I consumed his novels as a teenager the way I would finish off a pizza. I couldn’t put it down. “The Sun Also Rises” had a sustaining role in many of my teenage dreams. I fantasized hanging out on the left bank of Paris in the 30s with “the lost generation” folks. I swapped dreams with Jake, Lady Brett, Robert Cohen and other ex-pats, knocking back drinks into the wee hours as Edith Piaf sang past final call.
These long ago memories were revived as we watched Ken Burns’ PBS trilogy, “Hemingway” recently. The documentary in classic Burns’ style, dug deeply into the life of the man many regard as the greatest American novelist of the last century. The man who changed literature forever.
Ken Burns and Lyn Novick didn’t opt for printing the legend about Ernest Hemingway. They presented the man, with all his warts, frailties, and flaws, as well as his larger than life bravado and extraordinary writing skills.
As a teenager, I didn’t see the darker side of Hemingway. I was fascinated by his men and women whose lives were filled with romance and adventure that easily could befuddle my aspirations to become a writer and world traveler. I especially bonded with Jake and the other men who had tortured souls.
As a very shy young man, I felt a tight bond with these worldly men who couldn’t find happiness. Ah, the magic of Ernest Hemingway who, coincidentally, had those same feelings as a teenager.
Hemingway, as the Burns’ documentary shows, was a narcissist who needed to inflate everything even as he achieved enormous literary success. He was a cocktail warrior who bragged about exploits that needed no embellishments. Hemingway never seemed satisfied with the attention and adulation that surrounded him. He always needed more. I never saw that flaw as a young man infatuated with Hemingway’s characters and stories. I was blinded by the self-sacrificing heroism of Robert Jordan in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.”
I also didn’t share Hemingway’s fascination with bull fighting. The author saw the bullfight arena as the ultimate life and death duel scenario. The gunfighter at high noon, if you will. There was no sense of the bull as the inevitable loser or victim. He displayed a similar insensitivity toward the creatures he killed on African safaris. He slaughtered animals for the sport and joy of displaying their skin and parts as trophies. This, also, was lost to a young man who just saw the courageous hunter in the treacherous jungle. The macho Hemingway loses much of his magic as we grow older and gain perspective on his need to be the hero at all costs.
During the 70s and 80s, I spent my R & R time off the Florida Keys on Bimini in the Bahamas. Bimini had been a second home for Ernest Hemingway. One of the primary island attractions is “Hemingway’s,” a bar frequented by the author. Along with other media friends, I spent many a long evening eating all manner of conch and drinking rum into the wee hours while listening to locals spin tales about “Papa” Hemingway and his island exploits. Well-fortified by the rum, I think we began to print our own legends about Ernest Hemingway.
During our final Bimini visit, I recall one local chatting me up and sharing, over several rums, that “Papa could be a very strange fella. He’d come into the place, all hale and hearty man. But hours later, he would get very mean with the ladies. Very mean and then fights would start. Papa would sucker punch and – oh, Mista, the tables and chairs would be flyin’ all over the place. Papa would be in the middle of the pile when the police come in. They send lots of us to jail but they take Papa home. He was a funny fella.”
A bit of a revelation perhaps about Hemingway’s macho-sexist manners. Back then, though, I just nodded and had a final rum before leaving.
I remember seeing Ernest Hemingway in a TV interview. Black and white images, maybe on Edward R. Murrow’s “Person To Person.” He was aged but still blustery. Refusing to engage Murrow’s direct questions. It was like seeing an old lion at the zoo. I must admit I made me sad.
A few months later, Ernest Hemingway’s life long fascination with death ended. There was no epilogue.