The old man and his boat

Hemingway Birthday lecture focuses on Ernie's beloved Pilar

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By Jeanette Fields

Ernest Hemingway always had a "thing" for boats. As early as two years of age, he drew a recognizable sailboat. It's no surprise that he spent 27 years enjoying his fishing boat, the Pilar.

Paul Hendrickson, author, gave a lecture, "Looking for Hemingway Through the Prism of the Pilar" at the 2009 annual meeting of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. It was held on the Ernie's 110th birthday, July 21.

"I was seeking to complement the life of Hemingway by studying the life of the Pilar," said Hendrickson. He used the boat as a metaphor, employing the Pilar as a kind of literary prism to focus on Hemingway's life.

The young Hemingway was land-locked in Oak Park, yearning for a water route to freedom. This explains his devotion to the Des Plaines River, where he fished and canoed. It flows into the Kankakee, the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Hendrickson is writing a book based on his Pilar research and Hemingway, due to be completed in the near future. A journalist for more than 30 years, he worked for most of that time as a feature writer for the Washington Post. He also taught non-fiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His books have won prestigious awards. Hendrickson, like Hemingway, has a poetic style and dramatic flair, which made his presentation riveting.

Hendrickson traveled to Havana mostly to see Hemingway's boat. The 38-foot Pilar is under a car port near the pool where Ava Gardner reputedly swam naked.

"I knew the Pilar would be beautiful," explained the speaker, "but I didn't depend on being so moved."

The Pilar, however, was in a bad condition; its outer surface was dry, scaling as though it was dying. This was the boat that Hemingway loved passionataely. Here is where he lay under the sun, moon and stars; hosted many memorable parties; got into numerous fights; explored nature; and experienced vigorous fishing, catching tuna, sailfish, pompano, even sharks.

The impetus to purchase the boat in 1935 was a $3,000 check Hemingway received for an article he had written in Esquire magazine. The boat slept six in sleeping compartments and two on the deck. It was low in the water, a functional fishing machine, and "sweet in every kind of sea," according to Hemingway's description of her.

Hendrickson explained that "I felt if I could understand something that really existed, like the boat, I could understand Hemingway." He found people who knew Hemingway and interviewed them. In 1987, he questioned the three Hemingway sons, Jack, Patrick and Gregory (only Patrick is still alive) and wrote articles on "Papa's sons." Gregory was the most colorful: He became a physician, had eight children and three wives, dressed as a woman, and had a series of electric-shock treatments. He was diagnosed as having the early stages of bi-polar disorder.

Losing Pilar

Near the end of this life, Hemingway suffered significant losses. He left Cuba when Castro took over. Leaving his Cuban home, and especially the Pilar, was a traumatic blow. His health deteriorated and trips to the Mayo Clinic did not cure his mental depression.

Hemingway lamented his losses. In 1961, 19 days before his 62nd birthday, depressed about the fact that he could no longer write, he shot himself with his own gun.

"He led a life of active adventure," said Hendrickson, "but he hid the bookish man of anger."

The parallel of the boat's "life" and its owner's became clearer. Hemingway started as a provincial writer in a small inland village and became a world famous celebrity. His many losses eventually led to self-destruction. The Pilar, a cruise fishing boat, similarly came from nowhere to notoriety, then to deterioration and abandonment.

The famous Nobel Prize-winning author would anchor his narratives with something real that existed in the world; that, too, is why Hendrickson chose to write about the Pilar. "Amidst so much ruin," he summarized, "There was also so much beauty."

Reader Comments

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Keith Buckley from Stow  

Posted: July 4th, 2013 12:25 AM

I'm just now reading Hendrickson's book.I am one of Howard Wheeler's Great Grandsons. Until I read the book I didn't know there were 30 of us. Howard passed away just before my 2nd birthday. Very interesting book.

Wes Wheeler from Stamford, CT  

Posted: July 8th, 2011 2:37 PM

It has been a pleasure meeting with Paul Hendrickson in his quest for the story. My continuing comment is the "gingerbread" chrome Wheeler fittings on the bow which were only created in the fifties (decades after the boat was delivered!)WDW (son of the designer Wesley L. Wheeler and grandson of the founder Howard E. Wheeler, Sr