Retracing Hemingway's Road Trip Through Northern Italy

Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

At work on a book on Ernest Hemingway’s late years in Italy, Andrea Di Robilant was given a photo of the writer’s royal blue Buick convertible. Drawing from Italian news articles and the diary of Hemingway’s wife, the author re-creates the couple’s 1948 drive from Genoa to the Dolomites.

In late September 1948, Ernest Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, sailed into Genoa’s harbor aboard the Jagiello, a Polish ship that plied the Atlantic route between Havana and the Italian port city. Hemingway’s beautiful royal blue Buick Roadmaster convertible was tied to the foredeck like a shining mermaid.

Hemingway, then 49, had been persona non grata in Fascist Italy. Twenty-four years after his last visit, he was returning as a celebrity. In a country still struggling to recover from the ravages of the war, he embodied the power and vibrancy of America. As he walked down the plank with tiny Mary at his side, the journalists and photographers crowding the wharf were taken aback by the sheer size of the man. “The massive bulk of Ernest Hemingway has landed in Genoa,” wrote the enthralled reporter of the Secolo XIX, the main city paper. The headline was even more emphatic: “Author of For Whom the Bell Tolls Is a Two-Meter Giant.”

Hemingway was not quite that tall: He was six feet, or 1.83 meters. But to reporters who were seeing him for the first time, he seemed, quite literally, larger than life.

The Hemingways had never expected to find themselves in Genoa. Their original plan was to disembark in the south of France and “cruise Cézanne country” in the Buick, then drive up to Paris to the Ritz. But they had arrived in Cannes to discover the wharf had been battered by a storm and there was no way to unload the Buick. The only option was to continue on east to Genoa, the ship’s last port of call.

As soon as Hemingway set foot on Italian soil, the Provence idea began to fade. Genoa, with its busy shipyards and smokestacks, and the tangle of ancient streets that rose steeply against the mountains, had been a familiar sight to Hemingway in his youth. It was in Genoa that he had hobbled onto the Giuseppe Verdi, still recuperating from his war wounds, to sail home in 1919. He was back three years later as a young reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, sent to cover the International Economic Conference. He visited Rapallo and other resorts down the Ligurian coast, and liked it so much he returned the next year with his first wife, Hadley.

Now he was unexpectedly back. At an improvised press conference in his suite at the Columbia Palace, Hemingway paced back and forth, sipping whiskey and rambling on about his earlier visits. Italy was the country he loved most after America, he said. He loved it so much that he was of a mind to spend a couple of months a year there. He sketched out vague plans as he went on.

Mary listened with bewilderment. Her husband was clearly in no rush to get to France. “The friendly singsong language and cheerful welcomes so beguiled my friend,” she noted in her diary, “...[he’s] decided we must go on in Italy.”

The new plan was to drive up to Stresa, spend two or three days in the luxury of the Grand Hotel, return to Genoa, and sail back to Cannes. Mary grumbled that it was “a lot of fuss and bother to unload the car” for a brief stay. But she wasn’t going to get in her husband’s way. Provence, after all, could wait a few days. She hired a local chauffeur, Riccardo Girardengo. The next day they drove up the steep rise behind Genoa, crossed the Apennines, and made their way down to the Po Valley. “Lovely weather, lovely country,” Mary chimed. They cruised through peach and cherry country, vineyards, and mulberry groves and were soon in sight of Lombardy’s tall, shimmering poplars. Along the road, barefoot women were returning from the rice fields. “Che bella macchina!” they cried out, clapping under their wide-brimmed straw hats as the Buick swished by.

They reached Stresa as the sun was setting on Lake Maggiore. Exactly 30 years had passed since the rainy day in September 1918 when Hemingway, age 19, had arrived at the same hotel on crutches. The solicitous concierge came rushing out. “Welcome back, Mr. Hemingway,” he said. The scene seemed so rehearsed that Mary was sure Girardengo had called ahead.

The Grand Hotel, with its great halls and manicured gardens, hadn’t changed much since Hemingway had last been there. As he walked the grounds facing the shimmering waters of Lake Maggiore, vivid memories came back to him. He had wanted to come to Stresa with Agnes von Kurowsky, the attractive young nurse he had fallen in love with at the American Hospital in Milan. But she had been sent off to Florence on assignment. After breakfast, Hemingway drove Mary to Pallanza, a picturesque town on the other side of the bay.

“Thirty years ago Papa had dreamed of taking his girl [von Kurowsky there] but never managed,” Mary wrote in her diary. “We got in the Buick, top down, and whirred around there in less than an hour,” she added with a note of triumph.

After a long, lazy lunch by the water in the soft September sunshine, the Hemingways returned to Stresa to find that a new batch of reporters, mostly from the literary pages of newspapers and magazines, had pitched their tent in the hotel foyer. Mary went out on the lake with the boatman while the journalists surrounded Hemingway at the bar. “Standing [there] waiting for the barman to serve him a very iced martini,” one of them wrote, “Hemingway seemed a character in one of his stories, a fellow we might have met before in The Sun Also Rises or in Green Hills of Africa.”

