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Bob Orlin: Hemingway Painter, Traveler, Writer, and Look-alike

Bob Orlin: Hemingway Painter, Traveler, Writer, and Look-alike

When Bob Orlin read my Hemingway wish list on the blog he wrote me and offered to share some of his Hemingway adventures with me. You may know Bob as the author of several articles on the website, or as the artist who designed tee-shirts and posters for several Hemingway festivals, or as the man who portrayed Hemingway for Thomasville furniture, or as a contestant in the Key West Hemingway look-alike contest, or as “PapaWannaB” on some of the forums (just to name a few of his activities!). When I asked Bob to send along a paragraph about himself, he wrote:

“ I grew up in Chicago, 10 miles from Hemingway’s Oak Park and spent the summers in Upper Michigan like the Hemingway’s, back then that’s where the similarities ended. I had no father to teach me about hunting or fishing, I learned to love all those things from Hemingway, along with travel & adventure, he was my mentor. I’ve traveled to most of his places and will try my best to see them all, I’ve run with the bulls. hunted Africa, fished the Gulf stream, knocked a few back at Sloppy Joe’s, the Floridita & Harry’s, dropped my line in the trout streams of Idaho, boxed Shine Forbes, sat in the outhouse at Windermere, Thanks Papa.”

All of the artwork displayed on this post was done by Bob. Along with his interview, I have interspersed a few of his stories. Thank you Bob.

AB: How did your interest in Hemingway start?
BO: I guess I was somewhere around 8 or 9 and I saw For Whom the Bell Tolls on TV.

AB: What is your favorite Hemingway book? What was it about this book that intrigued you?
BO: Again For Whom the Bell Tolls. As I said watching it on TV when a young boy was what got me interested in Hemingway and I think that has a lot to do with it. Since then I have read much about the Spanish Civil War, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade etc. and of course seen Hemingway’s Spanish Earth.

AB: Do the reasons you like Hemingway change as you get older?
BO: In the beginning it was his way of life and not so much what a great writer he was, that grabbed me, now it’s about equal.

AB: You are very active on the website. Have you made friendships there that continue offline?
BO: Yes, every year I meet up with some of the other members in Key West during Hemingway Days, exchange Christmas cards.

AB: The website is truly an online community – I think there are over 3,000 members. Why do you think that Hemingway is still so popular? Do you think most members are around the same age or generation or do you think there is a mix of ages?
BO: Let me answer the last part of that question first, Hemingway is still up there at the top of best selling authors, so a new generation is reading him. As far as his popularity his writing speaks for itself. The Festival in Key West definitely keeps him in the lime light (Key Lime).

AB: You have traveled quite a bit following Hemingway. What is your favorite Hemingway place and why?
BO: Africa. It’s the only place you can go and still feel what Hemingway must have felt, plus I get to dress up in Safari costume. My wife and I have made 2 trips to Africa, the first a photo Safari and the 2nd a hunting Safari, we are planning a 3rd trip in the future (which will be one more than Hemingway), both trips were for 10 days each.

AB: Here is an excerpt of a story Bob wrote about visiting Key West and meeting someone who boxed with Hemingway in the 30’s:
BO: “That Mr. Hemingway sure could hit, (long pause) for a GIRL”, was Shine’s signature comeback when asked by a tourist about Hemingway’s prowess as a boxer, and he was asked often. Shine was a celebrity around Key West, having been Hemingway’s sparring partner back in the 30’s. “I met Mr. Hemingway one night when he was refereeing a boxing match over at the Blue Goose (now the Blue Heaven Restaurant), I was a second for a fighter, went by the name Black Pie, and this Cuban fighter was beating the hell out of him, every time he knocked Black Pie down, I’d throw in the towel and this big guy refereeing would pick it up and throw it back out, after three or four times it made me kind of mad so I jumped into the ring and go after him, must of looked like a cartoon, me swinging and him just about holding me up in the air by my ears. Anyways later that evening someone says to me, you know who that was, I sez no, and he sez why that was Mister Ernest Hemingway.
I guess Mr. Hemingway respected the way I stuck up for my fighter, cause later when I went over to his house to apologize, he asks me if I know a couple of fighters would come over and box with him a couple of times a week. He paid us pretty good too. Especially one Christmas, we put on an exhibition and afterwards he passed the hat around to all his friends and we had a great Christmas”.
My meeting with Shine wasn’t as dramatic but just as memorable, I met him first in 1993, the first year I entered the Hemingway look-alike contest. Shine was a big part of Hemingway Day’s, kind of our Medium to Hemingway. You could always count on that big flashing gold tooth smile, sitting out in front of Floyd’s barber shop playing checkers and delighting tourist with his Hemingway tales, or leading the running of the bulls, right up front, on the lead bull.

