BISHOP CONTRA HEMINGWAY
From Vorm (in Dutch), 2004
© 2004 George Bishop, Jr.
 

     He was again the uneasy guest of honor at a luau on an estate near the Oahu Country Club. He drank a good deal and conversed at length with Charles Bouslog, a professor who had been present at the lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf. Mrs. Bouslog hovered near, constantly replenishing Ernest’s glass until Martha objected. Ernest waved her aside with imperious gestures and kept on drinking. In the course of the evening he came close to a fight with a tall free-lance writer named Bishop who had been needling him with insulting remarks. Ernest removed his jacket, laid it carefully on the porch railing, and beckoned Bishop to accompany him into the shadows of the yard. But Bishop vanished unscathed and Ernest re-entered the general conversation, speaking volubly now in what sounded like a recording from the lips of his fictional heroes. Was this, Bouslog wondered, the final disaster of success? When a man came to sound like his own idea of himself?

Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, by Carlos Baker. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969.

I should like to clarify some things regarding Mr. Carlos Baker’s account of a certain evening with which I am sure you all are familiar by now. My intention here is not to disparage Mr. Baker himself, who, though I’ve never met him, I’m sure is a fine and honest and good writer. But now, on this the eve of my retirement, I feel compelled at last to “settle an old score,” as it were, mano a mano, in addressing something that has been a constant source of annoyance, if not outright humiliation, to me and what remains of my small reputation for these past forty-odd years. This is not an easy thing for me to do. But it is a necessary thing, and it is a good thing at that.

As you know, the late Dr. Charles Bouslog (the “professor” of Mr. Baker’s account) had recently been elected head of the new English and American Literature Studies Department at our little college here on Oahu. The visit by Mr. Hemingway was a tremendous coup for our fledgling department. We owe the memorable occasion to Charles himself, whose diligent letter-writing campaign and many invitations to Mr. Hemingway succeeded at last in wooing the great author to the so-called “luau.”

At the time of the visit in question, Mr. Hemingway was of course already an internationally renowned writer cum celebrity. This was well after publication of his novels: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, and To Have and Have Not, all by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York, New York. The Paramount movie version of A Farewell To Arms, starring the very handsome and successful Mr. Gary Cooper, had also been released some years previously, albeit not, it must be said, to consensually favorable reviews. Mr. Hemingway’s most recent For Whom The Bell Tolls was still selling “like frozen daiquiris in Hell,” as Mr. Baker’s book so colorfully puts it. In short, Mr. Hemingway was very, very famous when he agreed to the visit, and Charles was, it hardly need be said, elated, and it was a good, strong, well-deserved elation.

I was a twenty-year-old buck, having just recently returned from a trip to Argentina, which is where, as some of you may remember or have heard, the “hat” came from. The trip to Argentina was a present from my grandmother for the successful completion of my undergraduate studies. The black flamenco hat I bought myself, as a souvenir, at a souvenir store.

It was night, such as we have here on Oahu, and the Pacific sou’wester came across the island softly and damply to rattle the palms at the beach’s edge and on the highlands and in the interior the black green-black rock of the Ko’olau stood tall and jaggedly sharp against the moon that was in the sky there as it always was there and ever will be. I mention this to evoke the evening.

I had come early to help Charles and his wife set up for the reception. The “estate” to which Mr. Baker refers was a house and small plantation property belonging to one of the regents of the college, a Mr. Bob Lowe, who was “hosting” the reception, along with, of course, Charles and his wife Ann and the various other faculty members. The reason that the reception was not held at the Oahu Country Club itself was that, firstly, the Country Club was private and, secondly, it was already booked for that evening.

Charles saw to it that all of Mr. Hemingway’s favorite foods, as he knew them–fresh anchovies, lobster, squid, salmon, olives and hearty “Basque style” loaf bread–were readily available and placed near the front of the buffet table and at other strategic locations about the garden. I had brought with me a small notepad and sharpened pencil, in the hopes that I might secure an interview with Mr. Hemingway for the Oahu Statesman, where I was employed at the time on a “freelance” basis.

Our guest of honor was late in arriving (one and a half hours), but no one faulted him for this. He had said he would come and, true to his word, he came.

