June 02, 2009
Fifty-four years ago this month, dizzy with happiness at having been freed from the jail that was boarding school, I ventured down New York’s 5th Avenue looking for fun and adventure. I knew a place called “El Borracho,” Spanish for drunkard, where my parents used to dine. The owner was an agreeable Catalan, who had decorated the walls with paper smudged with lipstick. Whenever he’d spot a client who was beautiful, he’d ask her to leave an imprint of her lips on a square piece of paper, which would end up on his walls. This had caught on, and women—everyone wore red lipstick back then—whose lips adorned his walls, were among his best customers.
Now I remember the day as if it were yesterday, in fact much better, as at my advanced age I sometimes do not remember yesterdays. It was three in the afternoon, I was tired from walking up and down 5th, and decided to hit El Borracho, hoping the barman would remember me. I had very little money but, when one’s 18, things like that hardly register. The place was just off Madison Avenue in the mid-50s. I walked into the dark, cool place, and plonked myself at the bar, trying to act bored and sophisticated. That’s when I noticed the man three stools down. My heart skipped a beat, then another and another. It was the greatest man in the world: Ernest Hemingway himself. He was drinking a whiskey sour, or so I was about to find out.
Luckily the barman was friendly, especially after I told him about my parents being regular clients. He then turned and introduced me to my hero. I stood up, went over, bowed deeply, ramrod straight, and for the first time in my life was at a total loss for words. “Have a drink on me, young man,” said Papa. “What are you drinking, sir?” I ventured. “Give the kid a whiskey sour,” boomed Hem.
I will not bang on too much about that afternoon. Papa bought me around four or five drinks, I got completely plastered, talked to him non-stop about Jake Barnes and Lady Brett, and Mike Campbell, and Lieutenant Henry and Katherine and even about Nicole, and Rosemary and Dick, and he took it all in, smiling benignly as I showed off my knowledge of Papa’s and F. Scott’s novels. I then had a brilliant idea. “Will you please come up to the Sherry-Netherland so I can reciprocate; I happen to keep an apartment there the year round,” I told him.
This was partly true. My parents kept an apartment at the Sherry the year round, and I could charge drinks in the bar downstairs and, of course, room service. That’s when Papa suddenly turned cold. He didn’t wish to go to the Sherry-Netherland, only four blocks away, at 59th street and 5th Avenue, and in no uncertain manner let me understand that our two-hour bull-session was over. I thanked him profusely, and staggered home.
My mother was in. The first thing she noticed was that I was drunk. But when I told her who got me drunk she actually smiled, as if she knew who Hemingway was. (Greek upper-class ladies back then were not schooled for fear they might become prostitutes.) When old dad came home he was delighted that “for once you’re not out getting drunk with your bum friends.”
The next day I went to Dunhill Tailors, where my father dressed, and ordered a brown Harris-tweed suit, exactly like the one Papa was wearing on the memorable day. Two or three days later, my dad came home and showed me the New York Post. Papa’s picture was on page three, except that it wasn’t Papa, but the impostor I had spent the afternoon with at El Borracho. No wonder he turned cold when I had mentioned where I lived. That’s where the real Papa parked himself when in town. Crestfallen but wiser, I went back to reading Hemingway, vowing to myself that one day I would meet him and tell him about the impostor. It never happened. Two years later, Papa wrote The Dangerous Summer, about the ‘mano-a-mano’ between Luis Miguel Dominguin and Antonio Ordóñez, which took place in the summer of 1958. Three years later Hemingway died by his own hand in Idaho. I read about his suicide in Greece, and decided right then and there that writing would be my business from then on.
Twenty years later I was challenged by an Oxford don to debate the point I had made in the pages of The Spectator, a challenge I took up and lost hands down.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountain. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
This is what I call writing, wrote I, but the don had other ideas. But what would he know? After all, he never spent an afternoon boozing with the great Papa.