Editor’s Note: It’s Ernest Hemingway’s birthday today! He was born on July 21, 1899, which means he’d be 117 if he were still alive. In honor of Papa H’s entrance into this world, we’re resurfacing a story we published a while back, about one of our writers living like Hemingway for a week. Enjoy.
For a couple of years when I was in high school I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. I felt like we had a lot in common. We were both from Illinois (he was from Oak Park; I’m from Champaign). We both liked to write. And we had both worked for newspapers (he as a reporter, I as a paperboy). Plus, he had served in World War I, and I had heard of World War I. Like I said, a lot in common.
Of course, as I got older my Hemingway dream faded into oblivion, just like my Michael Jordan dream, my Bob Costas dream and my David Letterman dream. (My new dream is much more realistic: become a famous Hollywood actor.)
But then a few weeks ago, an editor asked if I wanted to try to live like Ernest Hemingway for a week. After some initial hesitation, I realized this was my chance to resuscitate my teenage-boy fantasy—only better. I wouldn’t have to craft any of the beautiful short stories or novels. (Which from what I hear is a lot of work!) I would just have to drink like a fish and do other Hemingway-type activities. It sounded interesting. Honestly, I had nothing better to do.
Ernest Hemingway didn’t sit around all day and tweet. The man sailed the Caribbean and went on African safaris and hunted grizzly bears in Wyoming and fished for trout in Spain. (He even wore berets. Berets!) He had a hell of a life, even if you take out all the writing. I could learn a lot from him. Most of us could.
Also, and this is important: I was curious if I would like it. We glamorize the way Hemingway went about his days, but would you actually want to live like him? Would it be fun or exhausting? Heartening or depressing? Thrilling or pathetic? These are the things I intended to find out. As much as a guy living in Brooklyn with a busy-ish schedule and a dog can find out such things.
Anyway, here’s what happened…
Primary Hemingway activity: I grow a beard.
Or more accurately, I continue to grow a beard.
See, Hemingway, much like Elvis Presley, had two distinct stages to his life. Just as there was Hip-Shaking Elvis and Fat Jumpsuit Elvis, there was Young Hemingway (mustache, Paris, A Farewell to Arms) and there was Papa Hemingway (beard, Cuba/Key West, The Old Man and the Sea). I decided, in the weeks leading up to my Hemingway Week, that I would aim for the latter. At least in terms of the hair on my face.
A few words about the beard: I like it. I’ve never been a beard guy, but I enjoy the feel of it in the shower, with the water dripping off my face like I’m a bear or a mountain man or a guy in a Diet Dr Pepper commercial. I also like the way I can stroke it while I’m sitting at my desk and trying to think of something insightful to write. (Maybe this is why Hemingway liked it too.) Plus, as a guy who didn’t have the ability to grow a beard until he was approximately 27 years old, it’s nice to catch yourself in the mirror and think for a second that you’ve turned into Dan Fouts. And as a guy who is gradually losing the hair on his head, it’s nice to be able to grow a thick thatch of follicles somewhere.
Primary Hemingway activity: I research Ernest Hemingway.
(And I know, I know: this isn’t really living like Hemingway. But it had to be done. Otherwise I wouldn’t know how to accurately live like him.)
Harnessing the power of Wikipedia, I find some interesting tidbits. One of those tidbits: he apparently wasn’t very fond of his first name. He didn’t like how it reminded people of the main character in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. (But he must have liked his last name. It’s very easy on the ears. There’s no way he would be considered a great writer if his last name had been, say, Woodcock. Right? “Ernest Woodcock” doesn’t have the same ring to it. The same is true of F. Scott Fitzgerald. If that guy drops the “F.” and goes by Scott Fitzgerald, suddenly he sounds like a fireman from Long Island who writes novels on the weekends. But I digress.)
Another tidbit: Hemingway was married four times, and there was less than a year between each wife. (“No lag between the vag,” as Jason Segel’s character says in I Love You, Man.) Also interesting: three of his wives were from St. Louis, and the fourth was from Minnesota. Hemingway liked to travel the world, but he evidently preferred a lady from Middle America. (I make a note to keep an eye out for eligible Midwestern women during my week.)
