Pub. Date:
Education of a Felon

Education of a Felon

by Edward Bunker

Paperback(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, September 23


In Education of a Felon, the reigning champion of prison novelists finally tells his own story. The son of an alcoholic stagehand father and a Busby Berkeley chorus girl, Bunker was—at seventeen—the youngest inmate ever in San Quentin. His hard-won experiences on L.A.'s meanest streets and in and out of prison gave him the material to write some of the grittiest and most affecting novels of our time.
From smoking a joint in the gas chamber to leaving fingerprints on a knife connected to a serial kiler, from Hollywood's steamy undersde to swimming in the Neptune pool at San Simeon, Bunker delivers a memoir as colorful as any of his novels and as compelling as the life he's lead.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312280765
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 433,504
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Edward Bunker's novels No Beast so Fierce and The Animal Factory were made into the movies Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman and Animal Factory with Edward Furlong. Bunker played Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantin's Reservoir Dogs and was a cowriter of the screenplay for Runaway Train. Education of a Felon is his first nonfiction book. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.

Read an Excerpt

Education of a Felon

A Memoir

By Edward Bunker

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Edward Bunker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-27365-1



In March of 1933, Southern California suddenly began to rock and roll to a sound from deep within the ground. Bric-a-brac danced on mantels and shattered on floors. Windows cracked and cascaded onto sidewalks. Lathe-and-plaster houses screeched and bent this way and that, much like matchboxes. Brick buildings stood rigid until overwhelmed by the vibrations, then fell into a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust. The Long Beach Civic Auditorium collapsed, with many killed. I was later told that I was conceived at the moment of the earthquake and born on New Year's Eve, 1933, in Hollywood's Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Los Angeles was under a torrential deluge, with palm trees and houses floating down its canyons.

When I was five, I heard my mother proclaim that the earthquake and storm were omens, for I was trouble from the start, beginning with colic. At two, I disappeared from a family picnic in Griffith Park. Two hundred men hunted the brush for half the night. At three, I somehow managed to demolish a neighbor's backyard incinerator with a claw hammer. At four, I pillaged another neighbor's Good Humor truck and had an ice-cream party for several neighborhood dogs. A week later I tried to help clean up the backyard by burning a pile of eucalyptus leaves that were piled beside the neighbor's garage. Soon the night was burning bright and fire engine sirens sounded loud. Only one garage wall was fire-blackened.

I remember the ice-cream caper and fire, but the other things I was told. My first clear memories are of my parents screaming at each other and the police arriving to "keep the peace." When my father left, I followed him to the driveway. I was crying and wanted to go with him, but he pushed me away and drove off with a screech of tires.

We lived on Lexington Avenue just east of Paramount Studios. The first word I could read was Hollywoodland. My mother was a chorus girl in vaudeville and Busby Berkeley movie musicals. My father was a stagehand and sometimes grip.

I don't remember the divorce proceedings, but part of the result was my being placed in a boarding home. Overnight I went from being a pampered only child to being the youngest among a dozen or more. I first learned about theft in this boarding home. Somebody stole candy that my father had brought me. It was hard then for me to conceive the idea of theft.

I ran away for the first time when I was five. One rainy Sunday morning while the household slept late, I put on a raincoat and rubbers and went out the back door. Two blocks away I hid in the crawl space of an old frame house that sat high off the ground and was surrounded by trees. It was dry and out of the rain, and I could peer out at the world. The family dog quickly found me but preferred being hugged and petted to sending forth an alarm. I stayed there until darkness came, the rain stopped, and a cold wind came up. Even in Los Angeles, a December night can be cold for a five-year-old. I came out, walked half a block, and was spotted by one of those hunting for me. My parents had been worried, of course, but not in a panic. They were already familiar with my propensities for trouble.

