Papa’s Letters

By Patrick Hemingway Adams

A connection to the past is a beautiful thing, but it requires a relationship with the present to be understood. Long ago in the before-times, we used to write letters to our loved ones. We would endeavor to create a connection between each other with the written word. Every sentence or remark would be carefully chosen and deliberately constructed. A letter from a friend reminded us that we are thought of. A letter from a parent had the power to chastise or praise. The physical letter itself could be folded up and kept in a pocket close to your heart—where it belongs.

Letter writing is the sort of thing that fascinates a young father like myself. I have young children and there is so much I want to say to them. There is so much that they are not yet ready to hear. What if I am not around when they come of the right age to hear my wisdom?

I see the archaic and beautiful act of letter writing as a solution. Thoughtful letters can become the equivalent of great literature and so many who might be reluctant to write conventionally can be inspired to find a voice in this practice. There’s not much to it; just write what you would like to say to someone if they were with you now.

I am fortunate enough to have a significant familial tradition of letter writing to refer back to when things get weird. My great-grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, was one of the most prolific and notorious letter writers of the 20th century. His literary proclivities have left behind an indelible treasure trove of letters and notes, both personal and professional, that lend unending insight into a life famously led.

These Hemingway letters are widely available and have been examined in excruciating detail. Scholars have toiled for decades to extract a new nugget of truth or controversy, but the well seems to have run dry some 60 years after his death. I don’t believe that his letters contain many secrets that haven’t yet been revealed, but I will suggest that the letters themselves can be the key to understanding our own secrets. Those lovingly crafted notes from the past still have a message for us all, if only we can take the time to read them.

This connection to the past in the form of letters is most poignant to me in the context of communication between a father and his son. Ernest and his sons maintained a lifelong correspondence that transcended wars, marriages, feuds and fame. Their letters back and forth evoke a rich closeness for each other—and the same passionate love of the sporting life that I hope to pass down to my children. 

Their relationship, as interpreted through written letters, changes shape throughout their lives, but is most heartfelt in the early years. For my immediate family, the most interesting example of this starts with a letter exchange between my grandfather, Patrick, and Ernest in the fall of 1942. 

What follows is the back and forth communication of a father and son that is as timeless as anything I might hope to write to one of my sons.

Patrick Hemingway, every bit a teenager at 14 years old, is languishing through his first year of boarding school in New England after spending a summer hunting German U-boats with grenades and guns in the Caribbean alongside his father and brothers. The hunt was treated as an official operation and the boys were forbidden from talking about it. Patrick is sun-darkened, lonely and utterly fed up with the banality of boarding school life. He has little hope for any kind of excitement, as his headmaster has refused Patrick any time off school for the holidays. 

Ernest writes:

October 7, 1942

Dearest Mousie we miss you very much, both as a brother, a partner and a companion.

It isn’t the same here without you at all. I’m going to have Marty get the seats on the plane for you for the day after Christmas, so that you will be sure to have them and there will be no excuse for you not getting down here. They have almost finished the picture of, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and talk about sending it to New York and having me come up to see it. I will try and get them to send it down here so we’ll have a look at it.

Cooper and Bergman ought to be good, no matter how the rest of them are.

… Mousy, write about school and tell us all about it. We all want to know how it is. Give my love to the H. Fs. and much love to you from all of us.

Much love from Papa.

Then Ernest tacks on a little postscript football tackle advice that reads almost like prose:

… about football—always remember to swing your arms wide when you tackle. Open them wide before you make and then slam them together hard. Like slapping them together across your chest. Try always to fall sideways so to protect your balls as in boxing.

Wear a jockstrap when you play. 


Patrick, known as “Mouse” to his family, is ecstatic to receive news from home. He bides his time and waits for further instructions from Ernest, who is quick to make a plan.

October 15, 1942

Dearest Mouse of Mice:

Today got your second letter and boy were we all pleased to have it. I read it out loud to Gigi and translated it into Spanish for Don Andrés who was here for lunch. Things certainly sound terrific at
dear, old Canterbury.

Today I got a wire from Marty asking me to fix it up with mother to try and get the Headmaster to let you off for next Saturday to go down to Gardner’s Island and shoot with the Wolfman. I sent the wire right off to mother and asked her to intercede so you could have that one shoot. School seems to be principally devoted to taking the vacations away from men as far as I can see so far. Your handwriting has gone to hell, you spell much worse, but thank God you can still make a joke. I certainly hope they let you off for that trip to go down and shoot over the weekend since there is not going to be any Thanksgiving vacation.

If they don’t, you can rely on Papa to throw the full weight of the Hemingstein fortune, rhetoric, and will to victory against school from now on.

…It’s school, and one thing we learn in this world is that you have to eat a ton of it, and you might as well start now with school. 

The Headmaster’s own boy ended up a rummy, and at least we can set a good example by none of us becoming rummies, at any rate.

Ernest then follows with a lengthy description of the status of various cats back home in Cuba. Patrick always asked about the cats. He continues with an update on the competitive shotgun shooting progress of Patrick’s brother, Gregory, or Gigi, and closes with more fatherly advice about learning French at School:

…Yesterday we had a shoot with Gigi, Tommy Shevlin and I shooting as a team against Rodrigo Diaz, Curo and Mungo Perez. We beat them by about six pigeons. Tommy has his own guns down here now and shoots much, much better with them. I think we have a very good chance to win that $500 shoot, although it is tough that Gigi has to go north on the 23 of October, so he will not be able to shoot in it. We shot on correos today and I am pretty sure that we can beat Rodrigo Papy Cruz and Quintero in a correo shoot if the birds are fast enough.

