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Rachael & Vilray Share A Mic — And A Love Of Old Swing Standards

Rachael & Vilray first met in 2003 when they were students at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but didn't begin performing together until 2015. Now they are the duo Rachael & Vilray and they play original songs inspired by the music of the 1930s and 40s. They'll talk and sing in the studio.

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Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 18, 2020: Interview with Rachel Price & Vilray; Obituary for A.E. Hotchner.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies and David Bianculli for hosting while I was home with a bad cold. Today, we have something special from our producer, Sam Briger - a conversation and concert with the duo Rachael & Vilray. I'm glad Sam introduced me to their music, and I think you'll enjoy it, too.

If you listen to their self-titled debut album, which came out late last year, you might think they were singing lost jazz and swing tunes from the '30s and '40s, but the songs are actually new ones composed by Vilray. The two met when they were at the New England Conservatory of Music but only recently started performing together. Rachael Price is also the lead singer of the soul-inspired rock band Lake Street Dive. Rachael & Vilray's music is a departure from that band, but both Rachael and Vilray have loved the music of the '30s and '40s for a long time, as you'll hear in their music. Here's Rachael & Vilray with Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Rachael & Vilray, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you.

BRIGER: You guys are very generous. You were willing to perform a little bit for us today. So I was wondering if you could please start with "Do Friends Fall In Love?".

RACHAEL PRICE: Sure can.

VILRAY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO FRIENDS FALL IN LOVE?")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Two friends, two hearts, too many nights to count them. But tonight was something new, and I know you felt it, too, when we fell into the passion of a kiss. Around the world, we've shared these roads together. Every journey is grand when you're holding my hand. Do friends fall in love like this? A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. What was innocent before has become a grand amore. Do friends fall in love like this? A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. As friends we lived before and will live evermore, together two friends in love.

BRIGER: Oh, that was great. Thank you so much for doing that. That was "Do Friends Fall In Love?" by Rachael & Vilray from their debut album, which is also called "Rachael & Vilray." What was the inspiration for that song?

VILRAY: You know, it was actually a commissioned song.

BRIGER: Oh, really? Huh.

VILRAY: Yeah. A woman wanted to give a song as a present to her husband-to-be, and also, she wanted it to work as something for them to walk down the aisle to. So, yeah, that was actually the second draft. She hated the first version that we sent her.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Why? What didn't she like about the first version?

VILRAY: The first version acknowledged that unhappiness exists.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: People don't want that at a wedding.

VILRAY: Yeah, they don't want that at a wedding. You know, but that's kind of what I like in a song. I like to acknowledge that unhappiness exists in basically every song that I write.

BRIGER: Do you remember some of the lyrics from the first version, the sort of more morose version?

VILRAY: Yeah. So the theme - it wasn't morose.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: I mean, it was really just, like, a single line - all the sorrow and strife brought me here; now they're melting away. The concept of the song was, every step that you've taken as a human being through life, happy and sad, brought you to the moment that you met the person and fell in love with them. So I - you know, I thought that was a strong concept.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Yeah, I do, too. I should remind people that the song that you just played was actually one of your songs, Vilray. At this point, when you did this concert, after not playing for a while, you weren't performing your own original songs, right?

VILRAY: Yes, that's true. But there were a billion wonderful songs written in that period for movies and for musicals and, you know, just recording artists. And it seems silly to restrict yourself to the standards. So I was kind of shopping around for songs that I liked that I didn't feel like anybody did. So that's what I was doing at the time.

BRIGER: Can you give us an example of one of those more obscure songs from that period?

VILRAY: I think one of my favorites is, like, Rudy Vallee's "Deep Night" or - Fats Waller has some amazing songs, like "My Very Good Friend, The Milkman."

BRIGER: Would you mind giving us a few bars of the Fats Waller song? Don't want to put you on the spot, but...

VILRAY: Let's see if I can remember it.

(Singing) My very good friend, the milkman, said that I've been losing too much sleep. He doesn't like the hours I keep. And he suggests that you should marry me.

