Ernest Hemingway in Idaho
By Seth Ogilvie
Days before he showed up, they still weren't sure he would arrive. But the Sun Valley resort had sent him an invitation. They figured he was the kind of man who could turn the Wood River valley into a place of adventure. Of course, Hollywood had already been there: movie stars, directors, writers. But there was no one like him. No one like Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway scholar David Earl recalls those days in the 1940s. "He was voted America's Number One 'He Man.' Zsa Zsa Gabor voted him one of the ten sexiest men in America. He had this public persona that was so out of proportion, so grandiose. It's where all the myths come from. Hemingway, this bare chested, hairy chested bombastic man who would out-drink anybody and try to fight anybody. All those myths that are out of touch with the artistic Hemingway."
Writer Kim Barnes produced one of the first feminist defenses of Hemingway and was part of a generation that reintroduced Hemingway to women. "Hemingway was all the things we think he was, at any given time in his life. He was the young man searching for love and meaning and identity, who wanted to be a writer. He could be brutish and cruel. He could be needy. He could be pathetic. He was all those things. In other words, he was human, but just on a larger scale.
"For all the things that were glorious about Hemingway and his art and his personality, that was larger than life, those things were matched by faults. That is so often the case with people who live large like that and have a particular talent."
Hemingway as a young man
Hemingway began to live his Idaho adventure in September of 1939. He and Martha Gellhorn had driven a black Buick into the sharp basalt teeth west of Arco. The sun was setting and the jagged rock was not a welcome vision.
"It was something out of Dante's Inferno," Hemingway told Tillie Arnold in the Sun Valley Lodge. "I was damn near ready to turn around and go back and probably would have if I'd found a place wide enough to turn the car around." The story may be apocryphal, but it shows how serendipitous his next adventure would be.
"Hemingway is having an affair with Martha Gellhorn," explains Marty Peterson, another Hemingway scholar. "He is in the process of separating from his second wife Pauline. Pauline's uncle Gus Phifer had a lot of money. After he decided to split from Pauline, that was going to take care of uncle Gus's money. The Sun Valley Company got in touch with Hemingway and offered to comp him if he would come and stay at the Lodge. So he brought Martha with him, and he moved into room 206 of the Lodge."
It was in room 206 that Hemingway worked on his masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It's a novel about a dynamiter, a bridge and the fight against fascism in Spain.
Idaho rancher Bud Purdy knew Hemingway. "I think this country reminded him of part of Spain a little bit, because he liked the Basque people here. He really liked them."
Perhaps he was inspired by the similarity of the Sawtooths to the Pyrenees. They are both imposing mountains. We know Hemingway loved the Pyrenees, because fishing there figured large in another of his books set in Spain, The Sun Also Rises.
"Hemingway loved Idaho," explains Kim Barnes. "He loved that place in Idaho, and he hoped to find something in that place that would nurture him and his writing."
Hemingway's strategy was to write in the morning, and then go out for adventure in the afternoon.
"Hemingway loved being out in it," said Marty Peterson, "whether it was on the Pilar in the Gulf Stream, or it was in Idaho walking the banks of the Big Wood River, or in a canoe down Silver Creek. That really is something that came from his childhood. His father taught him to hunt, taught him to fish, and that is something that really carried on with Ernest every place that he went."
By the time he moved to Idaho, Hemingway had already picked up the nickname "Papa."
Hemingway walking in the country
"There were some ducks on a ditch east of Carey, and I knew the ducks were there, so I told Papa," said Purdy. "I told Papa we could go over there and get some shooting on that one place, the ditch there. So we were walking down the ditch, and three ducks got up and he shot all three – bang, bang, bang."
A family friend of Hemingway's, Burt Perrine, added, "If he'd get snagged up or have a duck out in the water, he'd strip down and go out and un-snag his pole or pick the duck up. He always had a bottle of refreshment in his fishing creel; he was happy."
Hemingway used Idaho as the landscape for his short story The Shot. It told the true tale of his adventure in the Pahsimeroi valley, hunting antelope, and going to bars and bypassing fights.
In The Shot, Hemingway mused that there are two ways to hunt: shoot the buck that has been hanging around the back pasture; or hunt them high up in the back country, either on foot or on horseback, where nothing is guaranteed and where failure is more likely than success.
It was in Idaho where Hemingway was able to push out beyond the last frontiers of civilization, and to experience true wilderness.
"You think you go into the wilderness to lose your demons," says Kim Barnes, "to exorcise your demons. But the wilderness doesn't absorb. It reflects, it reflects."