Ernest Hemingway and I met in the spring of 1935.
"April is the cruelest month," a fellow expatriate of his wrote.
Hemingway's train from New York was three hours late. Chill rain was falling in Chicago on its arrival. America was in its sixth year of Depression. All that and, to be blunt, the man considered by many as the greatest living prose stylist was just plain pissed about just plain everything.
I recognized him immediately. Broad, large head, bushy mustache, high forehead, and immense eyes were right off the dust jackets of his books. But his mouth was different. I had seen it photographed clenched as he typed. Crinkled with private irony in pictures from the Twenties. Even smiling over a kudu carcass he'd bagged on safari. On the platform of Union Station that mouth was curled in the most malevolent sneer I ever encountered.
Despite being forewarned about his volatile moods, I had a duty to perform.
"Welcome to Chicago, Mister Hemingway," I greeted him.
"I'm from Chicago, you little scat. Take this," he barked thrusting his valise at me. A brown portfolio he kept under his left arm. "Do you have a car or do we need a cab?"
"I don't have a car, Mister Hemingway."
"Of course you don't, you useless scat. Well? What are you waiting for? Go on. Fetch us a taxi. I'll be right behind you. Git," he prompted with his hand.
Making my way off the platform I looked back several times. He was following but the gap between us widened. Then I noticed his limp. He was swaying while forcing, demanding his left leg keep pace. The portfolio was switched to his other side and his left hand was behind his left thigh aiding propulsion. Intermittently, Hemingway's sneer became a grimace.
Taxis queued up outside the station. I opened the door of the first one and waited.
"Hey, Mack? Ain't ya going?" complained the driver. The cab behind him had secured a fare and sped around us in the rain. "What's yer problem?"
"Hang on a minute. My friend's got a bum leg," I said.
The cabbie rapped impatiently on his steering wheel. Hemingway emerged from Union Station. I stood back and let him enter the cab.
"Go around," he ordered me."I can't slide over."
I did as directed, shut my door and told the driver, "Drake Hotel." We pulled out from the curb.
"The Drake," muttered Hemingway. "Who did you think was coming? Mussolini?"
"My boss wants the best for you, Mister Hemingway," I said.
"Listen, kiddo. You keep calling me Mister Hemingway it'll eat up half your conversation. Not that I'm interested in the other half, mind you. So call me 'Hem' and leave it at that," he said.
"All right, Hem," I tried it. "What happened to your leg?" Hemingway looked out the window at the rain.
"Shark bite. Angry bugger nearly bit off my leg. God. Wouldn't that have made a story? Another one for my critics to chomp on," Hemingway said. He watched the wet streets go by and we crossed Michigan Avenue Bridge. He laughed to himself. "Critics and sharks. Either one will chew the flesh off you simply because they can."
When the Drake doorman surmised Hemingway's difficulty and decided to help the guest from the car, I thought Hemingway would lay him out flat on the sidewalk.
"Tend the bag and keep your mitts off me," he scowled at the guy. To me he said, "Flip him some change, get me registered, and meet me in the bar."
Clearly in pain, portfolio in armpit, Hemingway went toward the taproom. I attended formalities and saw the bellhop with Hemingway's valise up to the room. Tipped him also. Then went down to the bar. The author had a whiskey and lemonade in front of him. He saw me and pointed to the empty stool beside him. I handed him the room key and sat down.
"What's your poison, kiddo?" he asked.
"Between the cab and tips, I'm broke," I told him. "Thanks anyway."
"Didn't they front you expense money?" he demanded.
"No. The Society doesn't have much cash. We hope your reading brings in some donations. That, and what's left of the admissions take minus your fee," I added.
"My fee?" he balked. "Tell you the truth, kiddo. I'm making everybody rich but me. But I ain't as tapped as you. Come on, I'll buy."
I ordered a beer from the bartender. It did not take long for the entire bar, if not the hotel, to realize Ernest Hemingway graced the establishment. People stopped by for autographs. Others bought him drinks. Every time that happened he indicated to the offerer that I was part of his entourage so my beers were also covered. We drank for two hours, Hem at a pace four times my own, and I don't think he had to cough up a nickel. When not greeting fans the writer was silent, brooding as he drank.
At one point he left the bar for the men's room. The limp provoked some curiosity.
"I got shot," he bellowed to the room at large. "Though I'm damned if I remember it was the jealous husband or the thief I cornered on my boat. One of them plugged me. Bet your ass, whichever one, he won't be trying that again in this lifetime."
It brought down the house and prompted another round he didn't pay for.
As it wound toward suppertime, I indicated I should get back to the office and report Ernest Hemingway comfortably ensconced at the Drake.
"Back to the office, eh? Do yourself a favor, kiddo. Don't go back," he counseled. "Go. But not back. Get out of Chicago. Get out of the Midwest. This place has been filed to the nub. Pretty soon it'll be prairie again. And then the Indians will come back. Them that's left. Go west. Go east. But go."
"Can't do that, Hem," I said. "I got an honest job, which around here is saying something. Got a wife. And on top of that, I'm broke. The Society doesn't pay much but we generally eat and pay the rent. Can't save a penny yet we're getting by. Nope. This is what I've got. I'm staying to make a go of it."
"How old are you?" Hemingway asked.
"Twenty-one," I told him.
"Remember what I say," he advised.