BRIGER: (Laughter) That's great. Your voices blend so well. Was that something that happened right away, or did you have to work on that?

PRICE: I think it was pretty immediate. Our voices blend because we understand the style of music, and I think we understand the accent really well, which is a big part of it. So that sort of fit together immediately. But just two voices harmonizing well together was really tricky. I'd say, probably, we played a lot of gigs where we sounded pretty out of tune...

VILRAY: (Laughter) Yeah.

PRICE: ...When we first started. And...

VILRAY: Also, Rachael's an incredibly strong singer. And even if you like my singing, you wouldn't call it strong. I think that's what we've maybe talked the least about but learned the most in the process of singing with each other.

BRIGER: So did you have to tell Rachael to sing it quieter? Did you have to step it up? Or...

PRICE: Pipe down now.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

VILRAY: Yeah. I don't know. I think we've just sort of, like - we share a single microphone on stage.

BRIGER: Right.

VILRAY: An old '30s RCA ribbon microphone. So you can do a lot with dynamics. She can continue to be very powerful but just ease off a little bit, and I can ease on.

BRIGER: And Rachael, you said you know the accents of this music. Could you elaborate on that?

PRICE: I mean, they didn't talk the same, and they sure didn't sing the same throughout. You know, it changes from decade to decade. And my guess is a lot of that has to do with how they were self-monitoring and the type of microphone they were using. But, you know, it embodies the sound of the music, the type of accent. I don't really know. It's like - you'd have to talk to somebody who's, like, a musicologist. Maybe it had to do with, like, Mid-Atlantic or - I don't really know. But it's pretty different. And I think it would sound strange if you didn't sort of emulate the accent somewhat when you were singing this style of music.

VILRAY: I think the person who epitomizes the accent best is Johnny Mercer.

PRICE: Oh.

VILRAY: I think Johnny Mercer, like, really understands how to, like, write swinging lyrics and then deliver them in a swinging way. And certainly, when I'm writing, I'm thinking a lot about Johnny Mercer. I think, like, something like "The Laundromat Swing," which is something we do that I wrote, I was thinking of Johnny Mercer a lot...

BRIGER: Oh, really?

VILRAY: ...When I was writing that song. Yeah.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind just doing a little, tiny bit of that song?

PRICE: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAUNDROMAT SWING")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Drop your lucky nickel down the money slot, then toss your dirty drawers where it's piping hot. If you want to take your baby to the dancing spot, you've got to do the laundromat swing. Every working fellow on a Friday night, by 20 after 5, they's (ph) getting right. If you're going to show the lady she's your true delight, you've got to do the laundromat swing.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: That's a great song. And at the end, you sort of do that double time, too, which must be really hard to do.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: Yeah. I don't know we would double time that tempo but...

PRICE: Yeah, depends on where we start.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: Yeah, exactly.

BRIGER: Fair enough. Why don't we take a quick break here? If you're just joining us, my guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have a new album called "Rachael & Vilray," and they've been playing us some of the songs from that. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, this is FRESH AIR. My guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have an album of mostly compositions by Vilray, although there's a couple of covers on this, too.

The songs from your album, they almost sound like they're telling these little short stories about romance. When you're writing these songs, do you have particular characters in mind or scenes that you're working on?

VILRAY: Well, like, "Treat Me Better" - I think I was probably coming from a place of Gershwin's "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off"...

BRIGER: Yeah.

VILRAY: ...Which is, you know, a duet about how we - there's no reason for us to be together, but we are. And, you know, maybe we shouldn't be. And by the end, they've kind of come to this decision that they should be; they're going to call the calling-off off. So I was kind of trying to write something that would fit in that space in a musical. But because it's not a musical, I get to, at the end, kind of leave the couple in exactly the same pickle that they're in in the beginning, which is to say that they really do not speak the same language.

BRIGER: Yeah. To me, this song sounds like a mini screwball comedy.

