The Real Ernest Hemingway
by Cholly Bilderberger
THE MENTION of Ernest Hemingway (pictured) in the December Instauration triggered a flood of memories, ranging from amusing to grotesque. He cultivated the rich and powerful assiduously, and our paths crossed often. I ran into him in East Africa, hunting with Winston Guest; bellied up to the bar at the Ritz with Leland Hayward; lunching at 21 with Marlene Dietrich; playing king to the whole world in Havana.
Pertinently enough, he embodied every strain of racism from pitiless clarity to utter confusion. And in him the spectrum was doubly pertinent because he was a national phenomenon, like Byron in his day and Jack Kennedy in his, acting out the fantasies of an entire nation, boozing and womanizing and generally living the American male dreams up to the hilt. His alcoholism, brutality and battiness were ignored and covered over by friends and enemies alike, where those traits in other famous figures were broadcast in detail. He had, again like Jack Kennedy, a strange power over his countrymen — a sort of blackmail in which he said, by implication, “If you dare to tell the truth about me, I’ll tell the truth about you, which is the same truth.” And, yet again like Jack Kennedy, he was the perfect chicken American male, the capon talking in terms of action but perfectly passive (or absent) when it came to going against established interests.
The only people he couldn’t bully were those in positions of power, and to them he was exceedingly deferential. He was always quite polite and pleasant with me, and I enjoyed his company. Oblique and cunning in everything, he nevertheless let you know his exact feelings one way or another.
His ambivalence on race was marvelous. All Jews were “kikes” and “yids” behind their backs, and treated with playful condescension when present. He detested David Selznick with a passion and once said, while looking at a Time photograph of that producer with his arm around his wife, Jennifer Jones: “Can you imagine that rubbing all over you? How does she stand it?”
“No different from any other fat businessman, is he?” someone replied.
“Quite different,” Ernest said. “Those kikes smell different and feel different.”
“You speak from experience, I suppose,” someone else said.
“Got to try them once,” Hemingway said with a mean grin.
Later that evening, when a stranger asked him what was the most brutal sight he’d ever seen, expecting some war tale, he said, “A yid eating an apple in the back seat of a Rolls-Royce.”
Of course, such talk was not uncommon in privileged white circles before World War II, and for several years thereafter in scattered pockets of disgruntled resistance. What distinguished Hemingway was the somewhat broader range of his dislike, the absolute lack of mercy and the perfect hypocrisy. Two minutes after giving Selznick the works, he could be on the telephone with some Jew and buttering him up shamelessly.
I told him once that I didn’t see how he had gotten away with the devastating portrait of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises.
“And why not?” The rheumy eyes swung around, the voice grating. “I was actually pretty nice to him.”
“You were not. It’s the most blatantly anti-Semitic hatchet job in respectable modern literature.”
“There are worse.”
“You must be kidding. I still don’t see how you got away with it.”
The answer, of course, was that he got away with it because he was Ernest Hemingway. The society which tries to censor Little Black Sambo and The Merchant of Venice leaves The Sun Also Rises, which is truly racial and quite damning, completely alone. It is still revered in college literature courses, and Jews who scream at the slightest criticism in any medium read it docilely. For some reason, they accept him and his attitude toward them. It is as though he said, “Let’s not kid each other — you’re frightful people,” and they ruefully agreed.
I remember an example of this one night in Havana, when he was giving a young Jewish journalist a going over.
“Why is New York like an orange?” he asked him belligerently.
“I have no idea,” the young Jew said.
“Of course you do,”
“No, I don’t.”
Hemingway loomed closer. “Of course you do.”
For those going through Hemingway’s looming for the first time, it was quite an experience. There was the bulk, and the terrible little eyes, all inflamed with drink and hate and delirium and disease. Then the awful breath, and the pustulated skin visible through the beard. His insanity was obvious — at this time, he was already in and out of the Mayo Clinic — but it was laced with sanity, too. It was a kind of holy insanity — one could imagine such medicine men in primitive societies, revered just because they were both in and out of this world. And he was still clever enough to know that the more “civilized” a society seems to be, the more susceptible it is to its buried atavism.
The young Jew did not quail before this apparation, but he didn’t look too comfortable, either. He knew there was something very unpleasant behind this aggressive questioning, but he didn’t know what. He was a bit paralyzed by this rococo old boa constrictor, and showed it. “No, I don’t know why New York is like an orange,” he said slowly, still eye-to-eye with the great man.
