Interview: A.E. Hotchner
In 1948, Arthur Gordon, then editor of Cosmopolitan, sent a young journalist to Havana to find Ernest Hemingway and try to convince him to write a short article about the future of literature. Intimidated by facing one of his literary heroes, A.E. Hotchner sent Hemingway a note, expecting to be turned down. A few hours later, he received a phone call: “This Hotchner? Dr. Hemingway here. Got your note. Can’t let you abort your mission or you’ll lose face with the Hearst organization, which is about like getting bounced from a leper colony. You want to have a drink around five? There’s a bar called La Florida. Just tell the taxi.” And the rest was history—the two men remained close friends for the next fourteen years of Hemingway’s life, and Hotchner would eventually go on to write several biographies and books about Hemingway, giving an in-depth view into the life of one of the most talented and enigmatic authors of the twentieth century.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1920, A.E. Hotchner graduated with a degree in law from Washington University and enlisted in the military, working as a journalist and attaining the rank of major. After coming home from the war, he decided to become a writer and journalist, eventually authoring hundreds of articles for distinguished publications including The New York Times, Esquire, and Saturday Evening Post, as well as several plays, teleplays, novels, biographies, and memoirs.
In 1966, five years after Hemingway’s death, drawing on private papers, correspondences, and personal anecdotes, Hotchner published Papa Hemingway, one of the most influential biographies of Hemingway ever written. During the past fifty years, Hotchner has written several more biographies and reminiscences of his adventures and conversations with Hemingway, including The Ecstasy and Sorrow (1983), Hemingway and His World (1989), and The Good Life According to Hemingway (2008).
In addition to writing biographies of Doris Day, Sophia Loren, and Paul Newman, Hotchner wrote the critically acclaimed off-Broadway play Sweet Prince (1982) and The Man Who Lived at the Ritz (1981), a historical novel set in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Hotchner has also written two volumes of memoirs: King of the Hill (1972), which chronicled his childhood in St. Louis during the Great Depression; and the humorous Looking for Miracles (1974), where a teenage Hotchner gets a job as a camp counselor in the Ozarks to save money for college. Hotchner also wrote two volumes of autobiographical essays: The Day I Fired Alan Ladd and Other World War II Adventures (2002) and O.J. in the Morning, G&T at Night: Spirited Dispatches on Aging with Joie de Vivre (2013).
In addition, Hotchner has utilized his talents and energy to raise millions for charity. In 1982, he teamed up with his friend, actor Paul Newman, to launch Newman’s Own Inc. What initially started as a lark turned into a successful operation that raised over $200 million dollars for charitable causes. Six years later, they were at it again, launching Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which has provided free summer camps for tens of thousands of seriously ill children and their parents worldwide.
Hotchner’s most recent work, Hemingway in Love (2015), is a biography detailing the literary icon’s relationships and regrets, and the turbulence of his life in Paris where he met his second wife.
A.E. Hotchner lives in Westport, Connecticut, with his wife Virginia, an African gray parrot, and flocks of chickens and peacocks.
AG: Well, I read Hemingway in Love and it was fantastic.
AEH: Have you read much of Hemingway?
AG: A lot in earlier days. And ever since I’ve been editing The Strand I’ve gotten into some of the short stories. I love his work. He’s one of my literary heroes.
AEH: There’s a bit of a gulf between a side of him that was quite romantic and the other side of him that really is reflected in a lot of his work.
AG: The funny thing is, when I read your book, I said to myself, “This is a sensitive side to Hemingway that I did not know had existed.”
AEH: Well, that is one of the reasons that I thought I should do a second book. Did you read Papa Hemingway?
AG: No, I have not. And I have to read it. One of my all-time favorite books that I have with me—and I look at this one probably every couple of months—is The Good Life According to Hemingway.
AEH: That’s really the most innovative side of him—the use of his mind and his language to do the unusual.
AG: Exactly. And the thing that struck me about Hemingway in Love was that Hemingway, who was a pretty clever guy, allowed his great relationship with his first wife, Hadley, to break apart.
AEH: Well that’s why [F. Scott] Fitzgerald tried to rub his nose in it. He kept saying, “Ernest, you’re out of your mind! You’ve got a great relationship, and here you are with this flapper type who’s here just simply to break up your marriage and marry you.” … He let it happen because he really wasn’t very good with women. I think there was a side of him in which he really liked to romanticize whatever the woman was. Look what he wrote afterward. After, he wrote a book which really was influenced by the turmoil that he felt. The next book that he writes is A Farewell to Arms and he creates there the most romantic heroine of all literature: Catherine [Barkley], who dies in the end in childbirth. But this was the fictionalized version of whom he wished he had been with.
