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Remembering Papa

One Hundred years after his birth, Ernest Hemingway's proud and painful legacy endures.
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

(continued from page 2)

By the time Hemingway and Martha married, war was raging in Europe and his beloved Paris had fallen to the Nazis. Martha was more interested in covering the war than he was, went to Europe on her own, and ridiculed what she considered his play-acting attempts to use the Pilar to hunt for German submarines off the coast of Cuba.

Hemingway was by no means cowardly about returning to combat; rather, he may have feared that his reputation for bravado would require him to take unnecessary chances. Nevertheless, Martha's goading--and her clear success as a war correspondent--apparently persuaded him to head overseas. He did so by co-opting her credentials as a correspondent for Collier's, then a major magazine.

Once in England and then in France, he subjected himself to coverage of fierce fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, and suffered several severe concussions due to accidents in military vehicles in London and on the battlefront. Although he displayed "bravery that bordered on the lunatic," as Kenneth Lynn put it, and had greater knowledge of German tank and gun locations than most military men, Hemingway also earned the enmity of other correspondents. They considered him a blowhard and a showboat. Hemingway was determined that the Second World War would enhance his myth--and he strove to add luster to it.

Martha was hardly as compliant as either Hadley or Pauline had been, and in the end it was she who broke from Hemingway, rather than the other way around. By that time, however, he already was wooing a young correspondent for Time magazine named Mary Welsh ("Miss Mary"), whom he had met in London. She would become his fourth and final wife. Shortly after his divorce from Martha, he married Mary in Cuba in March 1946.

Have spent my life straightening out rummies and all my life drinking, but since writing is my true love I never get the two things mixed up. --Ernest Hemingway to A. E. Hotchner, September 1949

By the time Hemingway returned to Cuba after the Second World War, he was beginning to lose his battle against the bottle and his inner demons. As early as 1937, he had been warned by a physician that he had to give up drinking, but he always insisted on his ability--which he often demonstrated--to cut back on the booze when he had to write. That skill now was diminishing.

He began a lengthy novel, published posthumously in 1986 as The Garden of Eden, that featured a love affair between a couple fascinated by androgyny and transfixed by the switching of their sexual identities. By 1947 he had abandoned the book as "too hot to handle" and begun another, his "sea novel," published posthumously in 1970 as Islands in the Stream. It also contained an exchange of sexual roles by a husband and wife--and was abandoned unfinished as well.

Nearly a decade had passed since he had published A Farewell to Arms. He spent most of his time fishing, hunting--and drinking. At El Floridita, they made a Papa Doble by combining two and one-half jiggers of Bacardi White Label Rum, the juice of two limes and half a grapefruit, plus six drops of maraschino, all whirred together with shaved ice in an electric mixer. Hemingway proudly held the house record for consuming 16 of them in one sitting. That meant he drank approximately 60 ounces of 80-proof rum, the juice of 32 limes and eight grapefruits, 96 drops of maraschino--and still managed to walk out under his own steam. According to journalist George Plimpton, who got to know Hemingway well during extensive interviews during the 1950s, one could see the bulge of his liver "stand out from his body like a long fat leech."

In 1949, he furiously set to work on another novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, which was published in 1950 to almost universal ridicule. The tale of an aging, heavy-drinking retired U.S. Army officer and his love affair with a Venetian girl was viewed as an unwitting self-parody.

With one last, great effort, he rebounded with panache. He took a portion of his unfinished sea novel, written in six weeks, and turned it into The Old Man and the Sea. Published in 1952, this novella about an aged Cuban fisherman's fight with a giant marlin won him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 and secured the bestowal of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He wrote nothing of consequence thereafter.

Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten. --Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize speech, 1954

Flush with the success of The Old Man and the Sea (which included $25,000 for the movie rights and another $25,000 for his services as a consultant on the fishing scenes), Hemingway set off on a final safari to Africa. It was a disaster. Drunk most of the time, he fell out of a speeding Land Rover and was badly injured; shot so poorly that he began taking credit for kills that clearly were made by another; and was involved in two airplane crashes--one nearly fatal. He sustained crushed vertebrae in his lower back, another concussion, and injuries to his liver, spleen and one of his kidneys. Later, when a brush fire broke out near his camp on the Kenyan coast, he helped battle the blaze and suffered severe burns.

It was Hemingway's indomitable spirit that impressed the great portrait photographer, Jousuf Karsh, when he visited Finca Vigía in 1957. Although he discovered that Hemingway "had a wonderful smile--alive, kindly, and full of understanding," when Karsh developed his negatives, the photo he decided to print was the one that has become among the most iconographic he ever took: "a true portrait, the face of a giant cruelly battered by life, but invincible."

