Monday, July 16, 2012

Hemingway Reconsidered

Antonio Gattorno, a Cuban artist, sketched Hemingway in 1934
When it comes to Hemingway it seems we just can’t get enough.  I have been this way forever, more caught up in the Hemingway legend and lore than that of any other writer. And I am not alone in this.  Every day of the week we bump into pedestrian tourists from every corner of the world en route to the Hemingway House and Museum, Key West’s number one tourist attraction, located just around the corner. When I moved into this house, I hopefully envisioned that a molecule or two of Hemingway’s genius might survive in the air I breathed, or that his magnificent mojo might linger on the lazy tradewinds buffeting our neighborhood just below the Key West Lighthouse.

    Hemingway’s star burns brightly fifty years after he shot himself to death while his wife Mary slept. He was 61 years old and burned out, emotionally, mentally, and physically. He was done with this life and he apparently knew it, not surprising to imagine in a writer described by his biographers as being self-absorbed and delicately strung. Controlling, too. Hemingway began calling the shots long before that final, fatal one.

    It is amazing to consider how Hemingway single mindedly paved the way to his fame and fortune, dependent for years on funds provided by his wives’ trusts and their willingness to keep his path cleared of impediments like pesky journalism jobs, mortgage payments, unwanted pregnancies, crying babies, and histrionic reactions to his outrageously selfish nature. They believed in him and he believed in him and he made it work — with their supremely significant support.

    In spite of all the bravado associated with Hemingway in Paris, in Spain, in Africa, and at sea, the man was actually rather clumsy, the books say. He adored truly brave men who fought bulls and won boxing matches. Those were his heroes. But he met his physical challenges in the wild armed with a gun or a fast boat, and a sturdy rod and reel or a hefty pair of boxing gloves. He had deep contempt for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a great writer, because he was unmannishly incapable of holding his liquor. He was jealous of others' success, friends or not. He discouraged his wives from having interests or deep friendships outside of the marriage. His first wife Hadley, whose legacy lived on in the lovely, high cheek-boned beauty of her granddaughters Margeaux and Mariel Hemingway, was an accomplished pianist. But when Mrs. Hemingway scheduled a concert in Paris, her husband didn’t show up. Hadley lost her nerve. The concert never happened and Hadley’s great talent goes largely unrecognized. Did you know?

    Hemingway kept track of Hadley’s periods in a little notebook he carried in his pocket. When her period was late, he despaired. Babies were a bother in any number of ways — the division of their mother’s affections primarily, and then, it was difficult to travel with them. Sadly, Hemingway’s three children all spent much of their childhoods without the presence of their famous father, often with caretakers while their parents traveled for months at a time. Remember the story “Hills Like White Elephants”? Well it ain’t just about a couple having a conversation over a beer at a train station. Just ask the critics.

     Hemingway’s second wife, whose family purchased for her as a wedding gift the house that is today Key West’s Hemingway House, was a writer. Her writing career ended on the day she married Hemingway. Pauline was pretty and fashionable and modern. Hadley was earthy and substantial. With single mindedness of purpose, somewhat akin to Hemingway’s blind dedication to his talent, Pauline cunningly befriended Hadley, and then took Hemingway from her, setting aside her strict Catholic scruples (she never missed Sunday mass) because she just couldn’t help herself. Hemingway, whose vanity was a flimsy and pliable thing, rued the theft till the day he died, writing often of Hadley’s feminine perfection and ultimately holding Pauline in contempt.

