In Venice, a curious encounter


Hemingway: Today is the 100th anniversary of his birth, which brings to mind a chance meeting 45 years ago between the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and a young naval officer.

July 21, 1999|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Please, visit us at Finca Vigia if you get back to Cuba," Ernest Hemingway said, as he closed the door of his hotel suite in Venice. "Goodbye; come see us," echoed his wife, Mary.

That invitation -- unfortunately never to be taken up -- brought to an end two memorable afternoons spent with the famous writer, whose birth centenary is celebrated today. The spate of books and publicity marking the anniversary brought back the memories.

For several hours, just the two of us -- sometimes three if Mrs. Hemingway popped in -- chatted about everything and nothing: about the two plane crashes that brought a disastrous end to his African trip and a number of premature obituaries; about life aboard a Navy destroyer; about his long career in journalism and the one that I hoped lay before me.

Combining encouragement with a warning, Hemingway said, "You'll have a lot of fun, but you'll never get rich working for a newspaper." He was right, on both counts.

This odd encounter began when officers and crew from the destroyer USS Charles R. Ware went ashore in Venice; inevitably some of us wandered into Harry's Bar, off the Piazza San Marco.

It was 1954, and the Hemingways were in Venice recovering from injuries sustained in two plane crashes in East Africa. The first plane struck a telegraph wire when the pilot tried to avoid a flock of birds and crash-landed. Mrs. Hemingway had several broken ribs, but in general their injuries were minor. They crossed Lake Victoria by boat and got another flight, but that plane crashed just after take-off and burst into flames.

The two pilots and Mrs. Hemingway were able to get out quickly but Hemingway had been injured seriously. Rough scabs covered his arms, head and face from the healing burns and cuts he received when he head-butted an exit from the burning plane.

The Hemingways sat talking quietly at a table. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Old Man and The Sea"; the Nobel Prize was still a few months ahead.

I walked over, introduced myself and congratulated them on their rescue and him on his Pulitzer. To my complete surprise, the Hemingways not only invited me to join them but later to return to their hotel with them.

A big, rugged man, Hemingway's movements were stiff and somewhat limited until a few drinks -- well, actually more than a few -- oiled his joints and the man of action emerged. He began to demonstrate the lion-hunting techniques of African tribesmen, using the spears leaning against the wall in one corner of the room.

The spears had long, swordlike double-edged blades and relatively short, thin shafts; they obviously were not for throwing.

"They wait until they see the lion and they get him to charge," Hemingway said, "then when the lion is about to leap on them, they crouch down, brace the spear on the ground and the lion impales himself on the blade."

Crash, bang -- a lamp fell to the floor as he swung the weapon around as if preparing to receive a lion's charge. "Oh, oh," Hemingway said, as we both burst into laughter. I had a camera and got some great photos of Hemingway in action.

A leopard skin was draped over a chair. Hemingway produced a copy of Life magazine that showed him with a leopard he had just shot. "That's the same one," he said proudly.

At the end of the day, I invited the Hemingways aboard the Ware for dinner the next evening. They accepted tentatively, but Mrs. Hemingway said it depended on what the doctor had to say the next day.

Back aboard ship, I told the executive officer that I had invited Ernest Hemingway and his wife for dinner next evening. The exec, a disagreeable man anyway, flew into an absolute tizzy that a junior officer would do such a thing without asking permission. His confounded reaction delighted me -- secretly, of course.

But he had the last laugh. When I returned to the Hemingways' hotel the next afternoon, Mrs. Hemingway said the doctor had vetoed the expedition because it would have meant a small-boat ride out to the ship and a climb up the ladder. Instead they invited me to spend the time with them; it was a warm, friendly afternoon.

We talked about the crash ("I thought we were goners that time"), his years as a reporter and his work as a novelist ("Writing is damned hard work") and, especially, about Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), his Cuban home near Havana, which he dearly loved. He started writing one of his most famous works, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," there in 1939. Hemingway scrawled the address on a scrap of paper and said, "If you come back to Cuba, we'd like you to visit. We're going back there soon."

I returned to the ship and our cruise in the Mediterranean resumed, with fleet maneuvers and even the excitement of shadowing a submerged Russian submarine by sonar most of the way to Istanbul, Turkey.

A couple of years later, I brought my Hemingway slides downtown to show fellow Sun reporters at police headquarters. I left them in my glove compartment when I went to the newsroom. When I returned, my car had been broken into and all of them were stolen.

In 1961 came the news that Hemingway had killed himself with a shotgun. It was hard to accept that a guy who loved life and adventure so much would commit suicide, but depression is a serious, pernicious illness that respects no one.

Although the theft of my photographs left me with no pictorial reminder of my encounter with Ernest Hemingway 45 years ago, the memories -- reinforced by the Christmas cards I received from him for several years afterward -- remain indelible. He was a hell of a guy, and he's probably drinking a few toasts to the fuss over the centenary of his birth.

Robert A. Erlandson is a retired Sun reporter.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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