violating parole and put on probation) and ended up at a parole centre from which he escaped, returning to drug-selling. He was eventually caught again and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. It was 1951 and Bunker was 17. The exasperated authorities finally sent him to his destiny: the notorious San Quentin prison.
SAN QUENTIN – Blood and Books
At that time, in 1951, 17-year-old Edward Bunker had the dubious honour of being San Quentin’s youngest ever inmate. While banged up in solitary (aka “the hole”), Bunker could hear the incessant clicking of a typewriter. It came from the cell of death-row inmate, Caryl Chessman. Chessman, known as LA’s notorious “red light bandit” had written a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel about prison life called Cell 2455 Death Row. Bunker already knew Chessman from an earlier meeting. Chessman sent over to Bunker’s cell (via a sympathetic guard) a copy of Argosy Magazine in which the first chapter of his book appeared. Bunker was inspired by Chessman’s example. He also identified with the writers Cervantes and Dostoyevsky, both of whom had written while incarcerated. Later, Louise Wallis (who kept Bunker on her mailing and visiting list) procured him a typewriter. Learning the fundamental mechanics of writing as he went along, over the course of the next 18 months Bunker would eventually produce a novel which was smuggled out to Wallis who showed it her friends and declared that although it was unpublishable, Bunker evinced a nascent writing talent. But it would take a further 17 years before a book of Bunker’s reached publication (that book, No Beast So Fierce, would actually be his sixth completed novel). Bunker, who had a voracious appetite for reading books since a child, spent much of his time acquainting himself with the contents of the prison library, accruing, as a result, a vast and encyclopaedic knowledge. Louise Wallis (who by this time Bunker addressed in his correspondence as “Mom”) gave him a subscription to the New York Times Book Review. Bunker even sold his blood to pay postage costs and the fees for a university correspondence course.
Cars and bars
Bunker was 22 when he was finally paroled. It was 1956. He had served almost 5 years inside San Quentin. The important thing was that he had survived (and without becoming anyone’s punk!). But survival on the outside was a different matter. In fact, it seemed a far harder task to do it by honest endeavour, despite the many doors that Louise Wallis opened for him with her altruism. She wanted to assist Bunker in helping himself and pointed him in the right direction by finding him work and accommodation. But Bunker, as a former con, felt ostracised by a society which never truly felt comfortable with convicted criminals in its midst. And besides, after his being banged up for half a decade, the temptations were just too overwhelming.
For a time, Bunker stayed clear of trouble. However, his benefactor, Louise Wallis, evinced increasingly erratic behaviour and seemed at the point of recklessly giving all her wealth away. Although she bought him a car and kitted him out in expensive clothes, Bunker never tried to take advantage of her good nature. After a drunken outburst at her home, Louise Wallis was diagnosed as having a nervous breakdown and while she went to hospital to recuperate, her husband Hal Wallis alienated her network of old friends and acquaintances, including Bunker. He had harboured ambitions of becoming a screenplay writer but overnight had become a persona non gratis in the Wallis household (Louise Wallis would die not long after, in 1962). So he tried his hand at selling used cars for a short time and then worked as a salesman at a small garage owned by an English ex-patriot. It wasn’t long, though, before he descended into LA’s seamy underworld and returned to crime to make ends meet: orchestrating robberies (though not actually taking part himself, he took a percentage for the planning), forging cheques and involving himself in extorting protection money from pimps.
Within a couple of years, Bunker found himself back on the inside again, having been found consorting with known felons (he happened to be travelling in a car owned by two burglars who had their tools in the boot of the vehicle). Details of Bunker’s misdemeanours together with a damning report by his hard-ass probation officer conspired to give him a 90 day jail sentence which included being sent out on work detail to the county farm (where low risk prisoners were sent). Bunker escaped almost immediately by climbing over a poorly guarded fence. He was a fugitive from justice once again and stayed on the run for over a year, despite a couple of close shaves with the police. Robbed of his cash while staying in an hotel during a road trip to New York, Bunker resorted to armed robbery out of desperation for immediate funds.
