Virginia Aste, Black Rock Cafe, Pahoa, Hawaii, Mother’s Day, 2008. Photo by Susan Kay Anderson
“Freedom?”: Richard Brautigan’s first wife, VIRGINIA ASTE, speaks in a new interview
Interview by Susan Kay Anderson
Edited with Introduction by Mike Daily, with biographical information contributed by John F. Barber, Richard Brautigan scholar
Less-than-revered by his Beat peers (Ginsberg gave him the ungainly nickname “Bunthorne,” Burroughs once observed him—drunk—crawling along the floor of a hotel after a reading event, Ferlinghetti said he “was all the novelist the hippies needed” because “[i]t was a nonliterate age”), Richard Brautigan became internationally famous in the late ’60s for writing simple-yet-surreal poems, short stories and novels that made readers marvel and burst out laughing. Brautigan’s personal life, however, was no laughing matter. Severe alcoholism—drinking a bottle of brandy and two fifths of whiskey a day during binges, according to friend Don Carpenter—and depression over declining book sales led to Brautigan’s suicide in September 1984. He was 49.
Brautigan began writing Trout Fishing in America in 1961 on a camping trip he took with his first wife, maiden name Virginia Alder, and their one-year-old daughter, Ianthe. Married in 1957 and separated in 1962, they officially divorced in 1970. Before the separation, Virginia Alder had become involved with one of Brautigan’s drinking buddies, Tony Aste, with whom she later had three children (the first in 1965, the second in 1968, the third in 1969). There is no known record that she and Tony Aste ever wed, though she took his last name. Virginia Aste eventually moved to Hawaii in 1975, without Tony, who remained, living in Bodega Bay, California, and then San Francisco, where he died in 1996.
Today, 75-year-old Virginia Aste is a political activist working as a substitute teacher in one of the most violent school districts in Hawaii. Susan Kay Anderson, a fellow educator at the school, recently met Virginia Aste and interviewed her about her early life and travels with Brautigan.
“Virginia Aste is not a ‘little old lady type,’” Anderson reports. “She is almost six feet tall and wears glasses, well-fitting outfits and interesting jewelry. Her gaze never wavers. She laughs easily and speaks in a measured, self-paced, quiet tone. She is quite funny and self-effacing, able to laugh at herself.”
“Much of Brautigan’s past has remained shrouded in mystery for so long as to become mythology,” says John F. Barber, curator of the comprehensive, multi-media online resource Brautigan Bibliography and Archive. “Virginia’s comments and insights [in this new interview] are important because they help us better understand the stories behind Brautigan, his life and his writings.”
Like a Waterfall
Arthur: What were the ’60s like?
Virginia Aste: The ’60s were a lot like the ’50s, a continuation of [the '50s], except for ‘68 and ‘69. Then, everything changed. For example, I took Lamaze [childbirth classes] for Ianthe’s birth. They didn’t know what I was talking about in the hospital. They gave me some pillows and helped me lie on my side. That was that.
The change came with the music. There were concerts every day—really, really good concerts every two weeks or so. Groups from New York came. The concerts were in Golden Gate Park.
At that time there was the Cow Palace, a big stadium—George Wallace was to speak. All I remember was the atmosphere of hostility and women there. This [Cow Palace] was a place where women burned their bras; where riots happened. It was a feeling of a mob and impeding violence and we just had to leave. We had gotten Ianthe a new raincoat from her dad. Ianthe’s raincoat pocket caught on a car as we were leaving and she started to cry. It was no real riot that time, but it felt like it could’ve been. What we were witnessing was a lot of yelling and Wallace was yelling back. He was ranting. It was an awful ending to an awful day.
For a year, there were free concerts every other week. It was wild. Of course, there were precursors to this, pre-’60s. I purchased a Rudi Gernreich bra—it was see-through—and took off my shirt during a party. We saw how many people could crowd into a phone booth at a time.
In one house where we lived, there was something wrong with the plumbing so the water ran and ran. It was like a waterfall. We turned it stronger and then back again or we just got water.
We moved out of North Beach and out of Haight-Ashbury. There was a lot of alcohol and pot use. There was the Ice Cream Store where bikers and bus drivers took pills—early speed, the chicken egg-producing drug, methedrine, cheaper than heroin. It was the time of the Alphonse Mucha art style on concert posters: big bicycle wheels on bikes, elongated figures riding, and the skulls and roses of the Grateful Dead.
Richard admired the Diggers. Our whole thing was a proletarian idea that you take care of everybody. I remember baking bread in coffee cans. I did. We had everything available to us at the free store. We never had any money. I don’t remember paying for anything for a while. This was the last half of the ’60s.
