Ernest Hemingway’s Beard
This past weekend I went home to Connecticut to relax and hang out with my family. On Friday I met my grandmother in town for lunch to catch up.
I’ve always been vaguely aware that Granny’s parents knew Ernest Hemingway, and that Granny told some story to do with Hemingway’s beard, but I didn’t know the details. Over lunch Hemingway came up, since I’d been talking about him in my creative writing class the day before, and finally Granny gave me the details.
When she was about ten or eleven, her family and the Hemingways sailed together to a tiny island called Bimini to vacation there. If any of you have read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening—I just did—this island seemed a lot like that one: hardly any buildings, just one big main house, and lots of little bungalows for the guests. The owners and hosts of the island lived in the big house and had two daughters, who my great grandparents thought my grandmother would play with. But they were a bit older than her, so she ended up spending much of her time with Hemingway’s son, Bumby (whose real name was Jack) because he was only a year older than her.
Granny always makes a face when she talks about Hemingway himself. She describes him as self-important, condescending, and rude. One day he and an African dock hand scheduled a sort of “duel” down on the dock, and though it was more for fun, Hemingway ended up beating his opponent so hard that he fell off the dock into the water.
Another day Hemingway went up to the main house, where there was a kind of common bathroom, to shave his beard. Granny went in a little afterward, and Hemingway’s thick, wiry hair was everywhere. He was self-entitled to the extent that he didn’t think it necessary to clean up after himself. Granny described this story to me with a tone and expression like the man had murdered someone.
There was one main path on the island—“The King’s Highway”—and Granny’s father told her that should she come across Hemingway on the path, she should smack her fist into the palm of her other hand—sort of the motion you make when you’re about to do rock-paper-scissors—and shout “Beaver!” So one day, little 10-year-old Granny did pass Hemingway on The King’s Highway, and she did it, and he started hysterically laughing. But to this day, almost 80 years later, Granny still doesn’t know the background of the inside joke. Mystery!
Update: Here’s some more info, straight from the Granny’s mouth.
The island was Bimini. The one and only road down the center of the very narrow island is The King’s Highway. That is where I met EH & said “Beaver”. Mrs. Duncan, an Englishwoman who ran “The Compleat Angler”. The only inn, was the “doctor” on the island & native people came to her to cure all sorts of ills. One day when I was playing with Bumbie [sic].
(Jack Hemingway) , a very small black boy came to the side door, crying because he had a fish hook through the side of his foot. While Bumbie & I watched, Mrs. Duncan first tried to wiggle the hook out to no avail.Then she took a razor blade from her kit & made an angled cut on either side of the hook & lifted it out with a wedge of brown flesh neatly threaded on the hook. The boy had stopped crying before the operation began & Mrs. Duncan said, “Now, your hook’s baited so go along and fish”. And the boy ran off. Bumbie & I weren’t in the least disturbed by this drama & resumed playing around in the sand. Some years ago I was on Art Hailand’s yacht & we stopped at Bimini. In the lobby of the inn there is a large picture of my father with the world record blue marlin that he caught that year. In an adjacent room called The Ernest Hemingway Room are lots of picture of the great man fishing. When my grandfather, Carl Krippendorf, fished off of Bimini in the 1930s there was just one little store in a shack that sold a very small variety of things to the native population. He said that they sold grease for frying out of a large vat. The owner stuck a knife into the vat, pulled it out & wiped it on a small square of newspaper that he handed to the customer & charged a penny. The natives made up a song about Jerome Clark [my great grandfather, who caught the world record biggest marlin—up until that point—in the 1940s. We have a photo of it at my house] & his big marlin & when I was there so many years later they were still singing that song. Loved seeing you at lunch. XXXG”