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The Finest Life You Ever Saw’

Ernest Hemingway Collection/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Ernest Hemingway and his three sons, Bimini, the Bahamas, July 1935

He enjoyed taking people out on the Pilar to fish or to show them the excitement of it, Dos Passos and MacLeish before he broke with them, and Arnold Gingrich, who was the editor of Esquire and who married a sporty blond woman, Jane Mason, who’d been Hemingway’s mistress and was the model for Mrs. Macomber. The boat was used as well for cruising along the Cuban coast—the island is eight hundred miles long—to secluded bays where they would have lunch, swim, siesta, and sometimes stay for a few days.

Paul Hendrickson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Sons of Mississippi—a book about the white sheriffs who, in 1962, tried to stop James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi—is a deeply informed and inspired guide. He often appears in the first person, addressing the reader and exhorting him or her to speculate, imagine, or feel. He has researched exhaustively, been to the places Hemingway frequented, and talked to whoever was part of or had a connection to the Hemingway days. He interviewed all three of Hemingway’s sons in 1987 for a piece about them in The Washington Post. His diligence and spirit are remarkable. It is like traveling with an irrepressible talker who may go off on tangents but never loses the power to amaze. The book not only traces the history of the boat with all its associations but also the longer arc of Hemingway’s life—his childhood, youth, companions, manhood, and achievement—in its full rise, fall, and finally rise again. Not a bell, as Hendrickson writes, but a sine curve.

There exists a general feeling that Hemingway was better earlier; his books were better, he was better as a man. By the time he was fifty, his son Gregory—with whom he had a difficult relationship—said he was “a snob and a phony.” The hotels, the Ambos Mundos and the Compleat Angler, seemed to become the Gritti Palace, Ritz, and Sherry-Netherland, and there was much association with rich or fashionable people. He had worked hard all his life. He had been to three wars, he had always showed up. “When you have loved three things all your life,” he wrote, “from the earliest you can remember; to fish, to shoot and, later, to read; and when all your life the necessity to write has been your master, you learn to remember.” And in a famous letter to his former wife, now Hadley Mowrer, he wrote:

Now I’ve written good enough books so that I don’t have to worry about that I would be happy to fish and shoot and let somebody else lug the ball for a while. We carried it plenty and if you don’t know how to enjoy life, if it should be the only one life we have, you are a disgrace and don’t deserve to have it. I happen to have worked hard all my life and made a fortune at a time when whatever you make is confiscated by the govt. That’s bad luck. But the good luck is to have had all the wonderful things and times we had. Imagine if we had been born at a time when we could never have had Paris when we were young. Do you remember the races out at Enghien and the first time we went to Pamplona by ourselves and that wonderful boat the Leopoldina and Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Black Forest?… Good bye Miss Katherine Kat. I love you very much.

It is Hemingway at his most gentle, elegiac, and self-pitying. Eight years after writing it he published Across the River and Into the Trees, an autobiographic novel about an aging colonel wildly in love with a young Italian woman in Venice that took his egotism to new heights and was ridiculed mercilessly, made worse by the notorious interview he gave to Lillian Ross that provided an equally devastating portrait. But he followed this with one of his most popular and enduring works, The Old Man and the Sea, about an epic marlin and an aged fisherman’s courage, written in Hemingway’s heroic style, uplifting, open to being mocked.

In 1954 he was given the Nobel Prize. Gabriel García Márquez, still a journalist, caught sight of Hemingway and his wife in Paris one day in 1957 walking along the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Hemingway was wearing old jeans and a lumberjack’s shirt. He had long been one of García Márquez’s great heroes, for his myth as well as his writing. The Old Man and the Sea had hit García Márquez “like a stick of dynamite”; he was too timid to approach Hemingway but also too excited not to do something. From the opposite side of the street he called out, “Maestro!” Hemingway raised a hand as he called back “in a slightly puerile voice,” “Adios, amigo!”

His health was deteriorating. There was recurring depression as well as the effects of serious injuries from two successive airplane crashes in Africa in 1954 that resulted in concussion, a fractured skull, a ruptured liver, and a dislocated arm and shoulder. Over the years he’d had many diseases, broken bones, and a number of wounds. There were also diabetes, hypertension, migraine headaches, and the cumulative cost of decades of hard drinking. He had night terrors and thoughts of suicide. His father had committed suicide—shot himself—in 1928. Writing was becoming increasingly difficult, and he had always put into it everything he had. His style became in some respects a kind of imitation of itself, a close imitation although, as Walter Benjamin noted, only the original of anything has authentic power.

