In the fall of 1975, when my wife decided she wanted a divorce, I moved into a quaint, though dilapidated cottage in an obscure rain forest corner of River Oaks where the only amenity was being awakened every morning by a raccoon rummaging through our kitchen.
The address was 8 Ashbury Place, and it belonged to a struggling novelist named Peter Heiney, who through his connections at Women’s Wear Daily was forever entertaining young debutantes with double last names and lineages to names in Texas history books.
"His name is Teo Davis," said Peter. "He was educated in Cambridge, married a contessa who later divorced him, and he moved in here with me."
"So where is he now?" Yes, I wanted to know, where do mended broken-hearts go when they haven’t shot their brains out.
"Teo? Teo’s now in Hollywood. He’s out there writing screenplays."
Having just seen Sunset Boulevard for the first time in my life, and with the image of slain screenwriter Joe Gillis in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool in my head, this was not what I wanted to hear.
Teo Davis, though, would remain indelibly on my mind, if for no other reason than that he had left behind notebooks and parts of an unfinished novel. The most interesting of his notes were in Spanish: References to "Papa" and "Hotch" and "Malaga." His handwriting was so bad, however, that making sense of his ramblings proved to be an exercise in fiction and futility.
One afternoon, I actually found a library in Houston and checked out several biographies of Hemingway. To my surprise, what Peter had said was true. Bill and Annie Davis were rich, beautiful people in Malaga who, though they did not know Hemingway very well, had invited him and his fourth wife Mary to stay with them in 1959 at their elegant estate called La Consula. Their house was filled with a lot of servants and cars, and they were parents of a son and daughter. One of the biographies even mentioned Hemingway playing in the mornings with young Timoteo.
Peter didn’t seem to know much more. "To be honest," he said. "I thought he might have been making it all up."
Fifteen years passed. Instead of Paris, I decided to go to Spain. I don’t know whether I was searching for Hemingway or for Timoteo. I found neither. I wound up in Los Angeles. One day I finally sobered up. I was still alive, writing for a TV cop show with an office overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Peter had been right. When you’ve been to hell and back, you go on to Hollywood to make things up.
I moved into an old Spanish villa apartment on Kings Road whose claim to fame was that F. Scott Fitzgerald had once lived there. I would soon learn that in Hollywood someone famous has always lived where someone not so famous now lives. It’s like reverse reincarnation: you were always someone famous in a past life. One day when we were in a story meeting at my office, a guy popped in the door looking like he had seen better days. He was there to paint our offices, but he was the most unusual looking painter you will ever find. He was wearing a rumpled, navy Armani blazer, soiled linen slacks that none of us could afford, and a slight English accent that was both unexpected and intimidating.
"I’m your painter," he informed us like some waiter at LeDome, "and my name is Teo."
I don’t believe Teo ever finished painting the office. He spent most days chain-smoking Camels on our terrace overlooking the Sunset strip while we watched young actresses walking their composites and headshots to the agency across the street. Teo would regale us with reminiscences that, on the one hand, seemed implausible considering he was not even ten when Hemingway had spent two months under the same roof.
But who was to argue with a man from Eton. Peter had had it wrong. Teo had been educated at Eton, not Cambridge, but he had married a countessa who had broken his heart. He also had vivid memories of the year Hemingway had visited. Hemingway had met Teo’s father in Mexico some years earlier, before Teo was born and when the author was still married to his third wife Martha.
Bill Davis’ given name was actually Nathan, an American of enormous wealth although Teo wasn’t certain how he had made his money. Or, if he knew, he never said. His father was a quiet, laid-back, balding man with a self-effacing sense of humor who was the complete opposite of Hemingway. He didn’t intrude on his famous guest, who at times treated his host almost like a servant. Hemingway called Bill Davis "Negro," using the Spanish pronunciation, possibly because he had thick lips and swarthy features.
Davis accepted it as a term of endearing friendship and enjoyed playing chauffeur for Hemingway. Bill Davis loved to drive cars and in Mexico was driving a taxi cab, for inexplicable reasons, when he met Hemingway. Valerie Hemingway, who also was a guest of the Davis family and later married Ernest’s youngest son Gregory, would recall that Davis "let the Hemingways use the house as if it were their own house. He didn't do the big thing of ‘I'm the host, I'm hosting the Hemingways.’ He really took a back seat, and his wife Annie was just the most delightful person, just a wonderful, warm person."
"We called him Papa — everyone did," said Teo. "He was like a big teddy bear who was larger than life. When he was there, life revolved around him. Being around ten at the time, and a bit on the precocious side, I knew who Ernest Hemingway was — that he was an author of some importance — but just how important he was is something that I wouldn’t even begin to comprehend until years later."
Teo recalled that the day the Hemingways arrived at the La Consula, which was actually in the countryside west of Malaga, his mother had their cook make turkey sandwiches that his father had taken with him as a snack for the guests on their drive back from the port of Algeciras across from Gibraltar.
