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OPINION | REX NELSON: Hunting with Hemingway

by Rex Nelson | May 26, 2021 at 2:59 a.m.

Like many of you, I devoted six hours recently to watching Ken Burns' delightful documentary on Ernest Hemingway. The documentary aired over the course of three nights on PBS.

PBS stations nationwide tend to show Burns' documentaries for years, and I have no doubt that the popularity of his work will drive additional visitors to Piggott, a hidden jewel in the far northeast corner of Arkansas. It's worth the trip.

In the winter of 2017, I was invited to hunt quail with Hemingway's grandson on land near where the famous author once hunted in Clay County. The invitation came from longtime friend Kevin Smith, now the mayor of Helena. Smith, a Hemingway aficionado of the first order, had agreed to host a group who had purchased the trip during a charitable auction at Key West.

Part of the attraction was the chance to spend time with John Hemingway, whose father was Dr. Gregory Hemingway and whose grandfather was Ernest Hemingway.

Another member of the group was Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Max Perkins, a book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

We gathered on a cold, foggy Friday night at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center on West Cherry Street. It has been operated since 1999 by Arkansas State University. The property consists of a house and barn built in 1910.

Paul Pfeiffer, a wealthy St. Louis businessman, bought the house and barn in 1913 and moved his family to Piggott, where he began buying what eventually would be more than 60,000 acres of farmland.

Paul Pfeiffer lived in the house until his death in 1944. His wife, Mary, lived there until her death in 1950. The Tom Janes family purchased the property in 1950 and owned it until it became an ASU facility.

Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer, the daughter of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, in France in May 1927 after divorcing his previous wife. Pauline was a writer in Paris on assignment for Vogue magazine when she met Hemingway.

The author visited Piggott for the first time in the spring of 1928 so Pauline could be with her family during her first pregnancy. He spent time working on a novel, "A Farewell to Arms."

On later trips to Piggott, Hemingway sometimes hunted quail on his father-in law's extensive holdings.

In 1932, Hemingway came to Piggott with his wife and three children (a 9-year-old son from his first marriage and two sons from Pauline) for a visit during the winter holidays. He wrote a short story, "A Day's Wait," about that visit. Karl Pfeiffer, Pauline's younger brother, enjoyed hunting with Hemingway.

Hemingway's sister-in-law, Virginia Pfeiffer, remodeled the barn loft to create a place for Hemingway to write. A fire in the barn later destroyed some of his possessions.

On that January night in Piggott, we got to know each other better while eating barbecue at the Pfeiffers' former home. The hunting party then spent the night at The Inn at Piggott, which is in a building constructed in 1925 to house the Bank of Piggott. The bank went under during the Great Depression. In 1930, Paul Pfeiffer chartered Piggott State Bank and also used the building to house offices for the Pfeiffer Land Co.

The owners of the inn, Joe and Tracy Cole, are Piggott natives who gave up careers in law and international marketing after 24 years in Memphis and returned to their hometown. One of their projects was to renovate the former bank into a nine-room bed-and-breakfast inn.

In 1957, part of the Elia Kazan movie "A Face in the Crowd" was shot at Piggott. The movie starred Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau and was based on the Bud Schulberg short story "Your Arkansas Traveler."

Griffith played a drunken drifter who was discovered by the producer of a radio program in northeast Arkansas. In the movie, the character played by Griffith rose to fame and a career on national television. The first scene was filmed from the front doorstep of the building that now houses the Inn at Piggott.

After breakfast at the inn that Saturday morning, we traveled in the rain along winding gravel roads atop Crowley's Ridge. We made our way south down the ridge until we reached Liberty Hill Outfitters. Stephen Crancer of Rector transformed his family farm into a facility for guided quail and pheasant hunts.

John Hemingway warmed up by shooting clay pigeons over a pond. Crancer then led our group from the pond to the fields where the quail were. These weren't wild birds, but it was still enough to bring back memories of quail hunts with my father decades ago in south Arkansas. And then there's the fact that I was hunting with a Hemingway in Clay County, a story I'll still be telling years for now.

Lunch after the hunt was catered by the downtown Paragould restaurant Chow At One Eighteen. We had grilled quail with mushrooms, black truffle oil risotto, green beans, biscuits and a French apple tart. After we ate, I thought about the Hemingway visits to Clay County.

The Pfeiffer family back in Piggott didn't realize it, but the marriage between Ernest and Pauline essentially was over by 1939. Ernest was spending most of his time with a girlfriend at his home named Finca Vigía in Cuba, and Pauline remained in Key West. Ernest and Pauline's divorce was final in 1940, and Ernest soon married Martha Gellhorn, the third of his four wives.

Hemingway would not return to Piggott. He committed suicide in Idaho with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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