Last tidbit: Hemingway suffered a LOT of injuries in his life. What sorts of injuries, you ask? Well, let’s take a look…
1. He was seriously wounded by mortar fire in World War I, sustaining very bad shrapnel wounds to both legs. (At one point he was terrified that doctors might have to amputate.)
2. Later, while in Paris, he pulled a skylight down on his head, thinking it was a toilet chain, which gashed his head and left him with a prominent forehead scar for the rest of his life.
3. In Billings, Montana, he badly broke his arm in a car accident after dropping writer John Dos Passos off at the train station.
4. He suffered a concussion from another car accident…
5. … and smashed up his knee in another car accident.
6. In Africa he was nearly killed in two consecutive plane crashes, sustaining burns and a concussion.
7. And he contracted anthrax…
8. … and pneumonia…
9. … and diabetes.
When you factor in all these accidents and ailments, it’s a miracle he was still alive at 61 and able to blow his brains out. (Also: No wonder he drank. He drank to numb the pain. Legitimately.)
But here’s the most important takeaway, I think: The guy sustained all these injuries because he took chances with his life. He didn’t sit around all day and tweet. The man sailed the Caribbean in his own boat and went on African safaris and hunted grizzly bears in Wyoming and fished for trout in Spain. (He even wore berets. Berets!) The guy did stuff. He had a hell of a life, a full life, even if you take out all the writing. I could learn a lot from him. Most of us could.
Main conclusion from my Hemingway research? I need to get out more.
Primary Hemingway activity: I experiment with flash-fiction.
According to legend, Ernest Hemingway was sitting around with some writer friends at a New York restaurant one day (could’ve been the Algonquin, could’ve been Luchow’s, doesn’t matter) when he bet everyone at the table 10 bucks each that he could craft an entire story in six words. After the pot was assembled, Hemingway grabbed a napkin and a pen and wrote this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He then passed the napkin around the table and collected his winnings. Like a literary badass.
Inspired by this tale—which might not even be true—I decide to craft my own six-word stories. After much deliberation and many rewrites, here is what I come up with:
Moved to LA. Then I left.
Had to pee. So I peed.
For sale: Magnum condoms. Never worn.
Primary Hemingway activity: I drink martinis.
“I’ll have a martini.”
I’m 37 years old, I’ve visited a lot of bars and ordered a lot of drinks in my life, and this is something I’ve never said. I’ve asked for beers, whiskeys, gin and tonics, rum and cokes, various signature cocktails, wines, margaritas and Bloody Marys, but never a plain old martini.
Until Thursday, when I tell the baby-faced waiter at the Pavilion in Manhattan’s Union Square that I would like one. He asks if I want gin or vodka. I say gin. This is what Hemingway drank. He liked them ice cold, the colder the better. (He was actually kind of obsessed with this “drinking them cold” thing, apparently. He used tennis-ball cans to make dense tubes of ice, and he would freeze not only his cocktail glasses but also Spanish cocktail onions to create what he called “the coldest martini in the world.”)
I don’t ask for my martini to be especially cold. I just ask for it. During a lunch with a PR woman for Major League Soccer. (Who, incidentally, is from St. Louis. But married.)
The waiter delivers my martini in a rocks glass, which is a little disappointing. But it tastes good—bracing and refreshing. And gin-filled. I order another. (Thanks, MLS!)
After lunch, I go across the street to a Barnes and Noble and buy one of Hemingway’s favorite books, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album by 19th century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. I also buy Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a book about which Hemingway apparently told his editor, Max Perkins, “It’s amazing how excellent much of it is.” (Which, when you think about it, is kind of a dick thing to say. Because: a) He’s amazed that it’s excellent. Which sort of implies he expected it to be shit. And: b) He says much of it is excellent, not all. He could think the rest of it is garbage, for all he’s letting on. That’s like me telling a football player, “I can’t believe how great you played for part of that game!”)
Most of the martinis arrive in highball glasses. To which I think: What’s the point of ordering a martini if you can’t show off that you’re drinking a martini?
