It was during a meeting in Venice that Ernest Hemingway urged me to buy a small Impressionist watercolor of a rainy Piazza San Marco, and on the backing he wrote an inscription.
For years it has hung on the wall over my desk. A short time back, it was jarred from its place, and the old frame came apart. And because of that, I made a minor discovery.
That day in Venice in April, 1954, had begun at 7 a.m. with a crackling-voice conversation with my editor in Rome. "Hemingway's still in Venice . . . at the Gritti Palace. See what you can come up with." I rang the Gritti at 9 a.m., and the operator said: "Signor Hemingway, he is not to be disturbed."
I passed the time waiting for him by strolling and thinking about the upcoming meeting. I decided not to pull out a pad and pencil; that could follow later at my pension. Nor would I ask cliche- ridden questions.
Exactly at 11:30 a.m., Hemingway appeared in the lobby of the Gritti. I was shocked by his appearance. It was three months after he and his wife, Mary, had survived two plane crashes in Uganda, and he looked much older than his 55 years. He had lost a lot of weight; his shoulders did not bulk. His hair and beard were white. He was dressed in an assortment of well-cut, fairly old clothing, and on his head was a flat English tweed cap. His expression was pleasant, his grip surprisingly firm.
"Good to meet you, kid," he said. "Let's eat and we'll have some conversation with Cipriani (owner of Harry's Bar). Cipriani is a good man."
Venice was not yet packed with tourists, as it would be in another month. On a small calle that led to the Piazza San Marco was a small, untidy-looking art shop. In the window was a soft, lovely Impressionist watercolor of San Marco in winter rain. In the foreground, walking, was a Titian-haired young woman dressed in a blue blouse, pink skirt and white apron. Behind her, other pedestrians lent depth. "Buy it," Hemingway said. "It looks like a Corot, but isn't, but it's got a lot of style. You can almost smell the rain."
The volatile owner was so excited at meeting Hemingway that he sold me the watercolor for the equivalent of $20, his excuse being that the frame was battered. In the lower right-hand corner was the date--December, 1905--and a blurred signature that began with a "B." I asked Hemingway if he would sign it on the protective backing, and he did: "To us and Venice on an April morning," then his signature.
At Harry's, Hemingway said he wanted a small table. He purposely sat facing the center of the room. "I don't feel especially expansive," he said to me. "There is supposed to be no drinking for me and my diet is controlled. Kidneys and liver not in the best of shape." But conversationally he did expand, and he ordered a bottle of well-chilled Soave. I noticed he took an occasional sip of wine. He said that Harry's Bar had a true feeling, and that he had long liked the place.
Cipriani, the owner, a gray-looking, smiling person, came over, and Hemingway introduced me; then the two exchanged pleasantries. Hemingway said to me: "Signor Cipriani is a man who has not allowed his great wealth and position to obscure his vision."
Cipriani suggested that we start with risi e bise (Venetian soup made with rice and peas). Hemingway said no: "Too heavy; too rough on my stomach. Make for two your granseole veneziane, and ask the chef to add a few shrimps." (Granseole is the local crab. It was delicious.)
Now the place had started to fill up, mostly with tourists. They stared at Hemingway but did not approach him. He picked fitfully at his food. His wine glass was only half empty. Then, unexpectedly, he said:
"To be a good working writer, you have to be healthy and somewhat lucky. I seem to be loaded with luck." He paused. " 'I Rose Up One Maypole Morning' would make a fine book title. Remember 'Finnegan's Wake'? Poor Joyce, he had no luck, no health, only royalties. By the time he and all of his family but Lucia made it to Zurich--that must have been the end of '40--he was shadowboxing with death."
Suddenly Hemingway was faced with a middle-aged woman. She spoke accented English.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hemingway. I've heard so much about you, and I've read some of your thrilling romances." She walked away.
"She must be confusing me with Frances Parkinson Keyes," he said, and he grinned. "Romances!"
He took a small sip of wine and lapsed into silence. Then he said: "If I felt better and had more time, I'd go north a bit, to the Piave, Gorizia and Caporetto. I spent time in those places."
He certainly did. In 1917-18, he was a Red Cross ambulance driver attached to the Italian army while it was fighting the Austrians. On Oct. 24, 1917, the Italian army suffered a bad setback at Caporetto. It retreated, regrouped at the Piave River near Venice, took on a new commander and, in renewed fighting, pushed the Austrians and Germans back. Out of Hemingway's experience came "A Farewell to Arms," a love story that contains a scathing attack on the futility of war.
On this early afternoon at lunch, I did venture a remark: "The memories might be bittersweet, yes?" He nodded.
Enter another stranger--a tall, earnest American. He introduced himself as an assistant professor of English at a college in the far west of America. He said that he lectured on creative writing and currently was on a sabbatical.
I sensed what would follow, for one of Hemingway's betes noires was professors of English, particularly those who taught creative writing.
The young professor recited: "Mr. Hemingway, in 'Across the River and Into the Trees,' your American colonel is lying in a duck blind and suddenly--across the wintry, bleak Venetian sky--there appears a flight of pure-white doves, high over the lagoon. Exactly what was the imagery that you were trying to convey?"
Hemingway answered quietly but decisively, biting into his words. He commented on English professors, critics and others who tried to read into his works things that he did not mean. The flustered young professor slid away, out of Harry's and into the sunshine.
Hemingway, looking at his food, spoke almost grudgingly. "Imagery. I've never consciously used it. Symbols creep in naturally when you're working on a book or a short story. You don't spray them on a blank page before you start to write."
We started back to the Gritti. It was raining, the drops bounding lightly against the tiled sidewalks. Suddenly, he halted and hooted. "Imagery, symbolism, critics, book reviewers." Then a lusty Anglo-Saxon oath. In the lobby of the Gritti, we shook hands. He shuffled toward the elevator. He seemed to sag.
On the day when the watercolor of Venice had its frame shattered, I took off the backing with Hemingway's inscription on it, and at the bottom of the painting itself, I read--"Edward Darley Boit, December, 1905."
I called the Vose Gallery in Boston, which directed me to the prints section of the Museum of Fine Arts. Boit was a very wealthy Bostonian, and for years, he and his family had lived in France and Italy. He was, I learned, a very good watercolorist--not in the class of Monet or Cassatt but certainly not run-of-the-mill. John Singer Sargent, his close friend, painted Boit's children in the drawing room of their house in Paris.
My watercolor is again on my wall, in a new frame, but the original backing with Hemingway's dedication and signature is carefully wrapped and tucked away. I am saving it for my teen-age daughter, Hope. With a bit of urging on my part, she started reading Hemingway when she was 11. Maybe all this would have pleased him.