From a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, a brilliantly conceived and illuminating reconsideration of a key period in the life of Ernest Hemingway that will forever change the way he is perceived and understood.
Focusing on the years 1934 to 1961--from Hemingway's pinnacle as the reigning monarch of American letters until his suicide--Paul Hendrickson traces the writer's exultations and despair around the one constant in his life during this time: his beloved boat, Pilar.
We follow him from Key West to Paris, to New York, Africa, Cuba, and finally Idaho, as he wrestles with his best angels and worst demons. Whenever he could, he returned to his beloved fishing cruiser, to exult in the sea, to fight the biggest fish he could find, to drink, to entertain celebrities and friends and seduce women, to be with his children. But as he began to succumb to the diseases of fame, we see that Pilar was also where he cursed his critics, saw marriages and friendships dissolve, and tried, in vain, to escape his increasingly diminished capacities.
Generally thought of as a great writer and an unappealing human being, Hemingway emerges here in a far more benevolent light. Drawing on previously unpublished material, including interviews with Hemingway's sons, Hendrickson shows that for all the writer's boorishness, depression, and alcoholism, and despite his choleric anger, he was capable of remarkable generosity--to struggling writers, to lost souls, to the dying son of a friend.
We see most poignantly his relationship with his youngest son, Gigi, a doctor who lived his adult life mostly as a cross-dresser, and died squalidly and alone in a Miami women's jail. He was the son Hemingway forsook the least, yet the one who disappointed him the most, as Gigi acted out for nearly his whole life so many of the tortured, ambiguous tensions his father felt. Hendrickson's bold and beautiful book strikingly makes the case that both men were braver than we know, struggling all their lives against the complicated, powerful emotions swirling around them. As Hendrickson writes, "Amid so much ruin, still the beauty."
Hemingway's Boat is both stunningly original and deeply gripping, an invaluable contribution to our understanding of this great American writer, published fifty years after his death.
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September 19, 2011
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Excerpt from Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson
APRIL 3, 1934. The temperature in Manhattan got into the high sixties. G-men shot an accomplice of Dillinger's in Minnesota; the Nazis were running guns to the Moors; Seminoles were reviving a tribal dance in honor of alligators in Florida; Lou Gehrig had two homers in an exhibition game in Atlanta. And roughly the bottom third of America was out of work.
According to "Steamship Movements in New York," a column that runs daily in the business section of the Evening Journal, nine liners are to dock today. The SS Paris, 34,500 tons, is just sliding in after a seven-day Atlantic crossing, from Le Havre via Plymouth, at Pier 57 on the West Side of New York City.
"Expected to dock: 5:00 P.M.," reports the newspaper. And she does.
If this were a Movietone News item about Hemingway the big-game hunter, arriving home after eight months abroad, and you were in a darkened movie palace of the thirties awaiting the feature, you'd see ropes being thrown off, gangplanks being lowered, steamer trunks being unloaded, and passengers starting gaily to stream off. You'd see the New York press boys with their rumpled suits and stained ties and skinny notebooks and Speed Graphic cameras clawing for position. The blocky white lettering superimposed on the flickering images would announce: "Back from Lion Hunt in East Africa!" They'd bring up the sound track-something stirring, to suggest the march of time. And then would come the voice-over-wouldn't it be Ed Herlihy's?-with its electric charge: "Famed author Mr. Ernest Hemingway, just back on the French liner Paris with Mrs. Hemingway from conquering the lion and the rhino and the wildebeest and the greater kudu, says that death in the afternoon is far less engrossing in a Spanish bull ring than on the African veldt."
The press boys clotted at the bottom of the gangplank badly want Hemingway, and they want Katharine Hepburn (she is on the boat, too, and makes wonderful copy, when she deigns to speak), but apparently none of them knows (for none of their papers will have it tomorrow) that an even bigger trophy has just berthed at Pier 57: Marlene Dietrich. She's going to give them the nifty slip. Publicity? Who needs it? Maybe Dietrich's hiding out in her stateroom. She might have registered under a different name-glamorous figures routinely do this. In fact, Hepburn is on the manifest as "Miss Katherine Ludlow." (Her husband is Ludlow Ogden Smith.) She has decided not to hide from the pack.
The famous and close and long-lasting Dietrich-Hemingway friendship dates from this Atlantic crossing. For the rest of his life, Hemingway mostly called her the Kraut, when he wasn't addressing her as "daughter," the latter being how he liked to address women younger than himself, famous or otherwise, whom he'd not-apparently-taken to bed. Dietrich was two and a half years younger. There is a well- traveled story about how she was stepping into the ship's dining room to join a dinner party. Every open-jawed man at the table rose to give her his chair, but just as she started to sit down, the international flame with the statuesque body and lusty voice counted the mouths and saw that there were twelve diners. "Oh. I'm the thirteenth. You will excuse me if I don't join you. I'm superstitious about thirteen at dinner," she said, starting to withdraw. But just then Hemingway blocked her way. "Excuse me," he said. "I don't mean to intrude. But I'd be glad to be the fourteenth."
Afterward, they supposedly strolled the decks arm in arm and told each other-maybe like Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca, except that that movie hadn't been made yet-that this was going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. At least this is the legend, and Dietrich herself greatly helped it along in 1955 in a first-person cover story in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune. The piece was titled "The Most Fascinating Man I Know." She talked of how she and Hemingway had depended on each other through the years, how she'd protected his deeply personal letters to her in a strongbox. Actually, Dietrich may not have even written the piece- according to Mary Hemingway, it was ghosted by journalist and scriptwriter A. E. Hotchner, one of Hemingway's last confidants, or toadies, depending on your point of view, for the two-decades-younger Hotch, as Hemingway often called him, has been described as both in the vast, roily, envy-ridden sea of Hemingway studies. In any case, among smaller errors, Dietrich or her ghost got the name of the boat wrong; she said it was the other (even grander) star of the French line, the �le de France.