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Commentary : An Unmanly ‘End of Something’ : With Glory in Sight, a ‘Bad Hemingway’ Contestant Finds Himself Without a Competition to Imitate In

It was a brief, simple “Media Advisory” that arrived by mail:

“The International Imitation Hemingway Competition, sponsored since its inception in 1978 by Harry’s Bar and American Grill, has been discontinued.

“Charles A. Frank, president of Spectrum Foods Inc., which owns and operates Harry’s, said: ‘Quite frankly, the time and management commitment, in addition to the cost of the competition, have just outgrown our resources. I feel it is much better to end the event on a high note. . . . “

A high note? When I had just written my best Imitation Hemingway ever? When I was certain to win, after years of losing?

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That would have been a high note!

For years, I have publicly castigated the Imitation Hemingway judges for overlooking, underappreciating, misinterpreting--possibly misplacing-- my submissions. What other reasons could there be for selecting other, clearly inferior, entries over my own?

Surely, when they read my latest Imitation Hemingway (“one good page of truly bad Hemingway,” plus a plug for Harry’s, as the rules require), they’ll change their minds about ending the contest.

Take This, Judges!

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He looked out at the pigeons sitting on the roof across the piazza. He was cleaning the gun and thought about shooting a pigeon but she wouldn’t like it. The pigeon would fall to the piazza and she would cry the way she had when he had left her the first time, after the war. He decided not to shoot a pigeon.

“There’s the thick Italian bread,” he said, “and of course the good sausages.”

“And the wine,” she said, packing the basket. “Don’t forget the good, strong wine.”

She was mocking him. He hated her for it but he also loved her, which is how it always was with men and women.

The sky was gray above Firenza. He knew how much she wanted the picnic.

“We could go to Harry’s,” he said.

“And get drunk on dry burgundy?”

“It beats getting wet.”

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They liked to hurt each other. It made no sense, but neither did their lives. Then there was his writing, which also made no sense. He wondered if anything made sense. No, he thought, nothing makes sense, which is why his writing was so true and good.

“I’m thinking of shooting a pigeon,” he said.

“It makes no sense.”

“I know.”

“Then why?”

“Because life makes no sense.”

“Like your writing.”

“Yes.”

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They made love then on the small Italian bed. It was good, but not as good as before the war. While she smoked, he went to the window and shot a pigeon.

She left him in the morning. He helped her carry her bags down to the piazza. The pigeons were no longer on the rooftop.

“It makes no sense,” she said.

“I know.”

“I won’t come back.”

“I know.”

“You don’t believe me.”

“I know.”

“Then why do you keep saying, ‘I know’?”

He didn’t answer.

“It makes no sense,” she said.

They went back up and made love on the small Italian bed. Afterward, the pigeons returned to the rooftop.

He thought about shooting one, but decided not to press his luck.

A Tide of Letters

Last year, when I failed to win the competition for the umpteenth time--and again complained in these pages--the public outcry was unprecedented. Not only were there several supportive letters to the editor, but the number of sympathetic notes directed to me personally swelled to four.

One came from Wally Beene, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona. He reminded me of a quotation from Col. John R. Stingo, a veteran newspaperman, as reported by A.J. Liebling: “Fortune lies not in the main stream of letters, but in the shallows where the suckers moon.”

Another was from Monique Moss at Michael Levine Public Relations Co., which I had to discount, since her boss probably put her up to it to get his name in the paper.

Then there was a letter from Warren Wedin, an English instructor at Cal State Northridge.

Wedin wrote of his work as a pioneer pre-screening judge, one of those folks who for a decade had sifted through thousands of Imitation Hemingway entries, selecting roughly 1% for screening by the final judges--all for no pay.

Wedin wrote testily that “over the years, we (the pre-screening judges) have been treated with a certain abruptness” by the P.R. firm that ran the competition--such as being “shunted off to a side room” at Harry’s one year during the festive, final evening of judging. Last year, according to Wedin, he and his colleagues were once again asked to volunteer their services . . . only to learn later-- through a press release-- that they had been replaced!

“We had been cashiered without a word of warning,” Wedin moaned to me in his letter. “We had been dropped like moldy parmigiano. It was the end of something.”

(For the illiterate, “The End of Something” is the title of a Hemingway short story.)

If Wedin and his ilk want my pity, they can forget it. Aren’t they the very ones who have relegated my masterpieces to the trash heap over the years? Who have caused me incalculable frustration, suffering and public humiliation?

Recently, going through old files, I came across a publicity photo taken in May, 1980, outside Harry’s Bar and American Grill in Century City.

It had been snapped shortly after a celebration lunch following the third competition. The winner had been awarded the usual round trip for two to Harry’s in Florence, Italy.

As runner-up, I got a week at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference--and this embarrassing headline in my local newspaper:

Area Man Turns In Second Worst Hemingway .

I look so young, so hopeful, so trusting of life in that photo. With my first ever submission, I had finished second! Surely, I thought, it was The Beginning of Something!

Then, through eight devoted years, I never again gained the finals.

Today, I’m reclusive, bitter, paranoid, addicted to Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond--in short, a broken man.

Surely my editor will insist that I continue to produce one of my wonderful Hemingway pieces each year, to satisfy reader demand.

(Editor’s note: Doubtful.)

I never intended my harsh criticism of the contest to cause the organizers to end it. I only wanted to bring them to their knees.

Instead, they’ve dealt the final blow.

They won’t have this writer to kick around anymore.

I never really liked Harry’s. Too stuffy.


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