I never liked Ernest Hemingway much, though I have read what he wrote and watched the movies of his stories throughout my life.
Hemingway seemed a stark, empty creature to me. Doing derring do for effect not feeling, a life requiring an enormous support system of followers and gear and excess and ruthless killing. I believe he knew that failing in himself, that desperate alienation from life, and did half of what he did in order to feel anything at all.
That opinion transitioned slightly for me when I came across and read cover to cover a biography by A E Hotchner, called Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. It’s a good book. Hotchner, an author of considerable exploit himself, was Hemingway’s good buddy for about 14 years up until Hemingway’s death.
Possibly I’d never finished a bio on the man before, the off-putting worship and hoopla overwhelmed the information I sought, and maybe more truth waited for me at the story’s end I never reached. But this time I did and I learned. In the last years of his life two unscripted episodes came to Hemingway that, to me, leapt off the pages of Hotchner’s book.
One was the literal shattering of his home in Cuba, the writer’s refuge along with the inexplicable disruption of his snug camaraderie with a gun-toting, cigar smoking, bearded, mountaineer revolutionary.
The second, which I had not known, was that Hemingway received the hideous ‘cure for depression’ of electric shock ‘therapy’. And I mean ferocious blasts, more than eleven, maybe fifteen, maybe more times, at the hands of sadistic doctors in Idaho who must have been rubbing their hands at this monumental submission of a giant; and the family members who were likely really sick of all the catering they had to do and attention to pay, and endless praise of someone they felt they had been propping up at the sacrifice of their own existences. Couldn’t the guy just sit in a corner and stop draining them. They signed the papers and said Yes. Do it. It was not a betrayal Hemingway ever imagined would come his way.
I believe the stunner of having his Cuban home invaded, stripped bare and emptied of his books, manuscripts, notes, personal effects…his home…and by a government he was in sympathy with…soldiers waiting until he was state-side….that sent him spiraling down. Castro ordered his troops to seize his property, and kick in the front door when Hemingway was absent. They at once shot dead his old much loved Cocker Spaniel who stood at the entrance wagging his tail anticipating Papa.
All of it hit hard. Ernest Hemingway felt it. 62 is young to die. It is also out of the range of younger or older traditional suicide impulses. I can’t believe the man ever actually, deeply, felt much at all in his life before the Cuban assault. His own stories are, to me, of an outsider, on location, nose pressed against the window panes of other lives. His characters were men (and sometimes women) motivated by real emotion, conviction, purpose. Although he went through an impressive gamut of experiences I’m not convinced he ever possessed in his own heart what he wrote into his storied heroes.
All this said, the A.E. Hotchner biography made me feel for Hemingway for the first time, understand him better, and understand how, following the enormous betrayals: expulsion from Cuba and his innocent dog’s murder; then the ease with which his very brain was mushed by those he thought loved him, he’d have chosen death. I don’t think Hemingway ever dreamed anything like it would have been visited upon him. Not ever.
And all that aside, Hotchner included the content of a Hemingway Picnic on one of their exploits, off in the hills of some European countryside on an adventure, a day of friendship and moveable feasting, and it’s a delight to imagine, or try on for size. The guy knew how to eat.
I writ it out large on a tiny piece of aging paper in India Ink with a calligraphy Speedball pen point, re-discovered it last night pinned to my kitchen cabinet, and here it is…..
Squabs, Cheeses, Cold Smoked Trout, Navarre Black Grapes, Brown Speckled Pears, Eggplant and Pimento in Sauce, Unshelled Shrimps, Fresh Anchovies, Cold Wine.
I’ll remember him for this pleasuring the palette. And that he really liked domestic cats, his six-toed collection of 80-some in the Florida Keys. And that he probably liked the 2nd Amendment equally.