AG: And you don’t think he was happier with Martha [Gellhorn]?
AEH: Oh no, that was a disaster. I asked, “Didn’t you at first get along with her?” And he said, “No, no, I didn’t at all. We just had a good affair in Spain while the bombs were falling, but then when we got going as a couple, she was really driven in her profession as a writer and was in competition with me.” And he said, “That’s always bad.”
AG: When you look at some writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, do you see that they started off being very idealistic, and then later in life became jaded by fame—that it became almost like a prison that they found themselves in?
AEH: That’s close to the truth. I think that Fitzgerald really was more done in by the booze than he was by any of his feelings about becoming jaded. I think the booze jaded him. But he continued to write extraordinarily. His last book, The Crack-Up, really has in it all of his ruminations before he died.
And in Hemingway’s case, it’s very hard to pigeonhole anything that happened to him later on, because when I first met him, he was writing . . . I guess you would say a romantic novel, called Across the River and Into the Trees. And in that book, he has created the kind of heroine that every man would like to create in his life: the young Renata, this eighteen-year-old beauty. The thing is that that book—Across the River—got uniformly tepid notices, if not downright negative. In The New Yorker, E.B. White wrote a parody called “Across the Grill and Into the Bar.” And Hemingway was obviously pretty pissed off over the fact that he was receiving his first bad notices. They said he was an imitation of himself, that he was jaded, that he couldn’t write women anymore. So what does he do? (And I was down there in Cuba at the time he finished it.) He came in, at night, and he said, “I’ve just finished this. Take a look at it.” And he handed me the typewritten, kind of sweaty pages of The Old Man and the Sea. I said to myself that night, “This is his answer to those who say that he’s become jaded and has lost his touch.” And of course, it was a supreme Hemingway touch. His fondness for the fish and the sea, and his old man—it’s just a beautiful turnaround. So to answer your question, I’m not so sure that in their older years they became jaded and didn’t put it out anymore.
AG: One of my favorite books of Hemingway’s is Islands in the Stream. Oddly enough, it was published posthumously, and one sort of feels that the main character has a bit of Hemingway in him as well. There are a lot of autobiographical elements in a lot of his works.
AEH: Yes. I was down visiting them in Cuba and one day we got talking about movies, because Ernest really had several very good movie friends, like Gary Cooper, and Marlene Dietrich, and Ingrid Bergman. And I had just done something—some theatre piece or whatever—and Mary said to Ernest at dinner, “Listen, I think that section you’ve just written would make a very good movie. Why don’t you let Hotch read it?” So he said, “Well, okay. Go to the bank”—he kept all of his finished stuff in a bank vault, in a bank deposit box. So she got out this sheaf of paper; it was called “The Sea” or “Part III: The Sea,” or something like that. And he gave it to me and I said, “Well, this is wonderful. It would make a marvelous movie.” And Mary said, “Well, why don’t you let Hotch do it?” And he said, “It would make a damn good movie, but I want to bring it out as a book with three parts: The Land, The Sea, and The Air, and this is the sea part.” So that was Islands in the Stream. And the reason it didn’t get published while he was alive was because he was going to do the other two parts, which he never did. So that’s really the story of that particular book. It was very well done.
AG: Tell me about the first time you met him. I love, in the introduction to The Good Life According to Hemingway, the way you described how you were set—I believe to interview him for a magazine—and how it suddenly blossomed into a great friendship.
AEH: Not to interview him. I had just gotten out of the Air Force, and instead of coming back to the States and getting a job and getting going—I had been a lawyer, but I didn’t want to go back to St. Louis and be a lawyer anymore. So I didn’t go back to St. Louis, I didn’t do lawyering, I stayed in Paris for a year or two, so by the time I came back all the jobs in magazines and books and everything else had been assigned to returning veterans who didn’t piss around their time in Paris.
So I went to my buddy, Arthur Gordon, who had been a major in the Air Force unit I was with. He was then the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, which was a literary magazine then until Helen Gurley Brown got ahold of it. And he said, “Well Hotch, I sent two or three letters to you telling you to come back and get a job on the magazine.” He said, “I don’t have one, but I’ll tell you what.” Because I wanted to stay in New York, and I was down to my last couple of Air Force bucks, he said, “Here’s a list of a dozen writers of note who used to write for us, but they haven’t written anymore. And I’ll make you a literary ‘bounty hunter.’ If you go around and find them, I’ll give you the expenses, and for every one that you can get to write for us, I will pay you a certain amount of money.”
