Nights Like the Minetta Tavern

By Mark E. Smith

When I was a child, my stepfather could do no wrong in my eyes. I idolized him, not just as a father figure, but as who a man should be.

Yet, as I overlooked then but realized as I grew older, he was deeply flawed. He was an alcoholic and his relationship with my mother was as mutually as unhealthy as it gets – constant drinking, domestic violence, suicide threats and attempts, drunk driving, and on and on.

However, much as when I was a child, I now, in mid-life, deeply value who he was in the best ways, what he gave me, and most of all, what he taught me.

I recently had dinner at the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. It opened in the 1930s and has since been where men like Paul have gone for decades to celebrate life. The mahogany bar, white tablecloths, and red upholstered booths are timeless. It’s easy to imagine its famous past patrons hanging out there – Earnest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings, to name a few – drinking, smoking, and eating, boisterous.

As I sat with my family and friends at a table in the middle of the Tavern, I drifted off from our own decadent meal and storytelling to thinking of Paul. I gazed at the signed, black-and-white pictures of old-time prizefighters on the walls, and was reminded of growing up watching boxing with Paul. Then, there was the Hemingway connection, who, in many ways, Paul embodied – bearded, smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes, playing dice at bars, drinking straight whiskey by the glass full, while discussing larger-than-life adventures.

Paul raised me in that spirit, creating larger-than-life memories. He took me to a bullfight in Mexico, offshore fishing in California, game hunting in Nevada. Then there were our trips to Hawaii and Spain. It was all spectacular and, in looking back, always hinged on the cusp of disaster, often fueled by alcohol – that’s how men like Hemingway and Paul lived. And, I, as a boy with severe cerebral palsy, was along for the wild ride.

I was infatuated with it all – not just in the adventurous life, but in Paul embracing me fully as his son, profoundly affecting me after having been all but abandoned by my biological father.

But, there still was that dark side. When you grow up with a Hemingway or a Paul as a father, you witness that which no child should witness: the insanity of a drunk. As I grew into my 20s and 30s, this juxtaposition became increasingly evident. Is a great man who’s deeply flawed truly great? I struggled with this question into early adulthood.

Eventually, Paul lost virtually everything, and he moved into my house, sleeping on our couch. He came home drunk night after night, and I was torn between him, as the father I’d always loved, and the health of my young family being negatively impacted by his behavior. I saw the amazing man I’d grown up with also be that man with my toddler daughter – that is, an amazing grandfather. But, the drinking was then beyond unacceptable to me.

The dilemma was seemingly solved when I moved across the country and we agreed to let Paul remain in our old house for at least a year, till I sold it, my brother watching over him to a degree. That distance gave me time and space to understand Paul’s complexities and the complexities of my emotions.

Paul later visited us annually, and although he still drank and his potential was forever faded, he never stopped loving me or gushing with pride in who I’d become, right till his death. And, my love for him likewise never wavered. There’s no better gift a father can give his son than acceptance, and that remains life-inspiring for me.

I returned to the conversation at our table, looking at my wife and youngest daughter – both of whom radiated the energy of the room – and I realized that what Paul taught me was that we don’t need to be perfect to make a profound difference in the lives of those we love. We just need to love, and that can be enough.

I finished my single glass of wine, admitting that I can’t hold my liquor like Paul, but in other ways, I’m every bit the man he raised me to be: I, with my family, making memories at the Minetta Tavern.

Living Like Hemingway

Hemingway (circa 1930)
Hemingway (circa 1930)

By Mark E. Smith

Sure, they were both great posthumously. However, during their lives, Hemingway far outlived Fitzgerald – not just in age, but in truly living.

I mean, history shows their enormous accomplishments, both helping define 20th century literature, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises leading the way, respectively. But, Ernest Hemingway, he was relentless in living life on his own terms, while F. Scott Fitzgerald was about simply doing what he had to, concerned to a fault with what others defined as success. But, I’m telling you, by following the path that others defined as success, Fitzgerald was the far less successful of the two, not just in literary accomplishment, but, again, in life.

And, Hemingway told him so, constantly. Hemingway saw that Zelda, Fitzgerald’s southern socialite wife – who broke off their engagement once because Fitzgerald wasn’t earning enough money – was destroying Fitzgerald’s spirit, killing his writing with her own agenda and issues. Yes, Hemingway was married to Hadley Richardson at the time, but she was his equal and inspiration. For Hemingway, as much as he forever loved Hadley (although the divorced in 1927, and he had three subsequent wives) he’d never let anyone or anything interfere with his greatness as a writer. This isn’t to say that I’d live to that extreme. Of course I wouldn’t – my daughter, my significant other, my family as a whole, has to come before all. But, I wouldn’t tolerate a Zelda, either. Hemingway was right: if a spouse can’t let me be me, and support my passions as I support hers, there’s no room in a writer’s life, or anyone’s life, for that. That’s the equality that Hemingway had with Hadley, a striking contrast to the never-ending requirements for money and commercial success that Zelda demanded of Fitzgerald – and he ultimately required of himself.

