Saturday, July 2, 2011
FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY
They all needed a night out. His ever-worsening mental state was weighing heavily on his wife, Mary. His friends were mostly trying to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. He was a tough old bird. He was just going through a rough patch. That’s what they thought.
His buddy Hotch, who was twenty years the old man’s junior, had become a good friend over the years and the old man seemed more at ease with him than with a lot of other people. He could talk straight to Hotch. This was a guy who could chronicle the old days, when life was grand, so that they read like a fine novel.
Truth be told, though, Hotch was putting on a brave face and trying to act like the old days were coming back again, that everything was going to be okay. But things weren’t okay. This old man, who now was looking his age and more, was going fast and it was sad to see. He’d made a name for himself as a hunter and adventurer—a huge name, in fact, bigger than life. And now he was so messed up that even a little wing shooting in a farmer’s field had him spooked.
Hotch had thought a little hunting would buck him up and had assembled a party of four other old buddies for the occasion. They were out in some large, open fields, land where one of the guys had been told by the owner that he could hunt anytime. But after somebody pulled down on a couple of woodcocks that fluttered up out of the cornstalks, and missed, the old man started dawdling and fretting. Wanted to wait, he said, to see if the shots brought anybody scrambling out to tell them to get off the land. The assurances of the others that everything was okay didn’t help. Far from the often boastful big game hunter of yesteryear, the old man looked hunted himself now, prey to his own unreasonable fears.
He finally got one of them to knock on the door of the farmhouse and ask for permission right there in front of him, so he’d know everything was okay. The farmer’s wife said, sure, no problem. The fields were harvested and nobody minded that they were hunting there. It was all right.
But back out in the field again, after a pheasant broke from the stubble and another of the hunters picked it off as it flew over, the old man stood looking pale, staring down at the ground where the bird lay dead and started saying maybe they’d better get the hell out of there. So what if they had the farmer’s wife’s okay. What if the farmer himself came home and saw a bunch of guys tramping around shooting up the game in his fields. What if he just pulled a shotgun out of the truck and took a potshot at them. This didn’t feel right. It was trespassing. He wanted to go.
So that night Hotch and the old man and the old man’s wife went out to eat. At first it was fun. Mary needed a night out in a nice restaurant. Things were not good. He was getting to be a handful and she was exhausted.
The old man, who had a well-earned reputation for being able to just about hold his weight in liquor, was lately sticking to a regimen that bordered on the abstemious. Of course, it had always been a hard reputation to keep up and sometimes made him do some pretty stupid things. Like the time he tried out a new pistol by firing it into the toilet bowl at the Ritz in
and flooded the room. Or that other time, also in Paris , when he’d thought he was pulling the toilet chain and ended up pulling a rickety skylight down on his head. That caused a pretty severe head injury. And then there were other head injuries in those two different plane crashes he was in down in Paris Africa. It was uncanny how accident prone he was. But also how lucky. He’d always been lucky. He’d always survived. He was a tough guy.
That night, however, he was being careful. Everything worried him lately and he was taking care of himself. He ordered a single cocktail before dinner and had a single glass of wine with the meal. But still, the alcohol seemed to cheer him, warm him, brighten his mood. After a while he started talking about old times and laughing about things he and Hotch had done together and things he’d done alone. And for a fleeting moment, he was kind of acting like his old self. It was nice to see him like that, and Hotch and Mary would have done anything to keep that mood alive.
But then, suddenly, he froze, dropped his eyes and muttered something about “the two guys at the bar”. What about them? They were Feds…FBI…G-men. And they were there because of him. They were tailing him wherever he went. How did he know? Just by looking at them. Didn’t Hotch and Mary think he knew a damned Fed when he saw one?
At the clinic the doctors decided electroshock treatment was in order. Nobody’d wanted to put him through that, but the doctors thought it was necessary.
Desperate times required desperate measures. Mary was scared. It frightened her that he kept talking about killing himself all the time. She was scared he might do it. She told Hotch that sometimes she’d find him just standing staring out the window while holding one of his guns in both hands. It was unnerving. She was afraid to leave him alone. She showed Hotch a letter that the old man had tried to write to his bank. It looked like gibberish. He couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t write any more, though he kept trying. So maybe the shock treatments would work.
