Chapter 15: Key West – First Years

“Mr. Hemingway, please tell the court why you moved to Key West.”

“It wasn’t something we planned. Pauline and I came home from Europe by way of Havana, instead of New York, in order to avoid publicity. From Havana, we took the ferry to Key West. When we got there, this would have been April, 1928, the new car that Uncle Gus had bought us wasn’t there yet, so we had to wait a couple of days for it to get there. I wound up going fishing with Charley Thompson and Josie Russell, and between them, they opened up a whole new world. Deep-sea fishing wasn’t anything like trout fishing. And at the same time, Pauline became friends with Charles’ wife Lorine, so we looked around for a house to rent, and right away I started writing to my mob to get on down there.”

“Your mob?”

“In this case, Mike Strater, Waldo Pierce, Bill Smith, Dos.”

“You were writing A Farewell to Arms at this time. Didn’t the party-making tend to interfere?”

“Was I supposed to wait to have fun until I had written everything I was going to write in my life? I always did my writing early. You’re fresh in the morning, you’re clear, and then when you’re done for the day, you can turn your mind to playing.”

“Well, Mr. Hemingway, perhaps you could tell us how you balanced work and play.”

“The things I liked to do were active, they stretched me, in ways that others couldn’t necessarily appreciate. Hunting small game requires intelligence and sharp instincts and reflexes. Deep-sea fishing and or big game hunting require discipline and intensity. You understand? There’s always more to learn about anything, whether it’s a corrida, or opera or baseball. It takes energy, it takes attention, it takes the same disciplined intelligence and perseverance that you put into your work. And even dinners and parties contributed. A lot of people, a lot of food and drink, to balance out those long hours working alone.”

“And presumably sometimes you refilled the wells by listening to music or quietly reading history or great literature.”

“Sure, some quiet refilling of reserves for the next day’s work. If people would look at the things I included in my novels, they’d stop thinking I was under-educated.”

“That anticipates a bit, but in fact Death In The Afternoon exhibited serious thinking and careful analysis. Why do you think it made so little impression on The Hemingway Myth? Was it mostly your attacks on literary critics?”

“Oh, that didn’t help. But the real problem is that academics and critics are always understanding one thing in terms of another. Scholarly analysis has its place, but that place is not, repeat not, in interpreting symbols.”

“But, why not?”

“Because nobody can tell you what any given symbol `means.’ What writer would be dumb enough to expect to know what his unconscious mind was telling him? Take the white whale. Moby-Dick came to Melville the way The Old Man and the Sea came to me. Melville worked hard to find what was in that story. He went way beyond his depth as a craftsman and when he struggled back to shore, he’d caught a whale! But the story wasn’t just a whale sinking a ship, it was the boredom and calm and routine and incidents of a four-years’ voyage to the South Seas and back, captured in a hundred chapters of material about whales. To make Moby-Dick into a Symbol Of Evil, or Symbol Of Vast Impersonal Nature, or any of that has nothing to do with the author or the story. It is just academics playing their game.

“In The Old Man and the Sea. I showed you Santiago, fishing alone and having his daydreams and memories, and using his skills and fighting his fight. There’s plenty of symbolism in that story, but the symbols were put in by the necessities of the story, by life. My job –  the only job I could do or should do –  was to tell the story of the old man’s great catch, and follow it as it led me. You go fishing in the unconscious and you bring back a fish and you describe the fish (the story, I mean) so that others can recognize it. You can’t be consciously putting in symbolism!” He moved his hands as if he were letting a bird go free. “If that isn’t clear enough, it’s going to have to do.”

“Thank you for all that.”

“Well, it was interesting to think about the process. I trust you enjoyed it.”

“I’m afraid we now come to something you are unlikely to enjoy, but we need to look at it.”

“I know. It isn’t like I haven’t been expecting it.”


“Tell the court about December 6, 1928.”

