At the end of 1950, things were not going well for Ernest Hemingway. The reviews of his latest novel, Across the River and into the Trees, ranged from poor to scornful. It had been a decade since For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the feeling was that, as a writer, it had tolled for him. Some buried WWI shrapnel had surfaced in his right leg. Batista was back in Cuba, and if politics didn't push Hemingway off his farmhouse retreat, then the Havana suburbs would. Each day brought another carload of gossip columnists or biographers or moviemakers or, worst of all, university intellectuals -- trailing what Hemingway called "their usual PhD stink." And then, as he became fond of saying, "People are dying now who never died before."
He also became fond of a 19 year-old Russian beauty named Adriana Ivancich, and became abusive towards his wife. Looking back after his suicide a decade later, Mary Welsh Hemingway will see these days as the first signs of a "general disintegration of Ernest's personality." At the time, in November 1950, she saw them differently:
When he was working one morning, I broke the rule that he must never be interrupted, no matter what. "Will you please come to my room? I have some things to say to you."
Dolefully, he padded across the living room to stand beside my desk.
"I will be brief, but you listen carefully. I think I understand about your feeling for this girl. Your insults and insolence hurt me, as you surely know. In spite of them I love you, and I love this place, and I love our life here. So try as you may to goad me into leaving it and you, you are not going to succeed. Are you hearing me?"
Ernest nodded. He was hearing me.
"No matter what you say or do, I'm going to stay here and run your house -- until the day that you come to me, sober, in the morning, and tell me truthfully and straight that you want me to leave. I hope you've heard me. "
Ernest stood there a moment, his face thoughtful.
"Yes, I heard you, " he said, and went back to his bedroom to work.
What he went to work on, at the beginning of 1951, was a story that he had heard 15 years earlier from a Cuban fisherman. In 8 weeks, doing 1000 words a day --twice his usual pace-- he was done. Hardly a word was revised, then or later. Hemingway originally saw it as the third book in a planned series of sea novels; once it was done, he saw that it could stand on its own. The awkward first title, The Sea in Being became the overdone The Dignity of Man and then, simply, The Old Man and the Sea.
On September 1, 1952 Life magazine published the whole novel in a special issue. In 48 hours they had sold 5.3 million issues, and Scribners had sold 50,000 advance orders for the book. Schoolkids and GIs and businessmen sent 100 letters a day to the Cuban farmhouse; ministers preached upon it; academics compared it to Homer.
Hemingway had always called the Pulitzer Prize the Pullover, so when he got it that year he professed not to care; but when he was notified in 1954 that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for his "true masterpiece," he went to Mary with pride -- and perhaps an apology:
I was sleeping late, and he came softly to my bedroom and tapped my arm.
"My kitten, my kitten. I've got that thing." He had a soft, happy voice, a hesitant smile.
"You know. The Swedish thing."
"You mean the prize, the Nobel Prize?" I was all over him, clinging and hugging and kissing.
"My lamb," I said., "my lamb."