I didn’t like it, and then I did like it. But a writer’s job is to tell the truth, as Papa said back in 1942. Hemingway maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing — it takes away ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings’ — but he wrote non-stop about writing, as incisively as any writer ever did. Last week I finished my umpteenth book on Papa, and it depressed me no end. Really. And then, as I was reading the last three pages, I discovered that I did, after all, have a connection with the great Papa. My depression lifted like a fog.
Life is one long coincidence, and just as I picked up Autumn in Venice, about Papa’s last muse, Debbie Bismarck rang me from Key West because she and her husband had thought of me while visiting Hemingway’s house there. Actually, the house was bought for the couple by Pauline Hemingway’s uncle and inherited by their son Gregory who, although not gay, was a cross-dresser. Some older readers of this column may remember that I met Hemingway when I was a 15-year-old, had drinks with him in a New York bar and got loaded. But he turned out to be a phoney Papa, an older, heavy-set man with a white beard posing as the greatest writer in the world.
Bad modern writers and victimhood-culture opinion makers no longer have any time for the great Papa — although if they did, he’d go down in my estimation. Yet it’s hard to overestimate the effect that Hemingway had on prose style (you wouldn’t know it from the rubbish published today). Papa stripped sentences down to their essence, cleared away the lush density rooted in Victorian prose, and in the process became numero uno. The aforementioned book that got me depressed was written by Andrea di Robilant, a man I once met at a party and did not like at all. He had an arrogance about him that brave soldiers, good fighters and real tough guys do not possess. Gigolos, dress and shoe designers, and modern celebrities have it in spades. I used to know his uncle, Carlo di Robilant, quite well. He was an Agnelli acolyte, a typical lefty of that time (the 1960s) scared to death that his family’s ass-licking of the Duce might be an embarrassment.
I changed my mind halfway through reading the work about Papa’s last muse and final days. It inspired a cognitive frenzy actually, as I realised that I knew some of the protagonists, especially the then 17-year-old Afdera Franchetti whom I later met as Afdera Fonda and with whom I have remained good friends to this day. When she was young, Afdera gave interviews in which she claimed that Renata, the heroine of Papa’s worst book, Across the River and into the Trees, was based on her and that Hem was in love with her. And there were others mentioned whom I knew, though not well.
There was a time I contemplated applying to Mastermind with Papa as my specialised subject. Now I know better. What I didn’t realise was how incredibly generous Papa was with friends and strangers alike. He singlehandedly supported the Ivancich family, and lavished large amounts on his ‘daughter’, as he called her, Adriana Ivancich. He employed and helped her brother Gianfranco, gave large parts of his Italian earnings to Adriana, and spent even more on gifts to his wife Mary, out of guilt, despite the fact he had not even tried to bed Adriana.
When Papa got the news in Cuba that Adriana had met a man who did not allow her to keep up their almost daily correspondence, he did nothing about it but continued his munificent ways with her. That’s where I come in: Papa thought she had met a young Italian of her class, but it turned out that the man in question was a Greek, Spiros Monas, ‘who owned coffee and hemp plantations in Tanganyika’. He was waiting for an annulment when he proposed to Adriana. They divorced after five years, and he took up with F.L., the daughter of a French ambassador and a very sweet and innocent girl who I had gone out with for quite a while. I remember this jerk — no longer with us — because he used to try to stare me down whenever we ran into each other at parties. He was obviously a masochist and had asked a lot of questions about F.L.’s past. She had been naive enough to tell him. His vile stares ended when I put my face an inch from his and told him that a punch on the nose is better than 1,000 hard looks. He got the message. I had finally found my connection with Papa, although I was ignorant of it at the time.
Autumn in Venice recapitulates the great physical courage shown by Hemingway after his double plane crash and the terrible injuries he sustained; his brave stand against wild animals as he waited, without weapons, to be rescued; and the soft side he showed towards women and the weak. Today’s midgets stand in reproachful contrast to his he-man shenanigans, his excessive drinking, his bravado, his fantastic talent. And to his great taste in women — apart from Mary, his last wife — and in houses: the light, white and airy Cuban abode, and his flat at the Sherry-Netherland, where Taki grew up. As he might well have said: ‘I shit on all his critics, on Gertrude Stein and all other such phonies, and declare Papa the King of the World.’