Orson Welles

Orson Welles

There is a wonderful 1974 Michael Parkinson interview, in which Parkinson asks a cigar smoking Orson Welles about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway. The screen colossus, with signature baritone voice and a twinkle in his eye, recounts how they first met in a screening room in 1937. Hemingway had asked Welles to narrate his film, The Spanish Earth, and unbeknownst to him, Papa sat behind him at the screening. At one point, Welles questioned whether narration was necessary in one of the scenes, to which Hemingway roared from the darkness, commenting on his masculinity. Without missing a beat, Welles camped up his response: ‘Oh, Mr Hemingway, you think because you’re so big and strong, with hair on your chest, you can bully me?’. Hemingway jumped up and, with the Spanish Civil War raging in the background, the two figures were soon swinging at each other . When the lights came up, however, both men burst into laughter. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to acquire the cigar ashtray that Ernest Hemingway gave to Orson Welles. It’s a simple piece – silver plate, not silver – and all the more beautiful for it. In buying the ashtray, I also struck up an acquaintance with Welles’ daughter, Bibi. She shed some light on the ashtray’s history, saying that it had arrived unannounced at the house one day and quickly became one of her father’s most treasured possessions. Bibi also said that Hemingway was not renowned for his gift giving, which made the arrival even more remarkable.

I have not held the ashtray in my hands yet and won’t be able to do so for a few weeks. In London this summer, however, we will christen it with one of Churchill’s personal cigars, given to the caterer of the 1953 Royal Coronation Luncheon. Chances are it will taste like grass, but the temptation is simply too great: to smoke one of Churchill’s cigars and tap the ash into the ashtray that Ernest Hemingway gave Orson Welles. It is the ultimate in time travel.


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