VILRAY: Right. Exactly, but kind of without the happy ending. I mean, at the end, the only thing they can agree on is the name of the queen of Spain.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Right.

VILRAY: They haven't decided that this is a functional relationship, although I'm sure it is.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Fair enough. Well, would you guys please play "Treat Me Better"?

VILRAY: Sure.

PRICE: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREAT ME BETTER")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Here's a tender serenade. Oh, you should treat me better. Let's hear the operetta complete. Emeralds on the promenade. Oh, you should treat me better. These hardly even glitter, my sweet. I never prize myself above nobody else, but baby thinks he's better than me. I order a la carte, buy her diamond heart. And I look on, fake a yawn. Kissing on the Caspian. Oh, you should treat me better. You didn't pack a sweater for me. I buy her caviar, but she throws out the jar 'cause it tastes a little fishy to me. We go to 21, and in front of everyone, I spit out a Brussels sprout. Married by the queen of Spain. Oh, you should treat me better. I'm liable to forget her first name. L-E-T-I-Z-I-A. Do I pronounce that this way? Letizia is the queen's first name.

BRIGER: That's "Treat Me Better," which is from Rachael & Vilray's CD, and that was written by Vilray. That's just a wonderful song. And I think one of the things that you do, maybe, Vilray, when you're writing these to give them a timeless quality is to just sort of avoid maybe contemporary references. Like, in none of these songs is there any mention of Twitter or, like, Facebook. And your - you bring up 21. You know, you're sort of putting it back in an older time period.

VILRAY: Yeah, well, 21's still around.

BRIGER: It is still around. But yeah.

VILRAY: But who goes? I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: No offense. Yes, I think that's true. I try to keep it in a space where you can relate. You know, I think if I wrote a song that was about the swinging good time that was happening at 21, we would be veering into a strange space that was completely unrelatable to myself or anybody else. So that's not that appealing to me. But I think there is a timeless quality to these old standards.

BRIGER: Rachael, it sounds like you've been interested in singing jazz and swing since you were 5. Like, you heard an Ella Fitzgerald record, and that really sort of set you on your way. When you were starting out, were you trying to emulate certain aspects of different singers? Like, were you studying their inflection? Was there anyone in particular that you really spent a lot of time listening to and trying to sound like?

PRICE: One hundred percent. I studied Ella Fitzgerald early, and I completely copied her. I wanted to just sound just like her, and so I learned the versions of her songs, like, from top to bottom, every single thing. There's recordings when I'm, like, 10 doing that. And I once I did that, I kind of went - I had treated learning in that style. So I got to Sarah Vaughan, and I wanted to sound just like Sarah Vaughan. And I got to Peggy Lee and Doris Day, and - I just sort of copied singers. And along the way, I realized that this was actually a helpful way to learn singing - is to just copy a singer. And there's a couple of reasons why that works. I think one of the main reasons is that I think people can sing better initially if they're copying somebody because they're a little less concerned. They're a little less self-conscious.

BRIGER: How do you go from emulating people to then finding your own voice?

PRICE: Just a lot of work. Yeah, I think just doing it a lot and digging deep into yourself and also stripping away - it's like, I've done a lot of, like, learning of ornamentation and then sort of taking it back down to the heart of it.

BRIGER: You're talking about singing with sort of more ornament or, like, a more stripped-down version. Could you give an example of that - of each of those?

PRICE: Yeah, sure. I think probably the easiest way to just quickly demonstrate that is just sort of a talkative type of phrasing, more conversational, versus, you know, longer-held notes. So I'll use "All Of Me" because it's a standard everybody knows. So, you know, more ornamentation...

(Singing) All of me - why not take all of me? Can't you see I am no good without you? Take my lips...

Something like that - and then more conversational would be...

(Singing) All of me - why not take all of me?

BRIGER: Right. So, like...

PRICE: (Singing) Can't you see I'm no good without you?

Yeah, it's a lot more space.

