“THE LIFE AND DEATH FRIENDS OF HEMINGWAY”
Author’s Note: The interviews with Toby Bruce and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Thompson took place in Key West, Florida in 1976. The Interview with John Dos Passos took place in Virginia in the summer of 1969. R.P.
Key West. Hot. Tropical. Thirty years ago. The most laid back town in America. The hometown for Ernest Hemingway, America’s greatest writer, during the 1930s. The place where he wrote “Death in the Afternoon,” “Green Hills of Africa,” “To Have and Have Not” and started work on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The place where he fished for marlin and courted Arnold Gingrich, his editor at ‘Esquire.’ Hemingway liked to write ‘big macho magazine pieces’ about his exploits as ‘a big game hunter and fisherman.’ This article is dedicated to ‘The Man’ himself. Here’s to you, “Papa,” for all the happiness you’ve given me.
“Maybe you’d like to see these,” Toby Bruce said, handing me a neat stack of photographs. “Over two thousand in there, Ron. All unpublished photos of Ernest. Look, right here is a picture of Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson. I remember when Lewis and Dorothy Thompson first came down here and shacked up. They hadn’t even thought about getting married, then. Just having an affair. A good time. Ernest showed them around Key West and I tagged along.”
I looked through the black and white thirty-five millimeter glossies and said: “These would make a terrific book.”
“Yeah,” Toby Bruce agreed, pouring me a freshly made ‘bullshot’ from a tall pitcher. “Best drink there is. ‘Bullshots.’ Vodka and beef bouillon. Ernest and I used to drink them all the time on board ‘The Pilar.’ He was fond of drinking them, along with sandwiches of peanut butter and onion. I made the sandwiches.”
I nursed my ‘bullshot’ and felt happy and relaxed. There was a cool breeze blowing in off the Gulf Stream.
“I came down here from Piggot, Arkansas. Just a kid. Needed a job. I knew Ernest’s wife, Pauline, and her family. They owned a large share of ‘the Richard Hudnut fortune.’ Pauline and her sister, Jennie, were two of the most beautiful belles in Piggot.
Hemingway and second wife Pauline Pfeiffer 1894-1951
“I got along with Ernest, right away. But Pauline could be a little much, at times. She thought I had my place, socially, while Ernest never treated me that way. He treated me like his younger brother. His kid brother. But Pauline wanted me to wear this ‘khaki’ uniform when we were on board the ‘Pilar.’
“Pauline pronounced khaki as ‘cocky uniform.’ I know I set her straight. I said: ‘Pauline, I’m not wearing your damned ‘cocky uniform.’ Ernest backed me 100%. And, that was the last I heard of that.”
Toby Bruce handed me a book in soft brown calf’s leather. “Ernest’s hand writing.” He said, proudly. “Those are the original galleys of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ Ernest worked on them in Sun Valley and again in Cuba. He told me to keep them. I was his personal secretary, when he started the book. Aside from being his secretary and friend, I was also chief mechanic and first mate on the ‘Pilar.’ We had some wonderful times on that boat.”
“Did you see as much of Hemingway after he left Key West and moved to Cuba?” I said, feeling the ‘good effects’ of the ‘bullshot.’
“I went to Cuba and found the ‘Finca Vigia.’ Thats Spanish for “Look Out Farm.” It was a wonderful house, with just enough land for a few animals. Ernest didn’t want anyone to know he was the buyer. He had just sold ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ to Paramount for $100,000. (Easily, a million dollars in today’s money.) I made the deals, purchased the house for him, and two weeks later, he and ‘Martha’ moved in together.”
“Martha Gellhorn, his third wife.”
“That’s right. Beautiful blonde. Came down here from St. Louis. She was an excellent writer. Ernest was always promoting her to his editor, Max Perkins, at Scribner’s. Scribner’s published some of her novels. But she wasn’t the girl Ernest really needed. I think Marty just wanted to get her ‘gun-off’ when she first met Ernest. I don’t think she was in love with him. Maybe she was in love with the idea of ‘screwing’ a famous writer. Maybe she loved him later, but it didn’t take. I believe she needed the ‘limelight.’ I know she wanted to be as famous as Hemingway, but she didn’t have Ernest’s talent. Nobody did. I know later she had a crush on this ‘Jai-ali’ player up in Miami. (Toby Bruce pronounced it, ‘Mi-am-ah.) Cuban Fella. Ernest wanted to murder the little weasel. Then the war struck.
“Marty wanted Ernest to cover the fighting in Europe. He went over for ‘Collier’s’ magazine. She got sarcastic and mocked him for putting the ‘Pilar’ to sea as a ‘sub hunter.’ Said he was only doing it to get free gas rationing for hunting marlin. That he used the ‘sub-patrolling’ as a way of staying in Cuba, away from the serious fighting of the war.