Last year during Hemingway Days, Shine and I sparred, it was on the deck of Hooters, a Kodak moment for the tourists’, we put on the gloves and went to our corners and came out Fighting. We danced around feigning punches, lefts, rights, uppercuts, the crowds cheering on Shine. I was glad it was just an exhibition, cause even at age 84 and one eye closed, his biceps bulged and he looked like he could hurt you. But even though it was more of a ballet than a fight, I’d been in the ring with someone Ernest Hemingway had fought.

Hooters said Shine would eat and drink there for the rest of his life for free, neither one lasted there much longer, the difference being Shine would be missed. I last saw him in January 2000, at of all places the Blue Heaven, I asked him how he was doing, he said he wasn’t feeling too good, but did I want to come over to the Ponderosa. He died a few short weeks after that. Key West and Hemingway Days would never be the same. “

AB: What Hemingway related event means the most to you?
BO: Probably the running of the Bulls.

AB: Let’s talk about your trip to Pamplona where you ran with the bulls. You write :
BO: ” The run lasts 3 1/2 minutes but that’s in real time, in emotional time it lasts all day. Hours later your heart is still pounding. That morning found me at my chosen spot along Mercaderes, indiscernible from the others dressed in white shirt and pants, red scarf and sash and a rolled up newspaper;”

AB: What were the newspapers for?
BO: The newspaper is twofold, 1 to attract the bulls attention, the other to fend

AB: Did you wife watch?
BO: Yes my wife Debbie was there watching. She was (nervous) but she didn’t show it till afterwards. We had arranged a meeting place for after the run, because of the crowds it took me awhile to get there to her so she was picturing the worst.

AB: How did it feel? How close did you get to a bull?
BO: It was a lifetime dream come true. I had one large bull and a few steers pass me before I climbed through the barricades before the bull ring.

AB: Did you speak with Spanish people about Hemingway? If so, what was their feeling about him? Do they have the same level of interest in him there?
BO: While in Pamplona the Spaniards were constantly calling out Papa, at one point a group lifted me on their shoulders, a little child came up to me and tugged at my hand and called me Papa. They all love him.

AB: Your article about entering the Hemingway look-alike contest is really delightful to read. How many contestants are usually there?
BO: I would say there are usually around 125 contestants.

AB: What is it like to be in a room (or a town) with so many Hemingway aficionados?
BO: For the most part, unfortunately, there’s more checking out the other contestants’ look rather than their knowledge.

AB: Below is an excerpt from your look-alike article: (I have to laugh when you write about being hooked on Hemingway, I guess there are a few of us who could say that).
BO: “At the bar I met a guy from the news media covering the event. He asked if I was in the contest and I said no, and he said I should be, telling me I looked like a young Hemingway.
After that, I was hooked. In one of my speeches (as part of the contest, you have to say a few words), I said something to the effect that it’s an addiction; each year you want it more, and there is no twelve step program, no halfway house, and it’s impossible to kick it cold turkey, as evidenced by the fact that each year the same people keep coming back.

