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Ernest Hemingway starts Islands in The Stream and Invites Buck Lanham and his Wife to Cuba, 1945




All Ernest Hemingway can see and hear is the death and destruction of the war. But he's looking at it as if it were a film, seeing himself as if from the back row of an empty cinema, and the film looks like one of those documentaries. He sees himself looking at the camera and smiling, but it's not really the camera he's looking at, no, Hemingway is looking at himself. And for a brief moment Hemingway knows, one day, he's going to shoot himself.

And with that thought Hemingway starts to cry, but there's no one to hear or see him. With Mary still away he's given the staff the day off. He pours himself a drink, not a big one, just a taster. He feels better as he climbs the stairs of the tower that overlooks the Finca, opens his writing book, takes a pencil from an old tin full of pencils, and writes:



Islands in the Stream. A novel

And for three hours without a break Hemingway leans on his sloping writing board and scribbles away with pencil after pencil until he has written over 2,000 words of the opening of the first of what he hopes will become a trilogy about the war, the trilogy he told that young soldier Salinger about when they had lunch in Paris less than a year ago. And he suddenly realises that all is not lost, that something is still there waiting to be written, something that is going to be the hardest thing he has ever written, and it will be in a different style to all his other stuff, much more like something Lawrence might have come up with. Hell!

But it ain't going to come easy,” he tells himself, “ damned if it is.”

Hemingway looks at what he's written and he knows it's good and reads it out loud to the two dogs and four cats sprawled at his feet:

' The house was built on the highest part of the narrow tongue of land between the harbour and the open sea. It had lasted through three hurricanes and it was built solid as a ship. It was shaded by tall coconut palms that were bent by the trade wind and on the ocean side you could walk out of the door and down the bluff across the white sand and into the Gulf Stream. The water of the Stream was usually a dark blue when you looked out at it when there was no wind. But when you walked out into it there was just the green light of the water over the floury white sand and you could see the shadow of any big fish a long time before he could ever come in close to the beach.

' It was a safe and fine place to bathe in the day but it was no place to swim at night. At night the sharks came in close to the beach, hunting in the edge of the Stream and from the upper porch of the house on quiet nights you could hear the splashing of the fish they hunted and if you went down to the beach you could see the phosphorescent wakes they made in the water. At night the sharks had no fear and everything else feared them. But in the day they stayed out away from the clear white sand and if they did come in you could see their shadows a long way away.

' A man named Thomas Hudson, who was a good painter, lived there in that house and worked there and on the island the greater part of the year.'”

Well, cats and dogs, what do you think of that?”

Crap.” said the large black Labrador.

Wonderful.” said the tabby cat.

Oh, wonderful indeed,” chorused the other cats, “dogs know absolutely nothing.”

Hemingway smiled, and thanked them, then climbed back down the stairs and poured himself a large glass of orange juice from the fridge which he drank down in one and then fed the cats and dogs and told the black Labrador he was a fool and was only being fed because he was old and past it like himself, and that cats know best anyway.

So I've heard,” said the Labrador.

Good, so no more bad reviews, okay?”

Okay, Squire.”

Hemingway then took a shower after which he put a record of Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor on the new radiogram, spread some good caviar on a couple of cheese crackers, poured himself a glass of chilled white wine, and sat out on the terrace where he didn't think again about death and destruction.

Later in 1945, with Mary away again in Chicago, Hemingway invited his old army friend Buck Lanham, and his wife Pete, to stay at the Finca. They arrived on the morning of the 22nd of September.

Lanham had recently returned from Europe to become head of the Information and Education section of the War Department. It was the first time Hemingway had met Mrs Lanham (whose real name was Mary) and apart from being prematurely grey she resembled Mary Welsh in build, and temperament.

Hemingway made the couple very welcome, and on their first full day he took them on a tour of the island where they experienced the delights of bare knuckle fighting, cock fighting, pigeon shooting, followed by a splendid dinner at the Floridita. On the second day of their two week stay they went fishing for marlin aboard the Pilar. That evening they dined (after many drinks at the Floridita) at one of Havana's finest Chinese restaurants.

Lunches at the Finca were long and boozy sessions where the excellent food was washed down by good Spanish red wine. Buck would often take a nap after the exertions of lunch, leaving Pete and Ernest happily arguing about anything and everything.

Pete Lanham was a frank and outspoken woman with firm views who engaged Hemingway in heated arguments about the cruelties of bullfighting, which made Hemingway bridle alarmingly. Pete soon came to the conclusion that Hemingway was “... a temperamental misogynist...” who condemned his mother at every opportunity, accusing her of driving his father to suicide, and that his mother, and Martha, had been the only women in his life who had stood up to him, and defied him. Pete Lanham recalled that Hemingway became very scornful towards Martha when he explained how his ex-wife had demanded he return a quantity of silver given to her by her mother before she and Hemingway had married.

Just because she had it before we were married, she wants it back. Can you imagine such a thing?”

Well, Ernest, I feel I must agree with Martha. And why in Heaven would you want to keep silver with Martha's monogram on it?”

Hemingway would have none of it, and soon launched into a tirade about the shortcomings of Martha as a woman and a wife. And then talked a little about Pauline.

Pauline stole me away from Hadley. She had the wealth you see, and Hadley lacked it, and I needed it badly. And when Pauline protested against my falling in love with Martha I simply told her that those who live by the sword must die by the sword, as no doubt I would in time.”

You really believe that?”

Yes, how could it be otherwise?”

Are you saying that had you stopped with Hadley you would never have had the success you had after your marriage to Pauline?”

I think not. Pauline's wealth gave me the freedom to write as I wanted to write.”

But surely you were writing as you wanted to with Hadley?”

Yes, but not enough. I had to rely on journalism to make a living,with Pauline I could concentrate on writing novels.”

Very unfair on Hadley, and Buck has told me how much you loved her.”

I did, yes, still do if truth be told. But it's too late now, and I have Mary.”

You seem to me to be a man who wants to destroy everything.”

Oh, I know deep down that I'm to blame for the break-up of my marriages, except the one to Martha, that bitch brought that upon herself.”

Pete held her tongue.

During another long lunch Lanham told Hemingway he'd never read The Torrents of Spring. Ernest immediately fetched a copy and watched over Lanham as the old soldier read the novel out loud with Hemingway laughing at his own biting, and somewhat shameful, satire at the expense of another writer who'd been of huge help to Hemingway in his youth. Lanham, unlike his wife, kept his thoughts to himself.

Towards the end of their stay at the Finca Mary returned from Chicago, and over yet another long lunch Hemingway began to pontificate about the Russians, and their place in world history, and how the US should leave them alone to get on with things. To Pete Lanham, a good army wife, this sounded like appeasement, and at one point she asked Hemingway where his umbrella was, which was an allusion to 1930s British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Hemingway, with eyes blazing, jumped to his feet and was about to hurl his wine glass at Pete when Mary intervened and calmed the situation. Within moments Hemingway was his charming old self again.

After the Lanham's had gone Hemingway confided to Mary that the headaches had come back with a vengeance some days earlier.

I must write and apologise to Pete.”

Yes.”

I really haven't been myself.”

No.”

I've started a novel.”

Good.”

The black Labrador doesn't like it.”

What about the cats?”

Oh, they love it.”


Note: although based on fact some of the scenes and dialogue are imagined.

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