Sending a Video Postcard From Hemingway's Home
ERNEST HEMINGWAY, coming back to Key West, Florida, from a long trip in l937, was aghast.His second wife, Pauline, had spent $20,000 on building a big, saltwater swimming pool in back of their Spanish Colonial-style house. It was the first pool ever built in Key West. Pauline wanted to surprise her husband. She did. Here was a man who saved most of his paid bills and practically every scrap of paper that drifted into his life. In a room above the garage here, the manuscript for "A Moveable Feast" was discovered in piles of paper after his death. Hemingway could be impulsively generous with friends and strangers, but his many wives learned quickly not to surprise him with enormous bills. There is a pile of bills on display in the room just off the master bedroom in his Key West house. The bill on top says that Hemingway paid $211.02 in city taxes in 1931. How many rational men save paid bills year after year? Answer: If you ask the question, you don't understand. Besides, novelists are not rational. Standing there looking at the pool Pauline built, Hemingway is reported to have said, "You may as well take my last penny, too." He took a penny from his pocket, dropped it on the deck, and stormed away. Pauline, the product of a wealthy family and not without a sense of humor, rescued the penny and had it embedded in the cement deck near the pool. It's still there today protected by a thick piece of plastic. The hot day I recently visited Hemingway's home I climbed the steps to his second-story studio in a small building back of the house at the north end of the pool where he wrote many of his novels. It's a husky, warrior-like, male room with the heads of wild animals on the walls, a red-tile floor, a bulky wooden table for writing, and a cushioned rattan chair for reading. Two huge windows let in the light. On the table is an old Royal typewriter. While there were many other people in the house and walking about the grounds the day I visited, I was alone for a few moments just inside the studio, standing behind a kind of floor-to-ceiling protective cage made of iron bars. To me, the writing rooms of deceased writers are like old, empty refrigerators; they had a nice hum at one time, but the melody is all in their books now. Just then a young, blonde woman in shorts with a video recorder came up the steps talking and taping while she climbed. She had a Midwestern look. "Now I'm climbing the steps to Hemingway's room," she said into the little microphone somewhere on the recorder. She reached the top of the steps, turned to me, and focused. I said quietly, "I am not Hemingway." Never taking her eye from the camera, she laughed and said, "Who are you?" I should have said something dizzy and wry like, "I'm Boris Yeltsin," but I shrugged and said my name good-naturedly. 'Thanks," she said and swung the camera away and aimed it between the bars. "This is the table where Hemingway sat and wrote," she said, "and in the corner is a leather suitcase with the initials E.H. on it." She was describing the animals on the walls in great detail as I descended the stairs. In the shady patio a number of cats lolled on the cool cement. Hemingway was a cat lover, and some of the 30 cats with strange paws still living on the grounds are descendants of a six-toed cat that he particularily liked. I walked around the yard under banyan and palm trees. Cats lounged everywhere. I tagged along with a tour group and learned that the colorful ceramic cat sculpture in Hemingway's bedroom was a gift from Pablo Picasso. When the group went into another room, the woman with the video recorder reappeared, holding it to her eye as she walked toward the cat sculpture. I stayed in the room pretending to examine a chair from Spain. "This was made by Picasso," she said, the video humming, "and imagine how much it would be worth today." She turned to the bed. "Here is Hemingway's bed. It's really two beds pushed together and the headboard is an old Spanish gate." She panned around the room silently, then said, "It's hot today, Jackie," and left. She was in the room for about 40 seconds. I walked outside and sat on a veranda bench. Perhaps Hemingway's bedroom is worth only 40 seconds of a tourist's time. The woman never took her eye from the video camera, so she never really "saw" the room. She never "saw" me standing tall at the top of the steps. Or maybe she saw only what was truly worth seeing to her, a condition that may be the only way we humans see anything. When she returns home to show the tape to Jackie and her family, the illusion will be that she "saw" and "experienced" all she videotaped. The video validates her trip in their eyes, but was it "real?" Certainly she thinks it was "real." My view is that my view of "seeing" her without a video camera to my eye validates my view of her. I suggest the view from the camera appeals to those who want to "take" photos, to quickly record something new and move on. The root cause of this, I daresay, is a kind of existential impatience. A camera, in this instance, is peek-hole technology: great fun to use, but only as valuable as the vision of the person pushing the button. Her fleeting view of me at the top of Hemingway's stairs is a fragment, a non sequitur. Hemingway and I are reduced to a video postcard. I could be wrong. Suppose the final conflagration hits the world six weeks from now. Her videotape, fortuitously bound by an indestructible, air-tight polyurethane box under tons of rubble, is nontheless safe in Iowa. Thousands of years later a new life form will be digging around and find the plastic box in a bog. Someone or something will deduce what to do with it. New eyes will watch the flickering images and hear the woman say, "Now I'm climbing the steps to Hemingway's room." I will appear and say, "I am not Hemingway." On the basis of these scant details, years of research will be launched and all of Hemingway's books will be triumphantly rediscovered in a vault that was once located in Michigan and kept by an eccentric librarian. I rose from the bench. I found the woman videotaping cats and talking to them. "Excuse me," I said, "Did you know that one of the shelves in the downstairs rooms contains most of Hemingway's books? And that by the pool there is a penny that Hemingway threw down when he learned that his wife had spent $20,000 building the pool?" She thanked me. I last saw her by the pool. She was down on her knees, camera to her eye, videotaping the penny and probably saving Hemingway from oblivion.