“I had taken the train to New York to meet the ship that was carrying Bumby from France. Hadley had sent him to stay with Pauline and me for a few months, hoping that Florida would be better for him than a winter in Paris.”

“Your son at age five was comfortable traveling across the ocean with only a nurse, without his mother.”

“Oh sure. He was a good traveler, and even as a tiny baby, he had spent weeks happily living with Marie Cocotte and her husband. He had always been taken care of, so he trusted the world. So he and I were on the train heading south, and had gotten as far as Trenton, New Jersey, when I got a telegram from my sister, forwarded from New York, saying that dad had died. It didn’t give any details, it just said he was dead. By the time the train got to the North Philadelphia station, I had arranged for the porter to take care of Bumby all the way to Florida, and I got off, borrowed money from Scott, and caught the overnight train to Chicago.”

“You weren’t worried about the safety of your boy?”

“Those were different times. I knew he would be safe. Meanwhile I had my family to deal with. I figured that dad’s death left me as the head of the family, and who else was going to be willing and able to deal with it all? Not my damned Uncle George, certainly! He’s the one who got dad involved with Florida real estate, and he’s the one who refused to lend him money when he needed it. If he hadn’t refused to help, maybe dad wouldn’t have lost heart.”

“All right, Mr. Hemingway, at this point, I have to ask you to reconsider the judgments made in 1928. As before, I must ask you to sink into the original situation and relive it.”

Once again, he let his mind move. Here, it was less difficult than it had been there, but it was still an effort to put aside the automatic responses. Here, he could sense what else had been happening, what had been going through the minds of the others involved.

“It was more complicated than I let myself realize.”

“Your honor, with the defendant remaining and with the consent of the defense, the prosecution would like to recall to the stand Dr. Clarence Hemingway, usually known as Ed.”

“Without objection, you may proceed.”


This time his father looked old, grey, worn-out, intangibly frail, a shadow of the vigorous outdoorsman and physician he had been.

“Dad, I’m so sorry I never found a way to help you.”

His father smiled, that same affectionate smile he remembered from childhood. “No harm done, really, Ernest. I’m not any deader than you are.” Smoothly the person who had been Ed Hemingway changed back to the vigorous man he had once been, half a century before.

Despite himself, it made him smile. “So. Turns out, the afterlife wasn’t the way you always insisted.”

“No. And perhaps you’re learning that death isn’t the tragedy you thought it was, either.”

“Well, the jury’s still out on that.”

“Very apt, Mr. Hemingway. Dr. Hemingway, this court has heard other people’s interpretations of the last years of your life, but we would like you to give us yours. Perhaps you could begin with the question of how you could square suicide with your religious beliefs.”

“Well, I can’t.”

“I beg your pardon, doctor?”

“You really can’t square suicide with anybody’s religious beliefs. The whole point of religious belief is to give us a sense of our place in the world – in both worlds, I ought to say – and thereby help us live the best life and die the best death possible. As a believing Christian, I was aware that God had forbidden suicide.”

His father in 1928 had felt the way he himself had felt in 1961, unable to reclaim any past, or live in any present, or envision any future.

“Of course, Ernest. Despair has a million disguises, but only one essence. You understand?”

“I do, dad.”

“Mr. Hemingway, can you express that understanding for the court?”

A moment’s pause, experiencing the flow of understanding and feeling. “My father and I loved the natural world, and we drew strength from it, and we kept losing more of it. If it was forest, they logged it. If it was trout streams, or ocean currents, they polluted them. If it was African grasslands overrun with game, they built roads into it and poached it and ruined it one way or the other. Even the air, they poured all that chemical shit into it. The world I was born into was being destroyed around me, all my life, and the same thing had happened to dad, too, all his life.”

“Bearing in mind that we are concentrating on the similarity of your father’s despair to yours, what else? Because, surely you must realize that what you have said amounts to blaming outside events, in both cases. Is this truly what happened?”

