It was early in 2011 when I first began scratching down notes for what would become my book, In Hemingway’s Room (released July 21, 2016). I had been thinking about this book and this story for years. My interest in Ernest Hemingway’s love of hotels and love of writing in hotels first began when I was just a kid of twelve years old or so, when I first rode my bike up to the old Selby Hotel in downtown Toronto (which had since been converted to a Clarion Hotel), where I knew a young Ernest Hemingway had lived when he was working at the Toronto Star.
Years later in ‘09-10, when I was working on my hotel living book The Suite Life: The Magic and Mystery of Hotel Living, I began adding Hemingway material into the manuscript. Yet, the Hemingway stories became so plentiful that it began to feel a bit Hemingway-heavy – I wrote in my notebook, “take this stuff out, there is a whole book in this.” I didn’t know if I would ever get to do that book but filed it away in the ‘to be done’ section of my consciousness. The book did get written but took on an organic life of its own that kept the story going even when I was sure I had reached The End.
The great writing lesson that the experience of writing In Hemingway’s Room taught me, or rather confirmed for me in spades, was that you must leave yourself wide open to taking a rather odd turns here and there – that you must follow those turns, even if for just a little while to see where they lead, because sometimes they open you up to something you never anticipated but fall in love with instantly, and ultimately add to your work in ways that produce smiles all around.
"It was cool to be sitting in the place where the young Ernest Hemingway lived before he became…Ernest Hemingway."
When physically writing In Hemingway’s Room, I would hang out in the old Selby Hotel (which was built in to an existing mansion that was once owned by the Gooderham & Worts Limited Whiskey producing family) and sit in the front parlor (which was by then the reception room) or in the old bar/lounge area (by then the breakfast room) to write. It was cool to be sitting in the place where the young Ernest Hemingway lived before he became…Ernest Hemingway. This was the place he grew in to his own as a writer. In the second floor suite in which he lived, there still sat the old desk he would write at, where he sketched out his notes, for what would become A Farewell to Arms. Since I write everything - every book, every magazine piece - in longhand first, it was a great thrill to be sitting in that place writing about the great man of American letters who himself sat in that very place writing in his notebooks.
This went on for the years I was researching and writing the book – I must have haunted those rooms at least fifty times throughout the process – then, just before beaming the completed rough first draft out to my publisher Melanie Fountain in California, I decided to stop by the Selby Hotel once more to read over the manuscript before sending it off.
When I rounded the corner from Bloor Street on to Sherbourne Street, something immediately seemed wrong – the parking lot was empty and there was a big sign erected in front of the hotel. I looked at the sign and read in disbelief that the hotel had been closed and was due to be converted into condos imminently. I had heard rumors of such a thing but could not believe that the city would allow this to happen to the place Ernest Hemingway had lived in and worked – every other town on the face of the earth that Hemingway set foot in or had a drink in has made a small tourist cottage industry of that fact, this town should be no different – after all, as John Hemingway (Ernest’s grandson) told me, “Toronto is a Hemingway town!”
I mention John Hemingway because I told him about the closure and the desk and he asked me if there was a way I might find inside the closed hotel for a look see – on the up and up, if entirely possible, as the family would love to retain such a desk of course.
Suddenly, at the suggestion of my astute publisher Melanie Fountain, the book I was writing was no longer finished. The Hemingway desk in the old Hemingway Suite at the old Selby Hotel would breathe a contemporary curve in the story that I was now a part of, and the story was writing itself on a week by week basis. I tried several times, on the up and up and otherwise, to bust my way in to that shut down hotel to see if the Hemingway desk was still there and if it could be procured.
"John Hemingway said he would post bail if my attempts failed."
One occasion, while I was perched high on a set of exterior fire stairs, a black SUV rolled up – I assumed it was Johnny Law but it turned out to be a representative of the developers who threatened me with immediate arrest. I told him to blow his “trespassing” threat out his you-know-what but had to admit that he pretty much had me on the threat of ‘attempt break and enter’. I feared not. John Hemingway said he would post bail if my attempts failed. I swore to John that if SWAT were to surround the building as I crashed in looking for the Hemingway desk, that I would never utter his name – his response was, “No, go ahead and name me, that would be cool.”
Finally, I was able to connect with a member of the new development company who had taken over the condo project, a very nice fellow named John English, who was unaware of the Hemingway connection to the building and was intrigued enough to begin thinking about including it in the plans for the development. He graciously took me in to the gutted hotel and took me to the Hemingway Suite – which was very interesting because it was empty – there was no flat screen TV, no bed, no fancy electronics …and no desk. I sat on the floor by the fireplace and quietly looked around the room realizing that I was looking at the room in much the condition that Ernest Hemingway looked at it all those years ago – just wooden floors, a fireplace, ornate piping around the baseboards and the ceiling – this was the closest I would get to being In Hemingway’s Room as he knew it – it was thrilling.
But the desk, the desk was gone, but where? John English told me he had no idea what the previous owners of the hotel did with the furnishings. He assumed they were either junked or sold off to some sort of clearing house or perhaps forwarded to a charity.
"...scratched into the surface the words, 'A Farewell to Arms'"
So there I sat, thinking about Ernest Hemingway and thinking about Citizen Kane – as Rosebud sat in a warehouse amidst a pile of forgotten stuff waiting to be thrown into an incinerator to be burned as junk, so might the Hemingway desk, unbeknownst to those housing it or to those about to toss it on the fire – but I allowed myself to think also that maybe someone would notice scratched into the surface the words, 'A Farewell to Arms' and stop and start thinking about Ernest Hemingway too.
Comment and let us know how far you would have gone in search of the Hemingway desk? Has your writing ever taken you on an unexpected journey?
Christopher Heard was born in Oshawa, Ontario, but now lives in Toronto, Ontario. He always dreamed of being a writer and with a lot of hard work and good fortune became one. He has written ten books so far, among them, Dreaming Aloud: The Life and Films of James Cameron, DEPP, Britney Spears: Little Girl Lost, and The Suite Life: The Magic and Mystery of Hotel Living. He has also had a long TV career that includes hosting and producing his own show Reel to Real, the award winning show On The Arts and is currently an on-air contributor to CTV News broadcast out of Toronto.
Connect with Christopher on Twitter @AuthorCHeard