Home > Essays > Popeye Hemingway
Published: Fri Jul 1 2005
Anna Schuleit Haber, And there is a magnet, which pointeth due east (detail), 2022, mixed media on BFK paper
Popeye Hemingway

Teaching remedial literacy to teenagers in Brooklyn last semester, I stumbled on the suspicion that Popeye is the old fisherman, Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea. I’ve tried to disprove this thesis for most of the summer and instead have had it strengthened to the point that I want to make a public record of the evidence.

I had no reason to choose Popeye to illustrate The Old Man and the Sea, which was the simplest unread book in our ESL bookroom, except that both he and Santiago are twentieth-century sailor icons. I chose his image, however, with no awareness that they were connected in any way. Popeye was a cartoon I’d appropriated years ago for blackboard illustrations, along with Charles Schulz’s troupe and dozens of other borrowings, and I slapped him on the blackboard with a harried sense that the genre itself and his specific character demeaned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella more than it deserved. By the second day, to compensate, I’d put him in one of Van Gogh’s jaunty barks of Saintes-Maries and, thereafter, I often focussed on the deep-sea encounter of marlin and baited hook, letting the cocky figure and boat dwindle to a wavering spot seen from a hundred fathoms. I let variations alter my illustrations little from day to day and spent the semester reading between the lines for brief lectures in class on shark size and water weight. We spent four months with the book, and toward the end of the semester I came across a two-year-old Time obituary photo of one of Hemingway’s models for the Old Man.

“Gregorio Fuentes,” read the caption, “had skippered the Pilar [Hemingway’s yacht] for some twenty years” and lived to almost 105. I was impressed by the vigor of the wizened Fuentes and reminded of the Old Man’s prodigious arm-wrestling on the Cuban docks. Then I noticed the resemblance of Fuentes’s portrait to the stock, three-quarter profile of Popeye that silhouettes his cap-brim, pipe, and chin.

As a sort of Old Man finale, I enlarged Fuentes’s portrait to poster size and put it on the bulletin board as if I’d always known of the resemblance. Reading the book so slowly as to be almost idle, I’d long since come to indulge a curiosity of sometimes only whimsical relevance to the text, and I was well aware that I’d begged the question of comparison, so I checked consensus on the Web for Popeye’s first appearance and found the sites agreed that the character emerged in E.C. Segar’s filler-strip The Thimble Theater on January 17th, 1929. Fuentes’s online obituaries revealed that he and Hemingway first met in 1928 and that Hemingway then witnessed (or heard of—accounts differ; Fuentes himself told several versions with different endings) an old fisherman fighting sharks for the huge marlin he’d caught. Hemingway worked an early version of the story into an Esquire article, “On the Blue Water,” in 1936.

Wonder and curiosity, say the yogis, are seated in different chakras, but some discoveries sustain both attitudes, revealing, in many directions, an incalculable necessity that curiosity can’t easily exhaust. I could believe I’d “hacked” a secret identity as long as I deigned to follow the trace.

No connection of the names Segar, Fuentes, and Hemingway turned up when I raked the Google chatter, but another cartoonist, J.N. Darling, seemed to have a connection to Hemingway at the Gulf Coast islands of Sanibel (now the Darling Wildlife Refuge) and Captiva. “Pair-a-dice” appeared as a real estate gimmick on Captiva when I checked “Dice Island” (Popeye’s original destination as Castor Oyl’s skipper in the January, 1929, turn of the Thimble strip), so the possibility arose that Segar had alluded to real places and events in his serial. His original proofs had been tossed out with the trash as soon as they were used, but a cartoon scholar, Bill Blackbeard, had compiled a nearly complete newspaper record of the original, 510-day meander that featured Popeye. This compilation was out of print and, while I waited for a reserve copy on interlibrary loan, I looked through Hemingway biographies for the known details of his first sojourn in Key West, gathering an overview of a giddy spring in 1928. A moiré from cross-referenced accounts, Hemingway emerged as a guilt-ridden and manic agitator, surrounded by local friends and his “mob” from New York, taking a break (halfway through A Farewell to Arms, as his wife Pauline Pfeifer’s pregnancy came to term) to indulge in six weeks of hard thrills: fishing, smuggling Cuban liquor, picking fights, and cultivating a personal variant of “chicken” with a woman-friend after martini lunches in which one or the other drove at top speed, sometimes off-road, scoring points for scraping solid objects, until the other begged for caution, whereupon they switched places.

