|Antonio Gattorno, a Cuban artist, sketched Hemingway in 1934|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."