They gave him more than ten in a month, December. The old man spent Christmas at the clinic, Mary in a nearby hotel. When Hotch went to visit him at the hospital he was shocked by the old man’s appearance. He’d always been an imposing figure. Always carried well over two hundred pounds on his big frame. But now he didn’t weigh one-seventy-five. He looked terrible.
But when they began to talk, he kind of seemed like his old self. There was something, though. Something Hotch couldn’t quite lay his finger on. Something exaggerated, not quite right. The old man got Hotch to ask if they could take a walk. The nurse said no problem and brought the old man his clothes.
Hotch made small talk, said it seemed the shock doctors were really helping him. Everything was okay until the old man indicated, very confidentially, that the walls in his room had ears. He hadn’t wanted to talk there. He said he’d tried to turn himself in to the local authorities, but that the Feds evidently hadn’t told them about the rap. He wanted to turn himself in. He was afraid of hurting innocent people around him who didn’t have anything to do with his problem with the FBI, people who’d covered for him.
Hotch was astonished. None of this was working. The old man had them fooled.
The doctors didn’t seem that worried. If he was still clinging to a delusion or two, that’d probably go away when he started working and his recovery was such, they seemed to think, that the old man now couldn’t wait to get back to his writing. Did they realize, Hotch wondered, that they were working with someone extraordinary, a remarkable man who was perfectly capable of outsmarting the smartest shrink around? They knew. Not to worry.
So they sent the old man home. He tried to work, but it was no good. The electroshocks had knocked the hell out of his memory. He was confused, couldn’t pull it all together again, couldn’t write. He was depressed, though he tried to pretend he was doing okay. But then one day Mary came home and found him standing in the vestibule with a shotgun with the breach broken open in one hand and two shells in the other and she knew he wasn’t going hunting.
Back he went to the clinic. He fought it. Tried to kill himself again before they took him back and was saved from himself by an obviously strong friend who managed to wrestle a gun away from him. This time the doctors told Mary to stay away. They were going to keep him isolated from the outside world. Trying to concentrate the treatment, focus on a cure.
More drugs. More electric shock treatments. More bitterness and confusion.
Then, he started seeming better. He quit talking about suicide, started talking about going home. Mary wanted to make sure he was well. She didn’t think she could take three more months like the ones she’d had with him the last time they’d declared him well and sent him home.
They started letting her see him again. He was irritable, furious about what the treatment was doing to his memory. He was a writer, goddamnit. He needed his memory. But at least he wasn’t talking about suicide.
When Hotch finally was able to visit him again, he and the old man took a walk, like the other time. While on the walk, he gave Hotch a horse chestnut, a lucky piece he’d been carrying around for years. Hotch didn’t know what to make of this, or of the old man’s telling him that if anything happened, he, Hotch, should take care of Mary. He also talked about how fighters could retire, how people understood when a fighter lost his legs or the power of his punch. But if you were a writer, everybody wanted to know what you were working on.
The conversation left Hotch ill at ease. He absentmindedly picked up a pebble from the beach, but the old man stopped him. Leave it, the old man told him. Nothing good could come from this place.
Mary wanted to go to their place in the mountains for the summer that year. Should she? The doctors thought so, even thought maybe the old man should go too. He was doing much better they thought. He too seemed to want to. Maybe there he could get back down to work. She wasn’t so sure. She wasn’t sure at all.
But eventually that’s what happened. They drove from the clinic, the old man, Mary and an old friend who acted as driver. It was a three-day trip and the old man seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. It was good, it seemed, to be out of the clinic, to be going home to a place he loved, where he could be in the great outdoors.
On the night of his first full day back in that mountain home that he’d loved so well, the old man enjoyed a pleasant dinner and seemed at ease and happy to be home and free of the clinic.
Early the next morning, July 2nd, 1961, Ernest Miller Hemingway, shoved the barrel of a twelve-gauge shotgun into his mouth and ended one of the most formidable lives in modern American letters. This inimitable writer, considered, by then, the old man of American letters, this popular American superhero, known since he was in his late thirties as ‘Papa’, was still a few weeks shy of his sixty-second birthday.
It happened fifty years ago today.
This piece is a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of our time and is dedicated to A.E. Hotchner, the greatest of his biographers.