Thursday, July 2, 2020


26 August 2011

I set out to Sun Valley, Idaho to visit the scene of Hemingway’s violent death, and pay my respects to his final resting place.

Horizon flies a non-stop turboprop out of LAX for the 2-hour, 18-minute cruise to a small central-Idaho airstrip with a flight path that provides spectacular views of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, before the plane vectors right over vast desert.

I scribble the first of my notes into a leather-bound journal with my Hemingway Mont Blanc

For almost 30 years, I’ve carried this ballpoint pen in my back pocket, a fixture on all my travels, always a faithful companion.

Bertram’s Ink Well at White Flint Mall in Bethesda, Maryland, was where I’d found it in 1992.  

The pen shop’s owner was using what looked to be a vintage pen from the 1930s.  

I remarked on its beauty, and she explained that Mont Blanc had recently created a Writer series of limited edition pens. 

She handed it to me.  I doodled, and immediately fell in love with this pen’s bulky but light feel.   

I purchased it on impulse, for $230.  

Last year I saw one for sale in London’s Burlington Arcade, for $3,000. 

Upon landing in Hailey, I claim a Ford Escape from Budget and set off on Route 75, a straight-run 13 miles through the valley to Ketchum.

I understand, looking right and left at low mountains, big sky above, I’m out there:  a hideaway zone where life is simple.

Simplism:  a place to ignore complexities and complications.

A sacred place to write.

I check into Sun Valley Lodge, at which I’d reserved Room 206, Hemingway's favorite.

It sits at the end of two long corridors, behind a plain wooden door with a number plate and peep hole. 

I enter this "parlor suite," which is garishly decorated in a hodge-podge of American colonial and French furnishings, burnt orange walls, formal draperies over striped Roman blinds, anchored by ornate red and gold carpet.

Over the fireplace: a framed black and white photograph of the room’s most famous inhabitant.

I peek into the bathroom:  a tub and sink from 1939.

Then the bedroom.  

Sitting upon a chest of drawers is a bronze sculpture of Hemingway at work on a typewriter.   

Off the bedroom, a deck with outdoor furniture, where Hemingway wrote. 

The air is cool and clean.

Since Papa's presence here, 80 years ago, the fir trees have obscured a view of Mount Baldy, 9,000 feet up.

I empty my travel bag and venture down to the concierge for a map and directions.

Sun Valley Lodge has the feel of an East Coast country club, if one without a dress code.  

Its guests seem to carry with them a sense of entitlement that extends to those strolling the streets of Ketchum.  

The shopkeepers and locals are friendly enough, but the WASPs who fly in on private jets look through you as if you’re transparent.

Outside, the scenery is all ski slopes and fir trees; hiking paths abound.

First stop:  The Hemingway Memorial, a mile up Trail Creek Road, near the Big Wood River where Hemingway liked to fish for trout.

This memorial is a simple monolithic column of stone crowned by a bronze bust of Papa.  

No one is around, save several passersby, doing what people come to do in Sun Valley during summer months:  bicycle and hike, take the air, a mountain high.

At the monument’s base:

Second stop:  Hemingway’s final resting place, a small cemetery on Main Street.

As I pull along a narrow lane within the cemetery grounds, trying to determine Papa’s whereabouts, another vehicle rolls toward me the wrong way and brakes head-to-head in front of me.   

I assume the other vehicle somehow relates to Hemingway and sure enough a man named Bill Smallwood climbs from behind the wheel, tells me he’s giving two friends a "Hemingway tour" and invites me to join him by Papa’s grave. 

Smallwood says he ghosted a book called The Idaho Hemingway for Tillie Arnold, a lady who knew Hemingway from 1939, a fixture in Papa’s Idaho existence until his death.

He tells his audience of three that the inscription I’d just read at the Hemingway Memorial was part of a eulogy Hemingway wrote and read at the funeral of Gene Van Guilder, one of Papa’s first friends in Sun Valley, killed at a young age in a tragic hunting accident, resting eternally a few yards from Hemingway’s own grave.

Smallwood explains that Tillie Arnold and all their friends knew Hemingway to be a shy, sensitive soul—quite the opposite of the extroverted braggart his biographers portrayed.

Smallwood has a theory about this, based on long conversations with George Saviers, Papa’s doctor in Idaho.  Saviers saw his patient as a Jekyll and Hyde character.  In Idaho, all they saw was his good, sensitive side, and were amazed to read about the other Hemingway of Key West and Cuba, boozing, brawling and boasting.

The only explanation, says Smallwood, is booze.  Hemingway was known to be a heavy drinker, and this brought out the worst in him.  