The couple who ran the foster home asked my father to come and take me away. He tried another boarding home, and when that failed he tried a military school, Mount Lowe in Altadena. I lasted two months. Then it was another boarding home, also in Altadena, a five-thousand-square-foot house with an acre of grounds. That was my first meeting with Mrs. Bosco, whom I remember fondly. I seemed to get along okay, although I remember hiding under a bed in the dorm so I could read. My father had built a small bookcase for me. He then bought a ten-volume set of Junior Classics, children's versions of famous tales such as "The Man Without a Country," "Pandora's Box," and "Damon and Pythias." I learned to read from these books.

Mrs. Bosco closed the boarding home after I had been there for a few months. The next stop was Page Military School, on Cochran and San Vicente in West Los Angeles. The parents of the prospective cadets were shown bright, classy dorms with cubicles, but the majority of the cadets lived in less sumptuous quarters. At Page I had measles and mumps and my first official recognition as a troublemaker destined for a bad end. I became a thief. A boy whose name and face I forgot long ago took me along to prowl the other dorms in the wee hours as he searched pants hanging on hooks or across chair backs. When someone rolled over, we ducked and froze, our hearts beating wildly. The cubicles were shoulder-high, so we could duck our heads and be out of sight. We had to run once when a boy woke up and challenged us: "Hey, what're you doing?" As we ran, behind us we heard the scream: "Thief! Thief!" It was a great adrenaline rush.

One night a group of us sneaked from the dorm into the big kitchen and used a meat cleaver to hack the padlock off a walk-in freezer. We pillaged all the cookies and ice cream. Soon after reveille, we were apprehended. I was unjustly deemed the ringleader and disciplined accordingly. I was also thereafter marked for special treatment by the cadet officers. My few friends were the other outcasts and troublemakers. My single legitimate accomplishment at Page was discovering that I could spell better than almost everyone else. Even amid the chaos of my young life, I'd mastered syllables and phonetics, and I remembered many of the exceptions to the rules. It is trivial, yet because I could sound out words, I could read precociously—and soon voraciously.

On Friday afternoons nearly every cadet went home for the weekend. One weekend I went to see my father, the next to my mother's. She now worked as a coffee shop waitress. On Sunday mornings I followed the common habit of most American children of the era; I went to the matinee at a neighborhood movie theater. It showed double features. One Sunday between the two movies, I went to the lobby, where I learned that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. Earlier, my father had declared: "If those slant-eyed bastards start trouble, we'll send the U.S. Navy over and sink their rinky-dink islands." Dad was attuned with the era, where nigger appeared in the prose of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and others. Dad disliked "niggers," "spies," "wops," and the English with "their goddamn king." He liked France and Native Americans and claimed that we Bunkers had Indian blood. I was never convinced. Claiming Indian blood today has become somewhat chic. Our family had been around the Great Lakes from midway through the eighteenth century, and when my father reached his sixties his wrinkled leather skin, in addition to his high cheekbones, made him look like an Indian. Indeed, as I get older, I am sometimes asked if I have Indian blood. I really don't know—or care.

At Page Military School, things got worse. Cadet officers made my life miserable, so on one bright California morning, another cadet and I jumped the back fence and headed toward the Hollywood Hills, three miles away. They were green, speckled with a few red-tiled roofs. We hitchhiked over the hills and spent the night in the shell of a wrecked automobile beside a two-lane highway, watching the giant trucks rumble past. Since then that highway has become a ten-lane interstate freeway.

After shivering through the night and being hungry when the sun came up, my companion said he was going to go back. I bid him good-bye and started walking beside a railroad right-of-way between the highway and endless orange groves. I came upon a trainload of olive-drab U.S. Army trucks that waited on a siding. As I walked along there was the rolling crash as the train got under way. I grabbed a rail and climbed aboard. The hundreds of army trucks were unlocked so I got in one and watched the landscape flash past as the train headed north.

