AE Hotchner

We visited writer AE Hotchner, aged 95, at his home in Connecticut to speak about his latest publication Hemingway in Love. The book is the missing chapter from the life story of Hotchner's close friend, the American writer Ernest Hemingway – who died over 50 years ago

Three weeks before he took his own life on 2 July 1961, the American writer Ernest Hemingway spoke to his close friend AE Hotchner for the last time. He told him about a love affair he had while living in Paris in the 1920s, one that had destroyed his first marriage and caused him a great deal of mental suffering throughout his life.

Ernest never took himself or others seriously, except when he was writing; then he was dead serious

“How does a young man know when he falls in love for the very first time, how can he know that it will be the only true love of his life?” said Hemingway to Hotchner. The love he is referring to was his first wife Hadley Richardson. It was a love that he let slip away after his affair with the fashion journalist Pauline Pfeiffer.

Their conversation took place in the psychiatric section of St Mary’s Hospital, Minnesota, where Hemingway was receiving electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a depressive persecutory condition.

It was the second time that the American writer had been confined at the hospital, a result of two failed suicide attempts at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, following his release after finishing his first round of ECTs in January 1961.

During this period before he died, Hemingway was riddled with paranoias about being followed by the FBI; paranoias revealed to be true after a Freedom of Information Act request in the 1980s forced the FBI to release a file it had on Hemingway.

Opened by J Edgar Hoover, who became suspicious of the writer after he began residing in Cuba in the early 1940s, the file revealed that the FBI’s surveillance of Hemingway had continued even through his confinement at St Mary’s.

The information Hemingway shared with Hotchner – author of the biography Papa Hemingway (1966) – before his death has been used for Hotchner's latest book Hemingway in Love, released by Picador in October 2015.

In order to protect Hemingway’s widow Mary, Hotchner omitted this story from Papa Hemingway, thinking the subject would be too sensitive.

In 2015, just under 30 years since Mary passed away and 50 years since the release of his biography on the writer, Hotchner – now aged 95 – has finally revealed the missing chapter in the story of Ernest Hemingway.

In this book you explain, while working from your manuscripts for Papa Hemingway, you had a strong recall of your conversations with Ernest.

Not only a recall of what was said but the cadence of his speech. After all those years of listening to it, it just stays in your scrapbook.

Whenever I think of him, I recall the rhythm of his speech and strange sense of humour. A lot of it was rough, but a lot was quite delicate – you never knew. At any point you could be talking and he would assume his fighting position with you.

People made the mistake of thinking they knew him ... that was fatal

Ernest never took himself or others seriously, except when he was writing. Then he was dead serious. Most of the time he wasn't writing. Considering how long he lived as a writer, he really didn't produce very much. But what he did produce certainly lasted.

Why do you think those memories have stayed with you so clearly?

I idolised him as a student at university, as a boy at high school. I was thrown by happenstance into this funny job of meeting him [for a story for Cosmopolitan, 1948].

At first, I was in awe of him. Then he dispelled that. He was not some monumental figure. He became just like my father – someone I'd known all my life. It was that quality that had everybody calling him papa. He loved to teach younger people. Not in a pedantic way but to teach them through what he did and said.

He taught me how to shoot, fish and do all the things he was an expert at. He also taught me a good deal about life. The way he treated people and his standards.

What would one of his lessons about life be?

One thing that you knew right off the bat was that he didn't tolerate bullshit. Many friends got kicked out because Ernest's bullshit detector picked up something and that was the end of it.

You had to be straight with Ernest. That made for a very solid relationship.

You are speaking about the tougher side of Ernest. In the book, you also write about a sensitive side he had – one not seen by the public eye.

People made the mistake of thinking they knew him. They went on the assumption that he was a one-dimensional man. That was fatal. He was a very complicated man.

When you were around him, you just had to be yourself and treat him like he was a member of your family. He didn't demand anything. He accepted you for what you were. He took great pleasure in what you achieved. It didn't have to be something much, as long as it was something that was part of his own make up.

That's Ernest; he really liked it when things worked

When he started taking me shooting, I was a lousy shot. But, the first time we were shooting duck, I hit a double. That was long into our relationship. It was as if I had somehow climbed Mount Everest. We immediately had drinks and celebrated.

If I wrote an article in one of the good magazines, and he happened to read it in Cuba, he would call or write immediately and tell me complimentary things about what I did.

Conversely, the first book I wrote I didn't intend as a book. It was unwittingly sent to an editor by a woman who was acting as my agent. I sent the book to Ernest and warned him that I didn't intend to publish this. He said, well you're absolutely right, this certainly isn't any good. He was right.

Did you find it difficult to write when you were around him?

I never tried to write around Ernest. The only thing I did were TV scripts.

He was being overrun by New York producers trying to get rights to his stories. So he said, because you live up there, would you just separate the phonies from the good guys. If it's something that's a good idea, let me know and you can write it.

I said, I have no experience. He said, what do you mean? I said, I've never written anything for TV. He said, OK, write something and then you'll have experience.

But yeah, I would say that I would have self-consciousness.

One thing that happened was that there had been a major movie of For Whom the Bell Tolls [1943]. I guess about 10 years later, CBS wanted to do a TV version. I discussed it with him. He said, sure, I didn't like the film, Ingrid Bergman looked too pretty, like she just came out of a beauty parlour.