Trout Fishing In America
Arthur: How did you meet Richard Brautigan?
Virginia Aste: I met Richard Brautigan at a laundromat in North Beach. I had wanted to meet him. He was very alluring and I thought he might’ve been from Germany. He didn’t say much. I had Ron Loewinsohn introduce us.
Richard was working in a lab that manufactured barium powder. People drank the powders for X-rays—there were different flavors like peach, strawberry, lemon. He came home smelling like those different flavors. They hired Richard for one dollar an hour.
I was working downtown as a secretary. I carried the typewriter home with me. It was very heavy. I typed up his poems. He began sending them out to places like The Nation. He started with fifty poems.
I was working for two dollars an hour. I was good at Dictaphone. From our tax return and claiming Ianthe as a dependent, we bought a 1951 Plymouth station wagon and took a trip across Idaho, five hundred or six hundred miles across the Snake River. This became Trout Fishing In America. Jack Spicer helped edit it. I helped edit, too, and typed it because I could read his handwriting. I used to read lots of [scrawly] doctor and lawyer handwriting.
In the Afternoon
Arthur: Did he read a lot? What was his writing routine like?
Virginia Aste: He would write in the afternoon because he watched Ianthe in the morning. That became a routine because I was working. He needed time and space, time and silence, but not totally. He did not lock himself away.
Between me and Jack Spicer and Richard reading us stuff, we would tell him to take out a lot. There wasn’t much left. That was Spicer’s thing.
He read incessantly at the Mechanics’ [Institute] Library. It was a library founded by a union in San Francisco. He’d read fiction on the second floor. He’d read the Ladies’ Home Journal. His earliest reading was the National Geographic. He’d read old issues when he was in elementary school and later read the Ladies’ Home Journal. He read Faulkner, Jack London, he read poetry.
I translated Neruda’s work for him into English. Also Mayakovsky. I took Russian then. A lot of people were killed under Stalin. People still talked a lot about the Spanish Civil War in those days.
Arthur: Did you see his writing as genius writing?
Virginia Aste: Yes, Richard was a genius in his writing because of his humor. He was like Mark Twain or Saroyan because of his use of irony. He would be right on target.
He also had a sense of the tragic. He had sentimentality for his dead relatives but he was never syrupy sweet in that way.
He was very caring…cared very well for Ianthe. He paid the rent six months in advance. He had a stockpile of food in the cupboards. Probably because he cared for his sister, Barbara, while they were growing up. He had grown up very poor. I almost got him sobered up. I gave him a lot of B vitamins. After our baby, he began drinking heavily. Lots of socializing.
I read on the Internet that he had had homosexual liaisons at this time. It was when Ianthe was about four.
He had new fame. It was tremendously exciting. He began drinking heavily and became abusive. One night, he wanted to have sex and became violent—I shut him out of the bedroom. There were these thick wooden doors. The next day I left with Ianthe.
What happened was totally against what we were all about. We were so pacifistic. This was the dark side of what was going on. On the other hand, he did love guns and loved going shooting.
To Say the Least
Arthur: Did he talk the way he wrote?
Virginia Aste: Yes. Yes! He had a constant dialogue going and had constant jokes. He was interested in everything about art. Dada was one of the themes. Jack Spicer said that one should pick out the worst thing from a piece of writing and keep that and then write from that. He told Richard that and he did that.
He was experimental like William Burroughs and the same [in the sense] that he traveled around and had a huge following. Burroughs would tear a page of his writing down the middle and then match up the halves to different pages, creating interesting sentences, to say the least.
I think Richard was very sad when I left him, taking Ianthe with me. People didn’t talk about addiction—about drinking—then. Oh, I should’ve…maybe stuck with him. It was a few years later when the lawyer had me sign for a divorce. I didn’t make any claim to his work.
All of his early books, I know exactly what and where he is talking about—even though the writing is ambiguous on purpose. I can picture this or that place.
Once we lived in Big Sur, in a cave that was carved out of a hill with a little roof jutting out of it to keep the rain off. He was very interested in the history of WWI and WWII. Especially WWI and the Civil War. He was particularly interested in the campaigns of the southern generals. He talked about the Holocaust. He was fascinated with the personalities surrounding Hitler and in the atrocities dictated by the S.S.
Into the Creek
Arthur: Was he a history buff, a ghost town buff?
Virginia Aste: He was very interested in graveyards; gravestones. Interested in imagining what people’s lives were like—the food they ate, the clothes, one hundred and two hundred years ago. He was interested in the working people.