“But, it wasn’t long before he did go to Europe. Ernest’s dispatches from London during the blitz were exceptional. He, personally, liberated the ‘Ritz Hotel’ in Paris where he found his own personal stock of ‘Dom Perignom’ champagne. Not bad for a guy finishing off his last days with a ‘wayward’ third wife, who underhandedly competes with you in print. Ernest and Marty spent very little time together once the Second World War broke out. What had started out as a torrid romance and spanned the ‘Spanish Civil War’ and was the inspiration for his one play, ‘The Fifth Column’ and culminated in the writing of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ ended bitterly with them almost hating eatch other. I don’t think Ernest ever forgave Marty. ‘Martha Gellhorn abandoned him. The only woman to ever do so.’ In the past, Ernest always did the ‘leaving.’ This time it was different. I think it agitated him, too, that Marty wouldn’t write under the by-line ‘Martha Gellhorn Hemingway.’ Ernest, soon after, met Mary Welsh in London. She became the fourth and last Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.”
“She was a correspondent for ‘Time,’ wasn’t she?”
“That’s right. Tough little lady. Just the kind of girl Ernest thought he needed. From Minnesota. She was married to a writer named ‘Noel Monks,’ when she and Ernest met. Ernest shot Noel Monk’s photgraph with his Luger. The one he took off a dead German officer. The famous shot took place in the toilet. In his suite at ‘The Dorchester Hotel.” London. That was Eisenhower’s base of operations. Ernest’s, too. That was 1944, the same year Ernest crashed his car into the water tower during the ‘black out.’ London was getting ready for more bombing by the Nazis and it was ‘lights out’ time. Ernest wrote me later he had ‘an awful concussion.’ The accident nearly killed him. It was ‘Mary’ who came to his side, not ‘Marty.’ I think that incident bonded Ernest and Mary, on the spot, though Ernest was ‘jealous as hell of ‘Irwin Shaw.’ Irwin Shaw is the same writer who gave us ‘The Young Lions’ and ‘Rich Man, Poor Man,’ which is playing on television this week.
“Ernest divorced Marty and married Mary in 1946 and swept her off to the ‘Finca Vigia,’ outside Havana. Mary really made the house grounds a home for Ernest.”
“What about Pauline? She remained in Key West, didn’t she?”
“Yes. Pauline stayed in their original home, bought for him by her uncle, Gus Pfeifer. It’s the same house all the tourists visit today as ‘The Hemingway Museum.’ There isn’t a stick of the original Hemingway furniture in that house today. The people who bought the property tell all the ‘gullible tourists, ‘This belonged to Hemingway when he was writing this or that book or story. It’s all a fraud. A hoax. Nothing original is there. All the furniture and paintings are gone. His books are long gone. The only thing that remains is the house, itself, and the pool and the pool house. I built the brick wall that surrounds the house.
“Off spring of some of the original six towed cats that lived there, when Ernest was there, still roam the place. Pauline died in 1951. That same year, Ernest’s mother died, as well. Ernest never got along with his mother. He couldn’t help but blame her for his father’s suicide. He did not like ‘domineering, ball breaking’ types. Ernest was a romantic. Frankly, he thought his mother was a ‘bitch,’ but I don’t want to get into that.”
Toby Bruce poured me a ‘second and third’ bullshots. We were both drinking, steadily, now. The conversation was ‘easy and happily animated,’ just the kind of afternoon Hemingway enjoyed after a ‘hard stint at the typewriter.’
“I remember this lady journalist from New York came down to interview Ernest. Must have been around 1936. Ernest was writing these stories for ‘Arnold Gingrich,’ the editor at ‘Esquire,’ and he didn’t like being interrupted. But then Ernest changed his mind and said: “Otto-that’s my middle name-he only used it when ‘something was up-a little high jinks,’ send the illustrious ‘Miss So and So’ from ‘Time’ over at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. Tell her ‘any friend of Henry Luce is a friend of mine.’ Otto-we’re going to have some fun.
“The next day, Ernest lived up to his promise. He took off all his clothes and climbed into bed, pretending to be ill. Ernest did have one ‘hell of a hangover,’ but when the ‘Luce Empire’s Miss New York Journalist’ walked into his bedroom, with its enormous ceiling and Ernest lying there, she was such a snob. Pompous. Arrogant. She berated Ernest for his ‘clipped writing style, with its emphasis on masculine action and pursuits.’ Every word out of her mouth was sarcasm. She stood there, spouting off about Ernest’s ‘Tarzan-cum-literary posing,’ etc. All the ‘anti-Hemingway bullshit,’ she could think up. The-out of nowhere-this assinine woman wanted a cigarette. Ernest didn’t smoke cigarettes.
“Then-how do you get your nicotine, Mr. Hemingway?” Miss Henry Luce Employed Jack-Ass New York Journalist said, pugnaciously, thinking she had discovered a scoop, as Ernest had indeed told her earlier he ‘was very fond of tobacco.”
“What did Hemingway do? What happened next?” I said.
