Late one morning my office phone rang. It was Lavanne, our bookkeeper who worked next to the publisher and spent most of her time trying to keep the books from going totally out of control. She was a tell-it-like-it-is southern lady deliberately brought on by John to keep Mitch in line.
“Mitch wants you to take a writer to lunch. He’s on his way over here, so if you come on down to my office, I’ll give you some money,” she said.
“Okay, who is this guy?” I asked.
“He’s Ly-chester Hemin’way and Mitch wants you to take him out and get him drunk.”
“Uh, I think it’s pronounced Lester Hemingway,” I said.
“Well that ain’t the way it’s spelled, Honey. I bet he has a hard time with that name.”
I would learn later that it wasn’t necessarily the first name that got him the hard time.
He arrived at the appointed time looking very much like his more famous brother. He had a beard that was graying and had on a blue Cuban guyaberra shirt and khaki slacks.
At the time, I knew only a few facts about Leicester Hemingway. I knew he had written a best-selling book about his brother – My Brother, Ernest Hemingway – and had written a novel, The Sound of the Trumpet. Later, I would learn that he had also reported for a number of newspapers including The Chicago Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer and PM.
We sat to lunch in the Oyster House on Federal Highway.
“Let’s get some drinks,” I said. “I’ll have a schooner of Heineken’s.”
“I’ll have some ice-tea,” he said. “You go ahead. I don’t drink any more.” So much for Mitch and his order to take Hemingway out and get him drunk.
It was due to health reasons, he explained, but there were other benefits to quitting.
“When you don’t drink any more, people tend to put more faith in you; they trust you more,” he said.
The drinks came. We raised glasses.
“Cheers, noble,” he said, with a smile and a wink. Now tell me about the magazine.”
I ignored the request for the moment and asked a question of my own.
“Were you born in Oak Park, too?” I asked. As I asked it, I realized it could have come out better. People were probably always referring to his brother, knowing that Ernest was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and then seeing if Les had the same Hemingway-ness about himself. But that wasn’t my intent.
There was a slight hesitation before he said, “Yes, I was.”
“So was I,” I replied. “West Suburban Hospital.”
“A Chicago guy,” he laughed. “It’s a great place to be from…”
“…But not necessarily a place you want to live.” I finished the familiar adage of those who had escaped the Windy City.
We ordered food and I told him what I knew of the publication in somewhat non-committal terms, not knowing what Mitch had in mind for him.
I explained where Mitch got his money and how Alan who had just departed had come up with the idea for an independent publication in the back of a newsstand.
"I heard there was some sort of a shake-up at the magazine," he said.
"You mean like the editor trying to put the publisher's head through the wall?"
"Yeah, that bad. I heard it was pretty loud and intense," he said.
"Right after that he hired Jane to be the editor," I said.
"What do you know about her?"
"Not much," I said. "She seems pretty smart."
“Where do I fit in?” he asked.
“Well, you’re a writer. I don’t think they’re going to make you Playmate of the Month.”
“Yeah, I’d like to do some good pieces, Bimini stuff maybe. I go over there a lot.”
“Hey, if it were up to me that would do it.”
We talked over lunch for over an hour, touching on fishing and boats and Fidel Castro, whom he had met once.
“He’s not a stand-up guy,” he said. “He was cheating in a fishing contest. Can you believe it? What kind of a guy does that?”
“You know, Les you’ve just done a great shorthand on Fidel. You didn’t have to say a word about politics or foreign affairs. ‘He was cheating in a fishing contest’ says it all.”
Back at the office a crowd was waiting as we walked in. Mitch was in an expansive mood.
“I am so pleased that Les will be doing some articles for us. We’re going to start by having Randy here take some pictures of Les over in Bimini so we can get this thing going.”
Photo lights flashed as everyone got their chance to stand next to Leicester Hemingway and have the moment preserved. In the confused arrival scene, I had been summoned away to return phone call messages from my office.
My guess was that now that Les was onboard in the editorial department we would have a real chance to promote the publication. He was a Hemingway and Mitch was doing his best to give him star treatment. I was hoping to get him in front of a few radio personalities or feature writers. We needed something to create excitement. This would make my life easier having the Hemingway label to tout.
But there was more to the man than the label.
A knock on my office door. Our receptionist Vicki stuck her head in as I was finishing my callbacks.
“You have a visitor,” she said, smiling.
Les followed her into the room.
“Mind if I hide out here awhile? Get away from the flashbulbs?”
He sat down.
“I’ll get you guys some coffee,” Vicki said.
He started talking about Bimini and how he got over there from Miami.
“I do a small publication over there –The Bimini Out Island News,” he said. “Fishing tales, stories about the locals. I get over there every other week or so, go over on the mail boat. Every now and then I get a flight over from the Chalk’s air service.”
“How do you like their service?” I asked. “Is it worth the price?”
“For me it is. I ride up front on a jump seat with the crew. All the flight costs me is breakfast for the pilot and his co-pilot. You’d be surprised how many places you can get to if you just offer to buy the crew breakfast on the other end.”
We both laughed.
“It’s basic human nature,” he said. “If I buy a ticket, the crew gets none of the money, but if I buy them breakfast, they get a damn good meal out of it.”
“You got me convinced,” I said. “If I had a plane, I’d be letting you buy me breakfast.”
“Hey, it also works for lunch and dinner, too, and lacking that there’s the universal currency – a bottle of booze. Just don’t let them drink any of it until you’ve landed. I made that mistake and I was damn lucky we could all walk away from the shaky landing.”
“My cousin Jack used to say that any landing you could walk away from was a successful landing,” I said.
Les looked up at me.
“He was a flier,” he said. “What happened to him? You said he ‘used to say’.”
“He went down in the middle of Pennsylvania in an old B-17 he was delivering to a collector. His girlfriend was with him. They figure she was about four months pregnant at the time. Didn’t find their bodies for a couple months.”
“What did they say caused it?”
“Plane just came apart, they figured.”
“Rotten luck. Was he older than you?”
“Yeah, about 12 years. He used to take me flying. I was going to learn and get my license. After the crash, I don’t know, it just kind of felt wrong.”
“Death can do that,” he said.
I wondered as he said that if he had thoughts about his brother and how he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound some 16 years earlier. I thought better of going there. I had just met Les and certainly didn’t want to be taken for someone trying to cash in on a suicide story involving one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
“Well, enough of that,” I said. “My cousin would have certainly taken you as a passenger and you would have had a hell of a good time at breakfast with him. He always loved to sit and tell tales.”
“My kind exactly,” he said.
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