In the years, since, I’ve gone for the Africa look, the Pamplona look, the fishermen look and even the fringe vested look Papa adapted in Ketchum Idaho. I’ve parted my hair on the left, the right, and down the center, trimmed my beard and let it grow longer for the woollier look. The different guises, plus the graying of my hair and beard, have gotten me into the finals six years in a row, but as yet the big prize has eluded me.

AB: You have quite a few nice claims to fame, some of which are listed below.
“During this time I’ve made great friends of the other participants, contestants and judges. We share our love for Hemingway, and his love for fun and camaraderie. And it has also opened up opportunities for me. In my second year of competing I had a one man show of my artwork at the Hemingway House, which lead to my designing the Festival T-shirt (something I’ve done three times since). I’ve also played Hemingway for the Thomasville furniture people, portrayed Papa and sketched the running of the bulls for ESPN2 on TV last year(1999), hung out with Michael Palin in Pamplona and Key West, made it in his Hemingway Adventure book and PBS series and so much more. All in all, it’s been a great experience and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.”

AB: Do your wife or friends ever protest about your obsession with Hemingway?
BO: I’m really lucky there, my wife backs me all the way and enjoys it all as much as I do, especially the traveling, as for my friends every year they are there with me in Key West.

AB: Here is part of another story Bob wrote about traveling to Cuba with his wife:
“ We caught a cab outside our hotel, the Novetel Miramar, Miramar is a rich suburb of Havana, it once was home to Bastista and after the revolution Che and Castro, Castro still keep a residence there one of many on the Island, now it is where the embassies are to be found. I told the cab driver Finca la Vigia por favor, and we were on our way to Hemingway’s home on the island for more than 20 years. The Finca is located in San Francisco de Paula a small village outside Havana, the buildings here are more simple than the grandiose homes of Old Havana but in much the same disrepair. Our cab stops at the gatehouse, I tell them I am here to meet with Mr. Gonzalez the Director and we are waved on through, forgoing the $2 entrance fee. We are ushered into the offices, which house besides the Director, the guides, (the offices are run down and shabby but have some great paintings of Hemingway hanging on the walls done by a Cuban artist) we are shown into the office of the Director Manuel Sandinas Gonzalez, he is seated at his desk with an interpreter at his side (he speaks no English). He stands to shake my hand, I tell him I am here to present a plaque to the museum in the name of the Hemingway Look-alike Society and he says yes they know of the Society and the contest in Key West, I then present the plaque to him, and he says he wishes to thank me the artist and the Society for such a wonderful contribution and that it will occupy a place of distinction in the Museum, we then posed for a photo together, after which I presented to him a poem I had written about the Pilar which the interpreter reads to him.

Sadly she rides not on the waves, but on a concrete sea
Once Queen of the Gulf, with her catch flag flying high,
she rests now on pillions, her flag never again to fly.

In dry dock she rests forever, so far from fish and sea
Mistress of the ocean, her Black hull riding high
Mistress of the ocean, left here to waste and die

When the reading was finished he asked if I would sign the poem for him which I of course did, before leaving for the tour of the Finca I gave him an armful of Hemingway Days T-shirts to pass out to the staff.

