Hemingway's Writing, At Its Best, Made His Literary Audience Care

This being the 100th birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born 1899, magazines are replete with Hemingway remembrances - letters, stories, reprints, commentaries, old pictures. Most of it is keyed to Hemingway's last "fictional memoir," a posthumous book-publishing event titled "True at First Light."

Some of the authors of these remembrances, notably Lillian Ross, claim a warm friendship with Hemingway. Old trunks of Hemingway letters (he was a prolific correspondent) have surfaced. Some people claim to have been his intimate, durable companion.

All of it is rich reading. Some of it is just so many horse apples.

I can claim an acquaintance with Hemingway that lasted about 1 1/2 hours. It was quite an eventful 90 minutes.

I first met him in 1959 when he joined our table in the Duchin Room of the old Sun Valley village. I was with a friend, Jerry Gray, who asked Hemingway if we could take his picture. Then we invited him for a drink at the Ram, a skiers' watering hole. It was 3 p.m.

When we sat down, he said, "Look, I'm all through working, and I don't mind talking. Anything you want to talk about is all right with me."

We talked about boxing (he liked Seattle's Harry Matthews), Dempsey, Tunney; about skiing, about sportswriters like Red Smith and John Lardner; about his books made into movies.

But all this time there was that big story, the one on Cuba. Would he talk about Cuba?

For years, he lived at San Francisco de Paula, outside Havana.

The people revered him. "The Old Man and The Sea" was about a Cuban fisherman. "To Have and Have Not" had Cuba in it.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the bearded Fidelistas, had come down from the hills and driven out the American-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. After show trials, Castro was executing Batista police and officials. The U.S. State Department, the whole Eisenhower administration, was outraged.

Half the writers in the world would have killed to be in my place. Hemingway said yes, he was ready to talk about Cuba - the first time he had spoken out. And now he said:

"This is the first revolution in Cuba that really is a revolution. I have great hopes for the Castro revolution."

The public trials and executions of Batista people were necessary. "They are doomed anyway," he said. Then he explained:

"A lot of them were thieves, sadists and torturers. They tortured kids, sometimes so badly they would have to kill them."

He cataloged the horrible torture methods Batista police used on people. He described the graft and corruption. Teachers could not get jobs unless they paid prohibitive bribes.

"These trials and executions are necessary," Hemingway said. "The Castro movement promised the Cuban people that Batista's men would be punished. The new government has to carry out its promises."

Without the trials, the Batista thugs would be killed anyway. People would hunt them down. He spoke of "village vendettas, where killings would go back and forth."

Endless vengeance: "It would be very bad. If people can kill for atrocities, they would soon kill for a debt or some other minor reason. The trials are necessary. These men are doomed anyway."

He described Cuba's corruption, illiteracy, the Batista sellout to American gambling and Mafia interests, rampant whoring, the bad behavior of American companies in Cuba.

Hemingway went on at great length and detail. "Cuban kids have a right to an education," he said. Then he repeated: "I have great hopes for this revolution. I only wonder if Castro has the strength to carry it out."

When I originally wrote about our talk, I left out that last sentence at Hemingway's request. Such a reservation, if expressed publicly by Hemingway, would have been dynamite in Havana.

In a few hours, I offered him my typed-up notes, taken from memory, if he wanted to check them for accuracy. He said no, "I think you probably got it right."

Later I heard that he laughed to a friend, "That guy will probably get me shot." But when he saw the story, he said it was OK.

I have often wondered why Hemingway, never far from big-name journalists, picked me, a small-caliber mouthpiece, to unload on. I don't know. But I know he was gentle, cheerful, funny and unpatronizing - qualities, by the way, that emerge in recent reflections by people who knew him well.

A part of his posthumous work, "True at First Light," was recently excerpted in the New Yorker. He was getting old and beat-up when he wrote that. He was a parody of himself and his best writing.

It is about lion-hunting in Africa with his wife, Miss Mary. It is about Miss Mary's sadness that she failed to shoot the lion, which Hemingway did. Kind of fiction.

The Hemingway of "Farewell to Arms," "The Sun Also Rises" and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" made one care. As it is, I don't give a rat's rear end whether Miss Mary was sad or not.

Not too much of Hemingway published after his death by suicide in 1961 was much good, really.

But he kept trying to the end. He shaped American literature in the early half of this century. His purpose was always high, and even his failures were quite wonderful. As he told Lillian Ross, "Nobody ever fielded 1.000 if they tried for the hard ones."

Emmett Watson's column appears Tuesdays in the Local section.