Bill Lederer Meets Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

This third post about William Lederer relates one of Bill’s most charming tales: his writing tutelage under Ernest Hemingway.  The basic facts are verifiable: Yes, Bill did spend time in 1940 and 1941 on a gunboat in the Yangtze River, and during that period Hemingway did indeed accompany his wife to China as she did some reporting for Collier’s magazine.  But did they ever really meet?

Who cares?  It made a terrific story, and he told it to me with great relish.

By 1940, the Western powers’ gunboats had been on the Yangtze for almost 50 years, one of the terms of the treaties inflicted on China after the Opium War; their purpose was to force China to allow foreign commercial traffic to safely move between the ocean and the “treaty ports” upstream.  By the time Bill got there, the gunboats’ role had taken on a new dimension.  The Communist revolution was raging toward its end stage, and the Western powers had allied with the Kuomintang, the fascist government of Chiang Kai-shek. The foreign gunboats maintained a perimeter against the Reds, who mostly held the northern bank of the river.

Making things even more chaotic, Japan had invaded eastern China, creating tensions throughout Asia; Japan was also among the powers maintaining gunboats on the Yangtze River.  The Japanese eventually sank one of the American gunboats — this was before Pearl Harbor — the first naval loss to the U.S. in what was to become the War in the Pacific.

During this increasingly volatile period, Bill served as an officer on a gunboat near Chongqing (once commonly spelled Chunking), about 1,000 miles upriver from Shanghai.  He was around 28 years old — about my age when he told me this story — and he had decided that he wanted to become a writer.  And he heard that Ernest Hemingway, by then very famous, had come to stay in Chongqing for a while.

One day Bill gathered up his courage and went ashore to seek out the master.  He found him at his hotel, introduced himself, and asked Hemingway if he would teach him how to write.

“I don’t give writing lessons,” Hemingway said.  “You teach yourself to write or you don’t do it at all.”

But Bill was young enough, stubborn enough, Bill Lederer enough, that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, even from the most famous writer in the world.  He plotted a strategy to get writing lessons out of Hemingway.

Hemingway was well known as a hard drinker, and at that time in China good booze was hard to come by.  Whiskey had to be smuggled in and was available only on the black market.  For reasons that I’ve never understood, Johnnie Walker Red Label was the gold standard for whiskey in China (this was still true when I performed there as a guitarist almost 50 years later, in 1989).  Johnnie Walker was the best form of “squeeze” — bribe — better than cash in a turbulent nation where a dozen currencies were in use, none of them trustworthy.

Bill was in a good position to procure smuggled whiskey, because his boat monitored river traffic and his job put him contact with black-marketeers, most of whom had amicable arrangements with the foreign gunboats.  He approached one of these shady fellows and asked him to keep an eye out for some Johnnie Walker Red.

A week later, the guy came to Bill with an unopened case: 12 virgin bottles of this priceless commodity.  The cost was outrageous, and Bill had to sell his watch and scrape up every cent he owned to pay for it.  But it was his ticket to writing lessons from Ernest Hemingway!

The next day he went back to the hotel, carrying a bottle of whiskey.  He managed to find  Hemingway, showed him the bottle, and told him he had a case of it.  He said he’d bring one bottle as a gift in exchange for each hour of writing instruction.  They don’t have to be “lessons,” exactly, Bill told him, just conversations about writing.  Hemingway, very thirsty for some decent booze, probably amused by this persistent kid, agreed to the deal.

So twice a week, Bill went ashore to meet with the master.  He gave Hemingway the new bottle and they talked about literature, about writing, war, words, women — about observing the world and distilling the leanest, very best language to convey it to the page with.  After an hour or so, Hemingway would look at his watch to signal it was time for Bill to go.

This went on for several weeks.  Each time he went, Bill hoped that Hemingway would offer him a drink, because Bill liked a decent whiskey too, and having spent all his money for Hemingway’s booze, couldn’t afford to buy a drop for himself.  But however longingly he gazed at the bottle that Hemingway set on his table each time, the master never offered him any.  Hemingway was always cordial, generous with his advice and time, but Bill couldn’t help but feel a bit miffed by his stinginess, this breach of gentlemanly courtesy.

At the end of the sixth week, Bill took the last bottle and went ashore for his final lesson.  They talked as always, man to man, Hemingway confiding writing secrets that Bill said changed his life forever.  At the very end of their time, they shook hands, and then Hemingway smiled.

“How about a shot before you go?” he asked.

“Hell, yes!” Bill told him.

Hemingway peeled the seal off the bottle, opened it, poured out a generous portion of the dark amber liquid, and handed the glass to Bill.  Bill’s mouth was watering in anticipation of this long-hoped-for treat, and he tossed it back — and spat it back into the glass.  Hemingway chuckled.

It was tea — inky, stale stuff.  Bill had been scammed by his black market supplier.  He’d paid a fortune for 12 bottles of tea.

And Hemingway had been graciously accepting these bogus bottles for almost a month, in exchange for the writing lessons this upstart sailor so badly wanted.

I was greatly charmed by this story.  Bill’s youthful eagerness, his chagrin at never being offered a drink, Hemingway’s largesse in keeping the secret that long, giving the kid what he wanted anyway, his parting gesture of revelation — it was touching.

Bill Lederer’s stutter always vanished when he recounted his adventures, and he told the tale a lot better than I am able to.  His eyes sparkled behind his specs, either with mischief at pulling the wool a bit or just the pleasure of relating a good, factual yarn.  Or both.

As Bill says he did, I learned a lesson from the story: Be big.  Be kind.  Indulge others.  Help them attain their dreams, if you have the time.  Don’t expect any reward but the satisfaction you grant yourself.  Those are among the key messages offered by all the remarkable people I’ve met.




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