A.E. Hotchner, a novelist, playwright, biographer, literary bon vivant and philanthropist whose life was shaped and coloured by close friendships with two extraordinarily gifted and well-known men, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Newman, died Saturday at his home in Westport, Connecticut. He was 102.
His death was announced by his wife, Virginia Kiser.
Hotchner was not to the manner born; nor was he a celebrity. But he was nonetheless at home among the glitterati, one of those not-so-famous people whom famous people, for whatever reason, take to.
He was aware of this quality in himself and made use of it professionally. One of his books, “Choice People” (1984), consists of anecdotal profiles of Clark Gable, Barbara Hutton, Marlene Dietrich and others of his acquaintance; another, “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s” (2004), is about that now-closed Manhattan bistro and its clientele, aptly described in the book’s subtitle: “Forty Years of Movie Stars, All-Stars, Literary Lions, Financial Scions, Top Cops, Politicians, and Power Brokers at the Legendary Hot Spot.”
Hemingway, for whom Hotchner was a friend, editor and travelling companion from 1948 until the novelist’s death in 1961, and Coco Chanel, among others, appear as characters in his 1981 novel, “The Man Who Lived at the Ritz.” Hotchner also wrote “Doris Day: Her Own Story” (1976), based on interviews he conducted with Day, and “Sophia, Living and Loving: Her Own Story” (1979), a biography of Sophia Loren.
Perhaps most famously, he was, with Newman, his neighbour in Connecticut, a founder of Newman’s Own, the purveyor of salad dressing, lemonade and other delectables that was hatched in a backyard barn one Christmas and grew into a multimillion-dollar charitable enterprise.
Hotchner was a loyal friend and companion. Both in interviews and in his writing, he proved to be deft at admiring what was admirable in others without being dishonest or fawning. Indeed, Mary Hemingway, Ernest’s widow, tried unsuccessfully to stop publication of what turned out to be Hotchner’s most famous book, “Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir” (1966), which included closely observed and painfully revealed details of the paranoia and distress that preceded Hemingway’s suicide.
His other Hemingway-related works include a volume of their correspondence, “Dear Papa, Dear Hotch” (2005), and two plays, “A Short Happy Life” and “The Hemingway Hero.”
Throughout his adult life, Hotchner was a busy and productive writer. In the 1970s he wrote two autobiographical volumes of his own, “King of the Hill” and “Looking for Miracles,” about his down-at-the-heels boyhood during the Depression. The first of the two was made into a 1993 film by Steven Soderbergh.
Hotchner’s book “Blown Away” (1990), about the Rolling Stones as emblems of the 1960s, created a stir when it concluded that one of the original members of the band, Brian Jones, did not drown accidentally in a swimming pool but died in a flurry of roughhousing at a party.
He also wrote a historical novel, “The Louisiana Purchase” (1996), and a play about presidential lore, “The White House,” starring Helen Hayes, that ran briefly on Broadway in 1964.
His last book was “The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom,” a novel about a 12-year-old boy growing up in Hotchner’s native St. Louis. It was published in 2018, just after he turned 101.
“I wanted to make it a jolly affair,” Hotchner said of the book in an interview with The New York Times in 2018, “something that would celebrate the fact that you could get as old as I had gotten and, to my vast surprise, still have some of my pebbles on the beach.”
Aaron Edward Hotchner was born in St. Louis on June 28, 1917. As recounted in “King of the Hill,” he spent much of his childhood living alone in the less-than-luxurious Avalon Hotel while his father, Samuel, a travelling salesman, was on the road and his mother, Tillie (Rossman) Hotchner, a synagogue administrator, was in the hospital, ill with tuberculosis.
He studied playwriting and law at Washington University in St. Louis – where Tennessee Williams was a classmate – and went on to law school there, passing the Missouri bar in 1941. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, a period he recounted in a third memoir, “The Day I Fired Alan Ladd” (2002).
After his service he moved to New York, where he became a stalker, of sorts, for Cosmopolitan magazine. His job was to track down famous writers and persuade them to write for the magazine.
It was on such an assignment that he met Hemingway in Havana in 1948. Thus began a long friendship, recounted in “Papa Hemingway,” that included travels on both sides of the Atlantic, drinking adventures, manly and familial bonding and, finally, bearing witness to Hemingway’s psychological decline. Hemingway encouraged his younger friend to write and gave his approval to Hotchner’s adaptations of his works for television and the stage.
One production was a television play adapted from Hemingway’s story “The Battler,” about a young man – the Hemingway alter ego Nick Adams – who has been thrown off a freight train and encounters a punch-addled former boxer and his caretaker at a campfire in the woods. The boxer’s part had been intended for James Dean, but Dean was killed in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, shortly before rehearsals, and the role went to a young actor named Paul Newman.
“The Battler” was broadcast live on Oct. 18, and it led to Newman’s breakthrough role as Rocky Graziano in the 1956 movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”
It also led to a friendship of more than half a century, which was cemented in the late 1950s, when Newman bought a house, not far from Long Island Sound, in Westport, where Hotchner had lived since 1953.
“We owned a series of dilapidated boats we’d take out on the water to go fishing and drink beer and have all sorts of adventures,” Hotchner told the London newspaper The Daily Mirror after Newman’s death in September 2008. “We drank a lot of beer and so never actually caught many fish.”
Newman had made it a holiday ritual to make batches of homemade salad dressing in his barn, pour it into wine bottles and drive around his neighbourhood giving them away as Christmas gifts. Just before Christmas 1980, Newman was stirring up an enormous batch, with a canoe paddle, when he invited Hotchner to join him. Out of their small adventure came the idea for Newman’s Own.
Founded in 1982, the company has given away hundreds of millions of dollars through its charitable arms.
Hotchner’s first marriage, to Geraldine Mavor in 1949, ended in divorce. (She died in 1969.) He and Ursula Robbins married in 1970 and divorced in 1995.
In addition to Kiser, whom he married in 2007, he is survived by two daughters, Holly and Tracie Hotchner, and a son, Timothy. He had homes in Manhattan and Westport.
In 1988, Hotchner and Newman furthered their charitable work by founding the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in northeastern Connecticut for children with life-threatening diseases. It was the beneficiary of a mammoth benefit, held at Lincoln Center in New York in 2001, that was in many ways a perfect representation of the touchstones of Hotchner’s life.
The evening centred on a performance of “The World of Nick Adams,” a Hotchner adaptation of several Hemingway stories that was first presented on television in 1957. The cast was starry: Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Alec Baldwin, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joanne Woodward and, of course, Paul Newman.