“I’ll tell you what happened next. Ernest stood up, bare assed naked, stuck a chew of tobacco under his arm pit and said: ‘Lady, this is how I feed my habit for nicotine. A big wad under each arm, twenty times a day. I think it’s become an obsessive addiction!”
Toby Bruce laughed. “Talk about a female hard nosed journalist running out of there. She could have past Jessie Owens standing in the dust! That was one ‘Time’ article on Ernest that never got written, less printed.”
Toby Bruce looked at his watch. “Let’s get in the car and go for a ride.”
As a driver, Bruce was steady and careful, as we turned down Simonton Street. “Big squall coming up. Can tell by those big clouds,” he said, as we parked near the shore. We got out and walked.
“Ernest didn’t like the storms. We always brought the ‘Pilar’ in when we saw clouds like those.”
Then: “Ernest had trouble with the F.B.I..J. Edgar Hoover was ‘no Hemingway afficionado.’ When Ernest and I spoke on the telephone between Key West and Havana, the telephone was obviously bugged. In fact, Ernest found out his telephone was bugged from an F.B.I. informant working in Havana. Hoover was suspicious of Ernest and tried to make him out to be a Communist. It started during the time Ernest raised money for ‘ambulances’ in Spain. He supported the ‘Abraham Lincoln Brigade.’
“Ernest wrote and co-produced his film, ‘The Spanish Earth,’ and took it to be seen by a number of Hollywood celebrities. Hoover had a file on everybody in Hollywood. That’s when J. Edgar took special notice of Ernest. The F.B.I. knew about Ernest’s involvement with ‘Dos Passos’ in Spain. Hoover just couldn’t understand this important writer with his loyal ties to Spain and its people and the guerilla activities there, which Ernest wrote about.
“It went on for the rest of Ernest’s life. When Castro took over in 1959, J.Edgar Hoover already had a 2000 page dossier on Ernest’s ‘comings-and-goings’ in Europe. Hoover was paranoid about Ernest, the same way he was paranoid about ‘Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Howard Hughes.’ Hoover distrusted artists, of all kinds, but especially writers. He had dossiers on John Steinbeck and James Baldwin, the black novelist, as well. Hoover thought Baldwin was a Communist, helping Dr. Martin Luther King over throw the nation.
“J.Edgar Hoover was certain-convinced-Ernest was a radical Communist and supporting Castro. In Hoover’s ‘narrown minded political paranoia,’ Ernest was an ‘undersirable creative type.’ A Communist and Fascist. The FBI harassment didn’t stop with Ernest getting his Nobel Prize for Literature either. We got to the point where Ernest and I were making up codes and saying ‘funny things’ over the telephone, just to bait them. We’d laugh about it later, when we saw each other.’ But it did worry Ernest, greatly. It preyed on his mind.’ He was certain there would be trouble for him, because of Hoover and his insidious wire tappers.”
We sat for awhile on a picnic bench near the ‘Gulf Stream.’ It started to turn into a beautiful afternoon and the storm clouds passed. The water sparkled many shades of aquatic blue-green. A lone shrimp boat chugged along against the horizon-ten miles out past the reef.
“I miss Ernest. We drove across the country together many times. Out to Idaho. Montana. Billings was one of Ernest’s favorite towns. Ernest always sat on the passenger side. He trusted me as his chauffeur. We’d carry sandwiches and beer and Spanish red wine. Ernest liked goat meat. Pheasant, too. We’d stop in all the little towns. It was like ‘Nick Adams’ in Ernest’s earliest stories. We had great friends in Sun Valley. Tilly and Lloyd Arnold. The guide, Taylor Williams.
“When they were kids, during the 40s, Ernest liked to take the boys out to Sun Valley. ‘Bumby,’ who was his oldest son and who lives there now, was always a great fly fisherman. God, that kid could fish. And, later Pauline’s sons with Ernest, Patrick and Gregory, went along, too. Ernest taught them to fish and hunt and be real men. Patrick later became a ‘hunting guid’ in Africa. Gregory, ‘The Mouse,’ as Ernest nicknamed him-became a docter in New York.
“We’d all drive up to Sun Valley in Ernest’s Buick and Gary Cooper would come. And, Clark Gable. Or, Ingrid Bergman. Martha Gellhorn went first with Ernest. Later, Mary became a part of the group. ‘Coops’ brought his wife, ‘Rocky.”
The sun started to blind me and I put on some dark glasses.
“Makes you look like a film star,” Toby Bruce said.
“You’ve known quite a few.”
“I worked on that film, ‘A Face in the Crowd.’ Andy Griffith gave one of his best dramatic performances. I worked for Gadge Kazan.”
“All his friends call him ‘Gadge.’ The shot that film in Arkansas. I had a terrific time. I fell in love with that little girl-’Lee Remick.’ What a beauty. And, the sweetest person you could ever hope to meet. Kazan filmed not far from Piggot. I enjoyed going back, but Key West is my home now.”