Waiting for Pauline’s uncle Gus’s gift of a car, Hemingway had fished the pier when they first arrived in April. He hadn’t told his parents of the move and they had come to St. Petersburg from Illinois to look at real estate, thinking him in Europe. Thus was Clarence Hemingway surprised, on the deck of the Havana ferry as he and his wife completed a short Easter cruise, to spy his son on the pier, and he called to him with the “secret, Hemingway, bobwhite whistle.” It was the occasion of a last rapprochement before Clarence committed suicide at the end of the year.

Two local captains, legendary sailors—Bra Saunders, a Conch native, and Gregorio Fuentes—immediately won the almost anthropological attention of Hemingway the writer. Saunder’s rheumatism of the hands, at forty, humbled the playboy mob, and Hemingway worked the affliction into his story of The Old Man and the Sea.

Another local captain, Josie Russell, bar-owner and rum-runner, hosted the mob at his speakeasy, Sloppy Joe’s, taught Hemingway about fishing the Gulf Stream, and partnered a night smuggling run that, according to Castro biographer Norberto Fuentes, netted Hemingway a hefty sum.

As Pauline’s time came, the couple, reunited at the Pfeifer home in Piggot, Arkansas, in early June, moved to Kansas City, staying with a Lowry couple before their son Patrick’s birth at the end of the month. (Gregory was the next son’s name.) Thence Hemingway left to go shooting out west and resume A Farewell to Arms. He completed the book back in Key West, five days after Popeye’s advent in January, 1929.

No biography of Segar has been written and, of the other potentially relevant cartoonist, Darling, only one—Ding: The Life of Jay Norwood Darling, by David L. Lendt. Jay Norwood Darling (his signature “Ding”), twenty years Hemingway’s and Segar’s senior (Darling’s parents moved to the Chicago suburb adjacent to Hemingway’s Oak Park around the time Hemingway was born, while Jay was in college), winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 (and again in 1942) for his political cartoons, was a powerful conservationist with presidential influence throughout the first half of the twentieth century. A generous mentor of American cartoonists on a national scale, he labored all his life to curtail the overhunting of wildfowl. Lifelong hunter and fisher, Darling helped found, and then headed, the Iowa Fish and Game Commission in 1928. In 1935, by then head of the U.S. Biological Survey, he masterminded the Duck Stamp Act, designing the first annual stamp to protect migratory birds, and was called “the greatest friend a duck ever had.” (The state trooper’s husband in the film Fargo is competing for the annual duck-picture prize, an award that is taken seriously in the Midwest to this day.)

Lendt’s biography mentions a trip to Key West in 1927 and notes that a sketchbook of the trip is archived with Darling’s papers in Iowa City.

Light, zany bios of Segar reveal little. He died of leukemia (or Hodgkin’s Disease, his daughter opines—she says he was ill for ten years) in 1938, at the age of 44. His assistant, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf, wrote a brief bio of Segar for his 1977 Popeye, The First Fifty Years, in which he mentions that Segar visited Florida prior to adding Popeye to his strip, in California, in 1929. A Midwesterner, Segar too was a hunter and fisher, and in the mid-Thirties he captained a skeet club that included Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, both of whom later shot with Hemingway in Montana in 1942.

Sagendorf repeats but doesn’t endorse the legend of Segar’s hometown, Chester, Illinois (just north of the Ozarks from Piggot), that Popeye was modelled on a pugnacious local bar sweep named Fiegel. He elaborates too on the adventure for which Popeye was hired, saying it involved taking a lucky bird to Dice Island to get rich—not Darling’s lucky duck but a lucky hen.

Sagendorf’s piece describes Segar as a “zany” boss for whom he worked six-night weeks trading jokes and fishing from a boat moored in Santa Monica, and gives no account of Segar’s demise in 1938.

This is what I knew when I first looked at Blackbeard’s compilation of the original adventure of the lucky Whiffle Hen, a slapstick filler, sometimes bumped for advertising, which ran in only twelve newspapers, from September, 1928, to May, 1930.

