The invitation proved irresistible: Hunt quail with the grandson of Ernest Hemingway in Clay County on land near where the famous author once hunted.
Yes, that Ernest Hemingway — the man who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1953 for the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” and was named Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1954.
The invitation came from former state Sen. Kevin Smith of Helena, a longtime friend and a Hemingway aficionado of the first order.
Smith said a group from Savannah, Ga., would fly in on a Friday afternoon in January after having purchased the trip during a charitable auction at Key West, Fla. Part of the attraction would be the chance to spend time with John Hemingway, whose father was Dr. Gregory Hemingway and whose grandfather was Ernest Hemingway.
John Hemingway would come to Piggott from Montreal, where he now lives, with his wife Kristina and son Michael.
Also traveling to Piggott for the weekend would be Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Max Perkins, the book editor known for discovering and nurturing famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.
Phillips, who lives in the Boston area, is a cultural anthropologist, writer and psychiatric nurse. In 2008, she produced and directed the documentary film “The Dhamma Brothers,” which tells the story of a group of prisoners inside a maximum-security prison in Alabama who participated in a meditation program based on the teachings of the Buddha.
While working on the film, Phillips collected more than 200 letters from Alabama inmates documenting their lives in prison. The collected letters later were published in a book titled “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers.”
Phillips would be accompanied to Clay County by her husband, the well-known journalist Frank Phillips, who’s the state capitol bureau chief for The Boston Globe.
In 2002, Jenny and Frank Phillips began a project to restore the Cuban home of Ernest Hemingway and save the Hemingway papers that remained in Cuba following Hemingway’s death in 1961. An agreement was signed by Fidel Castro at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home. The collection included more than 9,000 books, 3,000 photographs and 2,000 letters and documents.
John Hemingway is the author of the memoir “Strange Tribe,” which examines the complex relationship between his father and grandfather. He studied history and Italian at UCLA and later lived for a number of years in Italy. After leaving Italy, he spent a year in Spain before moving to Montreal.
In an interview several years ago with The Hemingway Project, John Hemingway said of his grandfather (who died when John was a baby): “I admire him tremendously. I think that he was a great writer and a very interesting man, much more complicated than the general public usually gives him credit for being. Understanding him and what motivated him has helped me, in turn, to understand my father.
“I think that he was a compassionate person. He had his problems and his issues, but for the most part he was a generous and vulnerable man. He was a poet in the true sense of the word.”
We gathered on a cold, foggy Friday night at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center on West Cherry Street in Piggott, which has been operated since 1999 by Arkansas State University. The property consists of a house and barn built in 1910.
Paul Pfeiffer, a wealthy St. Louis businessman, bought the house and barn in 1913 and moved his family to Piggott, where he began buying what eventually would be more than 60,000 acres of farmland. Paul Pfeiffer lived in the house until his death in 1944. His wife, Mary, lived there until her death in 1950. The Tom Janes family purchased the property in 1950 and owned it until it became ASU’s property in 1997.
Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer, the daughter of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, in France in May 1927 after divorcing his first wife. Pauline was a writer who was in Paris on an assignment for Vogue magazine when she met Hemingway.
Hemingway visited Piggott for the first time in the spring of 1928 so Pauline could be with her family during her first pregnancy. He spent his time working on a new novel, “A Farewell to Arms.” On later trips to Piggott, he sometimes would hunt quail on his father-in-law’s extensive holdings.
In 1932, Hemingway came to Piggott with his wife and three children (a 9-year-old son from his first marriage and two sons with Pauline) for a visit during the winter holidays. He wrote a short story, “A Day’s Wait,” about that visit.
“It was a bright, cold day, the ground covered with a sleet that had frozen so that it seemed as if all the bare trees, the bushes, the cut brush, and all the grass and the bare ground had been varnished with ice,” Hemingway wrote. “I took the young Irish setter for a little walk up the road and along a frozen creek, but it was difficult to stand or walk on the glassy surface and the red dog slipped and slithered and I fell twice, hard, once dropping my gun and having it slide away over the ice.
“We flushed a covey of quail under a high clay bank with overhanging brush and I killed two as they went out of sight over the top of the bank. Some of the covey lit in trees, but most of them scattered into brush piles and it was necessary to jump on the ice-coated mounds of brush several times before they would flush. Coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush, they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.”
Karl Pfeiffer, Pauline’s younger brother, enjoyed hunting with Hemingway.
“Ernest was unpredictable,” Karl Pfeiffer would later say. “There were times when he’d be at ease and other times when his pomposity would show. He liked to freeze the quail he hunted and give them as Christmas gifts to his friends back east. So one day — it was near the end of his visit — he remarked about not getting to hunt much this trip and how he wanted to shoot quail before he left.
“We all went, and the rest of us had a field day, but Ernest wasn’t doing so well. When they got ready to leave the next morning, I started to get some of the birds I’d shot and give them to him to give away, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He just snorted, ‘I’m not going to give away brids that I didn’t kill.'”
Hemingway’s sister-in-law, Virginia Pfeiffer, remodeled the barn loft to create a place for Hemingway to write. A fire in the barn later destroyed many of his possessions.
On that January night in Piggott, we all got to know each other better while eating barbecue following a tour of the home Paul and Mary Pfeiffer once occupied and the barn where Ernest Hemingway once wrote.
Most of the hunting party spent the night on the downtown square at The Inn at Piggott, which is in a building constructed in 1925 to house the Bank of Piggott. The bank went under during the Great Depression. In 1930, Paul Pfeiffer chartered Piggott State Bank and also used the building to house offices for the Pfeiffer Land Co.
In 1957, part of the Elia Kazan movie “A Face in the Crowd” was shot at Piggott. The movie starred Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau and was based on the Bud Schulberg short story “Your Arkansas Traveler.”
Griffith played a drunken drifter who was discovered by the producer of a radio program in northeast Arkansas. In the movie, the character played by Griffith rose to fame and a career on national television. The first scene was filmed from the front doorstep of the building that now houses the Inn at Piggott.
The owners of the inn, Joe and Tracy Cole, are Piggott natives who gave up careers in law and international marketing after 24 years in Memphis and returned to their hometown. One of their projects was to renovate the former bank into a nine-room bed-and-breakfast inn.
I was joined by Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, in staying on the edge of town at the Rose Dale Farm Bed and Breakfast, a home built on the Norred Farm in 1917. This house sometimes was visited by Hemingway when he would hunt quail in the adjoining fields.
The home is filled with Hemingway books, and a note from the owner states: “My grandfather and his brother-in-law would take Ernest Hemingway hunting when he came to town. After the hunt, they would have bourbons at the secretary, leaving rings from the glasses. The lady of the house would get so mad she would make Ernest come in the back door of the house and then she would leave when he was in the room. You can still see the rings on the writing surface.”