What did he think about existentialism, the new philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, the reporters wanted to know. “When I see him in Paris, I never ask him to explain existentialism to me,” Hemingway answered in his loud staccato. “But since we are among friends here I can say it: It’s a load of crap.” He offered the reporters a round of martinis as he thumped his heart. “I have to be careful about this one,” he said in his rusty Italian. Then, feeling his liver: “I have many stones here...”

Mussolini’s ban against Hemingway’s books during the Fascist regime had led to a scramble to get them in print as soon as the war was over. But the first editions were hurried and sloppy. More important, it wasn’t clear which publishing house owned rights to which novels. Arnoldo Mondadori, founder of the namesake publishing house, was very aggressive in his drive to become Hemingway’s “sole publisher.” So he was thrilled to learn from the papers that his star author was in Stresa, a mere half hour away from his villa in the small town of Meina, on Lake Maggiore. Hemingway accepted an invitation to lunch. Meanwhile, Mary returned to Genoa to collect the luggage they had left in storage at the Columbia Palace in order to continue their journey to France.

Mondadori was a stocky, energetic 60-year-old with a big nose, goggle eyes, and wide-framed spectacles. He gave Hemingway a warm welcome at the family compound where Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, and other Mondadori authors had been feted before the war. According to Mondadori, everybody was now reading Hemingway’s books in Italy, and royalties from A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls were piling up in his Italian account. (Postwar currency laws prevented the transfer of those royalties to the U.S.)

Mondadori had summoned his two sons and two daughters and their respective families for the occasion. Hemingway easily succumbed to their warm embrace. He got along fine with the old man in a boisterous, back-slapping way, but he felt more at ease with Alberto, a mild-mannered young man who was visibly uncomfortable around his overbearing father. Unlike the older Mondadori, whose formal education was limited to primary school, Alberto had a genuine literary sensibility and a variety of interests. But he lacked his father’s focus and drive. He had joined the family firm under pressure from his father after the war and was now the reluctant heir apparent.

Courtesy Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Hemingway got something tangible out of that first meeting: 400,000 lire in cash drawn from his pile of royalties—roughly $650, which in 1948 was enough to live well in Italy for many weeks. He agreed with his Italian hosts that it would be good to linger for another while in a country that held so many memories. Why not drive to the Dolomites, Alberto and his wife, Virginia, suggested, and spend some time with Mary in Cortina while the weather was still pleasant? They would join them there and introduce them to their friends.

When Mary returned from Genoa with the Buick piled high with luggage, Hemingway told her they were skipping Provence and going to Cortina for a few days of trout fishing. And then? They might motor down to Venice, which neither of them had ever seen. Hemingway also dangled the tantalizing prospect of a winter in Portofino.

With Girardengo at the wheel, the Hemingways left Stresa, skirted the southernmost finger of Lake Maggiore, then headed eastward to Como, “where the mountains”—Mary wrote in her diary—“rise steeply over the oily tongue of the lake.” They stopped in Bergamo for the night and checked in at the Hotel Moderno, in the new part of town.

Free tickets for the opera were waiting for them at the hotel. Wiped out by the long drive, Hemingway stayed in, drinking with the owner, who had fought with the partisans in the war. Mary headed off to see Donizetti’s La Favorita, looking very smart in a rust-colored silk dress and a chic Persian jacket. She basked in the limelight, surrounded by admirers who came to her box to pay their respects to la signora Hemingway.

After a strong aperitif the next morning in Bergamo Alta, the splendid medieval part of town, the Hemingways continued their journey to the Alps. They stopped for lunch at a roadside trattoria under a vine pergola. Hemingway could see his wife was falling for Italy.

At Lake Garda, Hemingway couldn’t resist a pilgrimage to the Vittoriale, the extravagant residence-mausoleum that Gabriele D’Annunzio built to celebrate himself. Poet, soldier, incurable romantic, D’Annunzio had been one of Hemingway’s early heroes. They spent the night in a small hotel nearby, with a view of sloping vineyards, olive groves, and lemon trees, and the blue lake in the distance.

Then it was straight up to the Tyrol, where Mary caught her first glimpse of the Dolomites—“pink shafts rising higher into the clouds.” The rough, long drive up the mountains took its toll on the Buick as they climbed “curve after curve after curve.”

Late in the afternoon they reached the mountain pass at Falzarego, which had seen heavy fighting between the Italians and the Austrians during World War I. The artillery nests carved into the rock wall were still visible from the white road that zigzagged down into a wide-open valley of staggering beauty. Cortina was at the center of the valley, surrounded by a crown of rosy peaks.

It all looked the same as it had when he had come to Cortina 25 years before with Hadley. It had been late in the winter season. They had taken a room at the Hotel Concordia, one of the few hotels still open. Hadley told her husband she was pregnant. It wasn’t planned, and Hemingway, who was 24 at the time, wasn’t ready. Their stay was filled with emotional tension and conflict.