On our trip to Idaho, we read gravestones on old cemeteries.
He was always connecting different times and people and places together. He did this constantly—made connections. He had a maniacal laugh. Ianthe has the same…a real wild laugh.
In ‘57-‘58, we did crazy things. Climbed up on the Palace of Fine Arts and looked over the city—all the heads of statues toppled over. Once with Kenn Davis, who was selling paintings at the time, we went to a reading. The hood of our car flew off at one o’clock in the morning as we approached the Bay Bridge. Richard jumped out of the car, opened the trunk and threw it in. He could move really, really fast when he had to.
We were cooped up inside five days once in Big Sur, up a little creek. Water came down and we could not get up to the highway. He jumped into the creek and got me. He never could swim. He never did learn to swim.
He was capable of athletic feats nobody thought he could do.
In Big Sur, Richard was very interested in Price Dunn, who was “the Confederate General of Big Sur” [from Brautigan’s book of the same name]. Price read the Greek classics, et cetera, as a child in Alabama. He took us down to Big Sur. We were two or three weeks there. We talked, fixed meals, had two cases of wine. I remember there was an invasion of frogs there. We poured wine around the porch to try to kill the frogs. They were kind of like the coquí in Hawaii.
As one of my friends said about Richard, “He was like shining too bright a light on too small a thing.” His writing was not voluminous. By the time it got pared-down, and pared-down, there weren’t a lot of words. There wasn’t a lot to work with.
He was good at listening to criticism. He worked with and listened to Ron Loewinsohn, an academic and a poet. He wasn’t like Robert Duncan who was a traditional poet, or Ken Rexroth, who was a target for poets because he was so academic.
Richard was contemptuous of literature taught in college. He got to become the flavor-of-the-month for a lot of them. He liked the Black Mountain College poets [Creeley, Dorn, Olson]. Richard knew Lawrence Ferlinghetti; some of the artists. Artist Tom Field was a really neat guy. He lived with us for awhile and was an inspiration to Richard. He taught Ianthe drawing when she was two.
A Great Fan
Arthur: What do you think he would’ve thought about current technology, the Internet?
Virginia Aste: In “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” , Richard anticipated the impact of computer technology. He was happy to get an electric typewriter. It was a lot of work making corrections on copies of his work, and typing it over and over. It took a lot of time. It was a lot of work.
He would’ve been a great fan of the word processor because he couldn’t spell.
I think he ran out of things to write about, unlike Styron and Mailer—who he didn’t like. Alcohol shut down his spontaneity and depressed him and accelerated/exaggerated the parts of his personality that was pessimistic about people. I’m pretty sure he did not believe in God or an afterlife. He believed in art and the arts as the highest people could live for.
Arthur: Was it unusual to be traveling and camping—going on a road trip—with a child in Idaho? Did you grow up there, is that why you went there on the infamous Trout Fishing In America road trip?
Virginia Aste: I grew up camping a lot. In those days, if you were a hundred miles out of L.A., in Mojave, for example, you were in the mountains. My father was a fisherman, he liked to fish. He was one of eleven children. My mother was a school teacher. It took her sixteen summers get her teaching license.
We took two trips. We had an Indian theme going with Ianthe in a little pack. We almost suffocated Ianthe.
Arthur: A cradleboard?
Virginia Aste: Some misguided Indian thing. We were gone two weeks to the Klamath River. Ianthe was too hot. When we took her out [of the cradleboard] she sort of unwrapped herself and threw a fit.
On our trip across the Snake River we could watch Ianthe because she had a pink fabric leash [harness] like a dog that we tied to a tree. We used it one time. We had to be absolutely sure about her because we were very close to the river. It had a steep cliff. A sharp drop-off to the river.
We almost didn’t make it. The first night, we drove down into an old lake bed— I think it was called Dollar Lake. Oh, was it there? Anyway, we had boxes in our 1951 Plymouth, books, boxes of clothing in the back of the station wagon in wooden crates, paper bags, baby stuff. Lots of Dostoevsky, we couldn’t go without Dostoevsky! God forbid we go without that! Ha!
That night we slept inside the back of the car. Everything was on the ground. Then, within minutes, a huge cloud burst. There was going to be a flood of mud, huge raindrops, dollar-sized, the area began filling with water. I put Ianthe somewhere. I started driving up this road and I couldn’t see.
Arthur: Richard was guiding you up?
Virginia Aste: Yes, we were in the middle of a huge cloudburst, we were stuck—Dollar Lake, or wherever that was. The road wound around and around. It was so impossible to see. That was the first or second night of the trip. That was the beginning of Trout Fishing In America. Sleeping in the back of that station wagon. That’s why it was so crazy. It was a shift car with the shift on the wheel.
