The Big Read: The young man and the antlers
Last month a widow took a road trip from Owl Farm, Colorado, to Ketchum, Idaho. On the back seat were a pair of elk antlers, wrapped in brown paper. She was going to meet the Hemingways, and she was nervous about what they'd say.
In 1959 Ernest Hemingway left his Cuban home and moved back to the US, to Ketchum. It was a sudden departure. He left all his papers and artwork and furniture, a book open across the arm of his reading chair, an empty glass on the table. Those things are still there in the house outside Havana, just as he left them.
Ketchum is a small town with clean air in the shadow of Bald Mountain; it's good for skiing in winter and fishing and shooting in summer. It should also be good for writing, but Hemingway didn't find it so. He was in the grips of a largely undiagnosed mental condition, paranoid and anxious and unable to write. Writing made everything okay, and without it nothing was okay. At 7 one morning he tiptoed from his bedroom so as not to disturb his sleeping wife and killed himself downstairs with his favourite shotgun.
Three years later Hunter S Thompson visited Ketchum to write a feature. He was just starting out, a conventional young journalist, not yet Gonzo, not yet famous. He visited the Hemingway house and admired the fine set of antlers hanging over the front door. He walked the quiet streets and hung out with locals in the Sawtooth and the Tram Bar and noted how everyone claimed to have been best buddies with Papa.
'ALL STORIES END IN DEATH': Ernest Hemingway circa 1950s.
I tracked down the article he wrote in the June 28, 1964 edition of The Toledo Blade. It's a very traditional piece in which he muses on the spectacle of your idols ageing and growing infirm, and he passes on stories of Hemingway's three-day drinking binge in the local Tram Bar with two old pals from Cuba, one a gun-runner and the other a neurosurgeon from Havana "with hands like a musician" who was forced to be the bull while the other two waved a checkered tablecloth in front of him and shouted "olé". You can feel Thompson poking around the legend of Hemingway, trying to see inside it, trying to make sense of how he could write as he wrote, and how it all went away.
(Incidentally, it's always interesting to read old newspapers. It's remarkable how many words readers were capable of reading back then. One delightful feature that I feel newspapers should reinstate is a page called "The Eligibles", featuring a profile of a different local bachelor every day. On 28 June 1964 it was a certain Tom Quinn. Let me condense it and report that in 1964 Mr Quinn is 35 years old, lives with his mom and dad, has worked as a window dresser for a department store and loves musicals and amateur theatre. What kind of a woman is he looking for? She should have an interest in international politics and, "in the words of one of the songs from Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, she should think more of me than herself, and more of us than of me." Hang in there, Tom Quinn, the 1970s are coming to save you.)
Thompson's feature ends with a meditation on what made Hemingway kill himself, and about the generation of writers that have passed, and the new more vital generation succeeding them. He writes with a sensitivity unusual in a young writer at the beginning of his career, but you have the sense that he felt, as the young do, that these are things that happen to other people.
When Thompson left Ketchum, the elk antlers that were hanging above the front door vanished too. He claimed that he just became caught up in the moment, but I suspect he stole them and mounted them in his own garage in Colorado as a totem of Hemingway's power, a pinch of magic potion, a wordless act of desire and veneration, but also rivalry and ambition. Later he regretted taking them, but when the great grow older they are often discomfited to remember that once they were not great, that they, too, were young and callow and insecure, looking for idols, longing for a lineage.
Ten years ago now, after a quarrel and while talking to him on the telephone, Thompson's wife heard the sound of clicking, and smiled, thinking he was writing again. When things were going wrong, the flow of words, even bad words, always made everything better. Later, after she arrived home, she realised he must have been cocking a gun. Last month she loaded the antlers in the back of the car and finally drove them back to Idaho.