Hemingway paused dramatically, then let him have it: “Because it’s full of Juice!” he said triumphantly.
When it sank in, the young Jew’s face was a study in conflicting emotions. He’d been insulted, of course, but by a Delphic lunatic, so was it a real insult? And what about that knowing grin on the old madman’s face? Did that mean it was only a joke? That Hemingway didn’t really believe in anti-Semitism, just in teasing those whom he was about to admit to his friendship? That he was actually on the side of the Jews and laughing at such crude jokes? Or was all that just fluff, and Hemingway as nasty a Jew-baiter as any he’d ever been warned against? He couldn’t decide, so he remained paralyzed. Then Hemingway broke the tension, grinned even more widely, and threw his arms around the young Jew, who broke out in visible relief. He had been right; it was only a joke. But later that night, and the next day and the day after, there would be other incidents, and he would have to wonder all over again. The suspense would be permanent. If the performance was conscious on Hemingway’s part, it was a masterly job. After all, who else could keep Jews in such a tizzy in an age when they do all the tizzy-making? If it was purely instinctive — an old fighter who knew what moves to make — it was still impressive. I have never seen anyone else able to do it as he could.
Even up against a mature, totally self-righteous Jew — the Jacob Javits-Abe Fortas type — he was devastating. He’d go on and on, for example, about some esoteric aspect of hunting or fishing — “When you’re after kudu, you want a four-point-seven-ought-three spread. Don’t use anything less. Or more. And don’t wear any bright colors” But they knew what he was really saying: “Stay out of the woods, you dumb Jews, because I don’t want to run into you there and have it spoil my day.” And all they could do was smile weakly and nod.
But all this, although amusing, was only fun and games. When it came down to the hard choices between personal piggishness and taking real stands, he always bolted and ran.
He was always a perfect mirror image of his country and his times, in sequence, and that was probably why his contemporaries couldn’t resist him. In young manhood, in the 1920s, he was healthy, caustic, in the thick of white life, as was his country and most of his friends. And as were the heroes of his first two novels, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and Frederick Henry in A Farewell To Arms. They were not happy, but they were strong enough to face all aspects of their times without turning away. They were realists about race, sex, money and other fundamentals.
In his thirties, Hemingway retreated from his own world and background: Cuban fishermen and Basque peasants became more real to him than his own peers. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance, Robert Jordan, the white idealist, goes off to die for the Spanish. At that time, the milieu in which Hemingway moved was the insider’s world of New York, Hollywood, and Paris; and if he had followed the dictum that a writer is supposed to write about what he knows, he would have written about that world. But that would have entailed facing some very unpleasant truths, so he funked it and wrote about Spanish peasants instead. And in a startling example of applied morality, he started to disintegrate to the degree that he was shirking his duty to himself and his considerable artistic abilities. (He was not alone — his whole generation, with a few exceptions, did precisely the same — but he was the most dramatic example.)
By the start of World War II he was a shattered wreck, and his prose reflected it. Much babytalk and a general retreat from reality on all fronts. By the end of the war his condition was such that he married a woman who was to be his nurse for the rest of his life. The Old Man and the Sea, his “great” postwar book, eliminates white life completely and is entirely devoted to the maunderings of an elderly Cuban, the message being that racial primitiveness is far more worthy of interest than the complex civilization of which Hemingway himself was a prime example.
The postwar era also brought the downfall of Ezra Pound, whom Hemingway had known very well at one time, and whom he betrayed as he betrayed everyone who was of no further use to him or who went too far for him. Pound’s incarceration as a lunatic in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, in Washington, D.C., was so patently political and silly that even the world literary community was not afraid to condemn it. Except for Hemingway, who went out of his way to call Pound a traitor. He could have remained silent, but guilt evidently forced gratuitous insult. From Hemingway, who was far more contemptuous of the system than Pound, the epithet of traitor really meant: You were foolish, Ezra, to say what you thought, because it cost you money and freedom and fun. Since this was precisely the philosophy of the entire American postwar world, Hemingway had finally revealed himself publicly as just another capon who would say anything in private and then deny it all in public. And then cut the ground out from under anyone who dared to display the courage he lacked.
In the unreality of our time (very temporary but very strong), the mad have to come to the top. Pound, who was completely sane, was certified as mad; and Hemingway, who was completely mad, was enshrined as the epitome of penetrating sanity. And what did that make America, the nation capable of such a delirious inversion? Probably what it made Hemingway — completely crazy. He certainly seemed, in his pre-eminence, to stand for all Americans, and all Americans certainly seemed proud to be able to claim him as hero-symbol. It was really quite exact and in precise step.