Oh, I remember well his arrival in the garden. Mr. Hemingway did not come to the front door of the house, no. Instead, he came directly to the enclosed garden at the side of the house, appearing quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the arched gateway (it was a tall gate). Mr. Hemingway was accompanied only by his wife, Mrs. Hemingway (the “Martha” of Mr. Baker’s account). They both stood together a moment, Mr. and Mrs., framed by the gate, looking nothing so unlike two “Olympians from on high.”

Mr. Hemingway was wearing his trademark hunting vest, a pair of light flannel trousers and leather huaraches. His sleeves were rolled up high on his famously brawny arms, and in one hand he held, already, a drink. His wife, Mrs. Hemingway, wore a long, light “safari style” skirt with a white blouse. There was a murmur and a stir among the guests as we all turned to sight them in the gate. Charles and Ann rushed to greet them, as did Mr. Bob Lowe and his wife. Before our hosts reached him, however, Mr. Hemingway said (“shouted” would not be too strong a word for this, as he was loud enough to be heard at the far end of the garden, where I had stationed myself): “Where does a man get a drink around here?” Many of us chuckled and nodded, thinking this a very fine entrance indeed.

Mr. Hemingway conversed at length with Charles while standing on the back porch of the house, as Mr. Baker accurately notes. Mr. Hemingway seemed quite hungry, and he eagerly availed himself of the banquet of foods that had been laid for him. He seemed especially to enjoy the salmon. Ann Bouslog attended to his drinking glass, while Mr. Bob Lowe and his wife attempted to entertain Mrs. Hemingway. I stood below the porch where I had a good view of everything. I could see his face clearly. I could hear what was spoken. It was well spoken, and it was very satisfactory to hear Mr. Hemingway speak. He had a strong, well-modulated voice. He tended to roll forward on the balls of his feet, recalling to my mind his boxing prowess. His head turned slightly from side to side when he was listening carefully. After a while he asked to use the toilet. “God, I’ve got to piss!” he said, in his characteristically forthright and humorous way. It was very satisfactory indeed. Mr. Hemingway was shown inside.

During his absence, Charles called me up onto the porch, so that I might meet the guest of honor myself. I joined them, and soon Mr. Hemingway returned. As he approached, I noticed a small round stain, about the size of a half dollar, on the inside of his left pant leg. Initially I was ashamed to have noticed such a thing on our guest; but then I thought this was perfectly in character and right for him, so I thought little more of it.

Up close, Mr. Hemingway was even more impressive. He had a large head and a large body. His face appeared sunburned; there were splotches of red on his face. His nose was red and ruddy. He wore a beard, and it was a good white beard. The hair on his head was combed well forward from low at the back across the top; patches of sunburned scalp were visible through this “flap” of hair. I was not introduced immediately, but lingered near the porch railing, only watching and listening at this point. I also drank.

One thing not generally noted by his biographers is that Mr. Hemingway possessed a slight, though discernible, speech impediment. He could not easily pronounce his l’s and r’s; these took on a w sound. This defect seemed to become more marked as he drank. This of course in no way detracted from the value of what he had to say. It did, however, give rise to one awkward moment early on in the evening, as I will relate.

When speaking of other, lesser authors who he had known in his Paris days, Mr. Hemingway used once the word “periphery.” He stumbled over the pronunciation. Then, to joke about it, he repeated the word several times in an exaggeratedly erroneous, stupid fashion–as if imitating, perhaps, an illiterate and simple-minded farm person: “Pee-whip-ah-wee. Poo-poo-pa-wee. Pee-pee-poo-poo.” Charles, who was standing near him, smiled at this. Then Mr. Hemingway said, “Let’s have another drink, daughter! Where are you?” and Charles signalled quickly for his wife.

The incident would hardly bear mentioning, except that afterwards Mr. Hemingway seemed to become, to me at least, a bit morose in his manner. But perhaps I am inferring too much.

Charles and Mr. Hemingway spoke some more. It was very pleasant. They discussed Mr. Hemingway’s handling of landscape in The Sun Also Rises. Mr. Hemingway defended his metaphor of the “moving earth” in Jordon’s love scenes with María. Charles concurred–“It could happen,” he said. “It could.”

