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Henry Schvey: Remembering the extraordinary life of A.E. Hotchner

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Regardless of where we stand on the current political divide, this election year reveals a nation rife with ugliness, division and self-absorption. The Democratic primary has emerged as a blood sport in which two cranky septuagenarian gladiators joust for supremacy and dollars, comparing the number of stents in their dried-up arteries, while the GOP is led by a man of such rampant greed and egotism that he seems bent on shoving our fragile experiment in democracy right over the cliff into authoritarianism. At moments like these, it seems important to reflect on what really matters in life — generosity of spirit.

A.E. Hotchner, who passed away Feb. 15 at age 102, deserves celebration at this moment when bold braggadocio and self-interest seem ubiquitous and true modesty seem out of fashion. I first met Hotchner more than 30 years ago, and he was always the same man — humane, elegant, and generous. I never expressed my deepest feelings for him, but now that he has gone, I know what they were and who he was — an idealized father figure.

Whenever we met for lunch at New York’s Russian Tea Room, his literary club on 43rd Street off of Fifth Avenue, or at his favorite, Elaine’s, Hotchner always asked about what I was doing. Specifically, he was interested in the Performing Arts Department at Washington University, where he had such deep personal associations and affection. When I proposed naming our Studio Theatre after him in 1994, he flatly refused the honor.

It was only after several requests that he finally accepted, first grudgingly, and then with a smile. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his alma mater to attend the Performing Arts Department’s production of Café Universe, Hotchner’s own dramatic adaptation of several Ernest Hemingway stories woven into an evening-length performance. Two of Hemingway’s sons attended the premiere as the newly dedicated black-box theatre was for one night transformed into the grubby railway café called for in the script — and where Hemingway’s oldest son Jack demanded real whiskey, which we managed to serve in contravention to the university’s strict regulations.

When Hotchner was obliged to discuss his own work, it was never about his writings. What he wanted to talk about was the Newman’s Own Foundation, the philanthropic charity he and Paul Newman started — by accident — after they whipped up a batch of spaghetti sauce in Newman’s kitchen in Westport, Connecticut, and decided to turn it into a foundation that now annually donates all its proceeds to children with life-threatening illnesses and other charities.

Hotchner grew animated when I asked him about Newman’s Own and especially the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Each year, he created a new musical to benefit the camp, and it grew into an international, star-studded phenomenon and inspiration sponsoring some 30 other camps — all benefiting sick children.

In thinking about the man who insisted I call him “Hotch” at our first lunch in New York, I reflect upon the fact that this man, who literally gave away millions of dollars, began with nothing. “King of the Hill,” his memoir of growing up in Depression-era St. Louis in the 1930s, is a masterpiece.

Hotchner transformed himself from the orphan who cut out magazine images of food to pretend he wasn’t starving — into an artist/biographer/philanthropist. His famous biography, “Papa Hemingway,” reveals the remarkable fact that Hotchner, who has been father to so many children in need (in addition to three children and a step-son of his own), was in search of a father himself. His own father had abandoned both him and his younger brother in a cheap St. Louis hotel to eke out a living as a traveling salesman selling candles door-to-door.

“King of the Hill” is a hymn to survival and triumph, not bitterness or regret. Perhaps its harshest sentence comes in the form of this gentle rebuke from the memoir’s child-narrator, “I thought that was pretty stupid of my father to trot out those stupid candles and ring all those stupid bells and get pushed in the face by all those really stupid people.”

That was the closest he came to recrimination or rebuke. The rest of his life was spent helping others. His unselfishness is a reminder that each one of us has the chance to remake ourselves and to make a difference in the world. Hotchner’s life was not about bombast, ridicule or belittling others. It was about helping others in need. In short, it was a life well-lived.

Henry Schvey is a professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

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