New Book: Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

Paul Hendrickson traces Ernest Hemingway’s life through the thing he loved most purely – his cabin cruiser Pilar. The result is both original and beautiful, as Olivia Laing writes in this review from London’s Guardian.

On 26 September 2001, an ageing male-to-female transsexual was arrested on the kerb of Crandon Boulevard in Key Biscayne, Florida, on charges of public nudity and resisting an officer without violence. He (the pronoun choice is Hendrickson’s) had a white hospital gown wrapped around his bulky shoulders but was otherwise naked, exposing breasts and female genitalia to the passing traffic. His wife refused to bail him out and so he remained in custody, in the pod reserved for inmates with psychiatric problems. Early on the fifth day, in what seemed good spirits, he abruptly dropped dead. He’d gone by many names in his 69 years, among them Gloria, Gigi and Mr Gig, but his birth name was Gregory Hemingway and he was the youngest son of Ernest Hemingway.

Gregory was the most talented of Papa’s boys, particularly in the he-man arts his father favoured. As an 11-year-old in Cuba, he’d come fourth in a shooting contest against world-class adults. He could ride pretty much anything and was intelligent too (later he’d become a fine doctor). But despite his prowess, his father remained ambivalent about him. In Islands in the Stream, the rambling, posthumously published and deeply autobiographical novel Hemingway worked on in his last decade, Gregory is portrayed as “a boy born to be quite wicked who was being very good and he carried his wickedness around with him transmuted into a sort of teasing gaiety. But he was a bad boy and the others knew it and he knew it. He was just being good while his badness mounted inside him.”

What this badness amounted to was an overwhelming desire to cross-dress. Hemingway first caught Gigi (his childhood nickname) trying on his mother’s stockings at the age of nine or 10. At 19, married and an expectant father, he was arrested for entering a cinema in drag. During the incarceration that followed, his divorced parents had a screaming match by phone. Hours later, his mother was rushed to hospital, where she died on the operating table. For the rest of his life, Hemingway held his son responsible, though the evidence seems to insist that it was their row that precipitated her death.

Gregory’s story comes in the latter third of Paul Hendrickson’s bewitchingly beautiful near-biography of Hemingway. In other hands, it might have been used as a crude punchline to the ballad of Old Hairy Chest: an ironic coda to the life of a man so aggressively masculine he used to shoot sharks with a Thompson submachine gun. For Hendrickson, it’s a way of talking about courage and kinship, about the complexities of sexuality, about how one navigates when one is burdened with generations of guilt and fear.

His genius is to tack through the muddied waters of Hemingway’s life by way of the thing he loved most purely: Pilar, the magical, black-hulled boat he bought in a Brooklyn shipyard in 1934. By keeping Pilar at the centre of the story, he manages to draw out the more gentle aspects of Hemingway’s character, discovering beneath the mask of pantomime bully what’s so often forgotten: that “underneath there was a bookish man in glasses trying to get his work done, and finding it harder with each passing year”.

While some of the more familiar elements are telescoped or sidelined (the drinking and divorces in particular are barely inked in), the lives of those who found their way aboard Pilar are deployed to remarkable effect. The hobo who spent a season working as an apprentice seaman and never recovered from the experience; the young diplomat in Cuba who had his wedding party at Hemingway’s finca and didn’t have a single bad word to say about the man. These relationships are used to reflect back something not just of Papa, but of an America that’s all but vanished now.

It helps that Hendrickson is a miraculously lovely writer. He twists and turns through time, moving sensitively between the books and life. He understands too the deep allure the ocean held for Hemingway: “The yearning for the short-water route to freedom, wide-open freedom. Call it Huck’s yearning. To go riding in the spine of time, towards salt waters.” There’s something redemptive about such language; it restores what’s best about the man without resorting to whitewash or soft soap.

Towards the end of Hemingway’s life, Pilar’s power to shift his mood began to wane. He stopped being able to write, lost his beloved home in Cuba and began to suffer from acute paranoia, not all of it inaccurate (he’d been monitored by J Edgar Hoover and the FBI since the 1940s, and his psychiatrist was among those reporting on his activities). He eventually shot himself in the passageway of his farmhouse in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961, two days after being released from the Mayo Clinic, where he’d been given electric shock treatment.

Guns are everywhere in the Hemingway story, and Hendrickson is adept at untangling their significance. Near the beginning, he pulls a striking item from the family lumber cupboard. Back in 1929, Hemingway’s mother posted him a parcel containing his father’s suicide weapon, a .32 calibre revolver, packed alongside a runny chocolate cake. According to Hemingway’s account, he tossed the gun into a mountain lake, and though he was a notably unreliable witness to the traffic of his own life, he certainly made Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, do just that, dropping the pistol with which his father shot himself into a lake in Wyoming, where he “saw it go down making bubbles until it was just as big as a watch charm in that clear water, and then it was out of sight.”

Considering how well Hendrickson deals with this story and its rippling undercurrents, it seems a pity that he missed one newly uncovered piece of evidence. According to Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsley and Roger Sanger in Hemingway’s Guns, Hemingway’s own suicide weapon (not, as it turns out, the Boss shotgun of legend) was given to a local welder to destroy. He broke it apart, keeping a few warped fragments in a matchbox and burying the rest in a nearby field. It’s probably still there, although, in one of those ironies that seem to fall so naturally into this story, it’s now under the house of Adam West, the actor who once played Batman, that epitome of armoured masculinity. As for Pilar herself, she’s up on concrete blocks on what was once the tennis court of Hemingway’s Cuban farm, looking “like some old and gasping browned-out whale”: a lovely relic of a productive and profoundly unquiet life.

For the original review go to

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