My wife and I went to visit Hemingway on our honeymoon. He's not dead. Not yet.
It was on my honeymoon, cruising through the northwest of the United States by car, when we pulled into to Ketchum, Idaho. It’s a town tucked into the southern tails of the Sawtooth mountains, a range which runs like a grand spine through most of the state until it softens into rolling hills, eventually flattening out into sparse high desert plains.
The city itself sits in a small valley. And in October, it’s golden and bright and warm, the last dregs of a late summer. But we weren’t there for the mountains.
No, I’d talked my wife into going to Ketchum because it was where Ernest Hemingway had lived during the last years of his life — until he killed himself in his mountain cabin with a double-barrel shotgun in 1961. The writer had called many places home throughout his life: Spain, Cuba, the Florida Keys, but Ketchum was the last and final place he’d settle down. Beside his stories, all that remains of the man is still there.
Perhaps visiting a grave isn’t a romantic idea for a honeymoon, but our original route took us within 50 miles of it, and for any writer, it’s hard not to pay respects to Hemingway should the opportunity present itself. Because the man is, quite simply, a legend.
I don’t say Ernest Hemingway is a legend out of adulation. It’s only the truth. If nine of ten people know the name, maybe two of those have read any of his work. And he might be as famous for his drinking and philandering as he is for his writing.
The case in point could be his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” The book made him famous. And as a mostly autobiographical account of his time living in Spain as a journalist, the story laid the groundwork for the reputation that would precede him in life: namely, the drinking. What is less known is that Hemingway was cheating on his first wife (of four) at the time of its release. They divorced, and he gave all earnings from the book to her and his first child in support.
I thought I’d want to have a drink there at his grave. Reading through his stories, it has the definite effect of making you want to. I had vermouth straight up for the first time after reading “A Farewell to Arms.” I bought a wine skin to take into the mountains after finishing “The Sun Also Rises.” Naturally, I thought a drink graveside would be fitting.
But I didn’t do it.
The cemetery was small and quiet, rising up gently on a hillside. We found the plot right away. It was covered in bottles — whiskey, wine, beer, vodka — it was littered with pens, and coins. Personal eulogies to the man, the drinker, the writer, the legend. Even in the peaceful valley, it seemed like Hemingway was sharing toasts with travelers from all over.
It became apparent immediately that it was the idea of him that we all were visiting. Fifty-five years after his death, people were continuing their own conversations with him. Hemingway’s bones were in there, beaten down from war and whiskey and women, but he was still very much out in the world. Gone, but not forgotten.
Good men are forgotten. Flawed men make legends. Maybe it’s because we see ourselves in them. They live our demons for us: drink, drugs, infidelity. The parts of ourselves we shy away from. Or they give us a hope that trouble lives within us all. To some, Hemingway would have been a pal to drink with. To others, a cautionary tale. Most people, it seemed, would have had that drink.
Scattered between the bottles of booze, one coin stood out. I knelt down to look closer. It was a sobriety coin from Alcoholics Anonymous — 24 hours sober. That is why Ernest Hemingway is a legend. In his life and his work, it seems, everyone can find something that resonates.
“The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” he once said.
Well, you haven’t quite yet. Not yet.
Photos: Martin Brodsky