OGUNQUIT — Before he settled in this little paradise of painters, Henry Strater lived a life of intrigue and adventure, befriending the great American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, a classmate at Princeton University, and Ernest Hemingway, with whom Strater imbibed, fought on the streets of Paris and later took wild fishing adventures on the high seas, which he mostly enjoyed.

Only mostly because Strater’s relationship with Hemingway soured in 1935 after the two got into a spirited fight when Strater hooked into a giant marlin off Bimini in the Bahamas while fishing on Hemingway’s boat, an adventure that inspired Hemingway to write “The Old Man and the Sea” two decades later. In a bout of poor judgment likely fueled by alcohol, Hemingway tried to assist his friend in landing the epic fish by shooting a gun at swarming sharks. Reckless gun use aside, Hemingway made Strater’s situation worse because the shark blood that spilled into the ocean only attracted more sharks. By the time Strater landed the 14-foot, 1,000-pound fish, sharks had devoured nearly half of it.

Above, “Profile of Hemingway,” by Henry Strater, 1922, oil on wood panel. Photo by Larry Hayden/Courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

The story of their friendship and its demise is told in a season-long installation, “Ernest Hemingway and Henry Strater,” at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, which Strater founded. Organized by the museum’s collections manager, Ruth Greene-McNally, the exhibition illustrates their friendship and fishing exploits with photographs, letters, paintings and drawings. The museum has created a reading room for the exhibition and is encouraging visitors to bring and leave books and other memorabilia from the 1920s, when the Strater-Hemingway story begins.

Book donors will receive a commemorative bookmark with Strater’s portrait of Hemingway from a first edition of his 1925 collection of short stories, “In Our Time,” and the books will be part of the museum’s annual sale to benefit its education programs.

THE LOST GENERATION

Strater, who died in Florida in 1987, was part of America’s Lost Generation of artists and writers, who moved to Paris after World War I. It was there in 1922 that he met Hemingway, after an introduction by the writer Ezra Pound. They became great friends, bonding around their shared interest in sport and creativity.

Hemingway, one of America’s most rugged novelists, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for “The Old Man and the Sea.” The memory of the ill-fated fishing trip that soured his friendship with Strater served as a guide for Hemingway when he wrote the novel.

Ernest Hemingway, left, and Henry Strater in Bimini, 1935, with the partially devoured marlin that was the cause of a rift between the two men. Photo courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Strater first came to Ogunquit to paint in 1919, when he studied at Hamilton Easter Field’s summer school. He became active in the arts community and built a home here in 1925. He later built the museum, which opened in 1953 on the strength of Strater’s personal collection of art.

This exhibition is designed to tell an intriguing aspect of the museum’s story and make connections between the visual arts and other art forms, including literature, said the museum’s executive director and chief curator, Michael Mansfield. It also accents the connections between Strater, Ogunquit and major figures like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Pound, who all ended up in Paris together in the 1920s with other ex-pats.

“We’ve inherited this rich collection that is connected to an important part of American history and 20th-century art. It’s important we understand where this came from,” Mansfield said. “We should connect the visual arts to literature and the performing arts and all of these activities that are engaged in by the creative classes here in Maine and across the country. We want to create a new space where we can entwine these things together, so people can read through historical documents and come to a better understanding of just who Henry Strater was.”

While bringing attention to the colorful, rich life of the museum’s founder, the Ogunquit exhibition also highlights Hemingway’s loose ties to Maine. In addition to his friendship with Strater, Hemingway was a longtime friend of another Maine painter, Waldo Pierce, who was born in Bangor. And one of Hemingway’s 12-foot marlins, also caught off Bimini in 1935, is on permanent view at the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley.

Hemingway’s marlin ended up in Maine because the author hired Bangor-born taxidermist Fred Parke to preserve the fish and apparently couldn’t pay the bill. Parke kept the fish and eventually sold it to the L.C. Bates Museum, where it has hung for years.

Last year, the conservator Ron Harvey worked on the fish, which had deteriorated. He re-glued the skin, restored some of the color and generally made the fish look fresh.

“It was a neat experience,” Harvey said. “I was an English major and read a lot of Hemingway. It was an honor, and really a privilege.”

