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Posts Tagged ‘literary New York’

     Hemingway did come to Brooklyn.

     The date might have been Thursday, April 5, 1934 as described in a disturbing and wonderful new book by Paul Hendrickson called Hemingway’s Boat about Hemingway’s motor cruiser Pilar built for him in Coney Island.

     Hemingway was just back that year from safari in Africa with his second wife Pauline (the rich wife his hero railed about in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—Hemingway’s wives fared about as well as Henry the VIII’s) and the great man was already becoming a hirsute caricature of himself. He brought back vast quantities of slaughtered game for the taxidermist and he talked big when the press met him after his ship docked.

     The lion, he pontificated in perfect Hemingway telegraphese to the scrum of reporters and photographers, with Pauline standing beside him wearing some sort of mod-30s zebra creation and squinting patiently in the sun, “is not afraid or stupid. He does not want to fight, but sometimes man makes him, and then it is up to the man to shoot his way out of what he has got himself into.”

     Hemingway was already becoming cranky at reviewers and former friends (he left several in his wake) including Max Eastman, who wrote that year in The New Republic a review of Death in the Afternoon called “Bull in the Afternoon” (Hemingway later tried to deck him): “The swine aren’t worth writing for,” he wrote to his long-suffering editor about his public and about the whole book trade. “I swear to Christ they’re not.”

     But there were some things worth the troubles of his fishbowl stay in New York that spring of ’34 before he headed down to Florida to write his next book. That something was picking up the boat he had ordered from the Wheeler Shipyard at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn—whose listed address was “Foot of Cropsey Avenue, Brooklyn, NY.”

     Wheeler had mailed a fold-over pamphlet the summer before to Hemingway’s Key West address (with a cent and a half stamp on it) written out in the penmanship-perfect handwriting of Howard E. Wheeler himself, he of the pork-chop sideburns and wild mustache and five sons working at the shipyard with him (not to mention his wife Mother Wheeler, who wouldn’t stand for smoking or drinking in her presence—even from those shapely little bottles of Coca-Cola pulled straight out of bucket of ice).

Boats were big in the ‘30s and the Wheeler Shipyard catered to the rich who liked to outdo each other with cabin cruisers, and yachts, and motor sailers (both motor and sail). Its signature model was the Playmate, which could be outfitted to every taste, and Hemingway had to write fast and think fast to get the money out of his editors and make sure he got a Wheeler cruiser (at a princely sum of over $7,000).

The shipyard in those days was a “jerry-built” city of wooden building berths and tin-roof assembly sheds, hanging ramshackle over the creek not far from the drawbridge with the fancy iron scrollwork (where the Pathmark now sits and the scrapyard now sits across the street) and where rides in Coney Island in those days cost five cents and were called Thunderbolt and Loop-O-Plane and the new-thrill-for-the-ages Cyclone.

Boats were launched in the creek and had to be moved fast because, “If you left them there a week or ten days, the hulls would starts to turn purple.” When Hendrickson went to visit the site to research his book, he says, “I stood at the edge of the supermarket’s parking lot and stared at the water, trying to see a just-wet Pilar bobbing in it, seven decades past, Coney Island Creek had a grocery cart without wheels washed up on its trash-strewn banks. The water looked swollen, pea green.”

There was a furniture shop in the shipyard in its glory, a machine shop, an upholstery shop, a sawmill, and a four-room hospital with a full-time doctor and a nurse. During World War II it even had its own fifty-six-piece marching band, made up of employees decked out in uniforms with the corporate logo. “A day or two a week, the band would saw away on a stage in the middle of the yard while the rest of the workforce—in metal hats and coveralls with ‘Wheeler’ stenciled on the back—ate lunch out of black pails.”

Wheeler Shipyard even broadcast the program over its own broadcasting network.