The house they say is exactly as it was the day Hemingway left, nothing has been moved, you expect him to come walking through the door any minute. As you move about the house (which can only be viewed from the outside through the windows and doors) you encounter Hemingway the man, hanging in a closet is his WW2 correspondent uniform, on a rack by the window his boots (size 13), in the bathroom is a book shelf overflowing with books and periodicals, on the door jam his daily record of his weight is recorded, in the house there are 9000 books and a large collection of phonograph records and everywhere you look mementos of his travels, paintings of bull fights, animal trophies on the walls and lying over couches, the dining table is set with the engraved Finca Vigia silverware, it would take days to take everything in. The grounds are planted with every variety of plant life, the pool is gigantic, fashioned much like the one in Key West, only much deeper, maybe 15ft. 4 graves with tomb stones lie off to the side, here his beloved Black dog is buried along with 3 others. Our last stop was the lookout tower that Mary had built for him to work in undisturbed, but mainly housed his cats, from the top of the tower accessed by a winding iron staircase the view is spectacular, in the background lies Old Havana.
The tour over and good-byes having been said, we went to hail a cab, as luck would have it none were available, the parking attendant suggested a ride in a private car and introduced us to Duviel, a young University student (studying Electrical engineering), he agreed to take us back to our hotel in his 1959 Chrysler (which had seen better days, twice during our ride he had to pull over and tighten the lug nuts on the wheel). As we drove we talked, his wife he told us was one of guides at the Museo Hemingway, he had read some Hemingway but was more into his life than his writing, I mentioned that we wanted to go to Cojimar maybe tomorrow and would he be interested in driving us, he said yes but that it would be better to go from here than from our hotel as it was closer and the cost would be less, so we agreed to go then and there.

Cojimar was beautiful, the first thing we saw was what was left of the pier where Hemingway docked the Pilar, jutting out into the crystal clear water (last year the pier was destroyed in the hurricane). It was sad to remember the Pilar now sitting in dry dock . From there it was a short walk to the memorial that the Cuban fishermen had erected to his memory. The Bust that now sits there is not the original sculpted by the artist Boada, the first was done in a permeable material which quickly disintegrated in the tropical climate. The fisherman of Cojimar donated oar locks, fittings, anything made of metal salvaged from their boats to be melted down to cast this second bust.., a plaque below the sculpture incorrectly reads ERNEST HEMINGWAY 1898-1961.

It was a trip to remember. Besides the visit to the Hemingway home and Cojimar we had Daiquiris at the Floridita, mojitos at La Bodeguita Del Medio, and beers at the Ambros Mundos Hotel, where we took the tour of rm. 511 where Papa stayed and wrote. A small elevator takes you up to the fifth floor, and you turn to your right and walk along the hall to the last room on the left, room 511. As you enter the room the first thing you see is the Royal typewriter in front of the open window with a magnificent view of Old Havana, to the left is another open window overlooking a different but still magnificent view of Old Havana. The room is filled with glass cases containing an assortment Hemingway memorabilia, documents, Hemingway books, his fishing hat, assorted lures, photos and a replica of the Pilar, it was easy to picture Hemingway at the typewriter, his fingers at the Keys, those keys striking the paper, telling the stories that made Hemingway the greatest writer of the 20th century.”

AB: Tell me about your collection of Hemingway memorabilia – what kinds of things have you collected? What is your favorite Hemingway memorabilia? Do you want to share any stories about items you’ve collected?

BO: My collecting started of course with his books, then books written about him, now in my collection I have a Cuban customs receipt signed by Papa, a signed Christmas card, his High School graduation invitation and commencement program, a Thank You card for condolence for his death, a painting done by his mother Grace Hall Hemingway, a ceramic ashtray made by his sister Ursla, a book signed by his brother Leis, a book from the Hemingway’s library in their Windermere summer cottage with inscriptions from both his mother & father. My favorite piece is an envelope sent to Clarence Hemingway, Ernest’s father in Ernest’s hand from the Hospital in Milan where he underwent surgery for wounds received on the Piava during WWI

Most of the items I found on E-bay, when I started collecting there were only a few Hemingway items listed and less bidders, now there’s 1000′s and more bidders. The Cuban customs receipt, I purchased at a book store in Key West from the collection of Toby Bruce (Hemingway’s handy and friend).

AB: What is a Hemingway memorabilia item you wish you had?
BO: I would love to own one of his hunting rifles.

AB: You mentioned that you have created a Hemingway story and coloring book. How do younger people respond to Hemingway? Which parts of his life are the most interesting to young people?
BO: I think maybe the Nick Adams stories are the most interesting because of how life has changed so much for children.

