Ernest Hemingway seems to be trending these days due to the Ken Burns series running this week on PBS. On Twitter, my friend Rick Snider (@Snide_Remarks) described the series as “both brilliant and boring and both things can be true” and at least for me, that’s a perfect description of the man himself.
Burns has done a great job in capturing Hemingway, but one of my greater memories in life is having a front row seat of Hemingway’s life with someone who knew the subject better than anyone: his oldest son.
At the time back in the mid-1990s, Jack Hemingway (who passed away in Dec. of 2000 at the age of 77) and his family decided they wanted to license a furniture collection based on the works of his father. They came to my company, Thomasville Furniture, and as it turned out, we had a collection already designed that we were debating what to do with. It was an eclectic mix of materials and styles from factories in the Phillipines, Viet Nam, China and other places in Southeast Asia, and a story could easily be woven about Hemingway from these pieces.
Thomasville said yes, and a few days later, the president of the company (who loved Hemingway) came to my office with a big box of books. “Listen, I’ll be honest,” he started off in a tone that suggested I wasn’t going to like what I was about to hear. “You’re a writer and you read a lot. Someone has to go through and read everything Hemingway has written so we can develop stories around each individual piece. Nobody else will do this right. So until this is done, this is your job, and I’ll get you anything you need.”
We had a huge showroom built into our offices, so invoking the “anything I need” clause, I went there, picked out the softest leather sofa I could find, a couple of nice pillows and had them moved to my office. Then for the next month, I sat on that sofa with my feet up and read the works of Hemingway. People would walk past my door and think I was taking a nap at times, but I didn’t care. The boss said become a Hemingway expert.
As I would read through these works, Rick’s description of “brilliant and boring” was accurate. There would be passages that were amazing, but similar pages that made me wonder if he was ever going to get to the point. I also found comic books, movies, even Cliff Notes on the books, which I’d watch or read to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
I’d also search the web for any and all facts about Hemingway and his family and jot down on a large legal pad any trivia that might make for a good story around a piece. There were over 400 in the collection, and each piece would not be just an ottoman. It had to be a Serengetti ottoman, with a story of Hemingway easily available to romance it to a potential customer.
After a few weeks, the team was invited out to Sun Valley, ID to meet with Jack, see some other family memorabilia that might help with this, and share what we were working on. Jack was an extremely friendly person and I hit it off with him immediately after glancing at my pad and asking “did you know you were born at 2:03 AM on Oct. 10?” (I don’t remember the exact time any more, but I had read the exact time in a story about Hemingway on the web back then).
Jack looked back at me and with a big smile and said “no. What else can you tell me about myself that even I don’t know?” It was like that for the next few days, and at some point, my name went from “Dave” to “Fact Man.”
He answered every question from whether that cat in Key West really had six toes, to which of his Dad’s 4 wives he got along with. He took us on tours of the house where Ernest died – including walking to a spot in the house, pointing to the carpet and saying “here’s where he did it” with the nonchalance of it being something he answered daily – and to the cemetery where his Dad is buried.
At one point we were walking on a path (I’ve found people tell better stories when you go for a walk with them versus sitting in a chair in an office) and came across a large plaque near a river dedicated to Ernest. There was a bench near it, and we sat on it as he told the story of the plaque. A moment later as Jack was still telling the story, a group of school children on a field trip walked up to the plaque and their teacher was trying to tell them the story of the great Ernest Hemingway.
I turned to Jack and said “do you want to tell them, or should I?”
I was struck by how we seem to study historical figures with a certain reverence that turns them into mythical figures, but when out of the spotlight, they’re really not a lot different from everyone else. I will confess the first night as we’re sitting out on the deck of his house continuing to hear stories, I was thinking “Holy crap, I’m sitting here smoking a cigar and drinking scotch with the son of Ernest Hemingway.”
But that next day, when Jack graciously gave us a tour of his house, I noticed one thing in his lower-level office I’ll always remember. You know that drawer in the kitchen you had back before cell phones and digital pictures where you threw family pictures, intending to one day organize them?
Jack had a box on a shelf like that. I started looking at them, and the first included many people I recognized, including president John F. Kennedy. It was like a box of history I had stumbled across, yet Jack wasn’t the least bit impressed. It was like that drawer of old pictures we all have of family and friends to him, except some of his Dad’s friends were better known.
We eventually came home to North Carolina, the pieces were named and the stories of the collection were written. A few months later, the collection was on display for the International Furniture Market in High Point, NC, and I got to see Jack one last time. We had put together a bound book for the collection, and as I had it in my hand when I saw him, he said “give me that.” Then he inscribed it with “For my buddy – “Fact Man.”
If you ask me any of the trivia and details I learned back them about Ernest Hemingway, I couldn’t tell you most of it. What I did learn back then was historical figures have a very human side we rarely see, and if you’re the child of someone famous, it’s not easy. Jack talked back then about having to live up to a standard created by his Dad, and while it does have its advantages, even now, when you research Jack, you consistently see a phrase that says “good-natured and even-tempered, and not particularly driven.”
In other words, he was not Ernest Hemingway.
He was, however, a man who weathered the loss of a Dad when he was only 61, had to further deal with the loss of one of his daughters (Margaux) when she was only 42, and constantly lived in the spotlight when at times, he’d have probably preferred just being down on the river fly fishing. Yet the few times I saw him, he always had a smile on his face and made you feel like you were with an old friend.
Ernest Hemingway gave the world many literary classics. But that’s the story involving a Hemingway I’ll always remember.