More pondering, but this time to no conclusion.

“Perhaps I can help, son. Here is how I see it. We all have our cross to bear. We come into the world with a certain range of possibilities, and we choose among them as we go. And our choices bring challenges, no matter how we choose.”

“Well, it’s a lousy set-up, that’s all I can say.”

“Mr. Hemingway, you often described your father as a coward because he wouldn’t stand up to his wife, in your opinion, and because he killed himself.”

Of course it could only be uncomfortable. He couldn’t have expected it to be otherwise. “Yes, I did. I saw a man browbeaten by his wife, who not only did not stick up for himself, but took her side against me and my sisters and then Leicester. It was bad enough to have her always criticizing me. Why did he have to second my mother’s judgments? I’m sorry, dad, but that’s how it looked to me.”

“I understand more than you might think, Ernest. I was a son once, you know. More important than any particular issue is that parents not let their children drive a wedge between them. It is in everyone’s interest – no one’s more so than the child’s – that the parents work together as a team.”

“But you weren’t working as a team! She was always in the lead and you were always being left to follow.”

“Ernest, think of your own marriage. Your four marriages. Could any outsider judge any one of them as accurately as you experiencing it from the inside?”

“No. I see your point.” For the first time since the proceedings had begun, he felt fatigue. “It’s starting to sound like every judgment I ever made was wrong. Anything I thought, anything I saw, it was really something else.”

“Allow me to answer that, counselor.”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Mr. Hemingway, please bear in mind, the idea here is not to have you exchange one point of view for another, but to present additional points of view for your consideration. Naturally, these are often going to be directly contrary to the ones you adopted and clung to all those years, and naturally this is going to create a dissonance that is sometimes painful.”

“Yes, your honor. I see.”

“Dr. Hemingway, no further questions.”

“Nor from the defense, your honor.”

His father was right there, and he turned to him. “Dad, you do understand –“

“Of course, Ernest. And there’s nothing for me to forgive. Good luck with your trial. They probably won’t call me again.”

“Will I see you again afterwards?”

“That depends on how it comes out, but I hope so. God bless you, my boy.”

And it was like the very old times before they’d lost sight of each other,


Alone again on the stand.

“So there you were, Mr. Hemingway; with your father gone, and your family financially dependent upon you. What followed?”

He shrugged. “Back to work. I went back to Key West and spent the next five weeks revising A Farewell to Arms.” He brightened. “But then I told Max Perkins that the manuscript was ready, but he had to come down in person to pick it up. That way, the manuscript would get his undivided attention, because he wouldn’t be torn six ways at the office. Besides, Max always worked too hard; he didn’t have enough fun. I thought I’d give him a real vacation. Who wouldn’t want an excuse to get away from New York City in February?”

“And how did it work out?”

“Worked out great. I had him out on the water every morning, fishing, and he loved it.” He laughed. “Max wearing a suit and tie, of course, but he loved it. And he read the manuscript at night, and he loved it, and said he was sure he could get it serialized in Scribner’s magazine. So, a success. And a lot of fun.”

“You were fond of him.”

“I was, and I can’t imagine what my career would have been without him. He himself was so genteel, so repressed, but it didn’t interfere with his understanding and supporting what I was doing. Max knew writing. He knew what worked and what didn’t work. Even when he didn’t know how to fix a problem, he could always see that the problem was there. Authors might fool him about their lives and their intentions – how they were going to work harder, all that — but nobody ever fooled him about was this or that passage right or not.”

“So when he read A Farewell to Arms? Did he have suggestions? Criticisms?”

“Of course he did. No two people ever see a book the same way, even if they both love it. He published it the way I wrote it, but he  thought the war and the love story didn’t mix as well as they should, that the war got lost in the book’s final pages. He didn’t quite see that that was the point.”

“Your honor, the prosecution calls Maxwell Perkins.”