BRIGER: Yeah. In the first version, like, when you sing all, it's got, like, 15 syllables...

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: ...Rather than just the one.

PRICE: Yeah, exactly.

BRIGER: Yeah.

PRICE: Yeah. I mean, both are fun, but you do need to do both. You can't do one all the time.

BRIGER: Do you prefer one over the other?

PRICE: I think when I was younger, I preferred the, you know, the first way, just sort of, like - I would always call it just soaking in your own sound.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

PRICE: Just ruminating, marinating...

BRIGER: Just enjoying yourself so much.

PRICE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, if you do something all of the time, you do it none of the time, which I think is a really important thing to remember with singing.

BRIGER: That's interesting. I haven't had the pleasure to see you guys perform in person yet, but I've watched a bunch of stuff online. And you almost always sing with this one microphone, and you're facing each other. So you're really close to each other, and you're looking more at each other rather than facing out towards the audience. Why did you decide that that would be the way you'd perform?

PRICE: We played a couple gigs early on. It was shortly after I asked Vilray if we could do this together, and I think that we left those gigs feeling awful. (Laughter) Like, we were just like, oh, God, this is so much harder than we thought it was going to be - to play music like this and really, like, do it well. I think we sort of thought it was going to come together a little bit easier. And one - I don't know why we did a gig where we sang on the same microphone, if that was, like, a conscious choice or it was like, oh, we should - because we were playing at a bar that - there was, like, no sound system, and we were bringing everything in. So I kind of think it was more of an accident. But we ended up playing this one gig at this bar that doesn't have music anymore. Maybe it's not...

BRIGER: Doesn't exist anymore.

PRICE: Doesn't exist - great. It was called Rye (ph). And we had this one microphone, and we looked deep into each other's eyes during that show. And afterwards, we kind of looked at each other - like, this big aha moment, which was - it was much easier to sing these songs in harmony together if we were just looking at each other and, you know, staring at each other's mouths.

So yeah, it was intimate. And I think that's what we were missing - was intimacy because a duo is just - I've never really experienced anything like it. Like, the first handful of gigs - because I was so used to having a band, where it's like, one person makes a mistake. You just move on. They don't - you don't notice, almost. They don't notice. You just keep going or whatever. But when it's just two people and there's one instrument, it's like...

VILRAY: Yeah, with every mistake, you're, like...

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: Looking at each other.

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: Oh, my God.

PRICE: Or if, like, one person is having a bad night and - you can feel that immediately. Like, you get off, and you're like, you had a terrible show. And they're like, yeah. And you're like, yeah, I felt that the whole time...

VILRAY: (Laughter).

PRICE: ...Whereas, like, in Lake Street Dive, like, I would get off, and I'd be like, oh, my gosh - best show ever. Did you guys have so much fun? And someone would be like, that was awful for me. And I was like, well...

VILRAY: Right.

PRICE: I didn't know. So that's, you know - you can have different experiences, but you can't have a different experience in a duo.

BRIGER: You guys are so close to each other. As I said, you're performing, like, you know, just on the other side of a microphone. Are you guys ever worried you're, like, getting your coffee breath all over your partner? Or...

PRICE: Oh, we have talked about hygiene.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Dental hygiene has been - yeah - a big discussion.

VILRAY: We used to actually brush our teeth before every show.

PRICE: Together.

VILRAY: I don't know why we don't anymore.

PRICE: I don't think we stand as close.

VILRAY: Yes, that's true.

PRICE: Yeah. I think there was a time when breath was a real concern. It was important to chew some gum...

VILRAY: We had a much smaller microphone...

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: ...Before. And now we've got this big one.

BRIGER: So a larger microphone blocks it a little bit now?

PRICE: Oh, yeah.