I said: “What writers do you like today?”
“I know Tom McGuane,” I said. He and I had met in the street. “McGuane autographed his novel, ’92 In the Shade’ for me. I first encountered him walking down Duval Street with a can of ‘Colt .45′ in his hip pocket. I told McGuane I owned twenty-nine hardback copies of his novel, ‘The Bushwacked Piano,’ which is hard to find and out-of-print. McGuane wanted to know how I found them. I said a dime store in West Point, Virginia was selling them at a discount for less than a buck apiece.”
“I like McGuane,” Toby Bruce said. “He has a ranch up in Montana. McGuane comes here and sails. He has written some very good and interesting pieces for ‘Sports Illustrated.”
“McGuane directed his film of ’92 In the Shade’ here in Key West,” I said. “Peter Fonda. Elizabeth Ashley. Burgess Meredith. I heard him say he’s writing a western for Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson called ‘The Missouri Breaks.”
“That’s all completed,” Toby Bruce said. “I think McGuane likes writing novels better than writing films. Ernest didn’t have any interest in writing films either, with the exception of ‘The Spanish Earth.’ Ernest hated all the movies made from his stories, except ‘The Killers.’ He liked that. It kicked off his friendship with Ava Gardner, whom Ernest liked a lot for her earthiness. He said she was easy to look at, too. As for McGuane, I like him. I don’t get into his ‘womanie affairs.’ He’s a lot like Ernest in that department, too. Tom McGuane’s a good guy.”
I visited Toby Bruce often in the remaining months I spent in Key West. “There was a time when all the drinking water in Key West had to be caught off the roof. We didn’t have the piping system we have today running over the Keys from Miami. Key West is a desert island. The drinking water was rain water caught in barrels. We built cisterns to handle the problem. I’ve done a lot of manual labor in my day. The most famous labor job I did was building the brick wall around Ernest’s house, which I mentioned earlier.
“All the bricks in the wall were purloined from the Naval base. Ernest sent me over there at night and I hauled them out in a pick-uip truck. When Ernest started to become famous, the wall became a neccessity. Ernest and Pauline needed to protect their ‘privacy and their saftey.’ The brick wall became a major landscaping project. When I wasn’t keeping the pool in working order, I kept the big Chrysler engines on the ‘Pilar’ in tip top shape. ‘The Pilar’ seldom needed its engines overhauled, because Ernest and I kept her in fine order all the time.
“We got worried during the ‘Hurricane of ’33.’ Hundreds of people were killed. The railroad washed out completely. ‘The Pilar’ survived and rode out the storm with very little damage.
“In the 1930s, during Ernest’s most creative period, the same time he wrote ‘To Have and Have Not,’ you couldn’t buy a job in Key West. I was lucky. A lot of hobos came down here because of the warm weather. The ‘Federal Work Projects’ were starting up. A lot of gangsters landed in Key West. There was a political corruption. A lot of the native conchs got into gun smuggling and rum running between Key West and Havana. A lot of local people got shot up in their boats. And, the rich came down here to fish and charter boats from the guys who needed the money in a hurry. Their families were starving and the banks were foreclosing on everything they had-their houses, their cars and their boats.
”Ernest felt for people. He was deeply touched by the needs of the local people. He realized he was living very well, when a lot of other people in this town were down on their luck. When Ernest finished with one of his ‘Buicks,’ he’d give it away to someone who needed it. He wouldn’t sell it to them. Ernest helped a lot of the locals. He had excellent taste in people. His friends weren’t all the rich types. He liked regular people. Down to earth. Real. His fiction was made up of real people in Key West.
“Harry Morgan in ‘To Have and Have Not’ was based on someone we all knew very well. Ernest captured the hardship, the adventure, the poverty and the desperation of Key West in the thirties. There was a lot of danger in this place in the thirties.
“There was more than warm breezes, big game fishing and salt sea air. The native ‘Key Westers-the ‘Conchs’-are clannish. They don’t trust outsiders. They did trust Ernest. Ernest got them right in everything he wrote about Key West. He didn’t con them. Ernest never looked down on someone because they were poor. Ernest was on their side and they knew it. Ernest wrote about Key West with the same compassion and feeling Steinbeck demonstrated toward the dust bowl farmers in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’
”In my opinion, ‘To Have and Have Not’ is a great novel because it captured a sense of time and place that will last forever on the printed page. It’s the Key West I knew in 1936.
“Key West was over run with these rich sportsman types during the 1930s. They came down from New York and Philadelphia and Baltimore and Miami and chartered local fishing boats. They dressed to the T’s in their finery. They lived lives of luxury, while the local people could barely rub two nickels together. Were the rich, who came down here, totally, oblivious to the needs of the poor and hungry? Weren’t some native Key West people resentful? You bet.