Perkins nodded and smiled at him, that same prim, modest smile, and agreed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“Mr. Perkins, as editor and shareholder of the firm of Scribner’s Sons, it not true that you, more than any other individual, secured for Scribner the best of the new generation of novelists?”

“That might be claiming too much. I did what I could to help them develop their talent over the years.”

It was nice to see Max functioning with unimpaired hearing.

“You were the man who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings, and many others, as well as Ernest Hemingway. Can we say fairly that you had the ear of Charles Scribner?”

“Well yes, I did, but so did the other editors.”

“As an editorial professional, you held Mr. Hemingway’s work in very high esteem.”


“You thought him extremely gifted.”


“How would you describe your relationship to the defendant? Was he `Papa’ Hemingway to you?”

“Oh no, not at all. That would have made my job impossible. We were Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Perkins to each other, and then Ernest and Max.”

“You and he didn’t fall into a competitive relationship?”

“No, we both knew that we needed to be able to cooperate if we were to succeed, and we couldn’t have worked together with that between us.”

“However, your professional relationship became entangled with a friendship that developed.”

“As it did with many of my authors. We enjoyed the friendship even though we both knew that mixing business with friendship has its hazards. So when I would be invited to come fishing or hunting with Hemingway, we both knew there were two things going — friendship, yes, but also a maneuvering for future advantage, a binding by affection.”

“Did you not see your dual role as editor and as representative of Scribner’s financial interests as something of a conflict of interest?”

“I can see that it might look that way to you, but supposing I had given up my role as Scribners’ representative. My authors would still have had to deal with some representative of Scribners, and who would know the value of their work as well as their editor did? I always had to balance the interests of the company and those of whichever author I was handling at the moment. Most of the time, we made it work well enough.”

“Thank you, Mr. Perkins.”

“Defense? Questions?”

“Thank you, your honor. Mr. Perkins, would you say that Ernest Hemingway lived up to his potential as an author?”

Perkins paused, thinking. “I don’t see how anyone could answer that question, even Ernest.”

“Did you see potential that never developed? Did you see what seemed to you to be a misallocation of the defendant’s time and abilities.”

Perkins shook his head decisively. “No. My life would have been easier if Ernest had given me novels instead of Death In The Afternoon or Green Hills of Africa, but that isn’t to say that those experiments were mistakes. Probably he would have sold more copies of novels than he did of either of those two books, but that doesn’t mean that what he chose to do was wrong, even professionally. Ernest was always professional about his career.”

“No further questions.”

“You know, Max, we did our dance for more than 20 years – and then you go and die of pneumonia on me!”

“Well, I was worn out. And we all have to go sometime.”

“Oh, I know. But we missed you awfully. It was a terrible thing.”

“You did brighten my life, Ernest, you know that. It was like a draft of fresh air, watching you. We liked to think of somebody actually living life the way you did.” Another smile, and then Max was gone.


“Starting to feel like it’s going to take longer to look back on my life than it did to live it.”

“No doubt. After you finished with A Farewell to Arms, you spent the rest of 1929 in Europe, then returned to Key West for a few months, then spent the second half of 1930 out west.”

“Key West gets pretty hot in the summertime. Wyoming summers are lovely, and the hunting is superb, and it’s a good place to write.”

“So you stayed on and on, late into the autumn, perhaps a little too late.”

“I know what you’re getting at, the accident in November.”

“Tell the court about your accident, Mr. Hemingway.”

He frowned. “Why? If you want me to talk about it, I will, but why is it more important than a lot of other things we didn’t touch on, like going out to the Dry Tortugas?”

“Regardless of the outcome of this trial, you will get to review your life in full detail, but some events cast longer shadows than others.”

“All right, the accident. I guess you know, it was nighttime, and we were on this high-crown gravel road that had been resurfaced the day before, that didn’t yet have the center-line marked. I was driving Dos and Floyd Allington, one of the ranch hands. A car coming my way pulled out to pass, and he blinded me with his high beams. I edged over toward the side of the road, a little too far, and the car flipped over into the ditch. Dos wasn’t hurt, and Floyd got a dislocated shoulder, but I got my arm broken – my right arm, the arm I wrote with – and the nearest hospital was three quarters of an hour away.”

