I opened a window, and leaned out over the Calle dell’Oca. A man in a thick wool overcoat trudged by, struggling with his umbrella.
“How dreary,” said Mother, from her perch on the sofa.
“I’m bored,” I said. “Ring Harry’s and see if the Contessa is there.”
This was a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Venice novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. It was meant to entertain Mother, but instead of laughing she suggested I lay off the booze.
“It’s Hemingway,” I said. “His Venice book. You read it.”
“It must be wonderful not to be burdened by memory. Every morning is like a blank slate.”
Mother threw a cork at my forehead and scored a direct hit. I picked it up and bounced it off her knee with such force that I had to duck to avoid the rebound.
“That’s enough,” she said. “Settle down and quit drinking.”
“We’re not quitting. We’re going to Harry’s.”
Harry’s was Harry’s Bar in San Marco, where Ernest Hemingway spent countless hours holding court, swilling gin and punching strangers. Hemingway’s relationship with Venice—and Italy—was complicated. During World War I he was wounded while serving with the American Red Cross near Venice, and received the Croce de Guerra for valor. Later, in 1923, he wrote an article for the Toronto Daily Star in which he referred to Italy’s new leader, Benito Mussolini, as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” Il Duce returned the favor by banning A Farewell to Arms in 1929. Hemingway avoided Italy for decades, finally returning in the late ‘40s and ‘50s to become a fixture at Harry’s Bar.
The food at Harry’s is very expensive, so Mother and I went to a dusky seafood place in the back streets of Cannaregio first. I like a dark restaurant, but after imbibing all afternoon, I was in serious danger of using my plate as a pillow. There was only one thing for it.
“Un martini,” I told the waiter, channeling Hemingway.
“What are you doing?” said Mother.
Whenever I order something more expensive than house wine, Mother becomes suspicious. Either I’m drunk, intending to stick her with the bill, or both.
“I need a pick-me-up,” I said.
“A pick-me-up? It’ll lay you out.”
We ate a platter of frogfish, and left the restaurant fully soused.
“To Harry’s!” I said.
“To Harry’s!” said Mother.
Despite the crushing influx of tourists, Harry’s remains a class joint, with glossy wood, parquet floors, and a sleek Art Deco clock. There are no cheesy Hemingway photos on the wall, or plaques stating “Orson Welles barfed here.”
We bellied up to the bar and ordered a couple Harry’s specials: Campari, vermouth, gin. Our white-tuxed barman seemed happy to be making something besides a Bellini. I don’t know if it’s because the Bellini (prosecco and peach puree) was invented at Harry’s, or because it’s the cheapest drink on the menu, but everyone at the bar was drinking one. Perfectly manly men, in perfectly masculine attire, sat on their stools sipping pink cocktails like old ladies at a Red Hat luncheon.
Harry’s Bellinis are poured from a pre-mixed pitcher into undersized glasses. One woman whispered harshly in her husband’s ear: “Sixteen euros for that?”
“I know,” he said. “But Hemingway invented it.”
This was patently untrue. I couldn’t imagine Hemingway drinking a Bellini, let alone inventing it. Papa preferred the Montgomery Martini, fifteen parts gin to one part vermouth, named for British Field Marshal Monty’s preferred odds on the battlefield. Fortunately, the Montgomery is no longer on the menu at Harry’s; if it had been, I would’ve ended up being carried out by my mother—hardly a Hemingwayesque exit.
The small bar grew loud and hot and overpopulated. Cackling mobs of Americans, clad in goofy gondolier shirts, closed in, pressing their cameras against our backs and breathing Bellinis down our necks.
“All the Italians have fled,” I said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I tossed back a glass of port (didn’t want to miss any of the major alcohol groups), and wedged my way through the crowd. Mother took hold of my coattail as we burst through the famous “Harry” doors into the night.
“Well? Did you enjoy yourself?” she said.
“Yes. But I wish we hadn’t missed the Contessa.”