I remember well what was next said, as they were the first words Mr. Hemingway ever spoke directly to me. He had a lobster claw in one hand. And he said:

“Who’s the fellow with the hat? Hey, you there, with the hat!”

I came forward to be introduced. We did not shake, as both of Mr. Hemingway’s hands were full now. Charles mentioned that I had graduated from the department, and what a fine student I was, and that I had recently returned from a trip to Argentina.

“What’s that hat you’ve got on, son?” Mr. Hemingway said to me.

I explained how it was a flamenco hat, as worn by the dancers of Argentina. I spoke a bit about the flamenco, and suggested that Mr. Hemingway himself might be interested in such a dance.

Now, let me admit here that I did not per se study the flamenco while I was in Argentina. While I may have led some of the faculty at one time or another to believe this–to my regret–the truth is that I did not “study” the flamenco. I may have had a few impromptu “lessons” from a bellboy at the hotel where I was staying, but that is all.

“Horseshit,” said Mr. Hemingway. We had a little laugh. He signalled again for his drink to be renewed, and Ann Bouslog came forward.

This was the moment, as related in Mr. Baker’s account, when Martha (Mrs. Hemingway) “objected.” As I remember, she touched his arm and said, “Papa.” Then she took his empty glass from Ann and said, “I’ll get you some soda.”

“The hell you will,” said Mr. Hemingway. “Daughter!” he said to Ann. “More of the same.” Ann complied.

I think we all know or can freely admit now that Mr. Hemingway did in fact have a “drinking problem.” The vast evidence, both material and witness, compels us to this conclusion; he was what we would today call–without shame–an “alcoholic.” This is by no means to denigrate Mr. Hemingway or his work. But this fact may help us to see and understand the events of that evening, with the advantage of time and reflection, clearly and as they really occurred.

While Ann was away, I politely asked Mr. Hemingway whether I might take a few notes for the purpose of an interview. I set my drink down and readied my notepad and pencil.

Here is where Mr. Baker’s account deviates crucially from the events of the evening. I was not “needling” Mr. Hemingway, as Mr. Baker writes. Such a thing would have been farthest from my mind. If anything, he was “needling” me. But never mind–I will put it down here as it occurred, simply and accurately as possible, and let the public be the judge.

“Take that goddamn silly hat off,” said Mr. Hemingway and, reaching forward with the lobster claw, he gently knocked it from my head.

I was embarrassed. I bent down to retrieve my hat. Mrs. Hemingway said, “Oh, Ernest.” Ann returned with his drink. “Thank you, daughter,” he said. Charles tried to ask him something about Pamplona. In the meantime I had righted myself. I did not wear the hat again.

“What’s this interview for, son?” Mr. Hemingway asked. I explained to him that I was a “freelance writer,” and that I had done a number of articles for the Oahu Statesman concentrating mainly in the area of local sports coverage, but that what I would really like to focus on now was my fiction.

“Oh, a freelance writer!” said Mr. Hemingway, in an obvious attempt to “make fun of” me. Of course, when he said it, it sounded more like “fwee-wance why-tah,” owing to the aforementioned “defect.”

He repeated himself: “A fwee-wance why-tah! Isn’t that nice!”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Are you mocking me, son?” he said.

“No, sir. Of course not,” I replied. I was a little perplexed.

“Everybody wants to be a writer!” he said.

“It’s because you’ve set such a very fine model,” Charles said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Mr. Hemingway.

“I mean–that our youth still have a great admiration for you. You’re still quite a hero to quite a large number of people.”

I was listening carefully. Mr. Hemingway “snorted.” Then he looked at me.

“I can lick you, son.”

“Sir?”

“I could mop this deck with you.”

Charles laughed, and touched his wife’s back.

“I don’t doubt that you could, Mr. Hemingway,” I said.

“You don’t think I can, do you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What did you say?”

“Oh, Ernest,” Mrs. Hemingway said.

“I said that . . .”

But I was unable to complete my sentence. “Come on,” Mr. Hemingway said. And this is when he took off his “jacket.”