So, here’s how it went down. Hemingway and Fitzgerald met in 1924, when Fitzgerald already had two novels published and countless literary magazine pieces, highly in demand as a writer. They were only three years apart in age, and while Fitzgerald focused his early 20s on trying to achieve critical acclaim, fame and money, Hemingway joined the World War I effort as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he was severely wounded, going on to serve as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star. Hemingway and Hadley ended up living in Paris because it was cheap and there was a bustling literary scene.

Now, I’m skipping a bunch here, but in 1924, Hemingway, pretty much unknown, meets Fitzgerald, a forever financially broke but known writer. And, Hemingway keys in on Fitzgerald as talented but disingenuous, but Fitzgerald takes to Hemingway, serving as a mentor into the literary scene.

In 1925, Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby, hell-bent on fame and fortune. To the contrary, the book fails, earning Fitzgerald a mere $2,000 in entirety (it wasn’t till 20 years or so after his death that the book finally found its fame). Yet, Hemingway liked the novel – but despised Fitzgerald’s void of integrity as an author. Hemingway referred to Fitzgerald as a literary whore, where his quest for wealth and social status corrupted his writing. Fitzgerald all but noted this, explaining that all his pieces were written with authenticity, then altered toward commercial success. Yet, beyond writing for magazines, Fitzgerald ultimately had no fame or fortune as the 1930s came.

Yet, Hemingway, originally the literary lesser of the two, was solely about authenticity in writing. He only wanted to write what he wanted to write. Having seen merit in The Great Gatsby, but also a lack of integrity in its writing, Hemingway wanted to write a novel – his way. In 1926, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was published – with input by of all people, Fitzgerald – but dramatically different than Fitzgerald’s work. The Sun Also Rises was a metaphor for hope during the post-war era, and was written in a Roman-a-clef style, based on real events and people. The book sold out of its first printing, then a second, garnering much attention, skyrocketing Hemingway’s career.

Between 1929 and 1940 (the year of Fitzgerald’s death), Hemingway’s career soared, publishing A Farewell to Arms, To Have And To Have Not, and To Whom the Bell Tolls. He traveled, observed, lived and just wrote it all. There was nothing humble about “Papa,” as Hemingway became known; however, there was great humility in his writing – it’s just humanity stripped. I mean, have you read Hills Like White Elephants? You’re there, at the train station in the Ebro River Valley of Spain, over hearing the kind of interpersonal conversation people have. No superfluous dialogue, no pretense – just real.

And, Hemingway stuck with this his entire life. He truly wouldn’t compromise, and once when he felt like a publisher wasn’t respecting his work, he sent them a purposely terrible manuscript, knowing that their rejection would terminate a lucrative contract. He needed the writing (and Hadley swore it was truly what kept Hemingway from committing suicide for over 40 years), not the money or fame Fitzgerald sought. Hemingway biographer, Pauline McLain wrote, “Perhaps his [Hemingway’s] true love could only ever be his work, which mattered more than living.”

And, that was Fitzgerald’s downfall. He was so caught up in image, success and money that he failed at all of it. Near his death in 1940, Fitzgerald was a then-forgotten author, living in Hollywood, writing terrible movie scripts (ironically, though, making $29,000 one year, the most he ever made). He’d lost the respect of his Paris peers of the ’20s, known as a washed-up hack Hollywood writer, where he even told his daughter that his life was a failure. Dead at age 44, the young writer with so much talent but drawn to not his own greatness, but the lure of material success, lost everything in the end – most painfully, his dignity, as Hemingway predicted as he tried to convince Fitzgerald in the late ’20s to quit whoring his work, drop Zelda and make it all about the writing.

Of course, we know that Hemingway carried on, with The Old Man and the Sea in 1952 winning the Pulitzer, and contributing to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

So, why do I tell you all of this? Well, Hemingway and Fitzgerald prove a terrific cautionary tale for all of our lives. If we don’t wish to merely live, but to truly thrive, we can’t chase after the external forms of success – we will never catch it, but it will catch up with us. However, if we follow our passions with unyielding authenticity, the world will follow us, true success will come our way. Live true to yourself and your inherent greatness, and the world will prove true to you, where the only authentic voice is your own.