Remembering Ernest Hemingway Biographer A. E. Hotchner

Feb 18, 2020
Originally published on February 20, 2020 1:10 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer A.E. Hotchner was probably best known for his memoir "Papa Hemingway" about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway. Hotchner died Saturday at the age of 102. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him about Hemingway, which we first broadcast on the centennial of Hemingway's birth - July 21, 1999. Hotchner was also a friend and neighbor of Paul Newman and cofounded Newman's food company, Newman's Own. Hotchner's memoir about his boyhood, "King Of The Hill," was adapted into a 1993 film by Steven Soderbergh.

As Hotchner wrote, the name Hemingway conjures up a man of courage and daring both in his writing and in his way of life, and those traits made an impact on Hotchner. The two men first met in a professional capacity in 1948, when Hotchner was sent to Cuba by Cosmopolitan Magazine to ask Hemingway to write a piece about the future of literature. With Hemingway's blessing, Hotchner went on to adapt several Hemingway works for CBS TV, including "The Snows Of Kilimanjaro" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

Hotchner and Hemingway remained friends until Hemingway's suicide in 1961. Five years later, Hotchner wrote his memoir, "Papa Hemingway." When we spoke, a new edition of the book had just been published with a new preface and new information that Hotchner felt uncomfortable revealing while Hemingway's widow Mary was still alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: A.E. Hotchner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

A E HOTCHNER: Glad to see you.

GROSS: Now, you explain in your new edition that Mary, who was Hemingway's fourth and last wife, tried to stop publication of your memoir back in the mid-'60s. What was her objection to it?

HOTCHNER: Well, she tried to get an injunction against it. Her objection was, fundamentally, that the last chapters of the book dealt with his decline in the last couple of years of his life mentally and physically and how it affected his will to live and resulted in the fact that two or three times, he attempted suicide and finally succeeded in it. It was Mary's story at that time of the event of that morning - that terrible morning when his head was blown off - that he had been cleaning his rifle and that he had forgotten that the chamber was loaded. And accidentally, he had committed this terrible act.

She frankly said, if you will remove the last three chapters, I'll withdraw the lawsuit. I said, of course not. That's just such a travesty that this man, who was such a great hunter - why would he be cleaning his gun the beginning of July? And he who was a stickler for protocol - how could he possibly leave the cartridges in the chamber?

GROSS: Oh, he had a whole creed about honesty in writing.

HOTCHNER: Of course.

GROSS: Why should you lie?

HOTCHNER: So why? And that was really the genesis of the lawsuit. And then she had another very peculiar original thought about what belongs to a writer. She said that my use of dialogue in which I quote Hemingway talking to me in the book - I recreated some of what we said to each other. She said, you know, when a writer talks, his words are his, and so even his verbal words spoken out into the air are copyrighted. So that was a...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...Contention that the court of appeals threw out in a hurry.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you first met. It was 1948. You were in your 20s.

HOTCHNER: Yeah.

GROSS: You were sent down by Cosmopolitan Magazine to Hemingway's home in Cuba to invite him to write a piece for the magazine about the future of literature. You say you felt like a horse's ass going down to make him that offer. Why did you feel that way?

HOTCHNER: Well, I mean, that was such an asinine assignment. But at that point, Cosmopolitan was a literary magazine before Helen Gurley Brown got hold of it and turned it into a sex-for-the-single-girl magazine. Hemingway had written for the magazine before. As a matter of fact, I think the - one of the sections of "To Have And Have Not" had been published in Cosmopolitan.

They wanted to run a series on the future of everything - the future of the automobile, written by Henry Ford II or whatever - and literature was to be Ernest. So I felt - what a dumb thing to do. Also, I'd been in awe of him since high school, reading his books. You know, he was somebody that I didn't want to approach no matter what. I was in awe of him. So I simply sent a note out to his place in San Francisco de Paula saying, I'm down here on this ridiculous assignment. Could you just scribble something that says get lost or something like that so I can go back and show that I contacted you? And to my absolute amazement, the next morning the phone rang and - Hotchner, this is Hemingstein here. I can't let you get kicked out of your job by the Hearst people. That's like if you're a leper getting kicked out of the colony.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: He said I'll meet you at the Floridita for a drink - 5 o'clock. And that's how I met Hemingway. And we did have several Papa Dobles, which is a drink that was invented for him. It's a - really a frozen daiquiri but served in a vase big enough for long-stemmed roses. And from that point on, he took me out on the boat and we hit it off just fine. And he did write something for Cosmopolitan. But what it developed into - instead of a short story, it became "Across The River And Into The Trees," which is a novel that was published in three installments.