“Which you got to, courtesy of a long ride in the back seat of the car of a good Samaritan.”

“Holding my arm between my legs, trying to be sure it didn’t move and make things worse.”

“And when you got there?”

“I had a spiral fracture above the elbow. The surgeon couldn’t just set the bone, he had to splice it together using kangaroo tendon. And then seven long weeks of recuperation. For the first three weeks, I couldn’t even change position. Back in 1918, I had spent some time lying down with my leg immobilized in a cast, but at least I could move my upper body around. In 1930, for the first three weeks, I couldn’t. It got tiresome.”

“Tiresome. Would you say more about your mental and emotional reactions during that long time? What did you feel as you lay there waiting for your arm to heal?”

Another long sinking into the moment. “Well, a lot of things. I was afraid, for one thing. I couldn’t feel my hand, because the nerves were either damaged or destroyed, we didn’t know which. The doctors were saying it would come back, but how could I know? I told Pauline I’d write with my left hand, if I had to, and maybe I could have done that, but I didn’t know that either. I was in the middle of Death in the Afternoon, and it was a hell of a time to get interrupted. Pauline thought maybe I could dictate books to her, but you can’t write that way. At least, I can’t. I need to write it out. If I didn’t get my writing arm back, what was I going to do? It was almost as bad as that time in Paris, thinking I might go blind.”

“Beyond fear, what did you feel?”

“Disappointment. I had started lining guys up for an Africa safari, and now that wasn’t going to happen. And, you know, when you’re bedridden like that, it’s easy to think the world is passing you by. You think, it won’t be so long and I’ll be gone for good; better be sure to have as much fun as I can. It’s the kind of thing that runs through your mind at night. I had lots of nights like that. Lots of time to think, at night, if you are in pain that never goes away, and you can’t sleep.”

“The world remembers your stay in the hospital from your story about the gambler, the nun and the radio.”

“That story said a lot I wanted to say. With the country sinking farther into the Great Depression, the air was full of panaceas. We were going to be saved from the dying gasp of capitalism by Karl Marx. I didn’t buy it.”

“It was Marx, of course, who said religion is the opiate of the people.”

“Yeah, and I said why shouldn’t people have something to dull their pain?” A wolfish grin. “The lefties didn’t like that much. My story was pointing out that life’s problems are beyond solution, and everybody copes in different ways, and why shouldn’t they. When Death in the Afternoon was published in September, 1932, a lot of those same critics were all outraged that I would write a big book about bullfighting instead of jumping on the political bandwagon. You know, socialist realism, saving the country from the ravages of capitalism by writing bad novels. But I wasn’t a propagandist, I was a writer. I got a complete education on government lying and incompetence when I was reporting in Europe in the 1920s, and as you know, I promised myself, when I came home from Thrace in 1922, I would write the truth. I kept that promise.”

“Some would say that your articles for Esquire were a way of dramatizing your life, of deliberately building an image that would help sell future books.”

“Probably. So what?”

“You can hardly have expected it to endear you to the critics.”

“The only thing that would have endeared me to the critics was my falling flat on my face. That, or joining Communist Party. I didn’t care what they thought.”

A moment’s silence, as the prosecutor waited.

“All right, I cared, but only in the way that nobody wants people calling him names. I never cared enough to change what I was doing in hopes of winning somebody’s favor. And, as I said, that’s one of the things about me that they couldn’t stand.”

“Yet by February of 1933 you had written three chapters of the story that became To Have and Have Not, which some people regard as your attempt to write proletarian fiction.”

He snorted, and had no further answer.

“Well, we can examine it further in due course. For the moment, let us look at your months on safari.”


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