Magazine article The Spectator

Drinking with Papa

Magazine article The Spectator

Drinking with Papa

Article excerpt

Fifty-four years ago this month, dizzy with happiness at having been freed from the jail that was boarding school, I ventured down New York's 5th Avenue looking for fun and adventure. I knew a place called 'El Borracho', Spanish for drunkard, where my parents used to dine. The owner was an agreeable Catalan, who had decorated the walls with paper smudged with lipstick. Whenever he'd spot a client who was beautiful, he'd ask her to leave an imprint of her lips on a square piece of paper, which would end up on his walls. This had caught on, and women - everyone wore red lipstick back then - whose lips adorned his walls, were among his best customers.

Now I remember the day as if it were yesterday, in fact much better, as at my advanced age I sometimes do not remember yesterdays. It was three in the qafternoon, I was tired from walking up and down 5th, and decided to hit El Borracho, hoping the barman would remember me. I had very little money but, when one's 18, things like that hardly register. The place was just off Madison Avenue in the mid50s. I walked into the dark, cool place, and plonked myself at the bar, trying to act bored and sophisticated. That's when I noticed the man three stools down. My heart skipped a beat, then another and another. It was the greatest man in the world: Ernest Hemingway himself. He was drinking a whiskey sour, or so I was about to find out.

Luckily the barman was friendly, especially after I told him about my parents being regular clients. He then turned and introduced me to my hero. I stood up, went over, bowed deeply, ramrod straight, and for the first time in my life was at a total loss for words. 'Have a drink on me, young man, ' said Papa. 'What are you drinking, sir?' I ventured. 'Give the kid a whiskey sour, ' boomed Hem.

I will not bang on too much about that afternoon. Papa bought me around four or five drinks, I got completely plastered, talked to him non-stop about Jake Barnes and Lady Brett, and Mike Campbell, and Lieutenant Henry and Katherine and even about Nicole, and Rosemary and Dick, and he took it all in, smiling benignly as I showed off my knowledge of Papa's and F. Scott's novels. I then had a brilliant idea. 'Will you please come up to the Sherry-Netherland so I can reciprocate; I happen to keep an apartment there the year round, ' I told him.

This was partly true. My parents kept an apartment at the Sherry the year round, and I could charge drinks in the bar downstairs and, of course, room service. That's when Papa suddenly turned cold. He didn't wish to go to the Sherry-Netherland, only four blocks away, at 59th street and 5th Avenue, and in no uncertain manner let me understand that our two-hour bull-session was over. …

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