GROSS: It seems to me several times in the early part of your relationship, he put you in an awkward position, where he wasn't meeting a deadline and he was at the same time asking for more money to complete the piece. So you'd have to go back to the publisher or the editor and say, well, he doesn't have the piece and he wants more money. And you couldn't tell for sure if he'd ever really deliver the goods. Wasn't that an awkward position to be in?

HOTCHNER: I'll to you what he was doing - in the case of "Across The River," for example, he was about to take off with Mary, his wife. He was going to Paris. Then he was going to go over to Venice, and he was going to check up on stuff that was in the book.

And he was at The Sherry-Netherlands Hotel (ph) at the point, and we were having an evening in his suite with Marlene Dietrich and other friends of his. And he looked at me and he said, well, Hotch, you should be going home on this trip. He said, why don't you do this? You go back and tell the editor - by then, my friend was no longer the editor, but a man that I wasn't very friendly with was the editor. He said, here's the manuscript. But you don't have the last two chapters, which he (unintelligible). And he said, just tell him you don't have the last two chapters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: So I went back. And I said, here it all is, but we don't have the last two chapters. But how could we be in publication? You stick with him until you get the two chapters. So I went back to The Sherry-Netherlands. I walked in. And he - as I walked through the door, he said, when are you leaving?

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Now, you did several TV adaptations of his work for CBS.

HOTCHNER: For "Playhouse 90," yes.

GROSS: Now, Buick, I understand, wanted you to write happy endings to "A Farewell To Arms" and "The Sun Also Rises" and "To Have And Have Not." What was your reaction? I think they offered you a free car for the (laughter) - happy endings.

HOTCHNER: Yeah, they offered me -- that's right. They said, you know, are you interested in ratings? Because it's a series. And if people feel that they have these down endings, they won't come back for the next one. And I said, well, it's amazing how Mr. Shakespeare was able to survive all those bad endings. I haven't seen any rewrites of the end of "Macbeth" or any of the other plays. And I don't think, really, that you would like Catherine instead of dying in childbirth in "A Farewell to Arms" suddenly to recover at the last second with...

GROSS: I feel good again.

HOTCHNER: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...And the screaming little Catherine Jr. come...

GROSS: Papa (laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...Galloping out of her womb. So I simply laughed them off of that. I can see the Jake Barnes at the end. Suddenly, there sprouts this heretofore not present penis, and we are in business.

GROSS: (Laughter) So - but they didn't fire you after that?

HOTCHNER: No, they didn't fire me. No, they couldn't because they had signed me to a contract. That was a big mistake. But the funniest thing that happened was when we did "For Whom The Bell Tolls" with Jason Robards and Maria Schell and Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, whatever.

GROSS: Good cast.

HOTCHNER: Good cast. It was in two parts. We were driving - Ernest and Mary and myself; I was the driver - from Ketchum to Key West. And when we were going across the Texas plains somewhere, Ernest said, this is the night that the second part's on. I nearly fell over because I didn't think he was keeping...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

HOTCHNER: ...Any track. So he stopped at some flea-bitten little motel and went into the lobby and said to the innkeeper, who nearly fainted when he saw who it was - he said, listen, I have something want to see on television. And the fella said, well, we only have this one big television down in the lobby. We don't have television in the rooms. Well, he said, do you think you could bring it upstairs? So they carted this up to his room.

It was one of those televisions that had rabbit ears. It didn't have an antenna outside. We couldn't get any reception except if you held the rabbit ear. So get this picture. We're in this motel room. Ernest and Mary prop themselves up with pillows with their backs on the bed. And the television set - this big old lumbering television set was in front of them. And I had to sit next to it holding the rabbit ears.