Inevitably, the agents of justice caught up with Bunker, but not before a failed bank heist and a wild car chase had ensued.
Bunker tried to get out of going back to prison by pretending to be insane. He gave a convincing performance (faking suicide and declaring that the Catholic Church had inserted a radio inside his head!) and was declared criminally insane. Bunker was shunted back and forth between Atascadero State Hospital and the California Medical Facility at Vacaville (where he edited a prison newspaper). Although Bunker was eventually freed, he could not keep out of trouble. His notoriety as a criminal mastermind put him on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. In San Francisco in the early 70s, Bunker ran a profitable drug empire. He was eventually caught after the cops had put a tracking device on his vehicle and followed him to Los Angeles where he boosted a bank (in fact, the police couldn’t believe their luck – they were under the erroneous impression that a drug deal was going down). With a helicopter and five cop cars on his trail, Bunker was apprehended after a car chase. He expected the book to be thrown at him for the robbery, anticipating at least a 20 year sentence. Miraculously and largely due to the solicitations of influential friends and a lenient judge, he got only a five year custodial sentence.
Back in prison, Bunker focused on improving his writing skills. His perseverance (he produced 6 novels and 50 short stories between 1953 and 72) was rewarded by encouraging words from an genuinely interested literary agent. By 1972, Bunker had finally produced a novel, No Beast So Fierce, which, after some judicious pruning was accepted by the publisher, WW Norton. At the same time, Bunker’s essay “War Behind Wall” about San Quentin’s internecine race wars was published in the prestigious Harper’s magazine.
When Eddie Bunker was released on parole in 1975, he had spent 18 years of his life in prison institutions. Despite his new career as a writer, for a time, a life of crime still had its temptations, particularly when money got tight. But once Bunker was earning money from his writing and film appearances, he had no need to resort to crime to survive. His own view of his descent into criminal activity was that it was dictated solely by circumstances and necessity – once those circumstances changed for the better, the criminal impulse died in him.
A second published novel, Animal Factory, appeared in 1977 and articles followed in The New Yorker and both the New York and LA Times. Happily for the ex-convict, the actor, Dustin Hoffman, who had bought the film rights to No Beast So Fierce, in 1975, made a favourable deal with First Artists which allowed him not only to direct the movie but also supervise its all-important final cut. But taking on the mantle of director as well as starring in the main role as convict Max Dembo proved too much for Hoffman, who persuaded his old pal Ulu Grosbard to take over directorial duties. To Hoffman’s dismay, First Artists reneged on their earlier decision to allow him the final cut and tampered with the film’s editing in such a way that Hoffman sued for damages. Controversy aside and despite disappointing critical and commercial responses, Straight Time was a good movie and a faithful representation of life in the US penal system. Bunker collaborated with Alvin Sargeant and Jeffrey Roam on the movie’s screenplay. The film was also significant for Edward Bunker in that it represented his first acting part in a movie. It would be the first of many fleeting cameos that Bunker would play over the next two decades, including playing the part of a cop (Captain Holmes) in Tango and Cash (1988) and culminating with his famous role as Mr Blue in Tarantino’s acclaimed Reservoir Dogs. Indeed, Bunker’s minor thespian exertions even made him eligible for a Screen Actors Guild pension.
In 1979, Bunker claimed that he found true salvation in an attractive young lawyer, Jennifer, whom he married (despite a difference in age and background they are still together and have a young son, Brendan, born in 1994).
In 1981, Bunker produced a third novel, Little Boy Blue, which contained some of his most impressive and eloquent writing. In 1985, Bunker wrote part of the Academy Award-nominated screenplay to the film Runaway Train, starring Jon Voigt as a fugitive con (Bunker mainly wrote the opening half-hour of the movie depicting prison life).