AB: Which part of Hemingway’s life is most interesting to you?
BO: Again his Africa periods, the Spanish Civil War and WW2

AB: What do you admire most about Hemingway?
BO: His writing and then the life he led.

AB: Tell me about meeting Hemingway family members.
BO: Most of that came about through the Festival in Key West, Lorian Hemingway is a very good friend as is Valerie Hemingway, we correspond and see each other from time to time and of course his nephew through the painting.

AB: If you could spend an hour in Hemingway’s life with him, what would you do? (Fish for Marlin, bet on horses, have a drink with him in Cuba, Paris, Key West ?)
BO: Hunt Cape Buffalo or Lion in Africa with him.

AB: Here is an excerpt from a story about Bob’s visit to Hemingway’s final home in Idaho:

“It was the last full day in Idaho, earlier we tried our hand at fly fishing on the Big Wood River. The clerk at Lost River Outfitters, where we had purchased our fishing license said just pull off anywhere where the road crosses the river and walk in a 100 or so yards and let fly, which is exactly what we did. Looking along its banks in every direction the trees were in “full fall party dress”, showing off their burnt oranges, yellow, ocher’s and purples, their colors made even more spectacular in the rays of the sun, looking into the river you saw it all mirrored, with sun light reflecting and bouncing off the colors in the water making you dizzy. For a while I forgot why we were there, then I remembered the fly rod in my hand. I picked a spot along the bank where I could drop my line just upstream from the fall and watch it go over and drift down with the current past some dead falls along the banks.
Afterwards we stopped by the grave site to keep my promise to Papa of an onion sandwich and a cold beer, and told him I’d be back one more time, tomorrow, before we left.

Now I was on top of Tinkerbell (a horse who’s girth lent itself more to the name of Libertybell then Tinkerbell), high up in the mountains overlooking Ketchum and Sun Valley and I too now had rode to the top of the range where I could look across the loveliest mountains that I knew and had rode down the mountain, across the mountain, back across the broken ground and down into the foothills and flats. Of all the Hemingway Country I have visited I think this is my favorite. And I know why he chose it as his last home. I’m sure it was decided after his first visit.
Hemingway stayed in room 206 (which he referred to as the Glamour House) at the Sun Valley Lodge. But in the forties, when it was being used as a Naval rest facility, Ernest began staying at the Mac Donald Cabins (now the Ketchum Korral) in Cabin # 38 which not by any means a coincidence, was the cabin I was in. Heading back to the corral on Tinkerbell nose to tail with the other trail horses, I thought about what a great trip it had been and went over it all in my mind.

As we drove in on 75 from Boise we saw the row of cabins on the right hand side of the road, even before we saw the sign (Ketchum Korral), there were Lincoln log looking structures, painted a dark brown with red tin roofs and covered front porches, each cabin consisting of two units, Hemingway’s # 38/39 is the first one you see. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel welcome, But there was more of a welcome to come, as I was unloading the car one of the chairs came sailing across the planked front porch and landed at my feet, “Well Hello Mr. Hemingway “I said, “Thank you for coming out to greet me”. After we finished stowing our things away we got back in the car and drove north on Main St. (75) until we saw the iron archway that read Ketchum Cemetery, and we made a right onto the driveway and followed it around until we came to the four pine trees that stand guard at Hemingway’s grave. I got out of the car and walked to the grave, over it is a large granite slab that reads simply Ernest Miller Hemingway July 21, 1899 – July 2. 1961, pennies are scattered about it, left by other admirers. I knelt there touching the granite, knowing I could never get any closer to him than I was now, I sat in the grass to the right hand side of the grave, on the opposite side is Mary’s grave (Ernest’s 4th wife Mary Welsh), covering it is a matching slab of granite. Thinking Ernest must be happy to have her near, I looked over to my wife who was busy feeding the birds bread, she’s a lot like Mary, Papa, she puts up with all my Hemingway nonsense. I did a rubbing of the inscription, then I said goodbye and said I’d be back tomorrow with an onion sandwich and a cold beer. When we returned to the cabin the chair was now in the parking lot.
In the morning we awoke hungry as bears, the cold crisp mountain air really affects your appetite, we cooked some thick slab peppered bacon and sunnyside up eggs, toasting slices of French bread in the skillet with the bacon grease, and topped it all off with a thick slice of raw onion. After breakfast we headed out of town taking the Sun Valley road out past the Lodge, there we found the marker for the Hemingway Memorial, we parked and followed the trail down, at the bottom carved out of the hillside sits a semi-circular stone bench, in front of this runs a small stream, maybe six feet or so wide and then on the other bank a forest of cottonwoods stands sentry over the Hemingway Memorial, a bust of Hemingway atop a pedestal with a bronze plaque that reads;

