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.