In June of 1961, A.E. Hotchner visited an old friend in the psychiatric ward of St. Mary’s Hospital. Ernest Hemingway had just undergone a second round of electroshock treatment at the Mayo Clinic and was suicidal and paranoid, convinced that his rooms were bugged and movements recorded. It would be the last time they ever spoke: a few weeks later, Hemingway was released home, where he took his own life. After fifty years of silence to protect those parties involved, Hotchner relates that final conversation and the whole story of Hemingway’s formative years in his memoir, Hemingway in Love.
As I reached the outskirts of Rochester in my rented Chevy on that June day in 1961, I was feeling anxious about Ernest’s condition. I hoped the latest round of ECTs, along with accelerated sessions with the Mayo psychiatrists, had eliminated Ernest’s phobias, or at least reduced their hold on him.
I checked into my hotel and went directly to the hospital. The head nurse opened Ernest’s door for me with her key, a foreboding. The room was small, but it had a large window that admitted abundant sunshine. There were no flowers and the walls were bare. On a table beside the bed were three stacked books, and next to the table was a straight- backed metal chair. There were metal bars horizontally across the window.
Ernest was facing the window, his back to the door, standing at a hospital table that had been raised to serve him as a desk. He was wearing his old red woolen bathrobe (christened by Mary the “Emperor’s Robe”), which was secured with a worn leather belt that had a large buckle embossed “Gott Mit Uns,” a belt he had liberated from a dead German soldier during World War II’s battle of Hürtgen Forest. He wore his favorite scuffed Indian moccasins and a soiled white tennis visor over his eyes. His beard was scraggly and he seemed to have lost quite a bit of weight.
“Mr. Hemingway, your guest is here,” the nurse said. Ernest turned; the startled look on his face held for a moment and then faded into a broad smile as he connected with me. He came to greet me, pulling off his visor as we wrapped our arms around each other Spanish style and thumped each other’s backs. He was genuinely glad I had come. He appeared attenuated, as if the man he once was had disappeared and the man before me was only a marker to show who he had been.
“Well, Hotch,” he said, “welcome to Never Never Land, where they frisk you and lock the door on you and don’t have the decency to trust you with a blunt instrument.”
The nurse was standing in the doorway.
“Nurse Susan,” Ernest said, introducing me, “this is El Pecas, the famous matador. Pecas, this is Susan who holds the key to my heart.”
That got a laugh out of both of us.
I gave her a tin of caviar I had brought for Ernest, to keep in the refrigerator.
Ernest and I sat for a while, he on the bed, me on the chair, and at first he sounded like he was back on solid ground, but to my dismay, he began to lapse into a repetition of his old miseries: the room was bugged, also the telephone outside the door; poverty complaints; accusations against his banker, his lawyer, his doctor in Ketchum, all the fiduciary people in his life; worries about not having proper clothes; distraught over imagined taxes. There was much repetition.
I stood up, intent on directing him away from the same grievances that had assailed him when I had visited him during his previous confinement. The ECTs obviously hadn’t affected them. I walked over to the table and asked him what he was working on.
He was referring to his impressions of Paris and of some of the people he knew when he first went to live there with his first wife, Hadley, back in the early twenties.
“How’s it going?”
“That’s the worst of it. I can’t finish the book. I can’t. I’ve been at this damn table day after day after day after day. All I need is . . . maybe a sentence, maybe more, I don’t know, and I can’t get it. Not any of it, you understand? I’ve written Scribner to scratch the book. It was all set for the fall, but I had to scratch it.”
I asked him if these were the sketches from the Ritz trunk, the ones I had read. He said they were, plus a final new one, which mattered most.
“But those sketches,” I said, “as wonderful about Paris as anyone can hope to write.”
On one of our trips to Paris, when we were staying at the Ritz (the time our Hemhotch syndicate won a steeplechase race at Auteuil that paid 27–1), we had lunch one day with Charles Ritz, who had succeeded his father, César. Charles informed Ernest that in redoing the hotel’s storage area, they had recently discovered a Louis Vuitton trunk that Ernest had stored there in the thirties. It was a trunk that Vuitton himself had made for Ernest, and he was delighted to see it come back to him. We opened it in Charles’s office, and among other things inside, there were a number of schoolboy blue notebooks in which Ernest had written about Paris in the twenties and the people he knew during his early years there. Ernest had given me the sketches to read; they were exquisite, poetic, penetrating, callous, timeless, like no one had ever written about Paris and the fascinating people of the twenties who were Ernest’s contemporaries.
There was a rap on the door and nurse Susan came in. She said that Ernest’s doctor wanted him for some tests but that he wouldn’t be long. Ernest took a sheaf of papers from his improvised desk and handed them to me to read until he came back. He said this was a chapter I hadn’t read, the one that would conclude the book, the one that had to count.
A.E. Hotchner is a life-long writer and the author of seventeen books, among them O.J. in the Morning, G & T at Night and Papa Hemingway, a critically acclaimed 1966 memoir of his thirteen-year friendship with Ernest Hemingway. Hotchner’s memoir, King of the Hill, was adapted into a film by Steven Soderbergh. In addition to his writing career, Hotchner is co-founder, along with Paul Newman, of Newman’s Own foods. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and his indispensable parrot, Ernie.