“There is always some resentment,” Toby Bruce said. “It can’t be helped. When you are poor, it hurts. The 1930s were such a time of struggle and survival, most people here stuck together. Long friendships between Ernest and local fishermen began, right then. The ‘conchs’ in Key West had their hopes and their dreams, just like anybody else. Just like now. In general, there wasn’t much time for introspection. People in Key West, as elsewhere in the country, were too busy trying to stay alive. When despair did surface, it usually voiced itself in violence. People here in Key West had a very tough time of it after the hurricane of 1933.”
I removed a hand rolled Key West cigar from my pocket and lit it. “Are you still close to the Hemingway family? Mary Hemingway? The sons?”
“Yes, my wife, Betty, and I are still close friends with Mary. Not long ago I helped Mary clear out some of Ernest’s old trunks from the rear storage room at ‘Sloppy Joe’s.’ Joe Russell and Ernest were great friends. Ernest left some interesting manuscripts, but the mice and silverfish had done their damage. I’ve always gotten along fine with Mary. She’s a dear, loyal friend.”
“And, Ernest’s sons?”
“I don’t hear from them much. ‘Patrick and Gregory,’ Ernest’s sons by Pauline, live their own lives. They don’t concern themselves much with Key West anymore. I’ve written a couple of times to ‘Bumby,’ the oldest-Ernest’s son with his first wife, Hadley-but he hasn’t responded. It’s disappointing to me.”
“You said you felt the closest to John Hemingway. ‘Bumby.”
“Did I say that? Toby Bruce said.
“I believe so.”
“Well, I love them all, but I’m a little hurt at not hearing from ‘Bumby.’ He has three gorgeous daughters, you know. ‘Joan.’ “Margeaux.’ And, little ‘Mariel.’ Joan is writing a novel, I hear. Margeaux has turned into a stunning blonde fashion model. One of the highest paid in the world, I read the other day. She recently posed for a layout in ‘Town and Country’ at ‘Hemingway House.’ Seems strange calling it that. Did not have a name when Ernest lived there. ‘Town and Country’ did an excellent job of photographing the grounds. Somebody up the street mentioned ‘Mariel’ is becoming a film actress. All of Bumby’s girls are talented kids. Runs in families, you know. They’d have to have something on the ball, wouldn’t you think? They wouldn’t be Ernest’s grand kids, if they didn’t.”
“I should hope so.”
“I’m worried about ‘Bumby.’ His wife has cancer. I know the family’s feeling the strain.”
“What about your own health?” I said, watching my cigar smoke trail off into the wind.
“I’ve got to go up to ‘Mi-am-mah’ on Thursday for some tests.” Throat cancer was suspected, but neither of us called it by name. Toby Bruce was cheerful. Optimistic.
He was never a big man, Toby Bruce.
“Skinny as a rail,” he said, as we headed back to the car. “One hundred forty pounds is my fighting weight, with my hair slicked back. I have the fastest metabolism in the Keys. I could drink all the milkshakes and eat all the Key Lime Pie in the state of Florida and never gain an ounce.”
As autumn approached, I prepared to leave Key West for good. I had become a part of the regular crowd scene at ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ where the ‘Coconga Cocktail’ reigned supreme.
I will never forget the parachutes hanging from the ceiling in ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ or sitting on Hemingways’s own private bar stool, which was off limits to everyone. The writer, Robert Ruark had sat on it once and someone had knocked him off, just as fast.
Who could forget the painting of Hemingway behind the bar? Or, the photographs of celebrities that lined the wall-celebrities who had all enjoyed a drink or two on the house. The physically big actor, ‘Simon Oakland’ was my favorite. He looked tough, just like a real Hemingway hero. His photo graced the wall. He was now playing second banana to ‘Darren MaGavin’ in a television show called ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker.’ He was ‘Kolchak’s faithful editor’ in the program and his photograph in ‘Sloppy Joes’ Bar’ a ‘testimony’ to the good times to be had in Key West.
I would miss Key West and ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ where I had learned to be so laid back in my attitudes toward life I was almost tilting over. Who could forget the constant-but seductive-playing of that immortal local favorite, ‘Key West Welcomes You’ on the juke box, as sailors walked in and out, with their gals on their arms, through the swinging doors at ‘Sloppy Joe’s?’ Hot, Latin girls, no less.
Or, the slow moving slat fans on the ceiling that ran on belts and killed the August heat? I half expected the ghost of Humphrey Bogart to walk in off the street, fresh from the location shoot of ‘Key Largo.’ He’d order a ‘frozen daiquiri’ made of finely shaved ice, with a cherry on top. “Baby will have one, too,” Bogart would say, when Betty Bacall sat beside him and crossed her legs and ‘didn’t forget how to whistle.’
On my last day in Key West I ate in a Cuban restaurant-black beans and fried rice. ‘Red Stripe Beer’ from Jamaica to wash it down.
