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Lucia Berlin and her "Manual for Cleaning Woman"

Lucia Berlin, "Manual para mujeres de limpieza" en Oh!Libro: (mi conexión 67%)

Lucia Berlin achieved the best-selling author status eleven years after her death. Though she was not a best-seller initially, Lucia was very popular in the literary world. Many compared her works to that of Raymond Carver, Richard Yates or Anton Chejov. Lucia’s noted work and the most praised was the incredible one-page story named, ‘My Jockey’ which also won the Jack London Short Prize for 1985.

She survived childhood abuse and adult alcoholism, an addiction that sent her, something she admitted openly, to “jails, hospitals, psych wards.” She was close friends with artists, poets and musicians (married two jazz players). By her early 30s, she had been divorced three times and had four sons. She worked as a house cleaner, a substitute teacher and a hospital clerk. She put much of her wild, uncontrolled experiences into her stories.

Lucia Berlin was born as Lucia Brown in Juneau, Alaska on Nov 12, 1936. Her father was a mining engineer and her earliest years were spent in the mining camps and towns of Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana. About her mother we don't know much, apart from the fact that she was drinking heavily and the family usually locked her in her room.

Juneau, Alaska

In 1941, Berlin's father went off to the war, and her mother moved Lucia and her younger sister to El Paso, where their grandfather was a prominent, but long gone, dentist. 

Montana, 1941: just before her father went off to the war

Soon after the war, Berlin's father moved the family to Santiago, Chile. She attended cotillions and balls, had her first cigarette lit by Prince Ali Khan (an ex-husband of actress Rita Hay), finished school, and served as the default hostess for the father's society gatherings. 

By the age of 10, Lucia had scoliosis, a painful spinal condition that became lifelong and often necessitated a steel brace.

Lucia Berlin (bottom right), El Paso family reunion, 1952, group shot

In 1955 she enrolled at the University of New Mexico. By now fluent in Spanish, she studied with the novelist Ramon Sender. She soon married and had two sons. By the birth of the second, her sculptor husband was gone. Berlin completed her degree and, still in Albuquerque, met the poet Edward Dorn, a key figure in her life. She also met Dorn's teacher from Black Mountain College, the writer Robert Creeley, and two of his Harvard classmates, Race Newton and Buddy Berlin, both jazz musicians. And she began to write.


Newton, a pianist, married Lucia in 1958. (Her earliest stories appeared under the name Lucia Newton.) The next year, they and the children moved to a loft in New York. Race worked steadily and the couple became friends with their neighbors Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman, as well as other poets and artists including John Altoon, Diane diPrima, and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones).
In 1961, Berlin and her sons left Newton and New York, and traveled with their friend Buddy Berlin to Mexico, where he became her third husband. Buddy was charismatic and affluent, but he also proved to be an addict. During the years 1962-65, two more sons were born.
By 1968, the Berlins were divorced and Lucia was working on a master's degree at the University of New Mexico. She was employed as a substitute teacher. She never remarried.

Buddy Berlin

She had two sons with her first husband and two more with Buddy. (both pictures were taken in 1963)

The years 1971-94 were spent in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Berlin worked as a high-school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician's assistant, while writing, raising her four sons, drinking, and finally, prevailing over her alcoholism. She spent much of 1991 and 1992 in Mexico City, where her sister was dying of cancer. Her mother had died in 1986, a probable suicide. In 1994, Edward Dorn brought Berlin to the University of Colorado, and she spent the next six years in Boulder as a visiting writer and, ultimately, associate professor. She became a remarkably popular and beloved teacher, and in just her second year, won the university's award for teaching excellence.
She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.

Oakland, 1975

During the Boulder years she thrived in a close community that included Dorn and wife Jennie, Anselm Hollo, and her old pal Bobbie Louise Hawkins. The poet Kenward Elmslie became, like the prose writer Stephen Emerson, a fast friend.

One of her fellow writers, strongly influenced by her, Elizabeth Geoghegan, remembers:
One of Lucia’s lungs was crushed by the scoliosis that tormented her as a child—and she was put on oxygen. I never again saw her without an O2 tank, except after she sent me on my bicycle to Lolita’s Deli for cigarettes. Single smokes sold at twenty cents a pop. She always requested the strongest on offer. Lucky Strikes, Marlboro Reds. I’d buy us each a Camel Light and pedal back to her house. She would slip the breathing tube off and we’d light up, indulging in the only addictive substance either of us could allow ourselves. The fact that her oxygen tank loomed, threatening to blow, only made it more fun. (...)But then there was the way, mid-cigarette, she’d grasp the O2, looping the long tube back over her head and under her nose. A glimmer of panic. Even so, she’d manage a smile, breathlessly.” The last line of the least letter she wrote to Elizabeth was like a premonition: “Message on my tombstone: Breathless.

In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She passed away in 2004 in Marina del Rey on the day of her 68th birthday because of the complications caused by Lung cancer.

She published 77 short stories during her lifetime. Most, but not all, were collected in three volumes from Black Sparrow Press: Homesick (1991), So Long (1993), and Where I Live Now (1999). These gathered from previous collections of 1980, 1984, and 1987, and presented newer work.
Early publication commenced when she was twenty-four, in Saul Bellow's journal The Noble Savage and in The New Strand. Later stories appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New American Writing, and countless smaller magazines. Homesick won an American Book Award.
Berlin worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and most of the 1980s. By the late '80s, her four sons were grown and she had overcome a lifelong problem with alcoholism (her accounts of its horrors, its drunk tanks and DTs and occasional hilarity, occupy a particular corner of her work). Thereafter she remained productive up to the time of her early death.

Although Lucia started to write early by 1960s, she published them only during 1981 due to the encouragement received from poet Ed Dorn.

Through the 1980s, Ms. Berlin’s stories were published by very small presses. In the 1990s, three books of new and selected stories were released by Black Sparrow Press, a midsize independent publisher. In 2013, the writers Stephen Emerson, Barry Gifford and Michael Wolfe, friends and admirers of Ms. Berlin, put together a manuscript of stories in hopes of having it accepted by a high-profile New York publisher. Emily Bell, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, saw potential in reissuing the work.

Berlin spoke often of her love for Chejov and his compassion for people, and she once wrote to Mr. Kleinzahler about her connection to Raymond Carver: “I wrote like him before I ever read him. Our ‘styles’ came from our (similar in a way) backgrounds. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t let anyone know you ... more than exquisite control blahblahblah.”
Although Lucia was losing her health, it is noted that she sold more books during the last two weeks before her death and the sales were also very low. It was only after 11 years of Lucia’s death, her story; ‘A Manual for Cleaning Woman’ became New York Times Best Seller.

The text is a compilation of various sources:

Lucia Berlin, "Manual para mujeres de limpieza" en Oh!Libro: (mi conexión 67%)