But in Idaho, from his first visit in 1939 until his last night, Papa was little more than a social drinker, save the occasional drinking contest at one of two local saloons.

“Dr. Saviers told me Papa’s writing from Key West was crap,” says Smallwood, “because he was drinking all the time, from the moment he woke up at 4:30 in the morning to write.  Pick up Death in the Afternoon and turn to any page, it’s a bunch of crap.”

“You mean,” I say, “it should have been titled Drunk in the Afternoon?”

Smallwood laughs.  “Good one!  Maybe, Drunk in the Morning.  When Hemingway arrived in Sun Valley, he was broke.  He was in the middle of divorcing Pauline, and she had all the money.  So he hunkered down in his room at Sun Valley Lodge and wrote sober.  It was a turning point for him.”

“Room 206, right?”


“That’s where I’m staying,” I say.

Smallwood squints his eyes at me.  “Really?”

I nod.  “I’m here for the full experience.”

Third stop:  Chapter One Bookstore, further south on Main Street in the commercial district, to buy a copy of Smallwood’s book.  

One finds gems like this not on Amazon but in local bookstores.  

Afterwards, I stroll past Hemingway haunts including Casino Club and Whiskey Jacques (the old Alpine Club).

Fourth stop:  Ketchum Sun Valley Historical Society Heritage & Ski Museum, which houses an exhibit of Hemingway memorabilia, including the writer’s Underwood typewriter.  

There is no security to stop me placing my fingers upon Hemingway’s typewriter keys.

Fifth stop:  The old Heiss House, which Hemingway moved into during September 1958.  

The gravel road is private; a large sign states in no uncertain terms that trespassers will be criminally prosecuted.  

I proceed anyway and within a quarter-mile Hemingway’s house appears on my right.  

I park and alight, admiring a panoramic view of the Sawtooth Mountains while strolling toward the large picture window that frames Papa’s living room.  It remains as Hemingway left it, a retro time capsule, sparsely decorated, from mid-20th century.

When Hemingway’s widow Mary passed in 1986, she left the house to The Nature Conservancy, which opens it only to large donors.

Sixth stop:  the Duchin Bar, back at the lodge, for a pre-dinner cocktail.  

Hemingway enjoyed a variety of drinks during different phases, and locations, of his life.  

In Cuba he drank mojitos at El Medio del Bodeguita, a graffiti-decorated dive I’d visited in Old Havana a decade earlier on undercover assignment for the FBI.  

And he supposedly invented the Daiquiri at El Floridita a few blocks away.  

In Idaho, Papa cut his drinking to a couple shots of whisky, and wine through dinner.  

But a constant throughout Hemingway’s many moves was the classic martini, which he’d quaffed many a night at Harry’s Bar in Paris.

So I order a Bombay sapphire martini, up, olives, and toast the ghost, who, by now, almost seems present.

Hunger has set in, leading me to my seventh stop:  Michel’s Christiana Restaurant.  

In Hemingway’s day it was simply Christiana (French chef Michel from Lyon had not yet arrived), and Papa’s favorite haunt.  

In the daytime, he would sit at the bar to peruse his mail.  During the evening, he dined at a special table always reserved for him.

Papa's table 

Earlier, I’d asked my concierge to request Hemingway’s table.  

Now the maitre ‘d led me across the room, beneath high-beamed vaulted ceiling, to a corner booth with round table.

“This is a special table,” she said.

“I know.  That’s why I asked my hotel concierge to reserve it for me.”

The maitre ‘d consults her clipboard and shakes her head.  “Nobody wrote that down.”

“Then why did you give it to me?” 

“I don’t know.”

I order a glass of chardonnay and inhale the room.  

Outside, it has begun to rain, and the wait staff scurries to move patrons caught on the patio.

For dinner I want whatever is indigenous to the region, which turns out to be morel mushroom crepes with cream and brandy sauce followed by filet of trout.  

It is, without doubt, the best trout I’ve ever eaten.

I finish a glass of Saint-Emilion Bordeaux.  

Lightning bolts flash in the distance.  

A dark and stormy night.

I return to the cemetery, to Hemingway’s final place of rest.  

No one is around at this late hour, and the only source of light is a waning full moon struggling to penetrate low cloud.

I raise my Canon S90, point and shoot.

I am astounded by the image in my camera:  

Over Hemingway’s grave hover several very profound orbs.

Orbs are opaque balls of light that have been appearing in pictures since the advent of digital photography.  

Some say orbs are spirits or angels or extraterrestrials.  

Oddly, they are found mostly in graveyards, cathedrals or locations known for death and trauma.

An Evening with Papa

For my conversation with Hemingway's ghost...