Gee, Mousy, I hope they fix it up so you can make that shoot out at Gardner’s Island. If they don’t I’m going to get kind of rabid because I was induced to accept the place on the grounds of the long vacations, and since we have already been gypped on the starting time and nobody yet knows about Christmas, I certainly think you ought to have that one week-end.

…Though what you should do is work like hell and learn all you can and buckle down on the French, and when you don’t understand things, don’t be afraid to ask and have it made clear to you. I’ve never understood English grammar yet; the rules of it that is, and you really, truly learn a language by ear. Work as hard as you can to learn it the other way if it is possible.

I love you very much and so does Gigi and everybody here sends you their very best.
Kisses from Papa and Gigi.

The letters refer to “Gardiner’s Island,” a 3-mile stretch of island at the east end of Long Island. It was the first British colony in New York, having been purchased from The Montaukett tribe for the princely sum of a large black dog, some powder, shot and a few blankets. 

Captain William Kidd buried his famous treasure on the island before being tried for piracy in 1699. 

In 1942, Gardiner’s Island was positively teeming with wild game. It was sparsely populated and saw little hunting. 

Patrick was poised to put a hefty dent into the wildlife population, but not before writing home with some levity to pass the time as he anxiously awaited his exotic shoot in the darkest Hamptons.

October 22, 1942

Dear Papa,

I hope you have not written the Headmaster a fiery letter yet, as he has changed his mind, and we are going to have a Thanksgiving vacation after all, so I may make Gardners island, Wolfman is coming to see me at school this weekend, and I will talk it over with him. 

We had a terrific all around case of diarrhea at school, it was very funny at mass in the morning, to watch them drop like flies, Heh! Heh!, but not so funny when I got it about noon.

We are having a retreat now, some fun, no classes but plenty of prayers and meditations, I have found that the main subject for meditation, is the … Chicago Bairs, Joke.

…I wish there was more to say, but as I said before, very little happens here.

Give love to everybody.

Love Mouse

Later, my grandfather would mail a followup letter to Ernest describing a hunt on Gardiner’s Island so unique that few could ever experience it today. Patrick’s Hampton hunt is a story that always captivated me, and to read his words and almost see it through his eyes; I can’t help but feel that a lingering sense of adventure continues to live on. This is the kind of letter that all sporting fathers should long to receive. This is why we tell stories to our children.

In the letter, Patrick’s excitement is palpable, and his tone has dramatically changed from bored teenager to that of a triumphant son. He knows that Ernest will be proud of his shooting success; having not only filled his game bags, but also carving out a minor victory against institutional oppression. I also believe he sometimes purposefully misspelled words as an inside joke.

Patrick writes:

November 29, 1942

Dear Papa,

I got back from Gardener’s Island yesterday, I had a wonderful time. I arrive in East Hampton on Wednesday night, but it was too rough to cross to the Island. We went over on early Friday morning.

We spent the morning in a duck blind, boy those black [ducks] are smart! They came in all right, only about seventy years out, it seemed they knew just how near they could get before they were in range. We finally shot two, I got one, and the boy who was with me, Charles Clark, got the other. They certainly are a fine duck.

On the way back we saw six geese come in to Home Pond, they came right to where they feed the tame geese and ducks, so Jimmy Eckles drove us up to the sand bar that runs across the mouth of the Pond. The three of us, Mr. Neal, who was also staying at the Island, Charles Clarke, and my self stationed ourselves along the bar, and Mr. Eckles whent to scare them over us, they came over us, only just too far over to the left of us, I was to the only one who had a shot, I was so excited seeing those huge animals I missed my shot completely. It was wonderful seeing them just the same.

Just before lunch we went after Pheasants, we got seven in about ten minutes,
I got five, Clarke got one, and Mr. Eckles got one, it was wonderful to see those grand old birds again.

…After dinner, we went after deer I missed a swell shot on a nice buck, about 170 yards, I forgot all about squeezing off, I shot over about three yards, it was very imberesink, as you could readily imagine Clark shot on any way, it was a doe, but we were getting pretty desperate by that time.

After we hunted the deer, we went after black duck again again, it was just light enough to see them, they were coming in to bed up for the night, we had some
wonderful shooting for about ten minutes.

By the time we got back it was dark, so that ended the shooting.

…We had to get up at five the next morning in order to make the train for New York.

We had diner in New York and then took the train for school.

…I miss you very much, but it is only two more weeks till Xmas vacation
and we will all be together.

Love Mouse

To me, this exchange is very intimate. This is a boy who loved his father very much and missed him even more. Ernest, though frustrated and helpless from so far away, put together the hunt of a lifetime to assuage the loneliness of his middle-born son. There is nothing boastful (at least not seriously) in the letters, just a tenderness on display that is not typically understood or associated with Papa Hemingway, literary giant and sporting legend. 

One day, I hope that my sons will write me that kind of letter. I like to think that they will write lousy jokes and laugh when they read mine. It feels important to preserve a connection beyond our technological footprint. I want to leave behind ink and paper. I need a few words to persist beyond my time because my sons will outlast me, so the wisdom better hold out at least that long. All the better if they can fold it up and carry it with them.

In the meantime, I will write those letters—and try to explain everything I know about being a man. I am still working out how it goes, but I know a bit about training bird dogs, shooting things while they’re running, and talking to cheerleaders. That feels like a good place to start.

My boys are too young to read now, but when they grow older I’ll show them letters like the ones written by their great-great grandfather to their great grand-
father. Let’s see if that doesn’t inspire them to run outside and have an adventure, like it did for me. 

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