At Hinckley’s old-school L.C. Bates Museum, one of Papa Hemingway’s sporting trophies needs a little work.[O]ne recent morning, under the unwatchful eye of a mounted owl, Lincolnville-based freelance conservator Ron Harvey stood among the exhibits at the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley and looked around. “This museum is really a fly in amber,” he said. “It has a very 19th-century approach to natural history. The place is just rows and rows and racks and racks of dead things.”
Among those dead things is the specimen Harvey’s here to see: a long-neglected Atlantic blue marlin, caught in the early 1930s by alpha-male author Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway was “absolutely the real deal as a deep-sea fisherman,” says former Hemingway Review editor Susan Beegel, of Phippsburg. He once caught seven marlins in a single day. During another outing, he reeled in a mako — the ocean’s fastest shark — in just a half hour. And he hooked a bluefin so masterfully that the fish didn’t suffer a shark attack — something no one had ever accomplished in the Bahamian waters where he angled.
The mythic “Papa” Hemingway was also a crafter of famously terse sentences, a prolific philanderer, a wartime adventurist, and a big-game hunter. He was not, however, a Mainer, so it’s curious that his 12-foot billfish wound up at a small natural history museum on the Good Will-Hinckley campus north of Waterville.
In the early ’30s, Papa spent much of his time plying the Gulf Stream aboard his 38-foot cabin cruiser Pilar, fishing, drinking, and laying the groundwork for what would become The Old Man and the Sea. After catching this particular marlin, he engaged the services of one Fred Parke, of Bangor — a renowned taxidermist in the sporting world. Parke built an anatomically precise wooden frame around which he stretched and glued the fish’s skin, then affixed the fins and signature spear-like bill.
Hemingway never got his marlin back (there’s some uncertainty as to why), and Parke eventually brought the fish to L.C. Bates, where it still hangs today, a large blue-green monster above a cabinet full of lake fish, with no sign indicating the illustrious fisherman who reeled it in.
“This mount has had a hard life,” sighed Harvey, glancing up at it. For decades, Hemingway’s marlin had deteriorated in the glare of direct natural light. The skin, said Harvey, looked like “bad sunburn, all blistered and lifting.” One patch had fallen off entirely. “You’re talking about something the thickness of film, I mean really, really fragile” — Harvey shined a flashlight on the similarly brittle skin of a smaller piscine mount at eye level — “and if you don’t handle it right, it flakes off.”
To mend the marlin, Harvey applies adhesive to the back of each bit of raised skin, warms it with a heat gun, and then gently lays the skin flat. Next, he’ll fill the bald patch with a mixture of paper pulp, then paint it.
Museum educator Serena Sanborn says L.C. Bates has a small exhibit planned around the rejuvenated marlin, playing up the Hemingway connection, and she expects it’ll be a big draw. “I want to do a Hemingway look-alike contest,” she tells Harvey. “Half the men in Maine look like him anyway.”
Harvey still needs time to touch up small cracks and blemishes in order to call the work complete. As for the fish, like Papa said, “True nobility is being superior to your former self.” — Will Grunewald
Hemingway expert Susan Beegel will give a talk about the marine life in the author’s work on June 29 at 7 p.m. in the auditorium on the Good Will-Hinckley campus.