Monday, July 4, 2011

Drinking With Hemingway

On July 2nd 1961, standing in the doorway of his Idaho home, Ernest "Papa" Hemingway slid two cartridges into his favorite shotgun, placed the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Since his death, there have been hundreds of riveting stories about Papa and how he lived. 

Just recently, during a visit to New York City's PKNY (of which I'll be posting about sometime soon), I chuckled when I saw an old beer ad featuring Hemingway in his Key West home. And these days, I can't help but reflect on his reputation as a writer as well as his reputation as a drinker suffering from mental illness. 

According to A. E. Hotchner (and often gloriously retold by Christopher Hitchens), Hemingway use to read obituaries every morning while sipping on a cool glass of champagne. That particular story has always stuck with me as I came to study the author in college - understanding the person behind such classics as The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and The Sea.

This year, before the anniversary of Papa's death, in a fascinating New York Times op-ed, Hotchner reveals his thoughts on the paranoia that consumed Hemingway later in his life. Paranoia that turned out to be justified - the author had been tailed by the FBI until roughly 1961. Hotchner writes:
"Decades later, in response to a Freedom of Information petition, the F.B.I. released its Hemingway file. It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba. Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital. It is likely that the phone outside his room was tapped after all.

In the years since, I have tried to reconcile Ernest’s fear of the F.B.I., which I regretfully misjudged, with the reality of the F.B.I. file. I now believe he truly sensed the surveillance, and that it substantially contributed to his anguish and his suicide."
And on the heels of this revelation, published an excerpt from Marty Beckerman's book The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within... Just Like Papa!, clearly satirizing the American icon. Before delving into Hemingway's "rules" for imbibing, Beckerman writes:
"These physical and psychological maladies suggest that imbibing is a bad thing -- with negative consequences -- but Hemingway told us in 'The Sun Also Rises': 'It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.' Alcohol takes years off your life, but he told us in 'A Farewell to Arms,' it 'always makes you happy,' like a well-marbled steak drenched with blood and butter. (And with bourbon.)

Anything worth doing is more worth doing blitzed ..."
That may seem to be how Hemingway lived but it essentially cost the author his life. And the unfortunate circumstances of his mental health and alcohol abuse didn't allow even his closest friends to see this act of domestic surveillance being perpetrated by our own government (how's that for an Independence Day message). 

Anyway, as Hitchens says, alcohol "is a good servant and a bad master." Make sure the booze remains your servant this 4th of July and have a safe holiday. 

Oh, and if you're drinking, have one for Papa today.

Note: This post has been revised since its original publication.


  1. This is one of the greatest blog posts I've read. My favorite author. Such a fascinating and tragic figure in American history.

    Looking forward to sharing this on my blog. Would love to raise a drink to Papa with you very soon!

  2. Oh man, thanks TG! So glad someone else appreciates the topic as I do. Thanks for reading.

    And sooner or later we'll get our schedules aligned and drink like Papa. I miss our scotch sessions in Arlington, VT!