Three months after the Hemingways left Key West, Thimble Theater’s Oyl family receive a surprise visit on September 10th, 1928, from a rich uncle, Lubry Kent Oyl, who greets them with a whiffle hen, Bernice, who can’t be killed or trapped. A Bernice Dickson was a friend of the Hemingway couple and later owned the house uncle Gus Pfeifer gave them in Key West. Pauline’s uncle Gus owned a lineament oil company and her father-in-law, Clarence, announced his surprise “visit” with a call quite like the whippoorwill’s. Ding Darling’s commission had begun to legislate restrictions to bird hunting and trapping, and the strip proceeds to put the “magic” of Bernice’s protection to the test. For the next six weeks, the reader is treated to images of Olive’s brother Castor’s attempts to shoot or trap (or strangle or drown) the whiffle hen.

In the middle of this ruckus, on October 4th, the iconic image of The Old Man and the Sea appears in the strip’s second frame, that of a leaping mako shark beside a lone fisherman in a small boat—Castor dangles the hen as a sacrifice above the same rearing crescent of in-curled fangs Hemingway later takes pains to describe in his novella.

The first frame of the next day’s strip is the true introduction of the Popeye figure to the Thimble Theater, almost four months prior to the received version of events. Here he is cast as a “yegg,” a petty criminal, lounging in a sports jacket and plaid trousers, smoking a cheroot. In the next frame Castor pays him to do away with the hen, and he vanishes, only to reappear in January as Popeye.

October 6th chronicles another attempt to kill the hen, wherein Castor vows to tell “the pop-eyed world” he’s won.

The juxtaposition of these images, one month into the yarn, makes sense as a memory, perhaps of an encounter at Sloppy Joe’s, in which Segar heard Hemingway the raconteur tell tales of the old fisherman, the rheumatic Bra, and his father’s bobwhite call.

Popeye’s face resembles both Fiegel and Fuentes as old men. His attire as a yegg recalls Fuentes’s dapper look in the 1930s photos. Norberto Fuentes mentions that Gregorio wore a black and red checkered shirt when he and Hemingway first met in the Dry Tortugas islands. Uncannily (or evincing a persistent taste in plaid), the thin tartan with vertical emphasis in the yegg’s trousers is the same pattern as in Fuentes’s shirt in the Time obituary photo.

In his original appearance, the yegg Popeye strikes a pose suggesting he was modelled not on a particular man but on an erect phallus. His cleft chin and single, ejaculating “eye” seem to support this visual interpretation. Fuente means “fountain.” Segar’s sobriquet could also allude to Fuentes’s vivid blue eyes, described in The Old Man and the Sea as ageless, “cheerful, and undefeated.” And then “papi,” a diminutive for “papa,” is a casual term of endearment, even friendly address, throughout the Caribbean.

Characterologically, Popeye, the cock of the docks, resembles the vigorous, pugnacious Fuentes (and the bully Hemingway).

The trip to Dice Island, a voyage in which the native captain, Popeye, does all the work, making his passengers sheepish, succeeds to such an extent that their dinghy is in danger of sinking as they row their booty back to the Oyls’ ship. They are then hounded across the sea by the vengeful, rheumatic casino boss Mr. Fadewell, alluding, perhaps, to Bra’s hands and Hemingway’s anxiety over his interrupted novel, as well as to coastal smuggling patrols. Though he needed a break from writing, Hemingway wanted and had promised Max Perkins to have a novel ready for the 1929 Scribner catalog.

Popeye and the Oyls eventually move west as Hemingway did in the summer of 1928. The Thimble bunch spend time in “Beezark Center,” and Hemingway is near the Ozarks in June.

A visit to the Darling archive revealed a pencilled note in the back of his “Log of a Winter Cruise, 1927,” that a “Dr. Segar” of Kansas City treated Darling’s daughter, Mary Kay, for seasickness, but Segar’s niece in Chester says none of Segar’s four brothers were doctors. A brittle issue of a 1927 travel piece by Darling in The Daily Freeman Journal of Webster City, Iowa, mentions Sloppy Joe’s, “the gathering place of the ribald.” I was able to document Ding’s presence in Key West in 1927, 1929, and 1930, and Darling’s grandson, Kip Koss, told me on the phone that he believed Ding crossed paths with Hemingway in the early Thirties on Captiva and that, no, the Herbert Darling of the A.R.C. ambulance corps who took hospital bed snapshots of the wounded Hemingway was not a relative. Both Hemingway and Darling were in Kansas City in June, 1928—Darling, early, for the Republican convention and Hemingway, midmonth, for Pauline’s delivery.