Afterwards, he went to the phone and called Maria and called Jason and told them how terrific he thought it was. He was very considerate that way. He really was very generous other writers - if they weren't Faulkner, whom he'd never be generous with. That was a...

GROSS: Jealous?

HOTCHNER: Oh, that was - that was a real warfare there.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1999 interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, who died Saturday at the age of 102. We'll hear more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY (REMASTERED)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, which was first broadcast in 1999 on the centennial of Ernest Hemingway's birth. A new edition of Hotchner's memoir "Papa Hemingway" about his friendship with Hemingway had just been published. Hotchner died Saturday at the age of 102.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You have been a very careful Hemingway reader. You loved Hemingway's writing long before you met him, and then you had to reread him very carefully because you were adapting his work. I asked you to just choose a few lines of Hemingway's writing that you think are very Hemingway (laughter) and talk about what they reveal about Hemingway's style. What do you want to read for us?

HOTCHNER: I'm going to read the very opening of "A Farewell To Arms." This is as much Hemingway's style as anything of Hemingway's.

(Reading) In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river, there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road, and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees, too, were dusty, and the leaves fell early that year. And we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards, the road bare and white except for the leaves.

GROSS: Now, what's quintessential Hemingway about that?

HOTCHNER: Notice the simplicity of the language that's used and the almost poetic repetition. It's almost as if it's poetry. You could scan that, I'll bet, and you would find that it has a scan to it. But the realism of it - when I first read that, I could feel the autumn in the air. I could feel leaves falling, and there was a brook rushing outside. He transports you into the area with a minimum of description so that you furnish some of the description. That's the great gift that he had that he brought to American literature. That was his skill. That was his spareness.

GROSS: Hemingway had a lot of interesting things to say about writing. I thought I'd read one of those things. And this is from his posthumously published book "A Moveable Feast," which you gave the title to. And this is about trying to write in the '20s when he's in Paris, and he says, I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally, I would write one true sentence and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true, simple, declarative sentence I had written.

I like the idea of throwing away the ornamentation and realizing when he was sounding too presentational. Did you get a sense of that ever from observing him write or...

HOTCHNER: He told me...

GROSS: ...Hearing him talk about that?

HOTCHNER: ...That he really picked up on that business of editing out from Gertrude Stein because he had had an introduction to her in her salon from - Sherwin Anderson had given a letter introduction. And he had subsequently shown her one of his stories. They weren't selling, and they were all being rejected. And she had said, Hemingway, take this back and just remove all of the verys (ph) that are in there - the word very. Don't use any of the very - not very late or very beautiful. Take all the verys out. So he said, I picked the verys like you pick berries.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: I picked verys. And he said - and it strengthened it a lot.

GROSS: Your memoir is called "Papa Hemingway." Did you call him Papa?

HOTCHNER: I call him Papa.

GROSS: How did that feel?

HOTCHNER: Well, I didn't for a while, but he called himself Papa. He would sign his letters Papa. And he began calling himself Papa, you know, when he was a young man. It was not something - so I didn't have much of a relationship with my own father. And it was an easy transference because his attitude toward me was that of father to son. He taught me all the things I knew about fishing and hunting and traveling and wines and foods and what oysters were good. And almost everything that I came to prize later on I learned from Ernest, so it was an easy transition.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure to hear you speak. Thank you.

HOTCHNER: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with A.E. Hotchner was originally broadcast on July 21, 1999, the centennial of Hemingway's birth. Hotchner died Saturday. He was 102.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Deutsche Bank, the German bank that kept lending money to Donald Trump when the rest of Wall Street had turned its back on him. Our guest will be journalist David Enrich, financial editor for The New York Times and author of the new book "Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, And An Epic Trail Of Destruction." It chronicles how the 150-year-old bank went from a respected institution to a company engaged in money laundering, manipulating markets, violating international sanctions, defrauding regulators and more. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD'S "BEBE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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