So one of the names on the list was Hemingway. And I put it off, because it wasn’t to ask him [to write] in general. Arthur was going to run a series—“Henry Ford on Automobiles,” “Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture,” and so forth. And I was to ask Hemingway to write an article on the future of literature, which of course is the dumbest thing you would ever ask anybody. So I did finally go down, and tentatively got word to him that I was there to ask him this dumb question, and would he just tell me “no” so I could go back and report that I’d seen him? And that’s how we met. Instead of telling me “no,” he met me at the bar of the Floridita, and he eventually wrote Across the River as a result of my visit. And then I think it was three or four installments of the book I edited for the magazine, and that brought us together. And from then on we did many projects together, and a lot of things that were not projects but were just a hell of a lot of fun.
AG: What was he like as a person? What was his character? Was he very bubbly? Was he at times inconsistent? What was the real Hemingway like?
AEH: He was just the best companion you could have. If you had anything that you were engaged to do—for example, we spent a whole summer on the bullfight circuit, following the mano-a-mano between Spain’s two greatest bullfighters. And to spend the summer toodling around Spain following the bullfighters, both of whom were very good friends of Hemingway. . . as a matter of fact, he had me go into the ring on one occasion. And I said, “I’m not going in there!” And I walk into the ring with Antonio—I was to be his sobresaliente, which means I’m the backup; in case he gets gored, I’m the one who’s got to go finish it off. Of course I couldn’t finish off anything but myself. But he said, “Oh, you don’t have to worry. I’m going to be your manager.” So then that threw me into hysterics. That was the funniest thing he ever said.
He was a great companion. He was always upbeat. He was always interested in whatever the mission was, whether it was big game hunting, or bullfighting, or the jai alai matches. He did have a very quick temper, and a tough one. If he had even a good relationship, a good friendship—if somebody did something that crossed him or that he felt wasn’t trustworthy, he would just kick them—never see them again, never talk to them again. Someone who he’d known for ten years and that would be the end of it. So he was mercurial in that sense.
AG: What were the things that would really bother him and get under his skin, would you say?
AEH: Any kind of poser, anybody who would begin to brag about himself, or anyone who had some sort of falseness about them and tried to palm it off. There’d be tough guys who would come up to him—remember, he had this reputation of being a very tough, pugnacious guy—but if he was challenged, and he was on a few occasions, he would polish them off.
AG: So he could match his words with action.
AEH: He was a student of prizefighting. And he had sessions with a man named Brown who ran a prizefighting gym in New York—sometimes he came down to Cuba—and he would spar with him in the ring, show him moves and stuff like that. He was a student of the occult, baseball, football . . . those were his main things. He just adored baseball. And if you read his Nick Adams stories, there’s one in which he and his friend Bill start to get drunk on his father’s whiskey and they talk about the Cubs and all of the things that were happening at the time. But he used to have the Brooklyn Dodgers … they used to train, or have spring training, at Varadero Beach, and he would invite them to come across the water to Cuba where he was, and they’d often come for the weekend or a couple of days. He was very interested in the men of sports.
AG: A lot of biographies make it seem like there was a rivalry between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In your book, you sort of dispel that whole idea. And a lot of it stems from the [story] that Hemingway got into a boxing fight with some writer, and that guy gave Hemingway a beating, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. Did he ever talk about that?
AEH: Well, he never talked about that, but he did talk about . . . you mean the slow count? Yeah, that’s right. Fitzgerald just lost track of the count.
AG: Yeah, Fitzgerald loved Hemingway. I mean, I could not imagine that he would do anything like that intentionally.
AEH: No, no. Fitzgerald was nipping at a bottle while he was supposed to be keeping the time. And here they were fighting, but instead of ringing the gong at three minutes, which he was supposed to do, he just forgot about it. He got interested in watching them battle each other, and in his bottle, and so finally at the end of it Hemingway really blew up, because that’s the kind of thing, like I was just talking about, that could really end a friendship.
AG: But he really liked Fitzgerald?
AEH: Oh, they were close. They were good friends. But they were also . . . what challenged the two of them was not so much their writing as their drinking. Fitzgerald was constantly counseling Hemingway to cut down on the booze—“You don’t have to have a drink in the morning”—and Hemingway was counseling Fitzgerald to try to stop drinking so much with [his wife] Zelda and get back to work. So that’s really where they were crossing swords a lot.
AG: Do you think Hemingway knew what his place would be as probably the greatest writer of the twentieth century? Did he know that or did he have self-doubt?
AEH: Oh, he knew it. At one point, he said, “When you can get as good as you can get, and be damn good, then you can be proud as a lion.” And he felt that he had really achieved that. But I don’t want to make it sound like he was boastful or that he was in any way full of himself. He wasn’t at all. And he was very respectful and helpful for young writers, for young students. There was a lot of self-effacing quality. And of course, he said, “You’re only as good as the first sentence you put on a blank page after the last book you wrote.”
