Book on Hemingway needs rewriting in more ways than one

June 25, 1999|By Andy Rooney

WHEN I first read "The Sun Also Rises," I was young. I thought Ernest Hemingway was the best novelist I had ever read.

Now, 50 years later, having read several bad books of his, including "Across the River and Into the Trees" and "A Moveable Feast," and, most recently having read his last book, edited by his son, Patrick, called, "True at First Light," "a fictionalized memoir" in New Yorker magazine, I feel comfortable saying out loud what I've been thinking silently for years: Hemingway was not just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill jerk. He was a big jerk and more often than not, a poor writer.

I met Hemingway on Aug. 22, 1944, in the French town of Rambouillet. About 40 reporters were following Allied soldiers fighting their way toward Paris.

We had descended on the small but charming Grand Veneur Hotel with a band of Maquis, the French freedom fighters with whom Hemingway had associated himself. The rest of the reporters were with the First Army press camp, but Hemingway had arrived first. He was a constant nuisance to Army public relations both because of his fame and because of his persistently macho style. He insisted on carrying a weapon. No other newsman or woman ever went out armed. If captured unarmed, the protocol of war called for them to be treated as officers. Armed and out of uniform, reporters could be shot as spies.

Hemingway had taken over eight of the 35 rooms in the hotel and the reporters sleeping on the floor in the dining room resented it. Bruce Grant of the Chicago Sun Times went up to Hemingway and demanded he give up some of his rooms for other reporters.

Within minutes, the confrontation erupted into a fist fight. As they squared off and started swinging, Harry Harris, a 5-foot-5-inch photographer, put his 145-pound body between them, extended one raised arm toward their chests and demanded that they stop.

Hemingway turned and strode out the French doors to the garden. Grant turned away, laughed and started talking again with friends who had seen the preliminaries to the fight.

After a brief period of quiet, Hemingway made a dramatic reappearance and bellowed at Grant, "Well, are you going to come out and fight?"

I hadn't seen so juvenile a performance since Alfie Gordon punched Bobby Reedy in the stomach for taking his tricycle when they were 5.

The New Yorker story is something any editor would run because of Hemingway's name (and next month marks the 100th anniversary of his birth), but it is terrible. It tells of a hunting trip in Africa where Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, kill a great lion for the fun of it.

The story is filled with evidence of Hemingway's search for his own virility. He keeps trying to sound like The Great White Hunter. "I could see the lion now and I kept working to the left." He wasn't working, he was walking.

"Mary must take him soon, I thought," Hemingway writes.

Well, she wasn't going to take the lion. She was going to kill it. They both shot.

Pretty soon, Hemingway says, everyone else left and "Mary was alone with her sorrow." Sorrowful about not having killed the lion all by herself, I guess.

"Let's go," Hemingway quotes Miss Mary as saying then. "And when we're in bed, we can listen to the night."

That's not the night you hear, Miss Mary. That's the sound of a childhood Hemingway admirer throwing up.

Andy Rooney is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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