Exploring the bootlegging theme in Billy DeBeck, creator of the Ozark moonshiner Snuffy Smith and a friend of Segar’s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (all three died young, within a span of four years), I find—in Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan—that DeBeck fished the Gulf, sketched Cuba, and—in Michael Vance’s on-line review for Suspended Animation, “Comics Legend Billy DeBeck”—consciously styled a “dapper” Barney Google in the late Twenties on “the Paris expatriate of Hemingway’s popular novels”—precisely the sort of influence I suspect in Segar. (Sheridan summarizes Segar’s reticence about himself thus: “Getting his story was about as difficult as prying information out of President Fulgencio Batista of Cuba.”)

Proximity and shared interest make acquaintance among these men likely, and the capriccios of the struggling cartoonist Segar seem to commemorate an encounter in 1928 that inspired both of the last century’s most potent sailor icons. More, here, meets the eye than the eye can readily read, and I offer this rumination as shards of a story yet to be fully assembled.*

* All research becomes fraught over time with irrelevant coincidence whose inclusion in the final report has value, if pleasant, as a clearly indicated detour from the explicit investigation, but can only serve as general testimony to the sharpened perspicacity of the specialist. Olive oil is “Oyl” to me, now, even if I am asked for salad dressing at supper. Once, caching Fuentes’s Time obituary portrait in my dictionary at random to press it, I forgot and lost it until I looked up “Hemingway” a month later and found the picture marking the page.

These coincidences are negligible even as sources of humor. Another I chose not to include in this article involved the remote chance that Segar was aware of the oldest Popeye cartoons on earth, the wordless picture-stories of pre-historic myth, “told” as images so they could weather linguistic evolution over millennia. The Aztec god, Xolotl, blew out an eye through heroic overstrain and resembles the one-eyed Odin who sacrificed his for wisdom. Both derive from the yogic goal of bringing the wheeling curiosity of the ego—the waking, working self located in the third eye, the ajña chakra—to a halt. The eye surrendered for wisdom is the reeling, wary logic of ordinary consciousness. Norse lore represents it as a white hawk (between the eyes of an eagle)—Vedrfolnir (“weather-bleached”) by name. Yogic lore describes the ajña as a moon-luminous white flower having two petals and inscribed at the center with the signs of the female yoni and male lingam. (It exudes a moon-fluid of creativity evocative of the more likely meaning of Segar’s yegg.)

Visualizing such a flower—drawing it—is all anyone of any language need do to appreciate the Viking riff on wary vigilance that transforms a flower into an “incoming” hawk:

Returned to my hometown of Iowa City after forty-eight years to visit the Darling archive, so curious that first dawn that I could scarcely sit zazen, I was tempted to fixate on the utterly mad proliferation of Hawkeye football propaganda in town, which assaults the sane outsider from all directions with quasi-swastika-shaped, brightly-painted, concrete statues of cartoon hawks, each stuffing its fist and feathered forearm upward in obscene threat.

I rejected the whole verbose excursion because here coincidence clouds the issue. Our hosts in Iowa City, however, Dee and Carrie Norton, now send me page 49 of AAA’s October issue of Home & Away, where three tourism blurbs are juxtaposed and the lead two, “Still Scrapping after 75 Years” and “Papa in Piggott,” pair Segar Memorial Park in Chester, Illinois (we’re treated to a photo of the park’s bronze Popeye), with Piggott’s Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum as shrines connected only by roads. “Scrapping” also quietly elevates Fiegel from local rumor to historical fact, something Sagendorf refused to do. This is, I suspect, a direct result of my summer’s inquiries by e-mail and phone and no coincidence at all. Americana vendors here close ranks around legends that need to be amended.

Dirk Leach is an existential philosopher and graphic artist. In 1995, an excerpt of his Propaganda appeared in the German magazine West und Ost. In 2002, an excerpt of his Technik was included in the anthology Autopia: Cars and Culture. In 2005, AGNI Online published Leach’s art-historical scoop “Popeye Hemingway.” (updated 7/2012)

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