On Dismembering Hemingway

Many critics are making a fuss over A. E. Hotchner's PAPA HEMINGWAY, book buyers are making it a best seller, and the great writer's widow is making it the cause of a lawsuit. Here is what an acknowledged Hemingway scholar makes of it. Mr. Young is Research Professor of English at Penn State and author of ERNEST HEMINGWAY, a book-length study first published in 1953 and translated into several foreign languages and issued in a revised edition in 1965.


AFTER a splendid dinner at the finca outside Havana in the winter of 1954, Ernest and I were lingering over a crackling cold Sancerre. He was more subdued than usual, and suddenly he said, “Listen, Phil. Any man’s death diminishes me. Because, dammit, I’m involved in mankind. So don’t ask, kid, for whom the bell tolls — it tolls for you.”

The trouble with this memorable “conversation” is that it didn’t take place. (I never laid eyes on Hemingway.) The setting is pretty much lifted from A. E. Hotchner’s high-flying Papa Hemingway. To get the quote, I pulled down Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and roughed it up a little. The fact that Hemingway was in Africa at the time is no matter.

It is conceded that in the course of their fourteenyear palship “Hotch,” as he is called, did see Mr. Hemingway — on more than one occasion. There is a possibility that they did, as alleged, print a card announcing their incorporation: “Hemhotch, Ltd.” But, witness this book, the partnership was more limited than Hemingway could have imagined. Its junior member ran off with the treasury: a betrayal of confidence way the hell and gone beyond freelance cynicism. Further, and every bit as bad in a different way, the hunch is that a really ingenious and knowledgeable fake (who had never met him either) could have rifled Papa’s countless letters — also many books, magazines, published interviews, and newspapers — and come up with a best-selling hotch-potch that would not differ radically from this one.

The reasons for suspecting this book of a certain amount of bluffing are four: first, both partners in Hemhotch are tellers of really tall tales. Then there is A. E.’s bemusing ignorance of some fundamental facts about Hemingway’s life and work. Third, the book transparently contradicts itself in several places, and in such a fashion that the author simply cannot have it both ways. Last, and most important, there is a basis for speculating that some of the conversations that make up the better part of Hotchner’s Loot Song never occurred.

Several reviewers have expressed deep misgivings about the taste and propriety of this book (“disgraceful,” “shameless,” “contemptible”). But no one seems to have called any substantial part of it into question, though little more than common sense is required to question Hotchner rather early in the game, and to doubt as well that Papa was much concerned to tell him the truth. Almost at the start Hemingway appears to have discovered that his fawn would relish almost anything. And so he fed it tidbits in generous variety as long as he was having fun. Thus it is that we learn Hemingway could talk so eloquently to bears and a gorilla as to practically unhinge them; that Legs Diamond’s gorgeous mistress gave him $300 for servicing her twice at “21” (once in the kitchen, again on the stair landing); that he lost his virility with his second wife and magically regained it with a prayer, promptly converting to Catholicism; and so forth. After deducing that his subject’s account of a bout with Mata Hari would have had to take place after her execution, Hotchner says, “I was always on the lookout” for this sort of fiction. But if he was, he never let Papa know it, or the reader in on it.

Hotchner lets Hemingway tell him a real funny story involving the shyness of Max Perkins, which led that editor to put down on his calendar a fourletter word from A Farewell to Arms that he didn’t want to speak but which had to be deleted from the manuscript. If Hotchner knew as much about that novel as any careful reader, he’d know as well that this graybeard of an anecdote cannot possibly be attached to that book for the simple reason that its manuscript contained several words that had in those days to be cut, including a much tougher and more offensive one. Similarly, if our portrait artist were even reasonably informed on his subject, he would not have provided us with a learned footnote to the effect that the unfavorable reception of Across the River and Into the Trees constituted “the first setback Ernest had received since the publication of his first book.” And if he knew as much about Hemingway’s life as can be found in the crudest of paperback biographies, he would not have presented Ernest pounding a punching bag in a music room added on to his ancestral home in Oak Park — a room which is supposed to have been built on an inheritance from a father who did not die until a decade after these workouts are supposed to have occurred.

Somewhat less trivial are the palpable contradictions within Hotchner’s own covers. Sometimes it is Hemingway who, according to the story, is allowed to contradict himself. Thus, for instance, Papa tells him that all his books started as short stories; “I never sat down to write a novel.” This is simply untrue, and not many pages later A. E. has Ernest describing how he very deliberately and “finally got around to doing my war novel,” only to bring him back a few chapters later with “I’ve never yet set out to write a novel — it’s always a short story that moves into being a novel,” The discrepancy is not particularly important, but the silence of the biographer at such moments is worth thinking about.