I ran into Toby Bruce. He had tracked me down. He always knew where I ate. “Ernest was generous to friends,” Toby Bruce said. “When he liked someone, he offered them a memento. I want you to have this ‘wine skin,’ as a remembrance. It belonged to Ernest. He carried it in Spain, during the writing of ‘The Dangerous Summer.’ ‘The ‘bota’ was given to him by Gary Cooper.”
My last minutes in Key West were that simple. Toby Bruce hugged me like a son. He was sixty-five and I was twenty-five. To me, he was more than ‘Hemingway’s Man Friday.’ He was more than the inspiration for the character of Eddie in both “To Have and Have Not” and “Islands in the Stream.” His manners were perfect-his heart was kind.
After thirty years passing, Toby Bruce looms large in my mind. He is forever a part of the legend of Key West. His ‘mystique’ will always be surround by the aura of a great writer. Hemingway and Bruce are as much a team today, as ‘Butch and Sundance.’
Charles Thompson, safari hero of Hemingway’s ‘Green Hills of Africa’ and one of the three men to whom the classic ‘non-fiction novel’ is dedicated, pointed at the head of a ‘water buffalo’ on his wall.
“Ernest killed him with one fast shot. Straight into the heart.” It was a sweltering hot afternoon in Key West and there was no air conditioning in the old mansion, faintly gone to seed. The house needed a new paint job, if it was to maintain its astounding resemblance to the ‘Hemingway House Museum,’ just a few blocks away.
“Great time in Kenya. Ernest and Pauline and I hunted an entire month or mor. Lions. Buffalo. Kudu. Philip Percival, a really splendid gentleman and a wonderful hunting comapnion, taught me more about big game hunting in a few months, than anybody else, with the exception of Ernest, will learn in a lifetime. Percival was a great guy. Lots of balls, too. But, still a gentleman.”
Thompson, raw boned at six foot three, shook hands, as if putting my hand in a vice. In his late seventies, when we met, Thompson was still strong and virile. In the heavy humidity of August, he didn’t even work up a ‘good sweat.’
“I miss Ernest. He was my best friend in the world. It was Pauline’s ‘Uncle Gus,’ who paid for Ernest’s first safari. Pauline was a very wonderful girl. She and my wife, Lorine, were soul mates. Their friendship was just as strong as Ernest’s and mine. When we went off to Kenya together, Ernest still adored Pauline. They had only been married about four or five years when we all speeded off on our adventure on the ‘Serengeti Plain.’ It was January of ’34. Best damned time of my life. We stopped off in Paris, first. It didn’t take us long to get to Africa from there.
“I was running a ‘marine hardware store’ her in Key West when I first met Ernest. We became fast friends due to the fact that he liked fishing in the ‘Dry Tortugas.’ I liked fishing, too, and I sold him some professional quality rods. Reels. The painter, Mike Strater, Ernest’s editor-Maxwell Perkins, down from ‘Scribner’s’ in New York, sometimes Dos Passos, Ernest and I would often head out for Fort Jefferson and fish an entire week. Perkins adored it. Perkins liked getting caught up in ‘Ernest’s World of Adventure,’ as he called it. Of course, to me, it was all just routine. There was nothing ‘sissy about Ernest.’ He took Mr. Perkins to meet Joe Russell, who owned the original ‘Sloppy Joe’s.’ Not the one they’ve got now, but the one at the old location with the sunken floor.
“Joe was a pretty tough guy and an instinctive marlin fisherman, who knew how to hook the big fish, fight them, and keep them until he pulled them in. Ernest would shoot them with his .45, while Joe yanked them into the rear of the ‘Pilar.’ Red faced. Big smile. Always a bottle of cold beer in his hand. I can see Joe right now. Bogart could have played him. Second thought, Bogart did play him. You know, in the film ‘To Have and Have Not.’ Harry Morgan was based on Joe Russell.”
“Ernest liked Bogart, but thought the film Warners made was a load of crap.”
“Why was that?”
“Howard Hawks, who directed ‘To Have and Have Not,’ told William Faulkner, who wrote the screenplay to ‘throw out’ Ernest’s book. This delighted Faulkner.”
Charles Thompson poured me a ‘Scotch and soda.’ He drained his glass and expected me to do the same. I did. I could feel my shirt sticking to my back, my shoulder blades drenched in the simmering tropical heat.
As Thompson and I spoke, a large black fierce looking doberman ran up the steep steps from outside. “Best companion in the world. Just a baby. Will eat the balls off a tarantula, if threatened, but really just a baby. A big pup, aren’t you, baby? You need protection in Key West now. It’s not like the old days, when Ernest was around and we knew everybody. Things were different forty years ago.
