I met Sheri Martinelli and the guy she was living with, a Chinese named Gilbert Lee, in Washington, D.C. in 1956 or 1957 when I was 17 years old. Sheri was a red-headed woman of Irish descent (as she never let you forget), maybe about 40 years old, though she claimed to be more like 32.
She was one of the first two adult women I had ever known on equal terms, as opposed to teachers and friends of my parents where there was a clear difference in status between me as an adolescent and them as an adult. She was certainly the first person I ever knew who was identifiably an alcoholic (although the other woman I knew at the same time -- named Nora -- was, in retrospect, also one, just a little less extreme). She was an artist, which made her part of a whole different world that I knew only from books.
Furthermore, she had once been a New York fashion model, although it was hard to believe it from her looks when I knew her. And she was a former heroin addict, which made her part of a world that for me was only a dark fairy/horror tale. The guy she was living with, Gilbert Lee, was an auto mechanic and had been a jazz pianist until an accident injured his hand. He was also a former heroin dealer and an ex-con.
She was also the first woman I ever met who talked frankly and factually about sex. When Sheri talked about having had a really great orgasm, or being terrifically horny, she wasn't ``talking dirty'' like the guys in my high school or the guys who would later be in my college dorm. She was simply stating a fact. To me, this was mind-blowing. (Remember, we're talking about a time when the movie The Moon Is Blue was widely condemned because it used the word ``virgin.'')
The times I remember most with Sheri were in her apartment, which was above the Chinese restaurant that Gilbert's parents owned. I remember in particular one day, probably a Saturday, when I brought over a piece of my writing and she had me read it aloud to her and some friends, which really made me realize how amateurish it was.
I also remember the screaming drunken fights she and Gilbert used to have. And I remember a few times talking to Gilbert over a pay phone, and I would say to him, ``Sheri wants to tell you that she loves you a whole lot,'' and Sheri would grab the phone and say, ``You goddamn bastard, you're a goddamn creep and your Chinese prick is a joke and I hope you die. You'll never fuck me again as long as you live.''
February 28, 1995
Just now, I have come across an article about Broyard in the New Yorker (June 17, 1996) which informs me that not only Broyard but also William Gaddis were in love with Sheri ``around 1947 or '48.'' According to this article (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) ``they were rivals, almost at each others throats.''
As to Sheri, the last time I saw her was in San Francisco or Pacifica in 1964 or 1965. She was still living with Gilbert (married to him, in fact) and still capable of being a really frightful drunk, but wasn't drinking as often as she once had. She was having a small amount of success with her painting.
I think I received one or two letters from her a few years after that, during the time when I was in graduate school. Once in a while I think of her, and wonder what happened to her. I assume that she's dead by now, but it would be nice to think of her still alive.
Someone else was good enough to send me a copy of a letter posted to the Ezra Pound Mailing list by Will Goodwin, which included the following information about Sheri.
A much older Sheri (weirdly veiled and mysterious, as witnessed in Orono some years ago) is the model for a character in Larry McMurtry's Dead Man's Walk (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
McMurtry has been an antiquarian book dealer for many years, proprietor of the Washington D.C. shop Booked-Up. McMurtry described to me how Sheri arrived at his shop in Washington one day, in a Winnebago camper, wanting to sell Pound manuscripts, letters, etc. Apparently she was rather eccentric, covered in black veils and such; and that apparition stayed with McMurtry until he reconstructed her in the character of Lady Carey, an English noblewoman in Dead Man's Walk.
Footnote, 1999: I recently came across a short article in Paideuma by Marcella Spann Booth, describing her visits to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Marcella quotes Sheri, who often brought fresh-baked cookies on her visits to E.P. (``grampa''), as saying, ``Grampa is the only man in the world you can bring cookies and before he can eat one of them, he drops them all on the ground; and before you can help him pick them up, he steps on every one.''
This one sentence, so accurately transcribed (including the semi-colon), vividly brought alive to me Sheri's voice and the image of the person she was at that time. Never again, after being 86'd from St. Liz and going to California, did she have that same child-like innocent quality. Until coming across Marcella's article, I had forgotten Sheri as she was when I first knew her. Now I realized how much Sheri had flourished under Pound's attentions, and how difficult things became for her subsequently when she no longer had someone to play the role of father for her.
Another Footnote (April, 2000): Black Sparrow Press has just published Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondance of Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli 1960-1967, edited by Steven Moore.