Finca Vigia, his house outside Havana, was a morality play from dawn to dusk at the end. The telephone buzzing incessantly from all corners of the globe; the jet set and the world of art intermingled, and coming and going like Shakespearean extras; and Hemingway-Lear set firmly in the midst, the holy lunatic who had gone wrong babbling away to everyone’s simultaneous consternation and fascination.
“They say that just because I wrote a book about some spic who caught a fish, I’m going to get the big prize,” he said to us one boozy afternoon.
A well-known model was rather undone by this remark, because it was several years since he had received the Nobel Prize, and also by his attitude toward his famous creation. She decided it was safer to comment on the first rather than the second: “But you love that old man, and I just don’t see why you call him a spic.”
“I guess I can say spic in my own house,” he said.
“What would Eleanor Roosevelt say to that?” someone shouted.
He made an obscene gesture and smirked. But the joke really was, I suppose, that he would never have dared make it to her in person.
Even in his lunacy — or perhaps because of it — his instincts were still sharp, and I knew he suspected me of holding back.
“What would Eleanor say?” he asked me then.
“Under everything she probably agrees with you,” I said. “Of course, she couldn’t say so in public, but if you got her in private she might.”
“Probably,” he agreed.
“I can’t believe that,” a noted theatrical producer said, with ersatz smoothness. “She’s a genuinely dedicated person.” He smiled down at poor old Ernest, the hypocritical courtier softsoaping the mad Lear. But there he made a mistake, because the madness had no effect on his combative acuity or willingness to do battle.
“Dedicated to what?” Hemingway asked him.
“To the poor, to the unfortunate, to the victims of racial bias,” the producer said, still in control.
“Women don’t give a shit about those things,” Hemingway said decisively. “She’s a hater, she’s only for those people because she hates.”
“Well, yes,” the producer said, “she hates injustice.”
“She doesn’t hate injustice,” Hemingway said decisively. “She hates people like you and her husband.”
The producer was a little disconcerted by now. This was too batty, even from Lear. “How can she hate me?” he asked with a tentative smile. “She hardly knows me.”
“She knows you,” Hemingway said grimly. “You’re so easy to read. The same way she knows Franklin. Weak, sniveling power-mad creep. Not a man at all. Just like you. So she’s going to let the niggers and kikes loose on the whole bunch of you.”
Now the crazy old monarch had the attention of the whole party in a watchful, very American silence, the forced gaiety turned to the anticipation of trouble. But not an unwelcome anticipation, because trouble, after all, was a relief from the eternal posing.
After a suitable pause for brooding, Hemingway said, “You’re not men, that’s the trouble with all of you, that’s why your women are so far gone. You even got to mine. If you were men, you’d do something, you’d … no more spics, no more kikes, there wouldn’t be a David Selznick above ground level. Make it open season, bring in a yid’s head by dawn or you don’t get a woman. That always separates the hunters from the pansies.”
He rambled on for some time and then sank back into silence, sitting upright like a stuffed gorilla, immobilized with drink and madness. The party resumed, the guru’s outburst over and forgotten. After all, he had one every day, sometimes every hour or so.
To my mind, the scene had everything. In the terrible, raddled face and body one could still see traces of the young man who had once strode so confidently to meet the day. And who had been beaten so easily. If American men were cowards — and on the evidence who could argue the proposition? — he led the pack. But he was different in that he couldn’t live with the shame; it had driven him mad. So he was the leader in that superiority, the perfect representative of the dying country, of the race which had perfected cut-and-run-and-deny-it. The moral of Hemingway was crystal clear: Go against yourself and perish.
The final irony, of course, was that the onlookers, although moved by they knew not what, were nevertheless condemned not to understand the moral. They belonged to an even more awful inner circle of the American inferno — that of Jackie Onassis and Andy Warhol and Lenny Bernstein, et al, those known, again in appropriate inversion, as the Beautiful People — a circle so degraded that the relief of madness was too easy and too dignified: they were going to have to dance all the way out in sanity, if that’s the right word. And they were incidentally condemned to cover for Ernest forever.
One could not look at the scene and at Hemingway without believing in fate and retribution and the triumph of reality — unreality carried to such a pitch is reality. It was as rounded as a Greek tragedy — perhaps more so. As Ernest would have said, “Don’t tell me we can’t do better than a bunch of goddamned Greeks!”
* * *
Source: Instauration magazine, February 1979