Papa Knew Best
Papa Hemingway was born 100 years ago this year and died by his own hand 38 years ago this week. I spent a day with him in 1954, when I spotted him walking—swaggering, really—up 5th Ave. He was wearing a rumpled brown tweed suit, beautiful cordovan shoes and a regimental tie. He went into El Borracho, a popular restaurant of the time, just off Madison Ave., that one my parents used to take me to often when I came in from boarding school. El Borracho had a quaint custom of asking every lady customer to leave an imprint of her lips on a piece of paper, and its walls were covered with lipstick snippets. Some of the names were very famous, some not.
Papa went straight to the bar and ordered a tall drink. I waited shyly by the door, but as the barman sort of knew me, I finally approached the great man, asked him if I could sit with him and ordered a Tom Collins. Although I was just 16, Papa’s fame was such that the barman never dared question my right to drink. In fact, Papa could not have been kinder, and went as far as to quote from some of his books for my benefit. We spent at least three hours together, Papa becoming more Hemingwayesque as the drinks kept coming. He did not allow me to pay for a single one. By the time the bar filled up around eight in the evening we were both completely plastered. I asked him to come for dinner with my folks at the Sherry Netherland, where old Dad kept a year-round suite, but he declined. “The old lady’s up and waiting,” he said, or something to that effect.
I walked back to the Sherry on the proverbial Cloud 9, and talked about Papa to everyone I came into contact with the way people during the Stalingrad siege talked about food. Relentlessly and nonstop. There was only one problem. My Hemingway turned out to be a fake Papa. A newspaper report nailed the ersatz Hemingway as a well-to-do salesman from New Jersey obsessed with the author. To say I was crushed would be a grotesque understatement. Thank God, however, the phony Papa was exposed before I went back to school. I still cringe at the thought of what my school friends would have done with the Taki saga of “Papa and I.”
And now to the real McCoy. Being Greek, I have never been in any doubt as to who is right in the centuries-long struggle between the Ancients and the Moderns. My ancestors knew what they were talking about when they declared that man does
not control his fate. He is helpless while the gods toy with him. Oedipus did not knowingly do anything to deserve his ordeal. It was the fate the gods had decided for him. Shakespeare’s protagonists, on the other hand, are brought low by their own failings. Othello and Lear are done in by their vanity, Macbeth by his ambition, Hamlet by his indecisiveness. And they all rail at the terrible hand that life has dealt them.
Not Papa. Here was someone writing about heroic figures who understood fate and did so uncomplainingly: Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms—incidentally, the best-written novel in the English language.
The 1950s were good years for heroes. The Bill Clintons of this world did not count back then. The virtues celebrated by Papa were mostly about courage. He did not espouse the fashionable idea of today that we are all heroes the moment we venture out of bed. Heroes were those who sought to enact in their own lives the tension between mortality and immortality. The heroes were those who went to war, those who were ready to fight for honor.
Needless to say, Papa, the poet of machismo, is not liked by critics, the academy and feminists. But no one can approach Hemingway in the craft of writing. He made narrative prose into a physical medium, took out the fanciful, and—as Jeffrey
Hart wrote in National Review—”used simple sentences” that “require you to think.” Every word of early Hemingway counted. And counted a hell of a lot. Here is Prof. Hart quoting Hemingway: “And how else could the novel end, other than it does, with Frederic at last outside the window?’ “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ This novel puts war in the foreground, but its real subject is our nakedness before death. We are all finally outside the window, like the soldiers of the opening.” See what I mean about Papa making every word count?
Sure Papa had a terrible end, dying prematurely old, an emotional and physical wreck, writing parodies of his old self. It was the price he paid for living dangerously, and living up to the very virtues he chose to write about, the masculine virtues of fortitude, of violence, of the nobility of failure. For someone like me, brought up during a war, there were only Hemingway heroes to look up to: Dylan Thomas, destroying his art by drinking and whoring until he dropped dead; Charlie Parker playing 52nd St., his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with his woman; Rocky Graziano, smoking in the locker room before going out to fight Tony Zale; Ted Williams, the best baseball player of his time, volunteering for flying missions over North Korea.