“When Ernest lived here, we had characters. Key West always has. But, those guys minded their own business. Pirate types. Gangsters down from New York. But, now the ‘dope heads’ are here and they break into your house. Cut your throat, while you sleep in your bed, looking for your money. It’s a different place. Entirely a different place. The dope did it. President Ford will never get it cleaned up. Key West in 1976 is far more dangerous than the Key West Ernest and I knew in 1936. We drank booze. Nobody took dope. These creeps now ‘murder you,’ so they can purchase cocaine. A doberman gives one a little security. The dogs make Mrs. Thompson feel more comfortable when I’m not in the house.”
Charles Thompson reached for a large ‘Springfield’ elephant gun. “The Springfield’ can still knock down a 20 ton elephant or stop a crazed dope head in his tracks, who might think of breaking into this house. If somebody did think of robbing me, with this, all you would see later would be ‘blood and guts’ all the way up to the city cemetery. I hope I never have to use it, because I’m not a violent man. Neither was Ernest. In fact, I’m very peaceful. But, this country needs a strong and comprehensive law that will portect citizens from having their guns taken away through legislation.”
Charles Thompson was a proud man and he spoke with conviction and authority. “Ernest and I had a great time tracking buffalo. I’m proud of my trophies on the wall. I’m no ‘weak-kneed pansy.,’ I don’t see anything wrong with hunting, especially if the game you’re after runs toward you, as opposed to running away. Lions can be vicious. Ask me twenty years from now, if I’m alive, son, and I’ll tell you Tanganyika was great. I had the time of my life. A totally wonderful experience for anybody, who is willing to seize it.”
Walking past Kudu and oryx trophies, Thompson pointed to photographs of Ernest and Pauline with Ernest’s first kill-a-lion-shot on the ‘Serengeti Plain’ in January, 1934. Another photo showed Ernest Hemingway grinning from ear to ear as he knelt beside a freshly shot buffalo, killed near Mount Kenya.
“Masai-wonderobi helped us track that big fellow, you see in the picture. One day, out of nowhere-unexpected-this crazy rhino, sniffling blood, broke mean and charged at Ernest, his horn aimed for Ernest’s chest. I mean that bastard was running. Forty miles an hour. Charged head on at Ernest. Ernest did not budge. Did not move. Did not make a sound. No, I’ll tell you what Ernest did. He stood there. Rock still. Bravest son-of-a-bitch you’ve ever seen. Like some kind of miracle. Stood there and fired. Fired as much as he needed, because that big bugger was right on top of him. Going to tear Ernest apart. Going to gore him and kill him. Mash Ernest into the ground and bury him in the dust. No, Ernest did not flinch. I saw it with my own eyes. I didn’t believe it, but I saw it happen. There’s Hemingway-and I tell you he was rock still-it was serious live or die business-and Ernest shot him up close. Within twelve feet of him. Down into the dirt, the rhino went, Ernest still pumping this same ‘Springfield’ into him.
“Ernest was the bravest guy I’ve ever seen on a hunt. Later, we all went back to our Kujungu Camp and all got drunk. I didn’t get drunk, but Ernest got drunk. Ernest and Ben Fourie. I never saw Philip Percival drunk, but I believe he was feeling it that night, too, we were all so damned happy as what Ernest accomplished that day.”
The house was a living museum of African trophies. Animal heads adorned the walls that led up to fifteen foot high ceilings. Lion skins covered the floors. Spears and shields stood in the corners, beside prized hunting rifles. Photographs of Ernest and Pauline were affectionately and strategically placed on tables for Charles Thompson and his wife, Lorine, to gaze upon each day.
“Animals feed differently on the Plain than they do in the woodds,” Charles Thompson said. “We took the safari very seriously. After all, Gus Pfeiffer, Pauline’s uncle, had made a ‘gift’ of it to Ernest. We didn’t want to waste time not finding anything. Ernest had dedicated ‘A Farewell to Arms’ to Uncle Gus, five years earlier in 1929. Gus Pfeiffer and Ernest got along swell. Like father and son. I miss the old man.”
On the wall behind me was a large canvas oil painting of ‘Lorine’ Thompson. The portrait had been completed by Hemingway’s friend, Waldo Pierce. “I remember when Waldo painted that. He was married to Alzira and he was down here drinking at ‘Joe’s’ with Ernest and people would pull his beard and he’d smash their heads. Hit’em with beer bottles. Fight. Waldo Pierce liked the rough stuff, but he was a splendid painter. Sensitive artist. Goof hearted. But tough and hard as nails, about them. The late 1920s, I guess. Soon after Ernest and Pauline arrived here from Paris. Early 1930s. Waldo liked us, Lorine and me, and we really enjoyed him, too. One day he propositioned Lorine to sit for him. You can see the results. Pretty damned wonderful. Lorine is beautiful-has always been my beautiful girl. Waldo caught her just right. Proud of that painting. Ernest admired it, too.”
We were sitting now. Charles Thompson took the long couch. Lorine Thompson, still beautiful in her seventies, joined us. We talked as we watched their doberman play in the center of the floor. Thompson tossed the doberman a piece of sandwich and the doberman attacked it and swallowed it. A fast, swift, powerful chopping motion of the jaws, and the dog sprang to his feet and leaped onto the couch beside his master.
