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In Praise of 'Papa'

October 13, 2017

By M.J. Bale Staff

The quintessential modern-day explorer and ‘warrior-poet’, Ernest Hemingway has always been a pillar of inspiration for M.J. Bale. Here we pay tribute to the man who could be “defeated but not destroyed”.

The only battle that Ernest Hemingway ever lost would be his final one. In early July 1961 the giant of a man they called ‘Papa’ left hospital, where he had been undergoing electric shock therapy for depression and paranoia, and returned to his home in Idaho. There he put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. It was a cruel irony for one of the greats of world literature. “Every man’s life ends the same way,” Hemingway once wrote. “It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

Hemingway gained his fame as a Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books, iconic titles which are today still relevant as ever: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bells Toll, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Old Man And The Sea and Moveable Feast. Even though he claimed that paintings taught him how to write, he avoided extravagant, baroque words. Hemingway’s biographer, Carlos Baker, observed that he knew “how to get the most from the least, how to prune language and avoid waste motion, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth.” His closest friend, A.E. Hotchner, remarked: “Hemingway refused to accept the prevailing style of writing but, enduring rejection and poverty, had insisted on writing in his own unique way.”

It was the “basic life battle that had always intrigued Ernest,” said Hotchner, “a brave, simple man struggling unsuccessfully against an unconquerable element.” Hemingway was very much in his own way a brave, simple man, and although he had his own life struggles, he invariably prevailed. He lived life to the full, and was much more than an author. The archetypal warrior-poet, Hemingway was a journalist, wartime correspondent, solider, fisherman, big game hunter, lion tamer, horse racing enthusiast, bullfight devotee and ski instructor. As an ambulance driver during World War One he took 227 bits of shrapnel in the leg, thanks to an Austrian mortar and machine gun fire. His kneecap hung down about his shin, yet he still managed to carry an Italian solider back to safety in the trenches, for which he was decorated. Throughout all times of crisis, though, he managed to live large. Seconded to an American and French platoon of Irregulars during World War Two, he was the first to liberate the famous Ritz hotel, celebrating by raiding the cellars and drinking from magnums of champagne.

He was not materialistic, keeping few possessions. “You can have true affection for only a few things in your life,” he once said, “and by getting rid of material things, I make sure I won’t waste mine on something that can’t feel my affection.” He did, however, have a taste for the finer things: beluga caviar, champagne, rosé, whisky with a half squeeze of lime and long lunches. “The weekends are always on the verge of uproar, and sometimes over the verge,” his wife, Mary Hemingway, once admitted. He loved nice hotels, too. After he and Hotchner broke a window in Venice’s centuries-old Gritti Palace playing baseball in the room, Hemingway wanted to pay for the damage on check-out. Said the hotel manager: “In the three-hundred-year history of the Gritti, no one, to our knowledge, has ever played baseball in any of its rooms, and in commemoration of the event, Signor Hemingway, we are reducing our bill ten percent.” Driving away from the hotel Ernest turned to Hotchner: “Gritti was pretty damn chic about that window. Reminds me of the time I fired a pistol shot through my toilet at the Ritz — they were just as chic. Which just goes to prove that it pays to stay at the best places.”

A social raconteur, never happier that when in the thick of friends, booze and lively conversation, he was the master of what Hotchner called “the effortless accomplishment, the ability to assimilate simultaneous occurrences. In a room full of people he would give complete attention to the person he was talking to and yet monitor other conversations. It was never safe to assume that Ernest was either distracted or out of earshot.”

The big man loved horse racing with a passion. He would create betting syndicates with his friends — his so-called ‘co-conspirators’ — to beef up his purchasing power. When at the track he would wear a special pickpocket-proof jacket: a bespoke tweed coat, made by Hong Kong tailors with a deep, secret pocket to stash tickets and winnings. In Paris he would sit at a restaurant with views over the track and enjoy the most liquid and languid of lunches.

“There are some things which cannot be learned quickly,” wrote Hemingway, “and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to get to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”

True, Hemingway ultimately paid a heavy price for his adventures, accidents, pride and deep sensitivity. However, as the man said himself: "Man is not made for defeat....A man can be destroyed but not defeated".

We salute you, Papa.