I like to quote the first story Hemingway ever published, as an 18-year-old cub reporter. Compare its youthful take on a dance to the crap novels of today about feckless moody youths fighting dreariness, the horrors of ennui and bad cocaine:
“Outside, a woman walked along the wet lamp-lit sidewalk through the sleet and snow. Inside, on the sixth floor of the YWCA building, 1020 McGee Street, a merry crowd of soldiers from Camp Funston fox-trotted and one-stepped with girls from the Fine Arts School while a sober-faced young man pounded out the latest jazz music…
“In a corner a private was discussing Whistler with a black-haired girl who had been a member of the art colony at Chicago. Outside, the woman walked along the wet lamp-lit sidewalk.”
Now that’s what I call writing.
How near are Americans to losing their liberties? Maybe it’s a question only for the black helicopter set, or those overly attached to their guns or solicitous about the kind of Christian sects Janet Reno doesn’t care for. Surely regular folks have little to worry about. Only tolerant Republicans and Democrats are near the levers of power, and the powerful opinion-makers would defend to the death your right to say or believe something they disagreed with. Wouldn’t they?
Except this veneer of tolerance is now wearing a little thin. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal ran on its front page an extraordinary story—extraordinary in what it revealed about how ready contemporary liberals are to limit freedoms previous generations took for granted. The subject was Wickliffe Preston Draper, a “New York millionaire” who sent cash to a Mississippi pro-segregation outfit in the early 1960s. Draper comes across as an eccentric, a big-game-hunting bachelor who became interested in eugenics in the 1930s and established a fund to encourage Air Corps pilots to have more children, an impulse Theodore Roosevelt would have understood.
Though Nazism would soon render this turn of mind unfashionable in the Western democracies, Mr. Draper’s interest didn’t flag. Instead it took a racialist slant, and to make a long story short, the civil rights era was an unhappy time for him.
The Journal article focused on gifts of “nearly $215,000″ that Draper transferred to the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in 1963. This quasi-official body was set up by Mississippi state House politicians to lobby against the civil rights bills then gaining steam in Congress. It also worked to undermine violent and criminal opposition to the civil rights movement.But here was the Journal‘s peg for this interesting but not especially newsworthy story: Draper’s bank, Morgan Guaranty, actually performed the fiscal transfers their client asked them to.
Thus much of the piece consists of a back and forth about whether or not Morgan Guaranty acted immorally in carrying out client instructions. The episode “highlight[s] the ethical issues that confront an institution like Morgan Guaranty…when it is drawn, even unwittingly, into a client’s support for repugnant causes.” Thomas Donaldson, a professor in “business ethics” at the Wharton School, opines that bankers should have the words “Know thy client” tattooed on their chests, adding that when a customer’s actions “offend vital, deeply held values of the institution, you have to say no.” On the other side, Morgan spokesman Joe Evangelisti says, “We can’t tell our customers how to spend their money.”
There you have it. The Journal reports, readers decide: Does a U.S. citizen have a right to send his own money to a legal American organization, or is it a bank’s “moral” duty to block the transfer on grounds of political correctness?
The question is breathtaking. Whatever assessment of the civil rights movement historians ultimately reach (which may well be more nuanced 100 years from now than it is today), in 1963 the question of whether the federal government had the authority to require integration in private accommodations was far from settled. Segregation in the South, which had not been challenged by FDR or Truman or more than half-heartedly by Eisenhower, was on the way out and would likely have expired from sheer absurdity within a generation. But it wasn’t going easily. Most white Southerners still supported it in some form. Nationally prominent conservatives like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley opposed the federal civil rights juggernaut in the name of limiting the power of government. In Congress, enthusiasts for the civil rights bills generally came from lily-white northern districts, with no experience of racial divisions. Balanced accounts of the struggle to push the bills through (like Robert Mann’s The Walls of Jericho) rightly paint their main Southern opponents as moral and principled men. To put them beyond the pale of decency, as the Journal so cavalierly does, is a bit scary.