The TV version had a good cast: it was Maria Schell and Jason Robards. I was driving with Ernest and Mary from Ketchum to his home in Key West.

Ernest never forgot anything, his recall was really remarkable. When he talked about the 1920s it was as if it had happened the day before. He said, wait a minute, is this Sunday – the day when For Whom the Bell Tolls is on TV? I said, yeah, I guess we'll miss it. He said, no, no, pull over at the next hotel. So we pulled over at some rickety place in Texas and went into the lobby.

Ernest said that we wanted a room with a TV. He [the receptionist] said, we don't have them in the room. Ernest said, there's one here in the lobby, haul it up to the room; the three of us want to see something.

A couple of guys struggled up the stairs with this big, old TV and set it up. Ernest and Mary got comfortable on the bed, propped up with pillows. We turned it on but there was no reception.

The manager said, realising who was on the bed, it works if you hold the antennae. He grabbed the antennae and got a very good picture. Ernest said, Hotch, why don't you sit there and hold the antennae?

So, there is the presentation of For Whom the Bell Tolls, with my name up there and I'm sitting down, holding the antennae, facing the two of them, during the whole thing while they watched.

Afterwards, he was delighted with it and asked me for Maria Schell's phone number. He called her in Hollywood – she nearly fainted. But that's Ernest. He really liked it when things worked.

Ernest liked the thrill of having a water buffalo come charging at him, way into the last minute

The only person that there was real antagonism with was [William] Faulkner. Ernest didn't really like any living writer. He didn't like that competition.

How did he clash with Faulkner?

He put him down all the time. Saying that just because he used a lot of eight-syllable words and long sentences, that doesn't make him a writer.

You were speaking earlier about going hunting with Ernest, a favourite hobby of his. What was it like watching him hunt?

Ernest was given a gun when he was five-years-old. He hunted with his father, who was a doctor. So he began hunting really before he could do anything else. It was nature to him.

When there were erratic birds flying in the air, he'd just have this natural swing into the bird's flight. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

I was never favourably inclined to watching the killing of big animals. At the time he was doing it, it was not really frowned upon the way it is today.

Ernest liked the thrill of having a water buffalo come charging at him, way into the last minute. So he could hit it in the right place and bring it down.

Ernest wasn't in the army but he was in the battle

I think that kind of danger was what he really loved. That's why he liked bull fighting so much. I think he really liked the possibility that the animal can win.

There's a bit in Hemingway in Love where he talks about having a reputation for courting death. Do you think this has a connection?

He exposed himself to all the dangers that were possible to be exposed to. He's best known for his exploits in war. There is no danger equal to that. He involved himself, although he never served in a formal uniform.

He flew with the RAF on bombing missions. He associated himself with the US unit in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which was one of the fiercest in the second world war.

He also organised his own irregular group and actually commanded them. It was a group of about 10 men. They operated with artillery and everything else. Ernest wasn't in the army but he was in the battle.

He also enjoyed living well – eating, drinking?

You bet. He enjoyed dining. Wherever we were, we would dine at the best restaurants. He did not spare himself.

In Paris, he always stayed at the Ritz. Ernest didn't necessarily suffer. It was always a little strange to me because he lived very simply: he had very a limited number of clothes, wasn't impressed by up-level cars or any of that.

Was it enjoyable for you to be eating nice meals with him?

That part of his mindset taught me a great deal about living. I don't mean about appreciating food or whatever. He just had his own levels of participation and he indulged them. I think a lot of us don't do that, we sort of conform. God knows he was not a conformist. He was an original in every way.

Was it difficult to interview Ernest?

Everything was difficult about him. It was hard to get him to hold still in front of a tape recorder or a photographer. Or a newspaperman, unless it was one of his buddies who had a column.

Columns are not so important now because we have the internet and the rest of it. Back in his heyday, the newspaper column was a great purveyor to the public of what a person was like and what they were doing.

There were a couple of them whom he trusted. He would talk to them and let them write about him. But God help you if you were an itinerant reporter and you tried to interview Ernest. That didn't work.

At the end of the book, Ernest speaks about his realisation that you can only fall in love once.

I think it was that realisation that was, to quote Mr Shakespeare, the most unkindest cut of all. It was something that he was never able to recover from.

I guess it just wasn't made to be that way. He had already spent whatever it was that connected him to Hadley. I think that he honestly felt that she would be on her own for a while. He planned to get disconnected from Pauline, as soon as he could, and go back to Hadley.

I think the day he found out that Hadley had married, and was no longer available to him, was one of the great disappointments of his life.

It feels, at the end of the book, that it is at the root of his mental suffering.

That's what happened. Even before he became delusional, I think he was not enjoying his life. He never really enjoyed his life with Mary: she was a buddy. He knew he couldn't go onto anything else.

But he certainly did write with great affection about the women on the pages of his books.

Another thing that threw me was when, in the book, you write about discovering that his paranoias about J Edgar Hoover and the FBI were true.

I was stunned when the Freedom of Information Act revealed the report. How he picked up on the FBI presence I'll never know. It didn't seem to make any sense at the time. I guess it was just a feeling that he was being watched.

I'd seen this illustrated in descriptions of other people. They seem to have a sense of when there's imminent danger or when there's someone eavesdropping. It's a sixth sense.

Did you feel bad when you found out it was true?

That was a blow to me. If I had known that, it would have been entirely different. About his treatment and everything else. But nobody had an inkling.