So everything was a challenge, and that’s why writing the last of A Moveable Feast was so difficult. He just couldn’t get it—the last of it—to fall in line with what he wanted it to be. As a matter of fact, though, it was a wonderful ending …
AG: Well, it was a memoir, so that would make it even tougher for him, right? Because there’s no hiding in a memoir. You have to lay it all bare.
AEH: And he did. And that’s where he finally—although he doesn’t use her name—he says that she destroyed the only real relationship of love that he ever had.
AG: One of my favorite quotes of his is where he says, when you first start out writing, you get a big kick out of it, but nobody else does, and then you reach a point where you get a little kick out of it and people get a little kick out of it, and you’ve really arrived when you don’t get any kick out of writing, but the whole world does.
AEH: That’s right, and that’s exactly how he felt.
AG: You wrote in your book about the way he was very paranoid about being monitored by the FBI, but you also said there are, in fact, documents that said he was really monitored by them, which shows that just because a person sounds paranoid about something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. How do you think he had a clue that they were monitoring him?
AEH: I’ve thought about that many times because I saw no vestige of the FBI intruding on him. But he picked it up somehow. … I think I cite the time when we’re in Ketchum and we’re having dinner at a restaurant, and we’re with Mary and everything’s okay. And suddenly, in the middle of the meal, Ernest says, “We’ve got to get out of here.” And Mary wonders, “What is this? Why do we have to get out of here?” He says, “Those two guys at the bar are FBI.” So on the way out, Chuck Atkins, the man who owned the restaurant, was eating at a table and he stopped me and he said, “Why is Ernest leaving?” And I said, “He thinks those two guys at the bar are FBI agents.” He said, “Those two guys are salesmen. They come through here regularly.” So there was a lot of that. I don’t know why he felt that way.
AG: And why would they monitor a guy like him who fought in two World Wars and everything? That’s always been something that has mystified me.
AEH: Well he answered me to that extent. He said, “Because J. Edgar Hoover”—who had an obsession about Hemingway—he said, “He’s obsessed because I’m living in a foreign land, I’m speaking a language he doesn’t understand, as he doesn’t understand any languages, and that makes me a suspicious character.”
AG: He turned out to be right about that.
AEH: Well, Hoover was suspicious of almost everybody who was a writer, or any liberal tendency—you were a communist, or whatever the hell he thought people were—and there’s a lot of that still going on.
AG: I know you worked with Paul Newman, collaborating on Newman’s Own. What are some of your memories of Paul Newman? I know you wrote a book about him, which I have to read.
AEH: Yeah, I wish you would because he was an extraordinary man who never was adequately presented to the public—that side of him, the side that’s in the book. In many ways, he was like Hemingway. He just enjoyed doing adventurous, rather dangerous, things. Hemingway had big game hunting, in which he would wait until a charging bull was right on him before he shot him, and Newman would get behind the wheel of an automobile at 200-plus miles an hour and wait with braking until he was into the curb. They were two men who loved to roll the dice of life. And that was Paul. I mean, Paul was very lively in his reactions. But he was very serious about his work; he really did prepare. He was a pain in the ass to a director because he had a lot of questions that should be asked by the actor, but many actors don’t do it.
AG: And he was funny, too.
AEH: He was very funny, or he couldn’t have realized the humor in Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid] and other roles the way he did. Yeah, we had great times together.
The whole food thing was just a fun project—we were going to have a good time for a couple of months and then go out of business. And today, it’s so huge!
AG: My favorite scene was in the movie What a Way to Go! He was playing the part of this unknown artist who was always eating. Then he suddenly becomes famous, and he’s at a gallery opening, and this lady says something like, “Oh, when I see your work, I want to kneel, pray, and scream, and worship it.” And he looks at her and says, “Madam, I suggest you buy one of my paintings so that you can kneel, pray, and worship it in the privacy of your own home.” And then he munches on a chicken leg and walks off.
AEH: [laughing] Yeah, well, that epitomizes who he was. He just did not take anything about himself seriously. Except his politics. He was a firmly devoted Democrat, and he worked for the people he believed in—the politicians. He spoke for them, he traveled for them. That was kind of a serious part. And then once we started this camp for kids who had cancer, once we got into the camp thing, he became terribly serious about helping kids in need, and in medical need all over the world. We have about thirty to thirty-five such camps all over the world now.
Yeah, so there was this mixture in him, as there was in Hemingway, of the serious and the sublime. And they mixed very well.