Of course the impulse to impose restraints on those whose actions we don’t like may lurk in all of us. As I was talking through this column, a close friend told me she wouldn’t mind if banks froze the assets of the producers who make huge fortunes from the dissemination of gangster rap, violent movies and video games. I couldn’t agree, though they are surely a more ignoble bunch than the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Perhaps that’s an ethical issue for the Journal‘s
editors to ponder next: Should major banks continue to accept business from Time Warner, News Corp., Disney, etc.? But don’t hold your breath waiting for that one.
Games People Don’t Play
My school class was the one most wounded by the 60s. Here’s a sure test: Among the those who graduated in 1967 from my elite high school (the Eton of Chicago) not one of us who was the son of a doctor became a doctor himself. But while we boys of the intellectual elite were dosing ourselves with all the nostrums of our time, two groups among our schoolmates were preparing themselves to do much better.
More—perhaps most—of the black kids became doctors. On the other hand, there were the irresponsible white boys, sons of businessmen rather than of professionals like our dads, who neglected their studies and ignored our ecstasies, but spent their time playing poker for breathtaking stakes beneath the basement stairs. For them another fate awaited: They stayed in Chicago and became traders in the futures markets, some of them making fortunes big enough by their mid-30s to retire.
The gambling skills they honed on the sly gave them a sense of odds and proportion and timing that served them well.
I thought of this reading William Safire’s latest spluttering denunciation of state lotteries. Safire can’t see that gambling exists for a reason. It crystallizes in a few hours humankind’s encounter with fate—uncontrollable, but within limits delicately predictable. Gambling’s utility is to offer a playful way to get a grip on how chance and probability operate in our world. Fortune plays an enormous role in a life lived by anyone who isn’t a peasant tied to a single patch of ground; it is our reality, civilization’s substitute for natural selection. And nowadays gambling offers a far more meaningful and useful encounter with nature in the sense of ultimate reality than do hunting and fishing.
Lacking a sense of fortune’s interplay with events, it’s all too easy never to get a sense of how to handle the world, and how its things work. Of course the state lottery is the dumbest form of gambling, but even it offers a lesson: that small risk brings an even smaller chance of reward. And it operates for most people as entertainment rather than a game. But real gambling as a part of everyday life has almost been eradicated. No one plays cards anymore. Almost from the first time the middle class began, card-playing for small stakes was its most common indoor amusement. And suddenly, in the 1960s, this reality dramatically ceased to be. And I wonder if civilization can be maintained without it.
Of course gambling can be overdone, but it’s more likely to be seriously harmful among the top drawer (there! I’ve used it!) than among the masses. In the last century it was a staple of fiction that the oldest son ruined his family by his gambling debts, and it certainly happened in real life. But that it did was an effect of immense class differences that no longer exist. A young man unknown to society could only prove that he was a gentleman or man of honor by running up debts and paying them if he could.
Nowadays there is little danger from young men going to extremes because they want to be accepted by good society. Now people play video games if they play at all. And when playing these games, the only thing you have to lose is time, and the
only thing to win is to have justified the time you’ve spent playing it. What video games lack is the application of human intelligence to the laws of probability and fate. Instead of playing against nature and nature’s God, confronting the immutable rules of fate that govern the glorious universe in which we live, you play according to the whims of the t-shirted Gen-Y’er on a Pepsi high who designed the game a few months back.
Have we lost anything? I doubt that a generation of cardplayers could have been suckered into waging the war we just pretended to fight and now pretend to have won. It began in a game of cards that we lost miserably. Between our position and
Yugoslavia’s across the green baize table at Rambouillet, there was a point of compromise that a couple more hands could have reached. Now, at war’s end, we have accepted a weaker hand than what we were dealt. All the rest—all the billions spent and yet to be spent, all the human dispossession prompted by NATO’s air campaign, all the deaths of civilians caused by NATO bombs, Serb militia and KLA action, all the destruction of houses and churches and infrastructure—was the result of misplaying our hand, or, more accurately, refusing to play it at all. Seldom has so much destruction been caused by so few for so little. If you ever have the chance to play poker with our secretary of state, take it. And give me a piece of the action?