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless sky
Now he will be a part of them forever

The bust was done by Robert Berks, the verse, a quote from Hemingway about the death of his friend Gene Van Guilder who was killed in a hunting accident in 1939.
The sight was especially beautiful this time of year with the leaves in full color and the sunlight streaking through and striking the bust, highlighting it in spots while deepening the shadows in the hollows of it, it’s rich patina glistening in the sun’s rays, I immediately took out my sketch pad and started sketching it, while mulling over what would be the best way of fording the stream so I could do a rubbing of the inscribed quote.

Next stop was the Ketchum Library, Here we met Chris Millspaugh, the Regional History Librarian there, Chris and I had e-mailed back and forth, so he was expecting us. He led us back into his section of the Library, there he kindly showed us a slide presentation he had put together for a Hemingway Seminar, gave me free rein to the computer with all their photos of Papa and access to the cabinet drawers containing all their files pertaining to him. After seeing all this we were ready to leave and asked Chris where best we could see the Hemingway house from, we had been following the guide books all morning trying to see it, to no avail. He suggested looking off of N. Canyon Run Rd., we thanked him and got in our car to head off for N Canyon Run Rd. which we found, but to our dismay all you could see from there was the driveway leading up to the house, that and the NO TRESPASSING VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED signs. So we turned away in disappointment and headed for the Sun Valley Lodge.
On our return to the cabin we stopped off at the Cemetery, I had to apologize to Papa, telling him we were running late that day but I would be back tomorrow with his beer and onion sandwich.
Again the morning started with the same hearty breakfast as the previous morning, then it was off to purchase fishing licenses and that brings me back to the beginning of this story.
Now with the horses back in the corral, we make our way back to the Lodge. There, with a couple of glasses of Melot ordered from the Duchin Bar and a cigar, we sat outside in cool mountain air being warmed by the rays of the sun and watched the skaters going round in the outdoor rink. The Sun Valley Lodge has a lot of activities to offer, in the winter months you can even do dog sledding. That evening we ate dinner at Christiania’s Restaurant, where Papa had eaten his last meal (July 1, 1961). On the drive over I went on about how I wished I’d remembered to ask for Hemingway’s table when I made reservations, my wife didn’t say a word, we entered the restaurant and gave the hostess our name, and she said, yes of course the Hemingway table, I looked at my wife and she just winked. Seated at the table we ordered some champagne to toast Papa with and then ordered dinner.

That evening I had a hard time falling asleep. I tossed and turned thinking about how disappointed I was that we didn’t get to see the Hemingway House. When I finally did get to sleep I dreamt that after a few wines that afternoon at the Sun Valley Lodge we drove back to the spot where the Hemingway driveway meets N. Canyon Run Rd. and despite the warning signs, drove up the mountain side driveway that led to the house, there we stopped the car, I got out and my wife took my photo standing there in front of the house.

The next morning we packed up and after saying goodbye to the cabin we headed for one more visit to Papa’s grave, there I said my farewells, and we got back in the car and headed south on 75 on our way back to Boise.
One strange thing, when we had the pictures from the trip developed there was a photo of me standing in front of the Hemingway House.