     Then came Martha Gellhorn, who calculatedly posed herself on a bar stool at Key West’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar one day in 1936. She planned on knowing Hemingway, who was by then well-published and much publicized. He was also growing restless with life on Whitehead Street, beneath the lighthouse. The address of the grand house of Hemingway, far more splendid than any other in the neighborhood then and now, was listed as a tourist attraction in a 1935 guidebook published by the city. It was not unusual after that for his curious fans to wander into the Hemingway’s yard. Meanwhile, Pauline was growing weary of keeping the children quiet and their menagerie of pets fed and watered while Hemingway holed up in his studio pursuing his art by day, patronizing downtown bars by night. Martha Gellhorn was hot, more attractive than Hadley or Pauline, younger, and a fine writer. She was accomplished, too, as a war correspondent. Always up for a catastrophic scene, Hemingway got himself hired as a correspondent and followed Gellhorn into the Spanish Civil War. Imagine the excitement of those times for wartime writers — living in hotels, ducking bombs, never knowing if the next rendezvous would be their last. The strange aphrodisia of wartime cemented their relationship, and, only weeks after divorcing Pauline, Hemingway married Martha. After the war they settled on a farm in Cuba, and entertained other notable personalities of the day. But it was not a happy marriage. Hemingway was growing grizzly and fat, while Gellhorn was reaching her brilliant and long-legged professional stride. They parted with animosity, and Gellhorn later famously wrote that after the wartime dust had settled, she recognized Hemingway as a brute and a lousy lay to boot.

    Hemingway’s last wife, also a writer, was Mary Welsh. They met just as his and Martha’s marriage was collapsing, and on their third date, Hemingway proposed. Mary was married to another, but wasted no time in freeing herself up for Hemingway, whose need for a woman to love him and provide him with unwavering support, was deep and profound. Mary stood by her man as he clamored into the sloppiest days of his life. He began to frequently injure himself in ways both mundane and dramatic. There were burns from drunken falls into campfires, plane crashes, gashes and infections. His liver was failing. His blood pressure was up. He suffered diabetes. He endured depression. The hostility he'd kept mostly covert for so many years became blaringly obvious. He was noticeably abusive to his wife.

    And in the middle of all that, with the ever-faithful and long-suffering Mary responsive to his every beck and call, he wrote the novel that put him squarely on the world’s literary map forever. It was The Old Man and the Sea. He wrote it in a blast of clarity, in a kind of fever, and knew, as he wrote, that it was his finest work, that he had reached the sure pinnacle of his success. And as scalers of the highest peaks know, getting down the mountain is often far more arduous than the climb to the top.  And so it was for Hemingway.

    The Old Man and the Sea changed me. It opened my 14-year-old eyes to the possibility of words telling so much more than just a story, blowing the lid off my conscripted little world. I wrote an English paper on the book. I got it! And the teacher got it that I got it and gave me a big fat A Plus. I watched the same thing happen to my son when he read Hemingway’s greatest hit. He told me he wanted a tattoo in homage to Hemingway. I discouraged him. I told him that although Hemingway’s work was great, Hemingway the man had been a creep and certainly no one to be emulated.

    Many years ago when a cherished hero of my childhood came to Key West to participate in the Hemingway Look-Alike contest, I was horrified to witness the high esteem in which he held Hemingway, the man. I felt it was a sacrilege that he, who truly was a magnificent and even noble man, was interested in aligning himself with the fat, white-haired, bearded middle-aged Hemingway wannabes who assembled on the stage of Sloppy Joe’s bar to be judged in a competition that had absolutely nothing to do with art.  It was a celebration of the middle-aged Hemingway, a man who, in one way or another, had trashed the lives of just about every person he’d met, man, woman or child.
What’s to celebrate about that? I wrote a newspaper column at the time, and in it I ridiculed him for his folly. His family has held me in contempt ever since. But before he died, he forgave me. Because he was a noble man.

    Now that I am older, older in fact than Hemingway when he died, I can sometimes consider the Hemingway phenomenon in a different light. I understand that Ernest Hemingway was driven to create, to strive for greatness, to live forever, no matter the cost. And though it is true he was not a very nice guy, he inspired us well beyond nicely. He inspired us spectacularly. I envy him his dedication, his unshakable faith in his talent.  Every July Key West celebrates Hemingway with running races, arm wrestling, a look-alike contest, fishing tourneys, walking tours, trivia contests, and lots and lots of drinks. Hemingway lives on, long after the blood and bones of him are dust, he endures, because he lived his life as an endurance contest, always believing what the old man Santiago did: that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated."


  1. Ruth from BostonJuly 17, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    Excellent !

  2. The molecules restructured themselves thusly: "...that his magnificent mojo might linger on the lazy tradewinds buffeting our neighborhood just below the Key West Lighthouse. Great story, nicely phrased June!

  3. Forgot end quotes after "Lighthouse."

  4. That lovely little alliteration made my molecules dance! Wonderful column.