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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 8)

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."

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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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