The Hemingways’ arrival at the estate had signaled a flurry of activity by the servants. Ernest and Mary had brought 21 pieces of luggage, and Teo remembered that for a few moments the entry of the estate had resembled a busy hotel lobby with servants acting as porters. The Hemingways were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. The Davis’ nineteenth century mansion rose gracefully behind twin iron gates. The doors alone were over fifteen feet high and were made of heavy carved oak. Outside the rich vegetation that included palm and acacia trees, pines, lilies and vines reminded the Hemingways of their finca in Cuba.
Hemingway did not sleep well and usually was awake before dawn, Teo recalled. Often he would find Hemingway at daybreak working at the stand-up desk on a veranda overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Malaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, is Spain’s second largest seaport, and La Consula offered a panoramic view of the historic Andalusian landscape.
Hemingway was almost religious in his morning ritual of writing. He began work each morning around 6 a..m. and finished by 10 a.m. Later, Teo was to learn that in those first ten days at La Consula, Hemingway roughed out the preface for a new school edition of his short stories. But Hemingway had gone to Spain on assignment for Life magazine which had contracted with him to write a short article about the series of mano a mano bullfights between Antonio Ordonez and Louis Miguel Dominguin, two of Spain’s greatest matadors.
From the Davis estate, Hemingway spent the summer travelling with the bullfighters to gather material for the article. At La Consula, however, Hemingway’s article quickly grew to some 120,000 words. Tortured over trying to shorten his work, Hemingway asked his friend Hotchner to help edit the piece. Eventually they cut the article to 65,000 words, which Life published as "The Dangerous Summer" in three installments in 1960. It would be the last work that Hemingway would see published in his lifetime.
For little Teo, the experience would forever influence his life. He became a writer because of Hemingway, whose few moments of fatherly-like attention lavished on Teo affected him enormously.
Some mornings, Teo’s childish squealing as Papa chased him down the long halls of the estate awakened the other guests, who delighted in seeing Hemingway’s increasingly grumpy demeanor soften, even if only for a few fleeting moments. For Teo, these were much-needed displays of emotion that were sadly missing from his relationship with his parents. Neither Bill nor Annie Davis were affectionate with their children, and Teo would lament that "I cannot recall my parents ever telling me they loved me."
Mary Hemingway would later write in her memoirs that the Davises had indeed been unusual people. Annie Davis, she said, was "an American who had lived abroad so long she seemed to us European." The Davises also did not permit a telephone or radios in their home, so their only means of communicating with the outside world was by mail or telegram.
Nonetheless, La Consula was filled with commotion the two months that the Hemingways were guests. Teo recalled that life on the estate during that period centered around Papa. He loved Fats Waller, and the Davises always had Fats Waller songs blaring from their loudspeakers by the pool. Hemingway’s favorite was "Your Feets Too Big." He did not really sing in tune but instead loved to encourage other people to perform.
Often the commotion was simply the departure and return of Hemingway and his cadre of friends and bullfight aficionados. With Bill Davis at the wheel, Papa was on the road often, following that seaon’s bullfights. At various times, the group chasing after the bulls with Hemingway included Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Beverly Bentley who would later marry Norman Mailer.
That summer, Hemingway turned 60, and little Timoteo was awestruck by the extravagant birthday party his parents hosted on July 21. Mary Hemingway summoned guests from all over the world and arranged the party with fireworks, champagne from Paris, Chinese food from London, Spanish musicians and flamenco dancers.
When a fireworks display set a palm tree on fire, the local hook and ladder company — led by bullfighter Antonio Ordonez, join the party. Hemingway enjoyed himself immensely, but the celebration produced some indications that all was not well with him. Among them was a nasty flash of ill temper directed at his frontline friend from World War II, General Charles Trueman "Buck" Lanham. Having come from Washington, D.C., for the party, he left Spain certain that Hemingway was an extremely troubled man.
To all but a few, Hemingway's public persona had become almost a self-parody. A child could be excused for not seeing it. Most in Hemingway’s entourage, however, either excused it or refused to see it. Teo took it all in, delighted with the bafoonish Hemingway acting out fits of anger, rage and neurosis as if in a cartoon.
In a year, Hemingway would be dead.
"I remember learning that he had died," Teo recalled, "but I don’t think it was until later that I learned how he had died. I don’t know if it matters. He had lived a long, rich life and obviously, from his point of view, it had reached its end."
Today, in a sense, there is still a bit of that irrepressible Hemingway spirit in the young boy who once looked up to him in that enormous villa in Spain. The boy, in fact, has now become a man just a few years younger than Hemingway had been when he visited La Consula.
"I’ve been looking for Hemingway for so long," says Teo, "for a sense of who he really was, that at times I feel as if I’ve almost become Hemingway. Does that make sense?"
To an entire generation, of course, it does.