As I have been for the past several years, I was a judge the other night for the 14th annual Imitation Hemingway Competition at Harry's Bar and American Grill in Century City. It was, as usual, a festive event, with much drinking of Chianti and stronger spirits and an Italian feast featuring a ragout of wild boar.
The judges convened two hours before dinner to pick a winner from 11 finalists, selected by a screening panel from hundreds of entries. My fellow judges were Ray Bradbury, Barnaby Conrad, Digby Diehl, Bernice Kert, Paul Keye and Dean Faulkner Wells, all writers of note and dedicated Hemingway buffs.
We had all been on the panel before and were wary of each other's stubborn idiosyncrasies. I had never yet picked a winner that the others agreed with and was regarded by my colleagues as rather a dangerous nuisance. None of the finalists were known to any of us. As it turned out, six of them were women, five men.
Having only 11 papers to read, we were soon engaged in our usual squabble over the winner. Surprisingly, I agreed with the choice of most of my colleagues on an entry by one B.B. Richmond of Westfield, N.J. Of the noncommittal B.B., I assumed the author was a man.
It began: "She did not have to smile. She did not have to toss her head back and laugh, or smoke, or cross her fine white legs the way she did. . . ."
Hemingway certainly would have noticed those fine white legs. So far so good. It goes on, "She did not have to lick her lips with that tongue, the kind that would not quit. What was she trying to do? Was this her way of being coy at 1 a.m., or was there a poppy seed caught in her teeth? God only knew, if there was a God. And if there was a God, and he knew, he was not talking. And even if he did know and was talking, no one would have been listening. Not here. Not now. Not with her sitting and licking her lips at Harry's Bar and American Grill." (The plug for Harry's Bar is mandatory.)
One can sense Hemingway's hand in the next paragraph. "All she had to do was sit there and breathe and be beautiful. And if he was lucky, perhaps the rain would stop and she would get stinking drunk and go for his castanets. He prayed she was short. She put out her cigarette in the eye of an old drunk and slid off her stool. She was tall. That was fine. Tall was his second choice. (We all agreed that "Tall was his second choice" was a funny line.)
"She walked towards him. His throat tightened and it was not the whiskey. It was those defiant breasts of hers, laughing at the law of gravity, calling to him, mocking him, taunting him the way Kilimanjaro had taunted him, only pinker."
OK. Like Kilimanjaro, only pinker. We agreed that was a funny line too, although a subtle kind of humor that Hemingway didn't often produce.
"She had the kind of body that could make the dead jump and the lame rise, and he was ready to jump and to rise and also to bark like a dog . . . for a rainy night in a tin shack with her. When she got close to him she stopped. She wet her lips again and smiled. No poppy seeds.
" 'Got change of a dollar, amigo?' she asked. 'I have to call my old man to get the truck and drive me home. Unless, you'd like to . . . drive me home?'
"Looking into her vapid eyes, he knew she was not only cheap but exquisitely shallow, even for Harry's. But any kind of happiness was as rare as turtle (word deleted) on a toreador and he had run out of change the way she had run out of dreams."
Digby Diehl, taking over the mike at dinner, said someone had called B.B. Richmond to tell her she had won, and she cried, "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh, my God!" (Evidently she was surprised.)
She said she had entered her piece in another contest, but it was disqualified because of that one word, which I have excised.
Richmond said she was an artist and writer and owner of Sky Bright Cards, a mail-order greeting card company. She described herself as a wife and mother with "a strange, twisted sense of humor." She didn't say whether she was short or tall, but of course it wouldn't matter.
The evening ended with dignity and eloquence, and a touch of authentic Hemingway, when Charlton Heston read a melancholy paragraph of early Hemingway and proposed a toast, with grappa, to the old reprobate himself.
Heston's brief reading proved that all the entries had been only imitations.