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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: General Buck Lanham, Ernest Hemingway, and That Woman in Venice

From Washington Lawyer, January 2003

By Jacob A. Stein


There are dull social gatherings where the guests do not know one another and have nothing in common. They wander about, wondering why they were invited and why they accepted the invitation.

At such gatherings it is inevitable that conversation is attempted with the question “What do you do?” When I say I am a lawyer I know there will be the follow-up question “What kind of a lawyer are you?” I start fumbling. I don’t know what to say.

Yesterday, at a deposition, I learned the answer. The deponent, a lawyer, when asked what kind of law he practices, said, “I am a pike lawyer.”

“A pike lawyer. What kind of a practice is that?”

“I take what comes down the pike.”

Some lawyers stand erect and proudly say they are litigators. I am not up to that. I don’t like the sound of the word or some of the words that rhyme with it. I never heard the word until the 1980s. It was then that it was discovered there is substantial money in litigation. Before that the established firms were wary of trial work. Losing the big case could mean losing a big client. Criminal work was routinely sent out to trial counsel prepared to take the fall.

In the 1980s, what with special prosecutors and asbestos and big-time corporate fraud, both civil and criminal litigation became profit centers and firms set up litigation sections. Those in the litigation sections referred to themselves as litigators.
    At one of those dull social gatherings where nobody knew anybody I was hit with the inevitable “What kind of a lawyer are you?” I started to respond (it was before I learned the pike answer) and then I saw across the room that my wife was enjoying a conversation with a respectable-looking couple. I disengaged from the pending question and went over to find out who these people were and what they were talking about.
    I was introduced to Buck and Jane Lanham. The conversation was a discussion of the predicament. Buck Lanham took charge. We stay and retaliate against the host by overeating and overdrinking or we retreat to a good restaurant. We retreated to dinner.

At dinner we learned that Buck Lanham was retired military. In retirement he was pursuing many interests including French literature, writing poetry and short stories, and raising Swiss chard.

That evening, when my wife and I got home, the name Buck Lanham connected in my mind with Ernest Hemingway. The next day I went to the library and took down biographies of Hemingway. They all mentioned Hemingway’s close friendship with Lanham, Major General Charles T. Lanham. He was a hometown boy born right here in Washington. He graduated from West Point in 1924. He included among his many military adventures the command of the American 22nd Regiment in Normandy in 1944 and he led a breakout in the Battle of the Bulge.

It was in the Normandy battles that Lanham and Hemingway first met. Hemingway was doing battlefield stories for the American audience. Hemingway described Lanham as “the finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I have known.”

Hemingway liked heroics. One of his critics said, “For Hemingway courage is a permanent element in a tragic formula: life is a trap in which a man is bound to be beaten and at last destroyed, but he emerges triumphant, in his full stature, if he manages to keep his chin up.”

Here is my discussion with Buck Lanham concerning Hemingway’s courage hang-up.

JAS: Did you discuss courage with Hemingway?

BL: That is all he wanted to talk about. Courage for me was something I happened to be born with. Luck and courage. Without luck, courage often means a short life expectancy.

JAS: What did you talk about with Hemingway?

BL: I told him courage is not what a sober person discusses in public. I wanted to talk about my short stories. No interest. He wanted to talk about this grace-under-pressure crap.

Lanham received many battlefield military decorations for his repeated acts of courage and bravery. Hemingway wanted to be Buck Lanham. In fact, Hemingway became Buck Lanham in Hemingway’s 1950 novel, Across the River and Into the Trees.

Venice is the setting for the novel. Lanham-Hemingway is the hero using the name Colonel Richard Cantwell. The colonel was briefly a brigadier general, but then reduced in rank by some incompetents. He is 51 years old and in the words of the dust jacket “a man of fierce and embittered pride who is coming too soon to the end of his physical tether. War has scarred and marred his body; his heart in particular shows war’s ravages and gives him warnings which he cannot ignore.”

The irony is that this lonely man now has the love of a beautiful young Italian countess. This part of the novel is all Hemingway and recounts a true-to-life Hemingway love affair.

Across the River was not well received. Lanham-Hemingway did not work. Its defects included padded descriptions of the food and drink consumed by the hero and heroine. Lots of talk about food. One critic said the title should have been Across the Street and Into the Grill.

But Hemingway was not down for the count. In 1953 his Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize. This was followed by the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. He was described as one of the great American writers who changed the way novels are written—the simple and direct style with great emotional power.

Hemingway died in 1961 from a self-inflicted wound. Lanham retired from the army in 1954 and died in 1978. He was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].