Perhaps the only Karsh portrait better known than his Hemingway likeness is the photo he took of Winston Churchill in 1941. Karsh, now 90, recalls how, with only moments in which to take Churchill's portrait, he politely but decisively plucked a smoldering cigar from the great man's mouth before snapping the shutter, immortalizing his scowl--and determination.

Replying by e-mail to the question of whether anything he did or said to Hemingway prompted the sad, almost wistful look in the famous portrait--which some see as a harbinger of his tragic end--Karsh says that on the contrary, the photo session with Papa was enormously pleasant:

"In the light of Hemingway's later suicide, and the fact that so many viewers feel that my portrait was prescient, I must confess that our conversation during the sitting, punctuated by Chianti, was lighthearted and genial. There was no question that Hemingway was sometimes in physical pain, the result of a recent plane crash in Africa, but his psychological mood that morning was affirmative, gracious, and totally absorbed in our joint photographic collaboration. Unlike my portrait session with Winston Churchill, which lasted for four minutes, I spent the entire morning at Hemingway's home.... No such dramatic incident, as with Churchill, elicited the expression from Hemingway."

And as for that famous turtleneck sweater Hemingway wore for Karsh's portrait, Karsh reveals that he was the one who chose it.

"The sweater Hemingway wore in my photograph was chosen by me from a selection offered by Hemingway and his wife, Miss Mary. Miss Mary was especially delighted that I had chosen this suede-and-hand-knit garment because it was her gift to Hemingway for his birthday. She had it especially designed for him by the great couturier Christian Dior, and was not a little taken aback when she received his bill--the equivalent of one month's housekeeping allowance."

By the time Karsh took the portrait, Hemingway was drinking about a quart of liquor a day, in addition to morning Chianti, wine with lunch and dinner, plus nightcaps. He was working on A Moveable Feast but abandoned it, as he did every book he tried to write then. (It was published posthumously in 1964.)

When Scribner's decided to reissue Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway traveled with Mary to Spain in 1959 so he could include fresh material on bullfighting. Apprised of his trip, Life magazine commissioned him to write a report on bullfights. The journey was one long drunk, and its overblown literary result, "The Dangerous Summer," left him feeling "ashamed and sick to have done such a job."

That year, Fidel Castro's revolution against Cuban president Fulgencio Batista initially pleased Hemingway. He believed the Batista government to be irretrievably corrupt. "I wish Castro all luck," he said, and had a brief, cordial meeting with the new leader on May 15, 1960, at the annual Hemingway Fishing Contest in Havana, during which Castro won a trophy for the "largest individual accumulation."

Politics had never been a preoccupation for Papa, however, and as Castro came to power, Hemingway was coming apart at the seams, emotionally and physically. The turmoil in Cuba and Castro's proclamation of a communist regime in 1960 made little impression on Hemingway, as depression and paranoia began overwhelming him. He was convinced friends were trying to kill him, the FBI was after him, and that he was on the verge of poverty. Hospitalized that November at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he was given electroshock treatments over the next two months. He had to turn down an invitation to attend the January 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy, whom he admired, and upon returning to his new home in Ketchum, Idaho, he began work again on his Paris memoir. Soon he found that he could write practically nothing at all. Asked to contribute a couple of sentences for a book of handwritten tributes to Kennedy, he spent hours at the task but was unable to complete it.

Having lost the one ability that meant more to him than anything--and perhaps having finally acknowledged his alcoholism--Hemingway sank ever deeper into depression. He was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic again in April 1961 and received more electroshock treatments. The last thing he wrote was a warm, encouraging letter to a friend's nine-year-old son, who was hospitalized with a serious heart ailment. He still had a fine eye for scenery: "Saw some good bass jump in the river. I never knew anything about the upper Mississippi before and it is really a very beautiful country and there are plenty of pheasants and ducks in the fall. But not as many as in Idaho and I hope we'll both be back there shortly and can joke about our hospital experiences together." He signed off: "Best always to you, old timer, from your good friend who misses you very much. (Mister) Papa."

Hemingway persuaded his doctors that he was well enough to be released in late June. He put the shotgun to his head only two days after he got home.

He was buried between two towering pine trees in the Ketchum town cemetery. Five years later, a bust of him was placed on a stone pedestal at Trail Creek, outside of town. On the pedestal was inscribed something Hemingway had written about a friend:

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless sky
Now he will be a part of them forever.

Neil A. Grauer, a Baltimore writer and caricaturist, is the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber.


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Dale Siemon May 6, 2011 11:32am ET

...well written, nicely done...

thanks to the author and editors


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