Drinking With Hemingway
By David O’Neal (Class of 1960)
The day before we met Hemingway the skiing was good. It was snowing and the going was sometimes hard. But we were young and strong and had skied well in spite of the snowstorm. The snow was soft and the falling down was part of it and the skiing was good.
Doug Bradshaw, Tim Houghton and I were juniors at Princeton. We had come to Sun Valley to ski during Christmas vacation in 1958. The Bradshaws lived in Pocatello and had a small cottage in Ketchum a few miles from Sun Valley. Doug and his brother Ben, and their St. Bernard Fritz, and Tim and I shared the Brashaws’ cottage. Tim was the best skier among us. He was an eccentric and a wild card and lived and skied on the edge. Tim majored in English and was writing a novel. He took creative writing from the British novelist Kingsley Amis who was a visiting fellow at Princeton that year. When he graduated he went to London to study under Amis and died there in an apartment house fire.
Hemingway had been renting a house in Ketchum from the Heiss family. The Heisses were friends of the Bradshaws. The morning after the skiing in the snow storm, which had been good, Marge Heiss called Doug. She said Hemingway was leaving her house and that if we hurried we might intercept him. We got into the car and drove to the Heiss’ old log cabin which was covered with snow.
Hemingway came down the path which was a narrow cut between five feet of snow on both sides. He filled the space and looked like a grizzly bear. Just like in his photographs. Hemingway was cradling four bottles of Wild Turkey Bourbon. Not one bottle, not two bottles, but four bottles. He was not surprised to see us and must have been warned. We were slack-jawed at the great writer but somehow got introduced all around. Hemingway asked us for a ride to his house on the other side of town which he and his wife Mary had just moved into. We were struck dumb at this turn of events and piled back into the Bradshaws’ Chevy station wagon. Doug drove and Ben was in the front passenger seat. Tim and I flanked Hemingway and his whisky bottles. Fritz rested his slobbering head on Hemingway’s shoulder.
It was eleven in the morning and snowing lightly. Hemingway was in a festive mood. He said we should stop at the Tram, a local bar and restaurant, where he would buy us all a drink. We parked in front of the Tram and walked to the door. It was closed. Hemingway said, “Fuck it. Let’s go to my place.” As we walked back to the car a young bug-eyed professor hailed us and Hemingway invited him to come too. Doug momentarily lost control of the car and skidded around a corner. Hemingway said, “Damn good slalom turn.”
Mary was not at home. Hemingway said to himself, “Where the hell is Mary?” She was not at home so Hemingway made the Wild Turkey drinks and told us they were “the best goddamn drinks you’ll ever have.” The drinks were strong, especially in the morning, and they were good. Hemingway stood in the living room because, he told us, he had a back injury from a plane crash in Africa years before. We knew that Hemingway wrote mostly standing up and we saw his tall desk in the adjoining study. Mary came home before long with Taylor Williams. She took over the bartending duties and her drinks were strong and good too. She must have been used to making strong drinks for Hemingway.
We three undergraduates were wise enough and polite enough not to ask Hemingway anything about his writing. Or we were too shy to ask. Not so the young English professor who we found out taught at Northwestern. He asked a couple of silly questions. Hemingway did not reply. Then the professor referred to Across the River and Into the Woods. “For Christ’s sake it’s Trees not Woods,” said Hemingway. Then the professor asked something about Henry Morgan in To Have and Have Not. “I never answer that kind of bullshit,” Hemingway said.
Tim did ask Hemingway about Carlos Baker’s book Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. “It’s all fucked up,” said Hemingway. He said that Baker thought Jake Barnes’ sexual frustration in The Sun Also Rises was because he had had his balls shot off. Hemingway said Barnes had had his “cock shot off. His cock, not his balls. Now that’s real frustration.” Then he advised us never to make an important decision or enter an important contest or sporting event without first getting laid. “It clears the head and concentrates the mind,” Hemingway said. He said we should never take the advice of a Catholic priest because “anyone who doesn’t get laid can’t be trusted to give good advice.” Hemingway then retreated to the doorway of his study with his friend Taylor Williams.
Taylor Williams was a hard-drinking skirt-chaser twelve years older than Hemingway and was Hemingway’s hunting and fishing guide in and around Sun Valley. Hemingway liked Williams and admired his skill as a guide. The two friends had known each other for years and Williams sometimes visited Hemingway in Key West and Cuba. They were good friends. Hemingway was a pallbearer at Williams’ funeral in 1959 and was buried next to Williams in the Ketchum cemetery.
We listened to Hemingway and Williams talk about the Battle of the Bulge. Hemingway had been at the battle as a war correspondent and Williams had lost a son there. Hemingway said the U. S. Army Officer Corps was caught completely off guard when the Germans advanced. “The battle was one big fuckup,” Hemingway said. “One big fuckup. For a while the brass had no goddamn idea what the hell to do.” Hemingway and Williams talked about the war for some time. By then we were drunk and couldn’t keep up with the conversation so it was time to leave and we said goodbye and goodbye to Hemingway and to Williams and goodbye to Mary, thanking them for the time and the drinks, which we thought were real good and strong, and staggered out the door into the snow which was still falling lightly and slipped and staggered around a bit before falling into the car and somehow Doug drove us back. We were too drunk to ski that afternoon. Meeting Hemingway was good, real good. The drinks were good too.