Beyond the 11 novels, through three wives, the big-game safaris in Africa, the bullfights in Spain, and the drinking, carousing and his swaggering public image, Ernest Hemingway’s beloved Pilar was the one constant of his life.
At age 71, Pilar is still waiting. Beached on concrete blocks on a hillside overlooking Havana and the blue sea, Hemingway’s 38-foot fishing cruiser sits under a corrugated metal awning on display at the author’s former Cuban estate, Finca Vigio.
In a splendid new book “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved and Lost, 1934-1961” (Knopf), Havertown resident Paul Hendrickson uses Pilar as a storytelling prism to deeply explore Hemingway’s turbulent, over-the-top life.
Quite a bit of Hemingway’s inner and outer life transpired on the boat he owned for 27 years. It is where he wrote, read, slept, chased giant marlin, tuna and German u-boats in the Gulf Stream off of Cuba. Here he entertained celebrities, authors, navy brass, seduced women and spent quality time with his three sons. On her decks he also hurled hostile curses at his critics, punched out once good friends and eventually realized his writing skills were fading away. He killed himself in July 1961.
A former longtime feature writer for the Washington Post, Hendrickson now teaches advanced non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up not far from Hemingway’s boyhood home in Oak Park, Illinois.
“I had a chance meeting with his younger brother Lester in Bimini in 1980,” Hendrickson noted. “That meeting and my newspaper stories on his three sons in 1987 began to shape the book. I tried to employ elements of a biography, but also thinking journalistically and in a documentary vein as well.”
The book took seven years. Hendrickson traveled to Havana in May 2005.
“I remember saying, ‘wow, there she is and then I had this huge emotional resonance,” he recalled. “To have the opportunity to touch that boat made it very real and actual. It became the connecting thread to the book.”
In 1934, at age 35, Hemingway commissioned a Playmate twin cabin-cruiser, 38 feet in length. She was a sturdy, sleek fishing boat-- hewn from Canadian fir and Honduran mahogany-- with a jet black hull, costing $7,500.
Hemingway’s customizations included: extra tankage so he could fish farther and longer, a transom lowered 12 inches for landing fish, a live fish well and an auxiliary inboard motor. Pilar also has a wooden roller spanning her transom to ease fish into the cockpit. These days that would no doubt be a transom gate instead. A few years later he added a flying bridge with controls to his boat.
“When it (life) was good with Papa—the writing, the fishing, the drinking, the eating, the talking, the palling around—few things on earth seemed better,” writes Hendrickson.
Most of those high-flying times were centered on Pilar near his homes in Key West and then Cuba. Hendrickson puts the reader in the fighting chair-- muscles throbbing, sweat pouring out, andfinally the ebullient full force of a giant marlin rocketing into the air from down deep in the Gulf Stream.
Yachting magazine called Hemingway a “founding father” of sportfishing--as multi-billion dollar industry today—along with other legends such as Charles Holder, Michael Lerner, Tommy Gifford, the writer Zane Grey and General George Patton. It is reputed that Hemingway is the first person to ever boat a giant tuna before it tired and was ripped into by schools of sharks and bring it Bimini’s docks. The task took enormous skill and strength, and henceforth the technique was tabbed “Hemingwaying” a fish.
A Nobel Prize winner for “Old Man and the Sea” in 1954, Hemingway was inducted into the International Game fish Hall of Fame. His plaque contains a typical full-bore Hemingway quote: “Anyone skilled enough to boat a 1,000 pound marlin should enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods.”
Hendrickson puts the reader in the fighting chair-- muscles throbbing, sweat pouring out, and finally, the ebullient full force of a giant marlin rocketing into the air from down deep in the Gulf Stream.
By focusing on Hemingway’s relationship to his boat and those who often frequented it, Hendrickson shines a more luminous light on the world famous author who has been psychoanalyzed and incessantly pilloried to death by past biographers.
Long bashed as a brute and bully with boorish behavior and a raging temper, Hemingway gets a fair shake from Hendrickson. At times he shows us a kinder, gentler Papa, a man capable of remarkable generosity to struggling writers and lost souls.
“He certainly was a ripe target thanks to his beastly ways,” Hendrickson noted. “He served up a lot of material. He was ravaged by alcohol and a bi-polar illness. But if you read his letters or talk with his sons, a kinder, more patient man emerges as one who struggled mightily with overwhelming success and the obstacles in his life.”
In the final third of the book Hendrickson gives us several previously untold “shadow stories” of a pair of then young admirers and boating buddies and delves into Hemingway’s tortuous relationship with his terribly damaged son Gigi who died in a Miami women’s prison in 2001. Hendrickson writes that Gigi was acting out impulses that laid beneath the surface of his hyper-masculine father. It’s some strong stuff.
“I was the first person to connect the dots in my newspaper profile of Gigi,” Hendrickson said. “If I didn’t take this path, as a writer, I would have considered myself a fraud.”
It’s a bighearted book that uses Pilar as a clever connecting thread to tell the story of the maddeningly elusive Papa.