Now Hemingway was back, with Mary. As the Buick rolled up the Corso, he told Girardengo to pull up by the Hotel Concordia. The hotel was closing, as the summer season was over, but the owner was happy to make an exception for his special guest. It rained for two days, and Mary complained about the cold and the journalists who followed them everywhere. Then the rain stopped and the little town came alive. “All morning,” Mary noted, “the women from the house next door work in their vegetable garden, pulling potatoes, hoeing cabbage, turning over used earth to the air and sun.” Early October was, in fact, a perfect time to be in Cortina. The summer crowd had left, the mountain air tingled, and the autumn colors brightened up the valley. And Hemingway was looking forward to some trout fishing. In the sports store on the main square where he had gone to get some tackle, he met Italo Squitieri, a sculptor and photographer who was part of an eclectic group of friends who lived in Cortina year round. With him was a retired racing driver, Galeazzo Martinez. If he wanted good fishing, they told him, he should go with them to Anterselva, a beautiful lake two hours toward the Austrian border. Friends of theirs, the Kechler brothers, owned fishing rights at the preserve.

A few hours later, Count Federico Kechler appeared at the hotel. He and his friends were driving up to Anterselva in a couple of days. Would the Hemingways like to join? Kechler, a former Navy officer from an old family in nearby Friuli, was an enthusiastic sportsman, witty, cultivated, and full of old-school charm. Hemingway liked him instantly and so did Mary, who was delighted to meet an Italian “who spoke English with a pure, unembroidered Mayfair accent.” They happily accepted.

Two days later they drove off early in the morning, Girardengo at the wheel of the Buick, with the Hemingways and Squitieri; the others (including a young cook from Sardinia) all piled into Kechler’s wine-colored Lancia. They climbed the mountains behind Cortina, crossed the wide valley of Dobbiaco, with its lovely Tyrolean farms and hamlets. “A perfect autumn day,” Mary noted as the Buick sailed along with the top down. “Bright sun, deep sky, the mountains mauve and beige above the dark slopes of the pines, and the poplars and birch feathery yellow along the road.” They headed west to Brunico and then up a steep mountain road until they reached a sparkling blue lake set in the most heavenly Alpine landscape. Anterselva was a very exclusive fishing preserve—there was only one lakeside lodge, which belonged to Enrico Mattei, the powerful boss of ENI, Italy’s state-owned oil and gas company.

They fished all morning, Hemingway very happy with Kechler’s spinning reels. Afterward, they sat down to a meal of spaghetti and pork chops prepared by the Sardinian at a makeshift campsite.

Back in the comfort of the Buick, the Hemingways, with Squitieri in the back, sang all the way home, passing a bottle of rum around until it was empty. Meanwhile, Alberto and Virginia Mondadori had arrived in Cortina. So the party continued over dinner at the Hotel Posta, where Hemingway and Alberto drank and talked shop. A new edition of A Farewell to Arms was coming out soon, Alberto told him. It was in the hands of Fernanda Pivano, a young translator whom Mondadori had snatched from Einaudi, a rival publishing house. During the German occupation, Pivano had signed a contract with Einaudi for the translation of the book. The contract had actually been in her brother’s name. When the Nazis raided the Einaudi offices in Turin, they found the contract and arrested the brother. Fernanda went to look for him and was arrested as well. After the war, Mondadori obtained the rights to the book and Pivano was kept on to finish the translation.

Immediately, Hemingway cabled Pivano, asking her to join him in Cortina. She arrived two days later on the old steam train with her fiancé, Ettore Sottsass, a young architect and photographer (later one of the founding fathers of Italian postmodern design). When Hemingway saw Pivano—a feisty gamine with short hair, high cheekbones, and big dark eyes—walk into the hotel dining room where he was holding forth, he strolled over to her with open arms. “He gave me such a big hug,” Pivano later said, “that I felt my bones cracking.” He seated her next to him and said, “Tell me all about the Nazis!”

The two became inseparable. They met for coffee or a drink at the Genzianella bar to talk about the translation, took walks around Cortina, and drove the Buick up into the mountains. Mary also found her lively and “very pretty, rather like Ingrid [Bergman].” Sottsass was more detached and “very quiet.” He had a camera with him and was always taking pictures. Every evening, a large group of friends met for dinner—loud and merry gatherings where wine and grappa flowed into the night.

Mary had seldom seen her husband in such a happy mood. Someone suggested they rent a house for the winter. She found a lovely chalet on the edge of town. It sat on a hill, was built on three floors, and had a beautiful view of the Dolomites. The hill sloped down to the trees that shimmered along the fast-running Boite river. “As soon as Papa saw the house...he liked it,” Mary reported. She worried the Buick might find it difficult to reach the house in the snow during the winter, “but the custodian said he will keep the path open and it is a bright, charming house.”

Meanwhile, In His Literary Career…

After Cortina, it was Venice, where the Hemingways settled into the Gritti Palace and took their drinks at Harry’s Bar. At a duck shoot in the lagoon, Hemingway fell for Adriana Ivancich, an 18-year-old Venetian. Inspired by her, he started a story about duck shooting that soon became the story of Colonel Cantwell, an embittered soldier who spends his life’s last days in the arms of his young Venetian lover. Across the River and into the Trees (1950) was panned by the critics. It ruined Ivancich’s reputation, and Hemingway forbade its publication in Italy. The jacket above is by Ivancich. What came next? The Old Man and the Sea.

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