"There's war coming. Not tomorrow or next month, or even next year. But before this decade's done, we'll be waist-deep in it. It'll make the last one look like a skirmish. All I'm telling you to do – is not waste it. Don't get me wrong. I'm no warmonger. Quite the opposite. I detest all wars. But then I detest all governments. Ours, theirs, ones we ain't even heard of yet. But governments and wars are facts of life, and life is what I do believe in. So make it work for you. When the time comes, you do your duty, whatever the hell they tell you is your duty. Kiss little wifey goodbye and get out and do something in the world."
"Then what?" I asked. "Write about it?"
"No. You don't want to do that," Hemingway said. "Because to do that well is impossible. Even if you can. People who think they're smarter than you chew up your words and, spit or swallow; they never get the real taste. So it's about life after all, kiddo. Just life."
"I'll be by for you in the morning, Hem. Nine-thirty. The Society is having a breakfast reception," I said.
"What's your name, kiddo?"
"Amos. Amos Jansen."
"Tell me, AJ. How the Cubs look this year?"
"Couldn't tell you. I'm a White Sox fan. But for my money, Detroit is going all the way," I said.
"Ha," he laughed. "You told me you don't have any money."
"If I lived like you, maybe I wouldn't need any. Good night, Hem," I said and left the Drake.
Offices of the Chicago Modern Literature Society comprise the top floor of the Shakelson Library at Dearborn and Hubbard Streets. The Shakelson family is old Chicago money. Furriers to the rich, they had humble beginnings as trappers, skinners, and pelt traders in frontiersmen tradition. Now they have shops in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and anywhere a wealthy class dresses the part. Succeeding generations washed blood off their hands, pried fur from fingernails, and traded knives for pens and traps for checkbooks. In Chicago you find Shakelsons in politics, law, medicine, education, and high finance. They sit on boards, endow charities, and make the society pages. Hearty blood and well-planned marriages ensure the legacy. For them, this Depression is an inconvenience to be tolerated as gentlemen.
Like hundreds of others around this town, I take their money. Mine's earned. I am one of two paid employees of the Chicago Modern Literature Society.
In 1930 Doctor Barnet Shakelson, Ph.D. assumed the chair of English at the University of Chicago hard upon a family donation to the school's building fund. To celebrate the achievement, an endowment was made to form the CMLS, as the society is denoted in the alphabet soup vernacular of our time. Naturally Barnet was unanimously elected chairman.
Early 1932 I dropped out of college following the death of my father. Barnet was one of my professors. I liked him and he seemed to like me. This was substantiated when he offered me a job at the Society. My title is "Secretary" but it routinely involves messenger errands, some heavy lifting, and janitorial duties aside from taking minutes at monthly meetings where, as you can understand, I set up chairs and serve refreshments.
In this capacity I was dispatched that Wednesday to fetch the illustrious man of American letters, Ernest Miller Hemingway, from Union Station for a reading from his works scheduled two days hence.
By the time I got back the library had closed for the day. In the rear alley is a service entrance for which I have a key. Up the marble steps I walked six flights to the CMLS offices. As I expected, Vice Chairman Dwight Eldon was still in his office. Professor Eldon was the other paid, full-time employee of the Society. A widower in his sixties, it was not uncommon for Eldon to work through a night and into the next day with barely a doze at his desk. He was wide-awake and stared at me through his pince-nez.
"It took the whole day to retrieve one writer from the station?" he asked.
"His train was late, he wasn't feeling well, and he stood me a few rounds at the Drake bar," I reported. Professor Eldon was my supervisor, and a fair one, so I generally told him the truth straight away.
"How did you find him?"
"Large, loud, and for the most part miserable," I said.
"You know him well?" I put to Eldon.
"We are acquainted," said the vice-chairman. "Though I doubt it was of any consequence to Ernie."
"Ernie?" I asked. I never heard the writer referred to in that way. Ernest Hemingway, Mister Hemingway, and recently Hem. Not something mundane as "Ernie." The only Ernie I knew was conductor on the Clark Street trolley. "You call him Ernie?" I challenged Eldon.
"To Oak Park he was plain Ernie," said Eldon. "Among a few other things."
"He has a gripe with critics," I told the professor. "Calls them sharks."
"On a good day, I imagine. That's to be expected. Forging ahead in any field is risky. Certainly not for the thin-skinned," the V-C surmised. "That's why so few do it. It will be an uneasy few days for ole Ernie. The Midwest, especially Chicago, has not been kind to him."
Eldon referred to reviews of Hemingway's latest work, Death in the Afternoon. It had twisted, crossed, and broken genres in a way that confused most, infuriated some. It also brought the writer's self-image under skeptical regard.
Dwight Eldon reached into a drawer and extracted a news clipping. He laid it on the desk facing me.
"Remember this, Amos?" he asked. "You're one of Ernie's more ardent local admirers."
I picked up the clipping. The same article was pasted in my scrapbook at home, wedged on the shelf with all my Hemingway books and magazines with his stories.
"… Often descends to a gross and irritating cheapness," H.L. Mencken had written in his review. The author, according to Mencken, needed to cut out "the interludes behind the barn," which in the critic's judgment led the author into "banality."
"Banality," I said out loud. "That was harsh."
"Perhaps," conceded Professor Eldon. "But the Bard of Baltimore certainly drove home his point." Eldon removed his glasses and looked at the ceiling. "You didn't by any chance mention to Ernie that Mencken is on the board of this Society? Should make for an interesting breakfast. Don't you think?"