Early that evening, I climbed off in the outskirts of Sacramento, four hundred miles from where I had started. I was getting hungry and the shadows were lengthening. I started walking. I figured I would go into town and see a movie. When it let out, I would find something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Outside Sacramento, on a bank of the American River full of abundant greenery, I smelled food cooking. It was a hobo encampment called a Hooverville, with shacks made of corrugated tin and cardboard.

The hoboes took me in until one got scared and stopped a sheriff's car. Deputies raided the encampment and took me away.

Page Military School refused to allow me to return. My father was near tears over what to do with me. Then we heard that Mrs. Bosco had opened a new home for a score of boys, ages five through high school. She had leased a twenty-five-thousand-square-foot mansion on four acres on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. It was called Mayfair. The house still exists as part of Ambassador College. Back then such huge mansions were unsalable white elephants.

The name MAYFAIR was affixed to a brass gate post. The house was worthy of an archduke, but a nine-year-old is unimpressed by such things. The boys were pretty much relegated to four bedrooms on the second floor of the north wing over the kitchen. The school classroom, which had once been the music room, was off the vast entrance hall, which had a grand staircase. We attended school five days a week, and there was no such thing as summer vacation. The teacher, a stern woman given to lace-collared dresses with cameos at the necks, had a penchant for punishment. She'd grab an ear and give it a twist or rap our knuckles with a ruler. I already had a problem with authority. Once she grabbed my ear. I slapped her hand away and abruptly stood up. Startled, she flinched backward, tripped over a chair, and fell on her rump, legs up. She cried out as if being murdered. Mr. Hawkins, the black handyman, ran in and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. He dragged me to Mrs. Bosco. She sent for my father. When he arrived, the fire in his eyes made me want to run. Mrs. Bosco brushed the incident away with a few words. What she really wanted was for my father to read the report on the IQ test we had taken a week earlier. He was hesitant. Did he want to know if his son was crazy? I watched him scan the report; then he read it slowly, his angry flush giving way to a frown of confusion. He looked up and shook his head.

"That's a lot of why he's trouble," Mrs. Bosco said.

"Are you sure it isn't a mistake?"

"I'm sure."

My father grunted and half-chuckled. "Who would have thought it?"

Thought what? He later told me the report put my mental age at eighteen, my IQ at 152. Until then I'd always thought I was average, or perhaps a little below average, in those abilities given by God. I'd certainly never been the brightest in any class—except for the spelling, which seemed like more of a trick than an indicator of intelligence. Since then, no matter how chaotic or nihilistic my existence happened to be, I have tried to hone the natural abilities they said I had. The result might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I continued to go home on weekends, although by now my mother lived in San Pedro with a new husband—so instead of switching off every weekend, I spent three of four with my father. Whichever one I visited, on Sunday afternoon I would say good-bye, ostensibly returning straightaway to Mayfair. I never went straight back. Instead I roamed the city. I might rent a little battery-powered boat in Echo Park or go to the movies in downtown Los Angeles. If I visited my mother in San Pedro, I detoured to Long Beach, where the amusement pier was in full swing.

Late in the evening, I rode a big red Pacific Electric streetcar back to Pasadena, where I had to walk about a mile to Orange Grove Avenue and Mayfair. I went up the rear drive. A balcony at one end could be reached by climbing a slender tree and scrambling onto the balcony. Directly across from the balcony door was the room I shared with two other boys. Nobody ever missed me or noticed when I arrived as long as I was on hand Monday morning.

One Sunday night when I crossed the balcony, turned the doorknob, and pushed the door opened a few inches and stopped. Something was blocking it from the other side. Leaning against it hard, I managed to force the upper part open enough to squeeze through, stepping on what seemed to be a body next to the door. Crouching, I felt around the blackness and touched a face. A bolt of fear shot through me. The face was cold. It was the face of death. I think I let out a cry, but nobody heard me.

