Ernest Hemingway's Best Friend.  An exclusive article from the Hemingway Resource Center.

 

 

 


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Hemingway (far right) and Charles Thompson (2nd from left) during their 1933 African safari.

 

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Hemingway Resource Center>Exclusives>Feature Articles>Hemingway's Best Friend by Tom Sanders




In the mid-70's, I worked as a television journalist in Miami, and that is how I came to meet and interview Charles and Lorine Thompson. This is also the story of my failed effort to interview Hemingway's brother.

For a time at Post-Newsweek's WPLG-TV, I had the best job in the news department. I was the feature reporter. I traveled around Florida and reported on anyone and anyplace I thought would be of interest to viewers of the news program. The station's channel on the dial was 10. I called the feature 'Ten Country'.

One night in the newsroom, I happened to glance at a bank of TV monitors. A heavyset man wearing a safari jacket and sporting a handlebar mustache was extolling the pleasures of gambling at Miami's Jai Alai Fronton. I reached and turned up the audio.

" That guy's a real character." I thought aloud. "Who is he?''

Larry King was writing the evening sports report at an adjacent desk.  "That, my friend, is Leicester Hemingway, Ernest's brother."

"I've been thinking about a series on Hemingway's years in Florida. I
wonder if he'd do an interview?"

"Why don't you ask him?'' King removed a card from his Rolodex and tossed it to me. ''Here's his phone number."

Leicester was quite the eccentric. He agreed to the interview in Miami, then changed his mind, and insisted on Bimini. Moreover, he wanted to be paid. I explained that my employer had a policy against paying for news interviews. The more we talked, the more I wanted to do the interview. Leicester had great stories to tell about his brother. After numerous phone calls, we reached what I thought was agreement. There would be no payment for the interview. However, I would pay for Leicester's ticket to Bimini on Chalk Airlines out of my own pocket.


In the meantime, My cameraman Gino Bruno and I were off to Key West to video tape other segments for the Hemingway series. We had pitched the idea to the executive producer who gave it his blessing.

The first day's shooting went well. The people at the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street gave permission to roam the house and grounds as we pleased. By late afternoon, we had most of what we needed to produce a good feature. Gino's shot list included the penny Hemingway had stuck in wet cement by the pool, the six-toed cats and the urinal Hemingway had taken from a bar and turned into their watering trough, the pool house where the author did his writing.

The only story element missing was an interview with someone who had known the writer when he lived in Key West. It had, after all, been almost 40 years.

When doing a story on Hemingway and you're not sure how to proceed, have a drink. Gino and I found our answer over Cuba libras at Sloppy Joe's. The bartender joined our conversation, made a few phone calls and by the time we stumbled back to our motel, we had an interview the next morning with Charles and Lorine Thompson.

I stayed up most of the night re-reading Carlos Baker's biography.

Over breakfast, Gino, admitting literary ignorance, asked why Charlie and Lorine Thompson were such an important interview?'


I reached for my carry bag, took out a file, and handed him the lead-in to the story I had drafted overnight.
 



'The ten or so years Hemingway lived in Key West were among his most productive years as a writer. He wrote in the mornings, fished in the afternoons, and often spent his evenings drinking with friends. One of those friends, many say his best friend, was Charles Thompson, the owner of a marine hardware store and a couple of other businesses.

Hemingway's wife Pauline and Charlie's wife Lorine became very close
friends. Charles went on an African safari with Ernest, and was one of the few men that ever out-shot him. The character 'Old Karl' in ''The Green Hills of Africa'' is based on Charles Thompson. And, there is a lot of Charles Thompson in the character Harry Morgan in the novel 'To Have and Have Not'.


The friendship lasted long after Hemingway and Pauline divorced and he left Key West, right up to the time Hemingway committed suicide.'

 


We arrived early at the Thompson home. Bill Geyser, who helped care for the Thompson's, greeted us at the door and suggested we come in and set up the equipment. Charles and Lorine would be down in a while, he explained.

I helped bring the camera and light cases into the house. Two elderly black Labrador retrievers wandered in, sniffed me and Gino, decided we were okay, and then settled in on a well-worn couch. I left Gino to do the set-up, and had a look around. The room had a musty smell. It was not unpleasant and reminded me of a museum. Shelves were filled with books from floor to ceiling. There were signed first editions by John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I carefully opened a copy of 'The Old Man And The Sea'. On the cover page was a personal note from Earnest to Charles and Lorine.

