My Day With Hemingway

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My first comment was to congratulate him on his recent award of the Nobel Prize. “Thanks,” he said, “but I can’t get my hands on the money. The goddamned American ambassador [who had accepted the prize on his behalf] is holding it. He wants to come out and ‘present’ it, and I don’t want the son-of-a-bitch in my house!” Why, he did not say. “My taxidermist in Nairobi is holding up my trophies, and I need the forty thousand dollars!”

I found it hard to believe that Ernest Hemingway could need money, but he seemed perfectly serious. How he finally collected the prize I never found out.

I was eager to steer the conversation around to Miss Redmon’s class in American literature at the University of North Carolina. I had always been a bit skeptical of her ability to see into the minds of authors and extract hidden meanings that routinely went over my head.

I recalled vividly one lecture in which she had explained the exquisite symbolism she discerned in this brief preface to The Snows of Kilimanjaro : “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngàje Ngài,’ the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” Could we not see, she wondered, the beautiful metaphor therein expressed: the leopard, sensing impending death, climbing the mountains as if reaching out to God? Hemingway was alluding to the bond that exists between God and nature. I quoted Miss Redmon as best I could remember and asked Hemingway if this was what he had had in mind.

“Bulls——!” he said. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about! I just thought it was a hell of a good story, that’s all. If you ever see her again, Lieutenant, you tell her what I said.”

As we talked, Hemingway noticed that our eyes were drawn to his beard, which he scratched incessantly.

“Damn beard itches,” he said.

“Why don’t you shave it off?” offered Major McKinnon, happy to find a way into the conversation.

“Got a skin problem. Shaving only makes it worse,” Hemingway replied.

I asked every question I could think of, from serious to frivolous. I even asked if, after his acquaintance with Ava Gardner in the filming of The Snows , he believed the tabloid reports of a torrid affair that she was said to be having with Sammy Davis, Jr.

“No, Lieutenant,” he said. “Those people write that crap for one reason—money. Truth has nothing to do with it.” Ava was a sweet Southern girl, he said, and he just didn’t believe the story.

As the sun sank into the hills, shadows began creeping up the wall, and Hemingway suddenly became acutely aware of the time of day.

“José,” he shouted, “come get this damned rum out of here. Can’t you see it’s martini time?”

Perhaps understandably, I cannot remember how many martinis we stayed on for. Fascinating hours slipped by and darkness fell. I do recall that at one point our conversation was interrupted by a disturbance outside.

“Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Hemingway,” a female voice yelled. “Are you at home?”

“José,” he hollered irritably, “get her ass out of here!”

Finally we sensed that it was time to take our leave. Reluctantly—and unsteadily—we said good-bye, and my brush with history was over. The forty years that have passed have surely released me from my pledge.