Lorine Thompson called the doberman ‘her baby,’ too. Charles Thompson agreed. The doberman was momentarily our center of focus. Lorine Thompson talked ‘baby talk’ to a K-9 I believed could snap my hand off with one fast jerk of his head.
Then: “I remember when Dos Passos first brought Katy down here, don’t you, dear?” Lorine Thompson said, affectionately, to her husband.
“Yes. Good couple. I always liked Dos.”
I said I had met Dos Passos seven years earlier, in 1969, the year before his death. I told them I knew the ‘second Mrs. John Dos Passos-Elizabeth, who still lived at their Westmoreland home in Virginia.
“Katy Dos Passos, his first wife, was killed in an automobile accident,” Charles Thompson said. “Dos was driving. It was not his fault. Vegetable truck parked too close to the road. They were driving in a westerly direction. The sun in his eyes. Things like that happen. Nobody can prevent it, if it’s meant to happen. Nobody can save you.”
Lorine Thompson said: “We all had a great time when Dos Passos and Katy showed up. They came often for awhile. In fact, it was Dos Passos, who first told the Hemingways about Key West.”
“Honorary conch-Dos Passos. If you live here, you’re a ‘born here conch.’ But, if you are accepted here by the people, who were born here and lived here all their lives, it is really ‘an honor to be an honorary conch.’ I guess Ernest was the most ‘honorary conch’ of them all.”
“I remember when Dos shot Ernest through the calf of his leg.” Lorine Thompson spoke up.
“Accident,” Charles Thompson said. “It happened on the boat. Dos was supposed to shoot the fish, but hit Ernest instead. It wasn’t too serious.”
“Katy Dos Passos and Ernest kew each other up in Michigan,” Lorine Thompson said, “when they were teenagers. Some of Ernest’s stories and Dos Passo’s stories overlap, because they’re about Katy.”
Lorine Thompson became silent, as she gazed up at the Waldo Pierce portrait of herself.
“Lorine has never forgiven Ernest for leaving Pauline,” Charles Thompson said. “I’ve forgiven him, because there was nothing to forgive, but Pauline still feels the pain for Pauline, though Pauline’s been dead since 1951.”
Charles Thompson shook his head.
“I loved Pauline. I still do,” Lorine Thompson said, ‘even though she’s gone.”
“Ernest is gone,” Charles Thompson said. “He’s still my best friend.”
“I thought I was your best friend.”
“Ernest hurt Pauline, terribly. He had no business hurting her like that,” Lorine Thompson said. “No, he did not have any right. I will never forgive the way he treated Pauline. Ernest’s your best buddy, but Pauline was like my sister. Ernest hurt her. He broke her down. Humiliated her. I won’t forgive his behavior toward my best friend.”
“I thought I was your best friend.”
Smiles: “That’s different.”
“I don’t think we should discuss it any longer,” Charles Thompson said.
“What about Martha Gellhorn?” Charles Thompson said.
“Big blonde bimbo,” Lorine Thompson said. “I can’t say what I really think of her. I could never say it in public. Not even in the privacy of my own home. Not in front of a guest, like Mr. Payne. And, that Jane Mason, too. Ernest conducted a shameful affair with her. Everybody knew it, except Pauline. I loved Pauline, Charles, I really did. She was important to me.”
The afternoon was like that, after that. Charles Thompson walked me to the door. There were so many things I still wished to ask him. ‘Was he the hero of ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber?’ Who was ‘Harry Walden,’ the character in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ really supposed to be?
Of course, I knew the answers all along. Ernest, of course.
Before exiting the door, Charles Thompson took me back inside one last time. “I forgot to show you these. Signed First Editions of Zane Gray, all given to me by Ernest. And, an autographed first edition of ‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister. Wister was one of Ernest’s favorite writers.”
Thompson grabbed one of the Zane Gray’s and thrust it in my hand. “You keep this. Ernest would want you to keep it.”
I thought about ‘Carl,’ the name Hemingway had given Charles Thompson in ‘Green Hills of Africa.’
As I walked away, Charles Thompson stood there-silent-a man of action, not quite old, just yet. He seemed to be exploring some distant reverie. Most certainly, Hemingway was still in his thoughts.
His gaze followed me, as it once followed a ‘distant lion,’ neart the Kujungu Camp in Tanganyika. Mount Kenya. Kilimanjaro.
They were all on the horizon of his thoughts, as we gently waved goodbye.
Toby Bruce (wearing the tie). Others: Hemingway with young sons Greg & Patrick, son John (‘Bumby’) Muriel Hemingway’s dad & Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife #3 and a great writer in her own right.
Hemingway and his two young sons Patrick and Greg
Copyright 2009 Ronald Payne, published by Brenda Wise
All rights reserved.