A painting by Waldo Peirce hung from the wall. Various skins, warrior
shields, and other African artifacts were displayed around the room. I was admiring the long corkscrew horns of a bull kudu when I heard footsteps.

"Yes, those are the horns." Lorine announced as she carefully made her way down the stairway. I assumed that Lorine was referring to the fact that some of Charles trophies from the African safari with Ernest had been more impressive than those of his host. They were very competitive, Hemingway and Thompson, and Charles' superior kudu horns had almost caused a rift between the two men.

I introduced Gino, and myself and presented Lorine with a bouquet of
flowers. That earned a smile and brought a twinkle to her eyes. Charles followed Lorine down the stairs. The Labradors made room as they settled onto the couch.

I was struck by their frailty. Old age was taking its toll. Yet I sensed a grace and dignity about them that time had not diminished. They had lived a fascinating, full life, were quick to laugh and possessed of a gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor.

I nodded to Gino to start the camera rolling, and began the interview with Charles.

"Mr. Thompson, tell us about how you and Hemingway met."

"Well, he was fishing off a bridge and got to talking to a friend of mine, Charlie Brooks. I think he'd run out of bait, and Charlie gave him some. Anyway, Charlie told him if he liked to fish, he ought to come see me. So he came into the hardware store and introduced himself said he was Ernest Hemingway, a writer, and he wanted to do some fishing. I took him out after work."

"Did you and Hemingway become friends right away, or did it take awhile for the friendship to develop?'' As I asked the question, I noticed Charles looked confused.

"Well, he was fishing off a bridge and got to talking to a friend of mine, Charlie Brooks. I think he'd run out of bait, and Charlie gave him some. " Charles' voice trailed off. He turned to Lorine, an anxious look on his face. She took his hand in hers.

"Charles sometimes forgets,'' she said softly. "He's getting old. We're
both getting old." She laughed. ''Now, what else did you want to know?''

For the next half-hour, Lorine talked about Ernest and Pauline, how they all became close friends, and how sad they were when Ernest and Pauline divorced, and Ernest left Key West.

Bill Geyser kept glancing around the doorway, and I realized he was about to end the interview.

"One last question, Mrs. Thompson. When did you and Charles last see Hemingway, and did you have any premonition that he might commit suicide?''

Lorine paused for a minute before answering. ''I think it was maybe a
year, maybe two, before he died. He still owned the property on Whitehead Street, you know, and he and his fourth wife Mary had bought a house in Ketchum. They had to leave Cuba. Mary was in New York at the time I think and Ernest had come down alone. He stayed with us here.

One thing about Ernest, he had a real presence. When he walked into a room, people would stop talking and look up. He always walked on the balls of his feet, and you could hear him coming. He made a lot of noise.

Well, one morning I was reading down here and I suddenly realized Ernest was standing behind me. I hadn't heard him come down the stairs and it startled me. It was like he was a ghost of himself. I thought about that when he died."


~
 

When we arrived back in Miami, there was a message to call Leicester. We were scheduled to fly to Bimini the next morning and do the interview.

Leicester answered on the first ring.

"Are you all set Leicester? I've got the tickets and we'll meet you around nine at Watson Island."

There was a long pause. ''Still there, Leicester?"

Leicester spoke. "There's just one thing."

Oh boy! I thought. Here it comes. "And what is that?"

"You can't ask me anything about Ernest?"

"You won't discuss your brother?"

"Any questions about Ernest and I walk away from the interview."

I knew it was pointless to ask why. I had spent a memorable afternoon with Ernest Hemingway's best friend. I didn't want to argue with his brother.

"Leicester, without those questions there is no interview. Good bye and take care." I gently placed the receiver back in its holder. I have
regretted it ever since.
 

The Thompson's died some years ago. Leicester Hemingway committed suicide in 1982. The videotape transcript of the interview was destroyed in a hurricane.
 

2001 Tom Sanders

 

Tom Sanders lives and writes in Germany. His short story 'The Meglodon Curse' is an HRC short story winner and is archived on this website.


 

 

 

 
 

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