While Mother Wheeler tended the office and the books, Pop Wheeler did the selling and cajoling and handed out watches to the boys going to fight overseas. He was a dynamo who got started building homes in Bay Ridge, graduated to gas stations, and got lured into boats and built a shipyard on Twenty-third Avenue in Gravesend where he outfitted submarine chasers during World War I. After his sons graduated Erasmus Hall, they all came to work at the shipyard with the old man. “By 1928, the yard at the foot of Cropsey was producing and selling between fifty and sixty pleasures boats a year…By 1938, Wheeler was producing the fattest sales catalogue in the national boating industry.”

And that’s when Hemingway came to Brooklyn to inspect his boat, the hull painted black just for him.

He might have visited Scribner’s that morning to get his money from Max Perkins, then nagged Pauline back at the hotel, pacing while she put on her makeup and pinned her hat to her page boy just so.

“For Christ sakes—we’re only going to see a boat!” he might have said from the corner of his mouth like some cartoon villain, which might have been a snarl, except it was tempered  by that dimpled Hemingway grin and eager boyish look that took the edge away.

So she probably snapped her clutch shut without a word (Better not to rile the old bear, anyway) and allowed herself to be hurried to the door by the elbow, and out the door and down the hallway to the elevator, where he poked the wire-rimmed glasses to his nose and tried to study the navigation maps to Brooklyn while his nostrils flared and he huffed like a bull.

“Do we know how to get there?” she inquired with the eternal diplomacy of women trying to coax men to ask directions.

“We just grab a cab…” he growled.   

So they went out into the snarl of New York traffic, maybe not far from the gold-filigreed windows of Scribner’s, and they hailed a cab, maybe one of those Checker cabs with the throne-like seats and square roofs and a cabbie who wore a hat like a Bowery Boy and called everybody “Mac.”

     “Where to, Mac?” he asked Hemingway, and studied Pauline in the rearview mirror.

     “You know the way to Brooklyn?” Hemingway told him in his precise Midwestern twang.

     “Whereabouts, fella?”

     “How about the Wheeler Shipyard in Coney Island?”

     “Oh, yeah?” Cabbies were nosey in those days. “You picking up your boat?”

     “Yes, sir,” Hemingway said triumphantly, and settled Pauline like a doll beside him, and then took out his Wheeler brochure and tapped it on his leg as the cab sped away and crossed the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. “It’s one hell of a sight,” Hemingway told Pauline with his dimpled lopsided grin.

     He stared down at the water from the bridge, snarled at the traffic on Flatbush Avenue, but loved the arch at Prospect Park (“Like the Triomphe–” he nodded at Pauline), and snickered as they sailed down Ocean Parkway with its stately homes and lawns (“Like goddamn Oak Park”), until the cab finally bumbled into streets more his speed: the industrial tangle of Cropsey Avenue and the noise of saws and hammers in the air that told him he was getting close to his dream.

     Maybe Pop Wheeler came out to meet him in the yard.

     “Well, hello, Mr. Hemingway, sir! Hello, sir!”

     Hemingway got Pauline out of the cab first, and she said a demure hello to Pop, before Hemingway clapped Pop’s hand and shook it and Pop laughed and tried to keep his glasses on as Hemingway pumped his hand hard.

     But then let it go. “So let’s go see my boat,” he said.

     “Yes, sir!” said Pop, leading the way. “And my name is Ernest, too!” he wheeled and said to Pauline, who smiled politely, but was mostly trying to make sure she didn’t turn her ankle in the rubble (pieces of sawed-off wood) or she didn’t get run over by some of the men in the company overalls shoving at wheelbarrows or gunning trucks like the spanking-new Ford Stake Delivery Truck with the wood-paneled bed.

     “Isn’t she lovely?” Hemingway said when they finally got to his boat still hiked up on wood blocks. “Isn’t she a regular black beauty?” he said mostly to himself.

     “She’s a regular black beauty, sir!” Pop Wheeler agreed, nearly losing his glasses as he nodded for emphasis. “She’ll give you, sir, a whole lifetime of boating pleasure!”

     “She better give me a whole boatload of fish,” Hemingway said, with his lopsided grin, not even looking at Pauline now, but looking only at his boat, and climbing down to stand under her and stroke her gleaming black belly.      

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