With my books in hand, I walk to a nearby bar, pull up a stool and order another martini. This one arrives in a martini glass. (What a concept!) I sip it and begin reading the first story in Sketches. I find it difficult to follow—lots of characters with long Russian names—and am distracted by ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption playing on a TV above me. Also, I’m on my third martini, so my concentration isn’t very good. I finish the martini, head to the men’s room and jot down this little gem in the notes section of my iPhone: “Gin martinis don’t taste too bad and they fuck you up.”
It’s about 6 p.m. now and I am a little tipsy. I go to another bar, where I meet with a friend and proceed to order three or four more martinis, I’m not sure. (Most of them arrive in highball glasses. To which I think: What’s the point of ordering a martini if you can’t show off to everyone that you’re drinking a martini?)
It’s about 8:30 now and I am really feeling the effects of the gin. Although it doesn’t stop me from trying to chat up nearby women. Actually, the gin is probably what propels me to chat up nearby women. I have an Asian woman call me an asshole and ask me to leave her alone. Things go better with other women, like this girl named Nadia, this girl named Alexa and this lovely bartender named Amanda De La Nuez. (I really think the Asian woman was already in a bad mood, and talking to an inebriated dude trying to live like Hemingway didn’t help things.)
Eventually, I leave the bar and take the subway back to Brooklyn. It’s still only 10pm but I am very drunk. Walking on the sidewalk near my apartment, I notice an attractive woman walking ahead of me and try to say something to her, something simple like “How are you doing tonight?” My words are a little slurred though, and she immediately crosses to the other side of the street. Not a great feeling.
When I get home I pound some water and call up a dancer friend to see if she’d like to meet for a drink. She does not. Eventually I go to sleep and wake up around 6am with the WORST HEADACHE EVER. (If this is how Hemingway felt, no wonder he shot himself. Hi-oh!)
I drink some water, take a couple Ibuprofen and go back to sleep. I wake up a few hours later and don’t know what day it is or where I bought the bottle of fruit punch Gatorade near my bed. I am, however, elated to see that I still have my wallet and my credit cards. I retrieve my phone and find an unsent text message to my dancer friend: “Good luck at the audition. Let me know when you want to meet for a drink vvvvvv”
Primary Hemingway activity: I read Russian literature.
I begin the day with a severe hangover. (See: Thursday.) This must be how Hemingway felt on thousands of mornings. He was a thinly controlled alcoholic through much of his life, and then he drank even more as he got older to, as noted earlier, deaden the pain from all the shit he got into when he was younger. What’s amazing to me is that he was able to write such beautiful prose while being in a perpetual state of hungover-ness. He must have been a very strong man. If I drank as much as he did, here’s what I would write: “OH MY GOD, MY HEAD HURTS. I’M SO TIRED. I WANT TO TAKE A NAP AND THEN SHOOT MYSELF IN IDAHO. SERIOUSLY, I’LL DO IT.”
Having said this, I can see the appeal of writing when you’re hungover, assuming you have the discipline and strength—and coffee—to push past the fatigue. When you are hungover, you actually write more clearly. Your mind has fewer options. It’s the same as playing a sport the day after a heavy night of drinking (or when you are sick). Decisions are easier. You do the only thing that comes to mind. And you’re too tired to be nervous. You don’t sweat the details. All you sweat is booze.
Anyway, after a nap, I wake up and read more of the Turgenev book. The first story is good. It’s easier to follow when not in a loud bar with PTI playing and three martinis in your bloodstream. It’s called “Khor and Kalinych” and it’s about an upper-class man (Turgenev) and the quirky peasants he encounters while on a hunting trip. Some of the sentences seem very Hemingway-esque. Like this one: “After a long walk and a deep sleep it is very enjoyable to lie quietly in the hay while one’s body relaxes and dreams, one’s face burns with a slight flush and a sweet drowsiness presses on the eyes.”
I finish a few stories from Sketches. They’re good. A bit tough to follow due to all the characters and Russian names, but enjoyable. Then I watch the Leonardo DiCaprio version of The Great Gatsby, which is of course based on the book by Fitzgerald, who was a friend/enemy of Hemingway’s. (Apparently, after Hemingway read Gatsby, which he liked, he decided that his next work needed to be a novel. A year later he published The Sun Also Rises. Pretty good answer from Ernie.)
