Hemingway's Son Marks 80th Birthday

Patrick Hemingway, son of famed writer Ernest Hemingway, celebrates his 80th on Saturday. He talks with Scott Simon about his life and his memories of his father.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Patrick Hemingway is 80 years old today. We get to say happy birthday in just a moment. He had a complicated birth which his father Ernest Hemingway used to inform a similar scene in "A Farewell to Arms," the same year that Ernest Hemingway's father took his life as the writer of course would years later. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that he remembered, quote, "the fine times and the bad times we had in that year. But much more vividly, I remember living in the book and making up what happened in it every day, finding you were able to make something up, to create truly enough so that it made you happy to read it. It was something that gave me a greater pleasure than any I had ever known."

Patrick Hemingway who spent much of his life as a safari guide in Africa joins us now from Helena, Montana. Happy birthday, Mr. Hemingway.

Mr. PATRICK HEMINGWAY: Thank you.

SIMON: Over the years, what happens when people who don't know you hear your name? Do people just shake your hand and say, any relation?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Well, I think the funniest incident I ever had was a friend of my dad's and also a friend of mine who is a professional gambler in Las Vegas, and we visited and he wanted to set things up for me, a nice trip to Vegas. And he made a reservation for us at one of the principal casinos, for the restaurant. And we went there, and the maitre d' came over, and he said, oh, Mr. Hemingway, he said, I read everything you wrote. I mean this was about 15 years ago. I've read everything you wrote, and my favorite is "The Grapes of Wrath."

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Lucky, lucky no Steinbeck kids walked into that place.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yes, right. But that's sort of it, you know. I mean, either I have a conversation with people who really know about Hemingway and his role in American literature - and world literature, for that matter - or he's just another name, you know.

SIMON: Timely question. I noticed in separate accounts that both John McCain and Barack Obama, in various interviews, have mentioned "A Farewell to Arms" as being among the novels they have read and treasured most.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yes, I think it is unquestionably, in my opinion, his greatest novel, greatest work really. There's a quality about it that I think one appreciates more and more. It's the sense of a person coping with great events.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind me asking. There is a shadow of suicide in your family line, between your grandfather, your father, your niece, Margaux. You read all kinds of speculations as to, is there a genetic basis, chemical basis? A genetic basis gets aggravated by chemicals, mostly meaning alcohol. Is it depression? Is it circumstance? I just wonder if you have any thoughts on that you wouldn't mind sharing.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: I'm not really competent to say. I will say this, though. There's a tendency in the public to want to endow all geniuses with some sort of madness. I think it must be envy on their part.

SIMON: I hate to sound like a psychiatrist, but go with that. What do you mean?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Well, I mean, to be a great writer, there's what, three or four of them in every generation? And people have to accept this. It's not democracy.

SIMON: Do you read your father often?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Pretty often, because I have a commercial interest.

SIMON: So you've always got to be seen reading it on an airplane so that people...

Mr. HEMINGWAY: No, I have to read it in order to be competent in the marketing of it and the management of it. And we have done a very good job, I think. I mean, compared with the other writers, his competitors in his generation, if you go into a bookstore there's more Hemingway available than there is Faulkner or there is Fitzgerald.

SIMON: May I ask you, if it's not indelicate, you know, every now and then you'll see an ad for like, you know, the Hemingway furniture line?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Oh, yes. What we call our commercial arm. And actually, the Hemingway line, when it came out, was a tremendous success because that was the time when people were building big homes. And the Hemingway line of furniture tends to be pretty massive, you know. It's sort of Texas style.

SIMON: Yes, Papa's sofa.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yeah, right. I mean, you know, the whole concept of Papa was started by Capa, the photographer.

SIMON: Robert Capa.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Robert Capa was sent out to do a shoot on Hemingway sort of relaxing after coming back from the Spanish Civil War in Sun Valley. And all of Hemingway's children were there, my half brother, Jack, and my full brother, Gregory. The three of us were all there, and we kept calling him papa because he never wanted to be called dad. And so Capa said, is it all right if I call you papa, too? And that's when it started.

SIMON: Do you have any plans for your 80th birthday?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: It's a very low-key party just with friends, you know. I think an 80th birthday is great, but there's a great deal of sadness in reaching 80. I mean, you know damn well you can live to be 120, but the chances are you're going to die between 80 and 90.

SIMON: And so do you think of that as you turn 80?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Oh, of course. I mean you start thinking - Hemingway started thinking about dying at an extraordinarily early age. One of his favorite sayings was "your one and only life."

SIMON: And do you think what he wrote gives life to people beyond? Himself included?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Well, I hope so. I mean, I think that literature is what I think intelligent people have instead of dope.

SIMON: Well, I think we could probably both come up with a list of people who've tried to combine the two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Well, yes. Yes.

SIMON: Now, that you've turned 80 - turning 80 - do you think of your father a lot?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Oh, yes. When you're 80, you live more in the past than in the present.

SIMON: So you think of you and your father when you were how old, may I ask?

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Oh, gosh. Many different ages. Sometimes I think of him when I could just barely remember him, you know, when he was just someone who'd kissed you and you didn't really want to be kissed because the whiskers were a little bit rough on your face. And later on it was, you know, when he came to Africa on his second trip, and we'd be riding at night just having fun, you know. No, I remember him in every stage of his life.

SIMON: Mr. Hemingway, a real pleasure talking to you. Happy birthday.

Mr. HEMINGWAY: Well, thank you. It's been a real pleasure here.

SIMON: Patrick Hemingway speaking with us from Helena, Montana. He turns 80 years old today. And this is Weekend Edition. Linda Wertheimer will be here for a couple of weeks while I'm away. Boy, I hope she lets me back. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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