NOT long ago an English novelist got into a bad storm flying here from London, while the only draft of a new book huddled against the weather in his luggage. It occurred to him that if the plane crashed he would be dead, and his wife and children abandoned to an expensive world, but all he could worry about was his bloody manuscript. This is a common affliction, and it is well known that Hemingway had a bad case. “ Ernest always treated the pages of a manuscript-in-progress as Crown Jewels,” writes Hotchner, and once he has him go to a Havana bank to get one out of the vault. Yet it does not bother Hotch to present a vivid account of Papa in his fishing boat, the Pilar, trotting out the manuscript of Across the River and Into the Trees for A. E.’s inspection — and this on a day so stormy they had to give up and go ashore. Or stop him from two far more incredible stories about the same manuscript, “hand-written and Ernest’s only copies.” One of these recounts how Hotchner most unaccountably managed to leave the last three chapters of the same book on the Simplon-Orient Express. Then he tells how when he got to the rail yards in search of his loss he found the right car, and how although it had already been cleaned everyone had overlooked a “nine-by-twelve manila envelope” in plain view on the wall of his compartment, “lodged in the frame” of one of those tourist scenes that decorate such accommodations. Consider if nothing else the dimensions, including the thickness, of such an envelope stuck in such a crack, and it seems clear why “I never told Ernest. Or anyone else.”

On one page an incompetent driver and Hotchner are en route by car to Milan, with Hemingway as a truly expert “full-time navigator” (with an “excellent sense of direction, and infinite patience ... a post that he always relished”). On the next page they are all utterly lost — circling Milan “for an hour and a half” (“there was nothing to do but circle and hope for the best”). But as a rule, that is not Hotchner’s method. Late in the book he attacks a magazine that had “wormed its way into the [Mayo Clinic’s] confidential records and had smeared its pages with the contents of the file on Ernest. . . . Where the facts were missing,” they “filled the gaps with conjecture.”

What fills most of the gaps in Hotchner’s record are the materials out of which he has fashioned the conversations which may indeed make the book, as Mrs. Hemingway argued in court, more “by” than “about” her husband. They are said to be the product of notes Hotch secretly kept “during all the time I knew him,” and of the tapes on which he recorded the boss. But as one of the participants in this drama has pointed out, “He couldn’t possibly have been taking notes. Not even he could have, and gotten everything so wrong.” As for the tapes, one need only listen to a widely marketed recording of some of them, called Ernest Hemingway Reading, to hear what that device (a toy, good for laughs) was worth as a biographical source.

In other words, it is awfully difficult to believe that Mr. Hotchner has accurately described the matter out of which his book was made, and just as hard to resist the notion that this Personal Memoir is less by than compiled by him.

This is partly because so much of Papa Hemingway is so completely familiar, at least to people who have been reading much of anything on the subject over the years. Thus for the umpteenth time, but now in “conversation,” we learn what Ernest said to Gertrude Stein, read about the early rejection slips coming to his room over the Parisian sawmill (which Hotchner has somehow moved from Montparnasse to Montmartre), discover what he thought about William Faulkner’s ten-dollar words and his own more common ones. Once more we get the story of how he was wounded in World War I, how he always waked at dawn and wrote, and under what conditions he stopped writing. Once again here is an account of how all his early manuscript was stolen from his first wife on a French train, and of why he took Scott Fitzgerald out of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” putting “poor Julian” in his place. And so on, and on, and on. It is easy to sympathize with the reviewer who said, “If I have to read one more account of Hemingway’s writing methods, I shall break my pencils.”

Discovering the many origins of this well-worn stuff would in most cases involve more trouble than the project is worth. But one example concerning Marlene Dietrich is relatively simple to illustrate. Early in the book Ernest and A. E. are talking after dinner one evening at the finca, and Papa asks, “You know how we met, the Kraut and me?” What follows is an account of a time when Miss Dietrich would not sit at a table where she would make the thirteenth at supper; Ernest nimbly inserted himself as the fourteenth and saved the party. This anecdote resembles very remarkably one she herself wrote up in a piece on Papa called “The Most Fascinating Man I Know,” which appeared in This Week magazine on February 13, 1955. Here is Hotchner in Papa Hemingway:

. . . when I got to know Marlene quite well, she told me: “I never ask Ernest for advice as such but he is always there to talk to, to get letters from, and in conversations and letters I find the things I can use for whatever problems I may have; he has often helped me without even knowing my problems. He says remarkable things that seem to automatically adjust to problems of all sizes.”

Compare Marlene in This Week:

I never ask him for advice, as such, but he is always there to talk to, to get letters from, and in conversation and letters I find the things I can use for whatever problems I may have; in that way he has often helped me without even knowing my problems. He says remarkable things that seem to automatically adjust to problems of all sizes.

That is only the first of nine paragraphs of this.

A second example involves a truly berserk conversation with another movie star:

A hospital. Madrid, 1954.