I like the movie more than I thought I would. (DiCaprio is a better Gatsby than Redford. More vulnerable. Funnier.) And I stumble upon a fun drinking game. During the film, whenever a character says “old sport,” I take a sip of Spanish wine, a Hemingway favorite. Two-and-a-half hours later, I have a pretty strong Spanish wine buzz.
Primary Hemingway activity: I drink whiskey and sodas.
Q: What is the most commonly ordered drink in Hemingway’s books?
A: Whiskey and soda.
(Source: Philip Greene, To Have and Have Another.)
So Saturday night, as I’m preparing to go to a bar on the Lower East Side to see a friend perform with her band, that’s what I mix for myself: whiskey and sodas. I’m not sure what kind of whiskey was in these whiskey and sodas of Hemingway’s characters, but I opt for Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey mixed with Canada Dry sparkling seltzer water and ice. (Is seltzer water the same as soda? I don’t know. Close enough.) It’s great. Very smooth and easy to drink. Then I run out of Tullamore Dew and switch to Talisker Storm. It’s not as great. But it gets the job done.
Then I take the train to the Lower East Side, sipping whiskey and soda out of a Vitaminwater bottle. This is the first time I’ve ever pulled this Vitaminwater bottle trick. It works out beautifully—I don’t have to stop drinking en route and it saves me money. (Thanks, Hemingway Week!) At the bar I switch to beer. I have a couple. I handle all this alcohol just fine. I am back home and in bed by 2am. No crazy texting or bothering women on the sidewalk. I conclude that I am getting better at living like Hemingway/drinking a lot. Or maybe I should just stay away from martinis.
Primary Hemingway activity: I spend time with cats.
Here’s a weird fact about Hemingway: When he lived in Cuba in the 1940s, he became enamored with cats and kept dozens of them around the house. Dozens!
Intent on finding out what Hemingway liked so much about these furry little creatures, I walk to a pet store near my apartment with my dog, Mackie. The store doesn’t sell animals, it turns out, so there are no cats present. (I probably should have researched this a little more before I headed out.)
So I walk to a second pet store, which looks (and probably smells) exactly like the pet store from Rocky. It definitely has animals for sale: dogs, parrots, rabbits, hamsters, snakes, fish, turtles. I ask an employee if they have any cats. He says just kittens. He directs me to a cage, where there are three kittens. I stare at them. They’re about six weeks old, the employee tells me.
“Cute, right?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “How much?”
“Only about 50 bucks each, I think.”
This answer surprises me. I thought you could get a kitten for basically free these days.
But not at this crappy pet store. The guy doesn’t ask me if I want to hold the kittens, and I honestly don’t. I’m not really a cat person and this store stinks. I get the hell out of there.
Maybe this is why Hemingway grew so fond of cats, I think: they helped him make literary decisions.
With my pet store adventure basically a bust, I decide to ask a couple of friends with cats what’s so great about them, and why Hemingway might have taken a shine to them later in his life.
My friend Langley tells me: “Cats are wise. They are very crafty and intuitive. They are also very good at the love/hate relationship. Whereas dogs love you no matter what, cats are more independent and the relationship must be on their terms. Or as my former therapist told me, ‘Cats are a wonderful lesson in intimacy.’ My mom’s cat loves her and sits on her while she’s knitting, but when she doesn’t refill his kibble bowl in a timely fashion he pees on her shamrocks.”
My friend Siobhan takes the whole “cats are wise” thing a step further. “Cats have old souls,” she tells me. “I talk to my cat and get her advice on things. I’ll ask her a question. If she squints her eyes, it means yes, and if she stares at me blankly, it means no.”
Maybe this is why Hemingway grew so fond of cats, I think: they helped him make literary decisions. I picture him sitting at his typewriter in his taxidermy-filled main living room in Havana, and turning to one of his cats, maybe a calico or a tabby.
“I’m thinking of writing a book called The Old Man and the Mountain. Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Blank stare from the cat.
“The Old Man and the Sea?”
Squinty eyes from the cat.
“The Old Man and the Sea it is.”
Photos by Virginia Rollison