[NOTE: As I have taken pains to describe above, Mr. Hemingway was not wearing a “jacket” that evening, but a hunting vest. To correct Mr. Baker, then: “Ernest” (Mr. Hemingway) removed his “hunting vest” and laid it carefully over the porch railing.]

“You and me, son,” he said. “Do you box?”

“No.”

“You’ll wish you did. Come on, out on the grass.”

He handed the lobster claw to Charles. He kept his drink, and started down the steps to the yard.

“He’s just a boy, Papa,” said Mrs. Hemingway.

“Go ahead, show him a little action,” Charles said to me, and creased his lips and popped his chin up to one side and gestured with the claw.

Was Professor Charles Bouslog suggesting, by his words and action, that I should join Mr. Hemingway on the lawn? He seemed to be doing just that. He seemed to be implying that this was all part of the “sporting good fun” of an evening luau with Mr. Hemingway.

“Well? Go ahead,” Charles said again and made a face. I put the pad and pencil into my pocket, and went down the steps.

Mr. Hemingway was standing in the shadows at the corner of the house. He beckoned impatiently for me to join him. I approached across the grass. It was dark, and I was nervous.

I met Mr. Hemingway on the lawn. We stood alone together in the shadows at the corner of the house, Mr. Hemingway and I. Mr. Hemingway held his drink. His hair was white as the moon was white.

“I really don’t know how to box,” I said.

And then Mr. Hemingway grabbed my ear and pulled my head down. He squeezed my ear tightly and it hurt. He put his lips close to my ear so that I could feel his breath and the wet from his mouth. And then–he said something to me.

“——–”

“Excuse me?” I said.

He squeezed my ear harder in his hand. And he said it again:

“——–”

I cannot in good decency repeat what he said to me that night. But imagine that the man had shoved a fist to the bottom of my soul and ripped out the very words which might injure me most. How could he have known? He could not have known. In all my life and ever since this night–

Mr. Hemingway . . .

I cringed. My body folded in on itself as I pulled away from him. He stood back, leering at me in the moon. His big face and head. I reached out and grabbed the drink from his hand. Oh, and I threw its contents–not at that magnificent head, no, not even in my outrage–I threw the contents of the drink onto his shirtfront. I cried, I dropped the glass to the ground, and I ran. I ran, yes, stomping through flowers and across the lawn and out the gate.

 

How I would like to say that I “vanished unscathed,” as Mr. Baker puts it. But the truth is that the following years were not easy ones for me. I traveled to Mexico City, where I “fell in with the wrong sort,” as they say. I kept trying my hand at writing but that did not work out. One hot summer I spent in Oaxaca, but the less said of that the better. Mr. Hemingway, in the meantime, wrote The Old Man and the Sea and won the Nobel Prize.

Eventually I returned to Oahu, where Charles took me back in under his kindly wing at the university. This is where I have remained since, as a “part-time provisional adjunct,” teaching English and American Literature to classes of undergraduates. At least once a year, some student will approach me with questions regarding this certain passage of Mr. Baker’s. I see it passed around in the classrooms and the corridors. I hear them whisper it in the hallways. I know what they say about me. But never mind.

My attempt on my own life several years ago, I admit now, was a grievous, grievous mistake. I apologize again for that, and the damage caused to the faculty lounge. It was wrong and very foolish of me.

Let me reiterate that I do not “blame” Mr. Hemingway. Despite whatever misunderstandings Mr. Hemingway and I may have had, he remains in my heart one of the finest writers–and men–I have ever personally known. Once again, there was never any further communication nor any attempt at communication between Mr. Hemingway and myself after that night, and up until the time of his death. While it is true that since Mr. Hemingway’s death, he has from time to time visited and spoken with me in my room while I sleep, I know that these are only dreams, and they need not concern anyone other than myself.

In closing, I wish to offer a humble “thank you” to Mr. Hemingway. Though I know my life will never match his, I nevertheless continue to strive in my own small ways to emulate the man who, through his unsparingly honest words and actions, has shown me and all of us, finally, the pleasure and frank disappointment in what it means to “live” and what it means to “love.”

Thank you.