We were at the Ritz Bar. I was on my third martini and Hemingway was on his
fourth when the bartender made a speech. Though the accolades were directed
at him, Hemingway leaned into my ear and said, "Bartenders should stick to
what they do best -- bartending."
I had to agree. The acoustics weren't conducive to formal speeches,
especially long ones. Besides, our cocktails were getting warm. We chinked
glasses, exchanged nods and sneaked sips during the toast.
1929? 1949? Nope: Aug. 24, 1999. The Hemingway in
question? Jack Hemingway, first son of Ernest and Hadley, father to Margaux
and Mariel. The occasion? An exclusive party to celebrate the 55th
anniversary of Ernest Hemingway's "liberation" of the Ritz.
For those of you who don't know this particular footnote in Hemingway lore,
just after the Allied troops declared victory on Aug. 24, 1944, Hemingway,
with a band of irregulars just outside the Paris periphery, sped straight to
the Place Vendtme.
Their self-appointed mission was to relieve the Nazi
officials of their occupation headquarters: the Hotel Ritz. That night, as
word spread that the war was over, Papa and crew played host to one of the
most jubilant parties the Ritz had ever seen. Fifty-five years later,
people were still celebrating, and still remembering.
I was just happy I wasn't paying for the $20 martinis.
Jack Hemingway, now 75, looked strikingly like his father. The Hemingways are big men, with broad shoulders and strong arms. Jack was even sporting a
neatly trimmed white beard, reminiscent of Ernest in his Cuba days.
But more than anything, he sounded exactly like his father.
When Jack told a story, right after the punch line, his head would fall back and a roar would burst out of his throat. And just as with his father, it was much more high-pitched than you would imagine a Hemingway to have.
How annoying it must be to be the son of Ernest Hemingway. How could anyone live up to a man who wrestled with bears, lions and bulls, won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes
and boasted of sleeping with every woman that he had ever cared to?
Still, Jack has held his own.
While his father was liberating the Ritz, Jack -- an OSS officer -- had just escaped
from behind enemy lines. Over the years he has accumulated stories of his
own to tell -- and then he told them. Like Ernest's brother and various ex-wives, Jack
wrote his side of life with Papa, "The Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman: My Life With and Without Papa." This biography of an absentee, alcoholic father is surprisingly well-written.
After shadowing him for a nervous half-hour, I finally got someone I had just
met to introduce me.
"Jack, I'd like you to meet Gentry Lane. She's writing a book on Paris in
"Oh good! No one's ever written anything like that before," he laughed.
Normally I'd smack anyone who laughed at my aspirations. But seeing as
Gertrude Stein was his babysitter, I let it slide.
"It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Bumby," I said. With gin-fueled courage I
addressed him by his childhood nickname -- the one by which Ernest refers to him
in "A Moveable Feast."
"I've grown a bit since anyone's called me that," he laughed and patted his
We talked about San Francisco, my hometown and his too for a while. He worked
at the City of Paris department store and remembered when Playland was still
open. I'm only 30, and know about these places only from a video I
got for becoming a member of the local PBS affiliate, but I was thrilled to have a common connection to a real live Hemingway.
What impressed me most about Jack was that he wasn't wearing shoes.
Instead he was wearing slippers, little velvet ones with the Hemingway
family crest embroidered in gold. They looked comfy. And they went with his
suit. That made him the cooler Hemingway, I thought. Ernest, a man who
favored a belt he pulled off a dead German, would never have the guts to wear
little velvet slippers.
Switching easily from English to French, Jack flowed from conversation to conversation
with guests anxious to talk about his father or his father's
works. Some of them were not as well-versed as they should have been.
"Ernest would be proud," said someone during a lull in the speechifying.
"I don't think he would've liked all this," Jack whispered to me,
motioning to the room full of Parisian society people, dainty hors d'oeuvres and
a sleepy background band sporting berets and playing "La Vie en Rose."
"He would have liked that we're drinking," I said.
"Yes, he would have liked that."
But Jack Hemingway liked this party. The crowd was animated and the setting
was pure Ritz, classy in every way. Ambassadors, journalists and Ritz
regulars all vied for a bit of Hemingway's attention. And, in true
Hemingway fashion, he seemed to be most pleased when talking to a pretty girl.