Chasing Hemingway’s ghost

Tara O'Grady and Dink Bruce in front of his 1949 Chevy pickup truck.

By Tara O'Grady

Ernest Hemingway came to me in a dream recently. He was wearing eye glasses made from elephant tusks. The author contemplated me with concern. My intuition informed me I was not seeing him the way he wanted to be seen. I woke wondering if I should change my perspective about the legend that is connected to 1920s Paris café society, civil war and bull fights in Spain, fishing in Key West and Cuba, and mental illness that lead to suicide in the American west.

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It started with the bull fights. I was living in Seville after I left teaching high school literature in New York. If I was ever going to become a writer, I had to explore the world, like Hemingway. But I didn’t admire the man. I had only read one short story in college, “Hills Like White Elephants.” It was actually the biography of James Joyce that I admired while reading a copy of “Dubliners” which I picked up at the Joyce Center in Dublin on June 16 on my way to Spain in 1999. At the time I didn’t know the Irish author was acquainted with Hemingway in Paris along with the rest of their Lost Generation gang. I simply knew I wanted to be like Joyce because he was multilingual, lived all over Europe and published words that I devoured. I recognized his voice. I recognized his Ireland.

I didn’t recognize Hemingway’s Spain, the one my father had read about. Dad adored Ernesto, as most men did growing up in America, and regarded him as an adventurous, worldly man’s man who hunted and threw himself into danger. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was published in 1940, the year before my father was born. It is considered one of the best war novels of all time and covers the Spanish Civil War, which Hemingway saw firsthand as a journalist. When my father turned 11 in 1952, Hemingway published the book that would bring him a Pulitzer, “The Old Man and the Sea.” That was the first novel I read by the American author. I brought it to Key West on my initial trip to the island. I knew Hemingway had been a famous resident in Florida. I thought the book would give me some insight into his life.

Ernest Hemingway's Underwood Portable typewriter in his Key West house.

Neither the old man nor the sea sparked my interest in him. I was impatient with his style and how long it took the Cuban fisherman to catch the damn fish. But I liked Hemingway’s grand house in Key West and I was interested in learning more about the women in his life.

I learned about his first wife Hadley after finding a book on a beach near Malin Head in Donegal, Ireland – “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain. That’s when I discovered Hemingway was connected to Joyce and Fitzgerald and all the famous writers and artists of his time in 1920s Paris. They spent their starving artist days writing and chatting in cafes on the left bank. I then read “A Moveable Feast,” which is Hemingway’s memoir about his time in Paris in the 1920s. I preferred his fact to his fiction. I always prefer memoirs, even when their facts become fiction because we don’t always remember things as they actually happened due to hindsight and perspective.

When I was awarded an artist residency at the Studios of Key West this past spring to write new songs inspired by the island, I visited Hemingway’s house again on Whitehead Street and bought a book in the gift shop beside the pool his second wife Pauline installed. I purchased another Paula McLain book, “Love and Ruin.” This one was about his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, the one who covered the Spanish Civil War and bought a house with him in Cuba. Again, I was more interested in the female perspective. After reading about her, I decided Hemingway was a bombastic, egotistical jerk.

While living in Key West, locals told me I had to read a memoir called “Running with the Bulls,” by Valerie Hemingway. She was his Irish secretary whom he met in Spain in 1959 while he was writing sketches on his memories of Paris which became “A Moveable Feast.” The young Dublin born protégé was eventually invited to move to Cuba with Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary. Valerie formed a special bond with the author and helped him work on his memoir before his suicide in Idaho in 1961. Her last name comes from marrying Ernest’s son, detailed in her extraordinary memoir which also reveals her relationship with Brendan Behan.

Dink Bruce's cluttered desk in Key West where the local artist was reading a copy of Tara O’Grady’s memoir.

I was also advised to meet the son of Hemingway’s other assistant, Toby Bruce. Toby was basically Hem’s everything man. The longtime friend drove Hem’s children between Idaho and Key West, he built the wall around the grand house on Whitehead Street to keep out gawking tourists, and he organized the author’s artifacts after he died. Toby’s son, Dink, is a rare character and local artist with fascinating stories of his own. We sat in his living room listening to Hemingway’s jazz records surrounded by photographs of the author with Dink’s parents. The 75-year-old wore a baseball cap with the name of Hemingway’s fishing boat embroidered on it – “Pilar.” Dink was 17 when Hemingway died. He told me about how he had to present an oral report at school on why an author wrote one of their novels. He interviewed Hemingway directly, but his teacher disagreed with his “research.” That’s when Dink discovered that perspective, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Dink invited me to Montana this summer where he and his friend Valerie Hemingway live. Both gave me the impression that you can’t believe everything you read, and that there are many sides to an individual, especially one who has had so many books written about him, both fiction and non-fiction.

I believe Ernest was trying to make me see through his elephant eyes when he visited me in my recent dream. Perhaps he will show me his Paris this autumn when I’ll be teaching a workshop with the Ireland Writing Retreat in the cafes where he and his friends, including Joyce and Fitzgerald, used to write, drink and ponder their perspectives on love, war, and life in general.

Tara O'Grady recently published her memoir “Migrating toward Happiness.” For more information on the Ireland Writing Retreat in Paris from Oct. 14-20, visit her website here.