Harvey, who lives in Lincolnville, also appreciated the opportunity to work on a fish that Parke helped preserve. Parke was considered the best in the business and set up shop in the Florida Keys, catering to sport fisherman.

He measured the fish on the dock, then packed it for travel to Maine, where he worked on it in his studio. Unlike many taxidermists, Parke used much of the original fish, including its skin, fins, gills and bill, when he made his mounts. He built an anatomically precise wooden frame to support the fish from the inside, then stretched and glued the skin, affixed the fins and its signature spear-like bill.

It was against this backdrop of competitive sport fishing that Strater and Hemingway set out to catch their trophy fish in 1935, though their friendship extended far beyond their shared love of fishing, said former Hemingway Review editor Susan Beegel of Phippsburg.

A woodcut illustration from Strater’s “Portrait of Ernest Hemingway (The Boxer Portrait),” 1922, oil on wood panel. Photo by Larry Hayden courtesy of Ogunquit museum of American Art

FAST FRIENDS IN PARIS

Hemingway met Strater in Paris in 1922. Hemingway was new to the scene, and Strater arrived in France in 1917 when he volunteered for the French Red Cross ambulance corps. He continued his studies in Paris, returning to the states to study in Ogunquit in the summer.

He and Hemingway became great friends in Paris, Beegel said. They attended boxing matches and races together and shared a passion for bullfighting and the Paris nightlife. Their friendship was marked by bouts of conflict, including one street-corner fight that came to fisticuffs. “I had boxed in school, and I think I impressed Hemingway with my punch,” Strater told an interviewer. “That’s the only way you could impress him.”

Hemingway also posed for Strater and used one of his portraits for the frontispiece of “In Our Time.” That portrait is included in the Ogunquit exhibition.

Their friendship continued when both returned to the United States. By 1930, Strater and Hemingway fished together frequently out of Key West, and in 1934, Hemingway purchased a 38-foot cabin cruiser that he named Pilar, the nickname for his wife, Pauline.

By then Strater was spending his winters in Florida and his summers in Ogunquit, where he fished for tuna with rod and reel when he wasn’t painting.

Hemingway invited him on the trip to Bimini in spring 1935. They set out in early April, and things started badly, with Hemingway’s sloppy use of his firearm the reason why. Hemingway hooked a shark and used a .22 to shoot it, but shot himself in the leg on a ricochet. They returned to shore for medical attention. With the wound attended to, they spent the next month on the water in search of a record black marlin.

When Strater set his hook, chaos ensued. Aware of the sharks and their ability to kill and devour a fish on the line, Strater decided that if he hooked a fish, he would attempt to bring it to the boat as fast as he could, to tire it out and minimize exposure to sharks.

He played the fish for an hour, bringing it alongside the Pilar. As the boat’s captain prepared to help land the fish, Hemingway grabbed a gun and began shouting, “Sharks! Sharks!” and firing rounds into the water. Strater ducked for cover while hanging onto his line, but by then the marlin had made its move and dove to the ocean’s depths.

Realizing his error, Hemingway this time helped Strater with the fish, but it was too late. Strater later recalled he could feel sharks hitting the marlin as he struggled to reel it in. When they landed the fish, half of it was gone, though the skeleton was intact. They continued to fish, and Hemingway landed a few more marlins – perhaps including the one that’s on view in Hinckley.

There’s a photo in the Ogunquit exhibition of Strater’s devoured marlin on shore, with both fishermen posing at its side. That was another point of contention between the men. Nearly every photo that was taken included both Hemingway and Strater, and Hemingway never bothered to correct erroneous press reports that attributed the catch to him.

Their friendship was never the same. Hemingway was jealous of Strater’s catch, and Strater resented that Hemingway essentially sabotaged his trophy fish and tacitly accepted credit for it when it was celebrated as the catch that inspired “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The catch did inspire the novel, but it was thanks to Strater’s fishing skills and not Hemingway’s.

Strater was further incensed when Hemingway wrote about the adventure for a national magazine and maligned Strater in the process. They remained acquaintances, but never shared another adventure.

Strater said nice things about Hemingway after he died, writing in Art in America, “Because he was a perfectionist, he was not easy to get along with at times; but he had such overpowering charm and aliveness that one was always glad to see him again the next time.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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