Still, toward the end, in 1958, he finished the beautiful remembrance of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, written with a simplicity and modesty that seemed long past. As with much of Hemingway, it fills one with envy and an enlarged sense of life. His Paris is a city you long to have known. Two of his novels never put in final form by him have been published posthumously, The Garden of Eden and Islands in the Stream. Like all his books, they sold well. In 2010 Scribner’s sold more than 350,000 copies of Hemingway’s works in North America alone. By far the most popular is The Old Man and the Sea.

There are lengthy though discerning portraits of minor characters in Hendrickson’s book. They are of interest mainly because they are neglected witnesses. The longer one, affectionately done, is of Walter Houk, who served in the US embassy in Havana at the end of the 1940s and whose girlfriend Nita worked for Hemingway as his secretary. She introduced Houk to Hemingway and they became friends. The Houks were married at Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house; he gave the bride away. Houk’s memories are firsthand, meals with the Hemingways, swims in their pool, voyages on the Pilar. A kind of rosy nostalgia seems to be taking over when suddenly, in the final riveting act, there enters a grotesque, almost demonic figure, tortured, mesmerizing, a doctor with the prodigious wreckage of three wives, seven or eight children, alcohol, drugs, and adultery trailing behind him, a transvestite who finally has a sex change operation and ends up dying in jail: the always troubled, gifted youngest son, Gregory Hemingway.

He is last seen sitting on the curb in Key Biscayne one morning after having been arrested the night before trying to get through a security gate. He’s in a hospital gown but otherwise naked with some clothes and black high heels bunched in one hand. He had streaked, almost whitish hair that morning, painted toenails, and as the police approached was trying to put on a flowered thong. Five days later he died of a heart attack while being held in a Women’s Detention Center. He was listed as Gloria Hemingway. This was in 2001; he was sixty-nine years old.

The last, very moving section of Hemingway’s Boat is devoted to Gregory, Gigi as he was always called, rhyming with “biggy,” the wayward son who as a boy was caught trying on his stepmother’s white stockings. “He was a boy born to be quite wicked who was being very good…,” Hemingway wrote in his fictional version, Islands in the Stream. “But he was a bad boy and the others knew it and he knew it.” Hendrickson says, “I’ll whoof this straight out: a lifelong shamed son was only acting out what a father felt….” And these were possibly the transsexual fantasies in The Garden of Eden along with all the women in Hemingway with hair cut short like a boy’s.

When Gigi’s oldest child, Lorian, saw him for the first time in years, he took her out in a chartered boat to show her big-game fishing, but then embarrassingly lost the big marlin he’d hooked. He hadn’t slacked, and the line had snapped. He’d made a botch of it. He seemed broken. She reached out and touched his forhead in sympathy. “Sorry, Greg,” she said. “You’re a pretty girl,” he said. “A very pretty girl. Call me ‘Father,’ would you?” She noticed the nail polish on two of his cracked and dirty nails.

Hemingway’s declining health and psychological problems were more serious at the end of the 1950s. He had shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic and believed the FBI was following him. (In fact FBI agents had compiled a large file on him.) He was delusional and slurring his speech. It was kept from the public. He was unable to write as much as a single sentence. In chilling detail Hendrickson gives the almost step-by-step account of his final hour when he rose early one morning in Ketchum, Idaho, put on his slippers, and went quietly past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping. The suicide could be seen as an act of weakness, even moral weakness, a sudden revelation of it in a man whose image was of boldness and courage, but Hendrickson’s book is testimony that it was not a failure of courage but a last display of it.

Hemingway’s Boat is a book written with the virtuosity of a novelist, hagiographic in the right way, sympathetic, assiduous, and imaginative. It does not rival the biographies but rather stands brilliantly beside them—the sea, Key West, Cuba, all the places, the life he had and gloried in. His commanding personality comes to life again in these pages, his great charm and warmth as well as his egotism and aggression.

Forgive him anything,” as George Seldes’s wife said in the early days, “he writes like an angel.”


Corrections October 27, 2011

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