Not wanting my after-midnight arrival to be discovered, I undressed and climbed into bed. Lying there, I knew I couldn't just ignore the situation. Not wanting to step on the body in the darkness, I went through the bathroom to the next bedroom, where four boys slept, and from there into the hallway. I woke up Mrs. Bosco and told her what I'd found.

She put on her robe and brought a flashlight, took me to my room, and told me to go to bed, then locked the door. I went to bed and managed to fall into a light sleep, although I came awake when I heard muffled voices and saw light under the door.

A few minutes later, I heard the key unlock the bedroom. In the morning the body was gone. It belonged to Frankie Dell, a pale, frail boy who was a severe hemophiliac with a rheumatic heart. He had simply collapsed and died in the hallway. He might even have been going for help.

Mrs. Bosco's was the only home I ever liked as a child. She treated me more like a teenager than a nine-year-old. During weeknights I was allowed to go alone into downtown Pasadena. I went to a movie, of course. I learned geography from the two big maps affixed to the wall in my room: Europe, including the Mediterranean and North Africa, was on one map, the Pacific plus Asia on the other. I had pins of various colors to mark battles, troops, and the front lines of the war that was going on. Finding the Solomon Islands to mark Guadalcanal took my eye to Australia and New Zealand. The star on the map told me that Canberra was the capital of Australia.

Mr. Hawkins, the black handyman whose apartment was over the immense garage, had once been a prizefighter, and he taught me how to throw a left jab. The jab I learned wreaked havoc on the nose of Buckley, the home bully. We started to fight in the upstairs hall. I backed up, one step at a time, down the length of the long second-floor hallway, sticking a jab in his nose whenever he seemed coiled to charge. One of Mrs. Bosco's pretty daughters, a USC coed, came out of her room and broke it up. Buckley had two rapidly swelling eyes and a bloody nose. I was unmarked. About the same time, I learned the value of the Sunday punch, which was simply striking first. In reform school I would study experts on the Sunday punch and hone my own ability. Fistfighting is a useless skill in boardrooms and business meetings. It will not get you the girl. Most middle- and upper-class white men go through adult life without ever having a single fistfight. But where I spent youth and young manhood it is a useful skill, especially since I hadn't been given strength, speed, or stamina. My reflexes were mediocre. I do, however, take a good punch without falling. I have beaten bigger, stronger men, who were faster and in better shape, including a U.S. Marine karate instructor, simply by punching first and continuing to punch with both hands before they ever got started. Occasionally, someone overcame that first onslaught and beat my ass, but not usually. In later years I leaned to pace my attack so a few punches accomplished what had taken many wild ones long ago. On the chin and most go down, and once down they should never be allowed to get up and continue. But I've digressed. Back to my childhood in Mayfair on Orange Grove Avenue, nicknamed King's Row because of the many great mansions, including the famed Wrigley mansion.

One Sunday Night in December, it was past midnight when I got off the streetcar on Fair Oaks and Colorado in downtown Pasadena and began my walk. The last street was a narrow lane with tiny frame houses for servants that ran parallel to Orange Grove a block away. The lane and tiny houses are long gone, but back then they were fronted by huge trees that overhung the street. A lighted Christmas tree was in one home window and a candle in another. They calmed my fear at walking through the shadows where wind and moonlight made weird moving shapes. It was enough to make an imaginative nine-year-old whistle his way through the dark.


Excerpted from Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker. Copyright © 2000 Edward Bunker. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. No Heaven, No Hell,
2. State-Raised in California,
3. Among the Condemned,
4. Whores, Hearst, and Hollywood's Angel,
5. Night Train to San Quentin,
6. Tick Tock Turns the Clock, '52, '53, '54, '55,
7. Awaiting Parole,
8. The Land of Milk and Honey,
9. The Run,
10. The Shit Hits the Fan,
11. On the Lam,
12. Adjudged Criminally Insane,
13. Stuck in Folsom Prison,
14. Prison Race War,

Customer Reviews