Ava Gardner. “You’ve never had an analyst?”

Papa. “Sure I have. Portable Corona number three. . . . I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself. When a man is in rebellion against death, as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the godlike attributes, that of giving it.”

Ava. “That’s too deep for me, Papa.”

The second sentence of this most improbable pontification was quoted by Earl Wilson, a Broadway columnist, some fifteen years ago. And the third is a Graceful Improvement of some lines Hemingway composed on himself for Georges Schreiber’s Portraits and Self-Portraits in 1936: “since he was a young boy he has cared greatly for fishing and shooting. If he had not spent so much time on them ... he might have written much more. On the other hand he might have shot himself.” The last sentence of Papa’s paragraph was obviously never spoken by anyone. But except for its second clause, Hotchner’s helpful amendment, it was written, all right — for the first paragraph of Chapter Nineteen of Death in the Afternoon, which is a book, published in 1932, by Ernest Hemingway. It is copied more or less correctly: “when a man is still in rebellion against death he has pleasure in taking to himself one of the Godlike attributes; that of giving it.”

Ernest is not the only person Hotchner quotes on Hemingway, present company not excepted. A single instance, involving Papa’s little army and World War II, will suffice:

Hotchner, in Papa Hemingway (1966):

Robert Capa . . . once told me about Ernest’s Irregulars. . . . The men had a hard time believing that Ernest was not a general, because he had a public relations officer, a lieutenant as an aide, a cook, a driver, a photographer and a special liquor ration.

As he works from a book of Capa’s called Slightly Out of Focus, compare:

Young, in Ernest Hemingway (1952):

The French Irregulars who put themselves under Hemingway’s wing . . . had a hard time comprehending the fact that the reporter was not a general. . . . He had a lieutenant as an “aide,” and “personal relations officer,” and was assigned a cook, a driver, a photographer and a special liquor ration.

This Personal Memoir resounds with Remarks That Probably Never Got Made, and one of the most reverberant of them is something Ernest told A. E. over a drink in Madrid:

All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it all belongs to you forever; the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and the weather. If you can give that to readers, then you’re a writer.

This rendition leaves something to be desired, but the Hemingway section of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (page 983, column b) has got it right:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you have finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

In a somewhat similar way it is surprising to discover that a line of Gary Cooper’s that had a lot of currency at the time of Hemingway’s death (“I bet [Ernest] that I will beat him out to the barn”) was spoken to none other than A. E. Hotchner— when Mrs. Cooper “left us alone” in her husband’s sickroom. And if we can stand one more surprise of this sort, examine what Papa, in the Alps in 1954, said to A. E. about that scandalous New Yorker profile of him by Lillian Ross:

After you finish a book, you’re wiped out. . . . But all she saw was the irresponsibility that comes after the terrible responsibility of writing.

Then consider Lillian herself in that same profile, published some four years earlier:

Hemingway turned to me. “After you finish a book, you know, you’re dead. . . . But ... all they see is the irresponsibility that comes in after the terrible responsibility of writing.”

Despite the reviewers, then, Hotchner’s vaunted “ear” and his admirable “self-effacement” are not impressive. When his ear is not hearing what was written down in formal prose, Hemingway’s monologues come out more or less effectively. Indeed, his ear hears capital letters, which is not easy. (Listen to Hemingway talking: “in comes Mike, his left hand swollen like the Pride of Your Garden if you were growing squash”; “life at the finca got a little rough just before we left for the Dark Continent”; an Italian, “attached to an American naval unit in Norfolk, Virginia . . . has fallen in love with The Hamburger,” and so on.) As for Hotchner’s having effaced himself to the point of invisibility, even when, as in the case of contradiction, repetition, or whatever, his presence is stridently called for: is it possible that he just wasn’t there? And as for the captured paragraphs of monologue: how hard is it to get them right if in another country all you have to do is open the mail, write “Ernest said to me,” put the quotation marks where they should go, and correct the spelling as you copy? It would be hard for anyone who has read a few Hemingway letters — and quite a few are in print — to ignore their resemblance to what this memoir prints as man-to-man talk. At one point while they are supposed to be together in Cuba (and not on the telephone) Papa tells Hotch, most convincingly: “maybe it’s something you could handle. You’re in New York. . . .”

Hemingway wrote thousands of letters, and Hotchner, who admittedly was not around the greater part of the time, must have been the recipient of quite a number. Why then are we told directly almost nothing about what was in them? Could it be that he wants not just Papa’s sentiments but his words? And knows he cannot have them if they came through the post? He “owns” those letters, all right; may sell or burn them with impunity. But print them openly he cannot.