In 1991, Bunker was cast by wunderkind director, Quentin Tarantino (at the suggestion of Chris Penn) in Reservoir Dogs as Mr. Blue. Tarantino, in fact, had apparently studied the movie Straight Time while attending a course at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute for young film-makers. A couple of years later, in 1994, Bunker was hired as a consultant on the film American Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as the con Jack Kelson, who has just been released from the slammer and is hoping to go straight by cleaning windows. In Michael Mann’s slick 1995 thriller, Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, some of the cast picked Bunker’s brain about the nature of the criminal mind (Jon Voigt’s character, in fact, was made to resemble Bunker in appearance).
In 1996, Bunker produced his fourth crime novel, the action-packed Dog Eat Dog, based upon a story a fellow con had related to him while in prison. His latest book, Mr Blue, a candid autobiography, has just been published with the possibility that one of his earlier, previously unpublished novels, a sort of Jim Thompson-esque, noir novel, will follow shortly afterwards.
Ironically, Edward Bunker continues to make a living from crime – but for the last quarter of a century, he’s only been writing about it. After having begun life in somewhat unfortunate circumstances in Hollywood some sixty-six years ago, Edward Bunker has returned to whence he came to reside in tinsel town as a model citizen. No longer the human equivalent of an earthquake, Bunker (though still unrepentant about his criminal exploits), lives in relative serenity after many turbulent years evading the law.
No Beast So Fierce (1973)(No Exit Press)
A view of the world from a criminal perspective. Described by Hollywood wunderkind director, Quentin Tarantino, in exultant terms as “the best first person crime novel I have ever read,” this searing debut novel relates the life and crimes of one Max Dembo. In it, Bunker examines the ambivalent relationship between society and criminals. Despite his genuine desire to go straight after being released from prison, the world seems to conspire against Dembo, creating pitfalls and erecting insurmountable barriers to effectively prevent him from rejoining the human race. Dembo’s criminality ostracises him from so-called ordinary, law-abiding citizens. The only people that accept him unconditionally are fellow law-breakers. Max wants to get a regular job in order to live and eat but prison has given him no skills or experience. Hassled by his mistrustful, obnoxious parole officer, the stigmatised Dembo resorts to the only life he knows, that of robbery, violence and hard drugs. As visceral as an iron bar in the solar plexus. Ouch!
The Animal Factory (1977)(No Exit Press)
Bunker’s riveting sophomore novel tells the story of the middle class, college-educated Ronald Decker, who finds himself sent to San Quentin on what he thought would be a relatively minor drugs charge. The harsh, sordid reality of prison life administers a sharp jolt to Decker’s psyche. It’s even more of a profound shock to his somewhat delicate bourgeois sensibilities to be considered punk jailbait in the company of bona fide convicts but Decker is quickly transformed from guileless milksop to knife-wielding hard-nut by the paternalistic, protective helping-hand of veteran inmate, Earl Copen. A film version of this novel starring Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke with actor Steven Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) at the director’s helm is currently in production.
Little Boy Blue (1981)(No Exit Press)
A thinly-veiled autobiographical novel depicting the misadventures of eleven-year-old tearaway, Alex Hammond, whose ping-pong vacillation between foster homes and corrective institutions mirrors Bunker’s own tragic childhood and adolescence. This novel features some of Bunker’s best insights into the causal factors of criminality. An elegiac tale of lost childhood and wasted youth.
Dog Eat Dog (1997)(No Exit Press)
Bunker’s most recent piece of fiction is a tense, action-packed page-turner which focuses on the strained friendship between Troy, Mad Dog McCain and Diesel. All three are hardened criminals who plan an armed robbery that goes awry. Thematically, the book focuses on friendship, fealty and society’s somewhat jaundiced and hypocritical view of criminality. The book also contrasts highly-skilled, old school, professional criminals who took pride in their work with the modern generation of drug-addled, blundering opportunists with no regard for human life.
As hard-boiled as they come.
Mr Blue: Memoirs of a Renegade (1999)
Bunker’s long-awaited autobiography is a compelling trip to penal hell and back, the hell being the criminal way of life that Bunker endured right up until his early forties. Grim, gripping, funny, imbued with pathos but never sentimental, Mr Blue is an extraordinary read.
Edward Bunker is published by No Exit Press in the UK