Richard ate a lot of watermelon and had to pee in the night. That’s how we found out the lake bed was filling in.
Virginia Aste: So, I don’t know why we did the trip. Re-visiting Idaho, I guess. We saw the Snake River in the beginning of its decline and urban development. It was Indian-based.
Virginia Aste: So romantic. Very romantic idea.
Arthur: Did a lot of writers take off with their families at the time and camp?
Virginia Aste: We were ahead or behind the times. Having a child was unusual at the time. Well, some had children. David Meltzer had three kids. Ron Loewinsohn had a child later. Robert Creeley. But from what I read of Kerouac, his trips were not family-oriented.
Arthur: This seems a bit different compared with trips other writers were taking across the country. Do you think?
Virginia Aste: Yes. It was quite amazing. The clutter of the station wagon. Now, there are containers for everything. There weren’t then. [We used] wooden crates and paper bags. We had a ridiculous tent. Stakes for the tent, food. The tent had to have stakes. It was canvas. It did not pop up. If a stake was lost, you had to find a tree, cut a new one.
Arthur: It sounds like homesteading.
Virginia Aste: Re-enacting a whole bunch of stuff—it was a long trip. A canvas tent during the day is hot. Washing diapers in the streams…we weren’t conscious of the fact that it was polluting.
Arthur: You were mostly alone at the camp spots?
Virginia Aste: Yes, usually the only people except for local fishermen. We saw some sheep, sheep farmers, and had to go through the herd of sheep and then came back round again. The sheep men just smiled. They knew [we weren’t getting anywhere]. Richard wrote about this.
Arthur: You were really wild, adventuresome.
Virginia Aste: There were no maps, no guides. We went up and down the creeks until we found a good place. Taking that tent up and down…we were re-enacting some parts of our pasts.
We had traveler’s checks and finding a place to cash them was hard. There was nowhere to cash them. Like in those novels where you read about the South, very backwoods. It wasn’t convenient.
Our baby was always an icebreaker. Richard had a song he sang, “Orofino Rose.” He sang that over and over to Ianthe to get her to sleep.
Arthur: Why didn’t you just use cash? I mean, what was the point of traveler’s checks? Because you were travelers?
Virginia Aste: Yes. We had gone to Mexico, to Oaxaca and had traveler’s checks there. That might’ve been a role model for that. Richard was paranoid about losing money.
Arthur: It sounds sort of urban, but you were both raised in rural areas. Or at least, not in big cities.
Virginia Aste: I was raised in the San Fernando Valley. It doesn’t exactly inspire your imagination there. San Francisco was really inexpensive when we lived there. It was a city life, lots of poetry, but then—
Arthur: You wanted nature, adventure, taking the trip to write about it on purpose?
Virginia Aste: Richard was always writing. He sat at a card table with his Royal typewriter during the trip. I didn’t know what he was writing until later. He was always taking notes. His short paragraphs were like poems. Real different writing. Coming back [after the trip], it was very short on words, not prolific, turned into short chapters that were almost poems. They were so funny.
But everything changed. Ianthe was two when I met Tony [Aste], my later lover. Richard had become so abusive from alcohol. What boys see done to women in their youth…Richard and I weren’t about that at all, we were into Camus—not towards others, but how we viewed ourselves.
Richard was fascinated by war—by WWI and WWII. He shot up one wall of his house in Montana which had a clock on it.
Arthur: That must’ve been really loud.
Virginia Aste: Yes. It was like a war, the sound of war. I didn’t mind him going shooting, but…we had this spaghetti party, and afterwards he yanked the door open. He didn’t wake Ianthe, but he was very violent. I left soon after with Tony.
In Richard’s poem, “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace,” his writing is a predilection in a way. It has come true. There isn’t anything you can do. The ether is full of good deeds and misdeeds—it all gets recorded. I’ve never looked back. I don’t sit around and reflect on the past. I’m in the moment, in the now. I’ve lived that way my whole life.
People were living in communes and trying to be peaceful. What it came down to was falling into prior patterns. Richard just fell into that as far as I could see. He liked Katherine Anne Porter a lot and also Eudora Welty.
I think he had a special admiration for writers who were profound and humorous at the same time. He really liked the Armenian short story writer [William Saroyan] who wrote My Name is Aram. There were so many things that I didn’t ask Richard about. It was us against the world and rebellion. Like living in a bubble. What did we want?
Virginia Aste: Freedom from the society that had jammed people into unhappy relationships and war. Freedom from that.