On July 2, 1961, legendary author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), took his own life in the small town of Ketchum, Idaho at the age of sixty-one. His suicide shocked fans and even today, the details of his death are unsettling and puzzling. It seems unthinkable that the man who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea, would end his life in such a tragic manner. However, what we see from the public view often stands in stark contrast the reality behind the scenes. And one of the best ways to understand the life of the departed is to learn from those that were closest to them as their lives came to an end. A. E. Hotchner (1917-2020) spent fourteen years with Hemingway as the author moved from one city to the next across the globe in what can only be described as an extraordinary life. This is his memoir of the time he spent with the man he called Papa.
Interestingly, Hotchner points out early in the book that no one is really sure why Hemingway pulled the trigger. And although he did see Hemingway shortly before his death, he never thought that Papa would take that final and tragic step. This quote by Hotchner explains it best:
“I was his close friend for fourteen years, right up to the day he died. I knew about his life: the adventures, the conversations, the dreams and disillusions, the triumphs and defeats of this complicated, unique, humorous, intense, fun-loving man who was Ernest Hemingway but I cannot tell you why. No one can.”
The world had lost one if its greatest literary minds and no one could ever replace Ernest Hemingway. But the focus here is not on his death, but the incredible life he lived as he aged and matured. Hotchner had been dispatched to conduct an interview with Hemingway but got cold feet at the last moment. He sent Hemingway a short letter and to his surprise, the author called himself to set up a meeting. Neither could have known that a fourteen year friendship would develop as a result. And to say the two had a wild ride would be an understatement.
Hotchner did not write a biography of either Hemingway or himself here and readers in search of an account of the author’s life will not find the entire story here although there is a short discussion of the important facts in Hemingway’s life, in particular his service in the military and four marriages. However, in the account here, his last wife Mary Welsh Hemingway (1908-1986) appears largely through the second half of the story and was with him up until the very end. And while she does not have a speaking role in the story, her importance in Hemingway’s life cannot be over-stated. As Papa explains to Hotchner later in the book, he truly did love Mary who remained devoted to him even as he slowly unraveled. But before that happened, she enjoyed life with Papa as well as Hotchner and those memories are presented here to show the larger than life character we have come to know and revere.
The story begins in Havana, Cuba in the years before a young lawyer named Fidel Castro (1926-2016) seized the country and forced Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) to flee into exile. Life is easy and for a big name author such as Hemingway, heaven on earth. At the time Hotchner meets him, he is much older but still the fascinating figure the world was shown. Cuba became a second home for Hemingway and Hotchner would spend a great deal of time there. In fact, he explains that:
“Over the years, with the exception of 1956 and 1957, when I was living in Rome, I visited Ernest in Cuba at least once a year, often more, and daiquiris at the Floridita, pigeon shoots, excursions on the Pilar, and days at the finca became familiar.”
From the moment Papa enters the story, he takes it over and we become witnesses along with Hotchner as we watch the show. A scotch is never far away and always accompanies a sharp line of wit from Hemingway that sprinkles humor into every situation. And even when other celebrities enter the story, Hemingway is always jovial with an endless supply of quips about those he has come to know which include the likes of Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961). The friendship between Cooper and Hemingway is deeply moving. Shortly before Cooper’s own death, Hotchner saw him one last time and the legendary actor passed along these poignant words for his close friend:
“Please give Papa a message. It’s important and you mustn’t forget because I’ll not be talking to him again. Tell him … that time I wondered if I made the right decision”—he moved the crucifix a little closer so that it touched his cheek—“tell him it was the best thing I ever did.” “I’ll tell him.” “Don’t forget.” “Don’t worry, Coops, I‘ll tell him.” He died ten days later.
We do not know if the message reached Papa, who had only weeks to live himself. But it captures the deep bond between the two friends who each left their mark on the American experience. It seemed as if everyone loved Papa and quite frankly, I cannot blame them as the Hemingway we come to know in the book is the star of the show. Whether it was his near disastrous trips with Mary in Africa or the comedy of errors that takes place as he and Hotchner gallivant across the globe, Papa is never short on material to brighten any situation.
As the story moves along, we see changes in Papa’s physical condition and health issues become a central part of the story. We do learn of some ailments but even Hotchner did not the full extent of Papa’s health troubles. However, what we do learn gives rise to the question, did Hemingway know something about his health that he kept from those around him as he decided to take his own life? Hotchner notes a change in Papa’s writing and appearance. And their conversations take on a much darker and confusing tone. It becomes clear that Papa is having a breakdown one step at a time and those around decide to step in. He would find solace at the Mayo Clinic but even the doctors there did not understand the demons running through the mind of Ernest Hemingway. And those demons became too much to bear as Papa first tries and then later succeeds at making his departure from this world in a hauntingly tragic manner. Hotchner was expectedly devastated after learning of Papa’s death and this memoir is a fitting tribute to his late friend who captivated an entire planet and still stands out today as one of the greatest writers in history. It is place he will continue to hold for all eternity. If we can take one thing from Papa, I think it is this summation by Hotchner:
“Ernest had had it right: Man is not made for defeat. Man can be destroyed but not defeated.“
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