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Author, Adventurer--and Furniture Label

MarketingErnest Hemingway's sons have lent their famous father's name to products ranging from sofas to sculptures.

January 21, 1999|JURA KONCIUS | WASHINGTON POST

HIGH POINT, N.C. — The Ernest Hemingway myth lives on, immortalized now in four-poster beds and duck decoys. Consumers will have to decide whether to have or have not.

Brand Hemingway has joined the rapidly growing ranks of licensed products for the home, a cross-pollination of a 20th century literary titan and the current penchant for celebrity labels.

The spin: If you loved the book, you'll adore the decorative throw. Imagine "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" interpreted as a line of aluminum and copper picture frames by Jurgensen International, a California firm.

The design is being marketed as "masculine and simple," but will shoppers see it as a way to buy into the super-macho Hemingway legacy?

At the twice-yearly furniture market here in October, a dozen licensees did their part to interpret Hemingway as home label: The Papa Hemingway overstuffed leather chair and ottoman at Thomasville Furniture is part of an earthy, rugged 96-piece collection; the Kenya rug by Couristan is available in a zebra stripe or leopard print; the Ernest Hemingway collection of hand-woven blankets is by DJC Design Studio.

All this was inspired by the high-voltage lifestyle of the roguish, globe-trotting, hard-driving novelist. Marketing gurus picked through the romantic and exotic places Hemingway called home and chose four "geographic hooks" for the first collections: Ketchum, Idaho; Key West, Fla.; Havana; and Kenya.

But when you strip away the banana palm fabric and the leopard-printed area rugs, you're left with a showroom full of solidly built, stylish, traditional furniture with a scattering of ethnic accents. The trout-fishing, big-game-hunting Hemingway, after all, was known for his brash mode of living, not for his sense of decor.

But the author, who ended his life with a shotgun in 1961 at age 61, left a larger-than-life image on which to base a line of furniture, according to Marla A. Metzner, president of Fashion Licensing of America, which represents the Hemingway family.

"A brand gives attributes that consumers can identify with. Ernest Hemingway conjures up a myriad of images, filled with emotion, passion, adventure and a sense of awe," she said.

Packaging Papa as a $900 tray table or a $3,200 armoire didn't even occur to Hemingway's three sons until someone pointed out that other shrewd marketers already were stamping their father's names on expensive cigars and restaurants filled with ceiling fans and palm trees.

Jack Hemingway--the oldest son and father of actresses Mariel and Margaux, who died in 1996--explained what happened at the Thomasville showroom. He appeared there as a celebrity guest during this fall's furniture market. "We were out drinking and fishing one day, and somebody said to me, 'People are starting to make money off your name. You and your brothers should do it.' "

So to protect their piece of the action, they began consulting lawyers about trademarks and licensing. With Metzner, they hit on the concept of a Hemingway Mont Blanc pen as well as eyewear, safari jackets and bronze marlin sculptures. They arranged for furniture designers to visit the family's home in Ketchum and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, repository of the writer's personal photographs and papers.

Now, wicker chairs, tooled leather sofas, African masks, and fabrics printed with Hemingway's letters and passports are the first wave of what they hope will be ongoing merchandise introductions.

Did everyone in the family think it was in good taste to sell coffee tables on the legacy of their father's name?

Jack Hemingway, 75, said one brother first insisted that the most important thing to remember about their father was "that he was a great writer." His response: "My father had two personas: first, literary, and second, the way he lived. I've been brought up with all of this, but many other people have liked and admired his lifestyle."

Added Metzner, "He was his own best publicist."

And what would the author think of the photo albums, grandfather clocks, the screen-printed tropical fabrics, all sporting the Hemingway label? What would he have made of the Thomasville showroom, filled with rattan chaises and faux pony-skin-covered ottomans and photos of the swaggering author--a drink in one hand, and an arm draped around a rifle, a dame or a dead animal?

"If he came into a room and saw it, he'd like it," said Jack Hemingway. "But if you told him about it, and that it was named after him, he probably would walk right out."

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