Papa, Satchmo, And The Babe

PrintPrintEmailEmail

As anyone with a family album knows, photographs rarely tell the whole truth. That idyllic couple, snuggling on the dock, were divorced not long after the camera clicked; those Thanksgiving guests did not enjoy the turkey nearly as much as their glassy, flashbulb smiles suggest.

Even the most obscure among us learn to mask our feelings for the camera. Some celebrities make a lifetime of it, fabricating for themselves genial, self-assured public personas that often have little real connection with their insecure creators. Three recent pictorial biographies, of Ernest Hemingway, Babe Ruth, and Louis Armstrong, reveal in different ways how tricky a guide to personality and character the camera can be.

Ernest Hemingway Rediscovered , with photographs by Roberto Herrera Sotolongo and text by Norberte Fuentes (Scribner’s, $39.95), is an especially handsome book, beautifully laid out and well printed, made up largely of candid photographs taken by Hemingway’s longtime secretary during the writer’s last two decades and found in four yellow Kodak boxes after both the photographer and his subject were gone. These pictures were meant to document the boss’s high life and happy times. Hemingway stands his ground before a charging rhinoceros, shoots pigeons, enjoys a cockfight, hauls in a marlin, steers his fishing boat Pilar , even poses (only slightly uneasily) while being pawed by trained bears. But mostly he drinks—aboard ship, with movie stars, in fishermen’s bars and Havana nightclubs, all alone in his easy chair in the living room of the Finca Vigía, his Cuban hideaway, surrounded by the smiling hangers-on whose admiration he both craved and scorned. (There is just one picture of him doing the only thing for which he will finally be remembered: He Stands up as he writes, shirtless and in shorts, even the muscles in his calves tensed with the effort of squeezing out the words.)

Despite all the hilarity spread across these oversize pages, the impact of the pictures is overwhelmingly sad, a painful record of the disintegration of a once-gifted man increasingly unable to understand where his gift or his life has gone. Two portraits from the book remain most vividly in my mind. One shows a bleary, grizzled, scarred-up Hemingway, sucking in his gut to make himself look more like the youthful portrait on the wall behind him; the other is a merciless 1950s close-up, evidently made aboard the Pilar after a very long day of fishing and sun and red wine. Hemingway is bare-chested and supine; his face is sodden and puffy; his eyes are heavy-lidded and unfocused. He would endure his life for another decade before ending it, but in this photograph he already looks dead.

In The Babe: A Life in Pictures (Ticknor & Fields, $40.00), Lawrence S. Ritter makes a good case that Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Certainly he was the most colorful, and in this fine collection of pictures assembled by Mark Rucker, many of them never seen before, we get a vivid sense of the impression this big, homely athlete made on and off the field. The highlights of Ruth’s long baseball career are all here—his debut as a lean left-hander for the old Baltimore Orioles in 1914; whacking his sixtieth home run in 1927; saying a last farewell to Yankee Stadium just two months before his death in 1948. Two hitherto unpublished frames from a fan’s home movie, made during the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, prove Ruth did indeed point at something before hitting his most famous homer, although the authors are careful not to take sides in the ancient controversy on whether he actually called his shot.

But Ruth’s private life was nearly as celebrated as was his batting skill; he squandered his money, drank bourbon and ginger ale before breakfast, consumed awesome amounts of food, and was a favorite customer in brothels from coast to coast. (Asked what it was like to room with Ruth, his teammate Ping Bodie answered that he didn’t room with Babe Ruth, “I room with Babe Ruth’s suitcase.” That suitcase—or one like it—is shown here in color, its battered sides ablaze with stickers advertising the posh hotels on three continents through whose halls he roistered.)

Ruth was always happy to cooperate with the camera boys, and The Babe is filled with wonderful publicity shots of him in soft hat, fur coat, and driving gauntlets at the wheel of his monogrammed sports car; spooning in Quaker Puffed Wheat; fingering a typewriter keyboard; riding a bull; hugging a chimpanzee; dressed up in top hat and tails and as a girl in a blond wig; wearing shorts and an undershirt and unaccountably blowing on a saxophone while Paul Whiteman and a very dignified John Philip Sousa stand by, similarly undressed.