'Papa' Hemingway, as seen by a son
07/29/2007 4:26 PM
05/16/2014 4:58 PM
John F. Kennedy LibraryErnest and Patrick Hemingway, early 1940s.
Date: 06/27/99 00:01
People often ask if I knew my father. It is a difficult question for me to answer politely, and in the reign of Good Queen Bess I would have been forced to kill the questioner or be killed myself.
Yes, I knew my father. When he decided very reluctantly in the spring of 1944 that he had to go to England to cover as a journalist the imminent opening of a second front by the Allied invasion of France, his marriage to Martha Gellhorn was breaking up, his oldest son, Jack, was already in the Army and a notoriously poor correspondent, and so it was I, then almost 16, who saw him off to the war and answered his letters home until he met Mary Welsh in Europe, who later became the fourth and last Mrs. Ernest Hemingway.
After the letters, I was there to meet him when he came back in March 1945. He had hitched a ride on a military flight back across the Atlantic. He later remarked that this experience put an end forever to what he had once thought of as "the romance of the air."
The only place I can now remember we visited together in the wartime Big Apple was the gun floor of Abercrombie & Fitch, the elegant sporting goods emporium that the comedian Dwight Fiske referred to as "Abiedabie & Bitch." There he bought a cadmium-plated, second-hand Merkel over-and-under shotgun, which was the ugliest object I had ever seen up to that time and it was very expensive.
"Papa," I said, "do you really want to buy this awful shotgun?"
"Yes," he said, "I knew the Kraut son of a bitch who owned it. He's dead and I'm still alive."
George Brown, a very sinister Irishman who owned a gym on 55th Street, who when he boxed with my father would always warn him once that he was crowding too close and if the warning was not heeded, then knock him on his ass with the deftness of a striking cobra, put us both on the train at the old Pennsylvania station for Florida on the way back to Cuba.
Papa was in bad shape, coughing blood from a persistent bronchial infection in the days before antibiotics were readily available and drinking heavily as a home remedy he truly believed in. I was in charge of a very valuable bottle of Scotch as the three of us ran, heavily loaded with baggage, down the station platform to catch the train. I tripped and fell and the bottle of Scotch smashed to pieces on the concrete.
It was a long, dry and very sad trip, first in daylight across the industrial wasteland of the Jersey marshes and then through the night to the cabbage palms of south Georgia at first light and the endless rest of the journey down the length of the Florida peninsula. We didn't talk much and slept little. When we got to Miami, Papa said, "Mouse, I want to tell you about how we took Paris and a wonderful girl whom I know you will like, although she is too old for you, but first we have to find a place where I can get a drink for this cough."
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