Picasso and Hemingway: A Dud Poem and a Live Grenade

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Our perceptions are subjective, and accounts of any event are colored by the narrator's memory and beliefs. Fascinated by our own stories and favorite jokes, we also have a keen interest in stories about the Famous and the Great. For a biographer, anecdotes are interesting not only for what happened and when, but also for who told them and why. Like popular tales that change in the telling, anecdotes about famous people alter with time. Initially the story is told by the participants themselves or by eyewitnesses; then the friends or descendants take over; finally the journalists and biographers come along to collect and reshape it. Little is known of the precise relationship between Picasso and Hemingway. They were friends in Paris at two high points of Hemingway's life, first in the early 1920s, then in 1944. What did they think of each other, and were they really friends? Two anecdotes crop up in several versions whenever writers consider these questions.

Hemingway first met Picasso through Gertrude Stein in March 1922. He was twenty-three, just married, and getting started as writer; Picasso was eighteen years older and a famous artist. Stein had bought pictures from Picasso and helped promote his career, and she was then telling Hemingway how to write. Both men also knew the wealthy, arty, and stylish American expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy, who lived in France and entertained lavishly. In the summer of 1925, in Antibes on the French Riviera, Hemingway spent June and Picasso July with the Murphys, who thought it safer to separate the two gigantic egos.

In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris in the Twenties, written in the late 1950s and posthumously published in 1964, Hemingway, bitterly regretting some personal choices, looked back on these happy, intensely productive years and blamed the Murphys for leading him astray. He satirized them (without naming them) as "pilot fish" who led prosperous parasites to their artistic prey: "They never wasted their time nor their charm on something that was not sure. Why should they? Picasso was sure and of course had been before they had ever heard of painting." Conscious of his present fame and wealth, and now equal as a celebrity, he co-opted Picasso in his denunciation of the rich. According to Hemingway, Picasso protected himself by pretending to accept social invitations from well-off patrons: "Much later Picasso told me that he always promised the rich to come when they asked him because it made them so happy and then something would happen and he would be unable to appear." In fact, both Hemingway and Picasso eagerly accepted the Murphys' generous hospitality. They were not only rich, they also loved books and art and knew how to have a good time. Biographers aren't the only ones who rewrite history.

The young Hemingway often saw Picasso at Stein's salon, where he learned about art and developed his connoisseur's eye by looking at Picasso's work and discussing it with him. In the Twenties, despite his limited means, Hemingway bought important pictures by Juan Gris, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, and André Masson. One early story about his personal relations with Picasso, in which the painter read his poetry aloud, has survived in three variants. Influenced by his friend Max Jacob, who used "the data of the unconscious: liberated words, free association of ideas, day and night dreams, hallucinations," Picasso wrote a good deal of predictably obscure "poetry," with private content and vague structure.

In May 1949, twenty-five years after the event, Stein's companion, Alice Toklas, echoing Stein and patronizing Picasso, wrote a friend: "the trouble with Picasso was that he allowed himself to be nattered into believing he was a poet too. Gertrude and he had quite a scene but she told it in Everybody's Autobiography." In that book, published in 1937, Stein described an evening in Picasso's flat: "We all went over to listen all evening to Pablo Picasso's poetry. …