In the middle of the 20th century, when Ernest Hemingway was living in Cuba, his friend and future biographer A.E. Hotchner got the man to record himself on a wire recorder — the precursor of the tape recorder — so that one of the world’s most celebrated personalities could pop off about anything he’d like whenever he’d like.
The idea was to capture the sound and feel of Hemingway himself, unguarded and spontaneous, joyful and opinionated, comfortable in his own home, a part of him not on public display.
These off-the-cuff recordings, then, would give Hotchner hours of raw material from one of greatest literary minds in American history. Who, after all, would not think it an unforgettable experience to have plopped on Papa’s couch, listening to the man go off about war, writing, bullfights or fishing the Gulf Stream?
The closest you can get to that today is sitting in a soundproof booth at the Library, headphones clamped over your ears. Those 1949-50 tapes, initially recorded on 15 wire reels and lasting about 41/2 hours, are preserved in digital form as part of the Hotchner Collection. (They are not online and require an in-person appointment at the Library. There are other recordings of Hemingway, most notably at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. )
The recording quality is low and scratchy, but you can listen as Hemingway reads a poem about World War II, part of a play he wrote, gripes about criticism of his recent work, dictates letters and book introductions, and offers salty recollections of working as a bouncer in a bordello. There’s also small talk among friends, live music and singing.
The last scenario is the case one afternoon in which things went (briefly) just at Hotchner must have hoped. The recorder was running in one of the open areas of the house, likely the living or dining room. There was a male voice singing an operatic tune in Spanish, one or two people clapping at the end, and then Hemingway speaking into the mic.
“Here, here we are at, ah, Papa’s this afternoon, with most of the old familiar gang around,” he says, a little stilted. He then lists his pals: Roberta Herrera, Sinsky Dunabeitia, Father Don Andres. The guests were Spaniards who had decamped to Cuba. Herrera, a doctor, and Andres, a Catholic priest, had both fought on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. Dunabeitia wa a “salty, roaring, boozing, fun-loving Basque sea captain,” as Hotchner later described him.
Mary Hemingway, the writer’s fourth wife, was also there. The chatter was about an upcoming fishing tournament in which Hemingway hoped he might win some money for a hunting club in Idaho, where the couple also had a place.
“We’re thinking mostly today of preparation for the, for the coming tournament, in which Mary and I are teamed and are going to fish for the Ketchum Rod and Gun Club.” He laughs, a rapid ha-ha-ha. “We hope — Mary has been training this morning, she said made about five laps in the swimming pool, in getting herself in shape for it. I took a long walk into the back country and feel fit. We’re looking forward to this thing and I hope it’ll be a success.”
He’s clearly trying to have a good time, but the fun seems a little forced. His cadence is awkward, slowing and then accelerating for a burst of a few of a years words. And instead of the baritone, barroom bravado that one might expect from such a big man (his voice was high and uneven, with a hint of his Midwestern roots), what we really hear is how self-conscious he was with a microphone in front of him.
“It seems I’m doing very badly at this now,” he says at another point, likely in 1949 when he was working on “Across the River and Into the Trees,” “but I wrote 1,260 words this morning and am not overly enthusiastic at the moment about talking into something that feels as dead in the hand as this does.”
Hotchner, writing in “Papa Hemingway,” a biography published in 1966, noted that this discomfort extended to telephone calls. “Ernest advanced upon a telephone with dark suspicion, virtually stalking it from behind. He picked it up gingerly and placed it to his ear as if to determine whether something inside was ticking. When he spoke into it his voice became constricted and the rhythm of his speech changed, the way an American’s speech changes when he talks with a foreigner.”
Paul Hendrickson, the author and journalist, spent years working on “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961,” published to critical acclaim in 2011. He was also struck by the odd delivery: “Years ago, starting out on this book, I used to go into small soundproof booth at the Library of Congress and listen to Ernest Hemingway’s voice on old wire recordings,” he wrote. A few lines later: “…he was said to be very tentative with it at first, and I can picture him holding the mic like a man holding something that’s about to bite. Six decades later, I could go into a room and hear the disembodied self of Ernest Hemingway spookily speaking in my ear in a thin, precise, high-timbered pitch.”
He notes that others don’t recall Hemingway sounding quite like that, and Hemingway, after playing back another segment, didn’t think it sounded like himself at all: “Ed, I just listened back to that voice, and it could not be more horrible.”
There are a few casual moments in the tapes, but he still sounds like he’s reading a script someone just handed him: “Here, Mary is lovely and we work every day and the animals are still eating. Gregorio has the boat on the waves and is painting her for the marlin season. I am jamming, trying to get work done so that I can fish.”
Hemingway was as famous at that point for his larger-than-life persona as he was for his novels, short stories and nonfiction. He was arguably the most famous author on the planet. He would win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Old Man and the Sea” in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year.
It was also in 1954 that he suffered the final of several major concussions he had absorbed over the years (as many as nine), this time in two plane crashes in a remote part of modern-day Uganda. Further, the Hemingway family suffered from genetic mental disorders, including severe depression and bipolar disorder. His father, sister and brother all committed suicide as he did; later in life, facing serious health issues. His youngest son, Gregory, who eventually underwent gender reassignment surgery and was also known as Gloria, suffered from bipolar disorder and died in a holding cell in a Miami jail. His famous granddaughter, the model and actress Margaux Hemingway, suffered from severe depression and committed suicide at age 42.
For Hemingway himself, the combination of genetics, brain injuries, aging and alcohol further degraded his mental abilities until he committed suicide in 1961, a few weeks short of his 62nd birthday.
So these recordings in 1949 and 1950 give us a poignant window into some of his last good years. There are moments of startling clarity. He dictates a touching letter to Gregory, a father in anguish. Another time, frustrated with the whole recording project, he snaps at the impossibility of what Hotchner has asked him to do, at the paradox of being a novelist asked to explain his art: “It’s hard enough to write a damned story without talking about it and maybe it would be better to write and not talk at all, period.”
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