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."