Mar 17, 2009

Classics: Time is the least thing we have of

"Just call them the way you see them, and the hell with it," Ernest Hemingway once told reporter Lillian Ross. I think this was after she had written her legendary 1950 profile of Hemingway, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?"

The profile was hugely controversial. Ross had spent several days with Hemingway in New York. She met him at the airport, spent hours in his hotel room, and went with him to buy a coat at Abercrombie & Fitch. Some readers were disgusted by Hemingway's fake-Indian-talk and naked insecurities; others by Ross's clear-eyed portrayal of them.

In an NPR interview, Ross said that Hemingway once wrote her that he was losing a friend a day over her profile of him. Another time, he wrote, "Actually good old Profile made me about as many enemies as we have in North Korea. But who gives a s---? A man should be known by the enemies he keeps."

Despite this, Hemingway remained friends with Ross, she told NPR, writing her "scores" of letters signed ""Ernest" or "Honest Ernie" or "Huck von Hemingstein" or "Ernest Buck Hemingstein" or "Mountain Boy Huck" or "Huckmanship von Hemingstein" or "Love and good luck, Ernest."

The profile never quite went away. Years later, people would still talk to him about it, he told her. "All are very astonished because I don't hold anything against you who made an effort to destroy me and nearly did, they say," he wrote. "I always tell them how can I be destroyed by a woman when she is a friend of mine and we have never even been to bed and no money has changed hands?"

If you've never read the profile, it's worth tracking down Reporting, a volume of Ross' work that includes the story.

There are a lot of classic moments, starting with Hemingway scrawling in pencil "Time is the least thing we have of," on the margins of the typewritten letter he mailed to accept her interview invitation.

But the lunch scene is my favorite. Hemingway, Ross, and Mrs. Hemingway--who calls her husband "Papa"--are having lunch in their hotel room. Hemingway is eating asparagus and talking about his dreams for the future. "Would like to be able to make love good until I was 85, the way Clemenceau could. And what I would like to be is not Bernie Baruch," he tells Ross.

The meal goes on and on:

"Mrs. Hemingway had finished eating, and she quickly finished her wine. Hemingway slowly finished his. I looked at my wristwatch, and found that it was almost three. The waiter started clearing the table, and we all got up. Hemingway stood looking at the bottle of champagne, which was not yet empty. Mrs. Hemingway put on her coat, and I put on mine.

"'The half bottle of champagne is the enemy of man,' Hemingway said. We all sat down again."

Have a favorite narrative passage--text, video, or audio--you'd like to share? E-mail me at

(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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