AMONG the reviewers, whose hats, by and large, arc in the air, there arc a few who have strong reservations, but only two, John Kenneth Galbraith and John Thompson, have admitted to a reasonable doubt. Mrs. Hemingway has found enough factual errors to make up a small book, but John Mason Brown, a typical enthusiast, lauds particularly A. E.’s “seismographic accuracy” and “phenomenal memory.” Even as Hotchner relates, a biographical piece by an actual friend (Malcolm Cowley), which lit up its subject like the Lincoln Memorial, made Hemingway “Truly sick!” Yet Brown thinks “Papa himself . . . would have approved of” this book. Orville Prescott is equally perceptive: Hotchner “deserves to be compared to Boswell.”

As if this were not enough, our biographer has the courts behind him. When Mrs, Hemingway tried to stop publication of Hotchner’s book, her case was rejected in toto by State Supreme Court Justice Harry B. Frank. When she appealed his decision, he was unanimously upheld.

It appears that the judge’s rejection of Mrs. Hemingway’s case was based on three arguments. First, he ruled that conversations are not protected by common-law copyright. Second, he criticized her failure to realize that “random and disconnected oral conversations are given some semblance of form only by virtue of their arrangement in the context of literary creation.” Last, he objected to her legal silence during the three years that Hotchner was writing his book; when she did file suit it was so late that to stop the thing would have put a “disproportionate economic burden” on author and publisher.

Now, it is clear that critics are not judges. But judges are not critics, either, or any sort of Hemingway men. It would be interesting, then, to learn why it is the judge assumes Mrs. Hemingway knew about this book through three years of silence, and downright fascinating to know how he would go about proving it. (Far easier to believe her simple statement to the effect that “At no time did Ernest or I have any idea that Mr. Hotchner was taking notes, or had any intention of writing a book until last June [1965].”) To think that she sat around for a couple of years waiting to do something about it is to suppose that she is an impractical, unintelligent woman, heedless of her husband’s reputation or the condition of his estate. Evidence to this effect is not immediately available.

Ernest once complained to Hotch, “I’ve always had that problem — other writers pinching my stuff.” What he did not realize is that he was talking to the future record-holder, coming on fast. In other words, how is Justice Frank so sure that the ingredients of each “conversation” were, before the unleashing of Hotchner’s creative force, “a disoriented conglomeration of unconnected expressions”? How would he go about establishing that? What if the famous notes were actually letters, and the tape was Scotch? And if all the burden of proof is on Mary, are we talking about justice or law?

Apparently there has been no place for testimony in this case. Too bad; it might have been worth watching if Hemingway’s “young Sun Valley doctor, whom I shall call Vernon Lord,” should be called up and asked why his real name (which has appeared in print innumerable times, especially since Hemingway was registered under it at the Mayo Clinic) was not used. Hotchner has already answered that one: “to protect” the doctor. From what? He comes out looking very well. “Vernon Lord” is now in Vietnam, but as for another prominent pseudonymous character, “a young Glasgow girl I’ll call Honor Johns,” the fact that Hotchner is trying to protect himself seems obvious. And perhaps wisely, since this spirited young lady, who is not impossible to identify, states that she “can truthfully say that there is not a single statement having to do with me in the book that is really accurate.”

The writer Harvey Breit argues most convincingly that the truth of the one scene involving him is “exactly reversed,” so that Hotchner comes out the Only One Who Knows and Cares. Major General G. T. Lanham, possibly Hemingway’s truest friend through the Hemhotch era and the recipient of more than three hundred letters from him (many of them of extraordinary length), writes that he is “saddened” and “enraged” at this “parody”: “The Hotchner Hemingway is simply not the Ernest Hemingway I knew and loved.” Lillian Ross points out that despite A. E.’s alleged success at getting Papa to denigrate her profile, she has some sixty letters from him that were written after publication of her “attack,” and all of them friendly. “The American writer-photographer Peter Buckley,” who shared a room with Hotch during the crowded Zaragoza feria, has found so much wrong with that section of the book that he has no faith in it as a whole: “I was will) him 24 hours a day. Notes? He never took a goddam note. Not unless when I was asleep.”

Once at Carcassonne Hemingway says to Hotch, “Most of the wall and the Lowers of the city are faked, but the restoration is so wonderful, who gives a damn?” Doubtless some readers feel this way about Papa Hemingway. A few others, however, are known to give a very good damn. This portrait reveals only such sides of Hemingway as Hotchner was capable of seeing. It shows the half of the man that wrote none of his best stuff: what is permanent in Hemingway came out of depths and strengths a patient errand boy never glimpsed.

If in the guise of “sound and true friend” you are going to invade a man’s privacy, then you have an absolute obligation to get and keep things as scrupulously straight and aboveboard as is humanly possible. The real failure of this book is not, in the end, either legal or factual, although along the way it may be both. Ultimately the failure is moral, and it is stupendous. There are quite a few people who would like to be around come that early morn when it dawns on Mr. Hotchner that he is going to have to live with this book for the rest of his days, and not just on it.