VILRAY: Yeah, yeah. Big microphones make good neighbors.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with the music duo Rachael & Vilray. We'll hear more of that session after a break, and we'll listen back to my 1999 interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, who died Saturday. He was perhaps best known for his memoir about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, which was the subject of our interview. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AT YOUR MOTHER'S HOUSE")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Everybody knows there's only one place I go when I want to hear the news. That's to your mother's house, where we talk about you. She shows me pictures of little you in the nude, and it would be rude of me not to let her see the ones that I have took of you.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with the music duo Rachael & Vilray, who also performed some of their songs, songs influenced by the music of the '30s and '40s. Their debut album together is called "Rachael & Vilray." Rachael Price is also the lead singer of the soul-inspired rock band Lake Street Dive.

BRIGER: Well, a different scenario for you, Vilray, was - I don't know if you still do it, but you did some busking in the New York City subway stations.

VILRAY: You know what? I stopped, and I'll tell you why - because they brought cell service in. And there was a magical thing that was happening wherein you couldn't be reached, and it was the only place you couldn't be reached when they didn't have cell service. And it happened many times that people would come up to me, having waited for 15 minutes for a train and heard three songs. And they would come up to me with, like, tears in their eyes, having just been broken up with or in the midst of falling in love with somebody and just been like, I cannot believe what a touching experience I just had musically. And that was, like, such a high, obviously, for me.

BRIGER: Yeah.

VILRAY: And once they brought cellphones in, that really went away.

BRIGER: Really?

VILRAY: And so did I.

BRIGER: Was that a way to sort of just get your chops up to speed after not playing for a long time?

VILRAY: Absolutely, yeah. You know, the reverberation in there really make you want to, like, reach and sing strongly. And yeah, it was a great way to learn.

BRIGER: Did you have a favorite stop or station?

VILRAY: Yeah, the Metropolitan stop on the G train.

BRIGER: Why was that...

VILRAY: That's kind of where everyone goes. It's a good hub. So it's where the G train and the L train meet, so you get a lot of traffic of people coming from Manhattan who've traveled across town on the L and are getting on the G. And also, the G is very slow, so people...

BRIGER: So you get a...

VILRAY: ...Stand around for a long time.

BRIGER: ...Lingering audience.

VILRAY: Exactly.

PRICE: Yeah.

VILRAY: People require three - two or three songs before they're like, OK, I can't not give this person money if you've had an emotional experience with three songs. If you've had one with one, you're like, God, I'm really feeling things today, you know? But if you've had one with three, you're like, that guy is making me feel things.

BRIGER: And then would people not get on their train and just hang out and listen to you?

VILRAY: Yeah, that definitely happened. And I would get gigs - you know, wedding gigs and stuff like that. And people would film me and - yeah. It was a very special - and I played a lot with my friend Damon Hankoff, who I went to high school with. He played bass with me a lot. And, you know, it's just, like, a great way to learn each other in terms of our playing and learn tunes and make arrangements up, and it was really cool.

BRIGER: You have a song called "Alone At Last," which is about someone who has some, I guess, social anxiety. But then when they finally find someone who they're in love with, then they finally feel that they're alone at last. And it sounds - Rachael revealed in an interview that that's a little bit about yourself.

VILRAY: Yes, that's a song that I wrote for my fiancée. And, you know, I don't generally - well, I didn't write it for her, but I wrote it about my feelings for her. And yeah, I'm uncomfortable around people, and as a New Yorker, I think many New Yorkers are sort of neurotic people who are uncomfortable around people. And I think it can come off as not quite - I don't know - grumpiness, maybe. So I'm often grumpy, but my fiancée kind of puts me at peace. I've had a lot of feedback from introverted people who say, well, that's how I feel, too. So I think I hit on something.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind just doing a few lines of that?

PRICE: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PRICE: (Singing) Once was agoraphobic. Times Square would make me gasp. I let full trains go past. With you, I feel alone at last.

BRIGER: Yeah, that's wonderful. How does your uncomfortableness around crowds affect performing live?

VILRAY: You know what? I love it. I can't quite explain it. And maybe eventually, I will come to hate it. But I think there's something about having a stranger say that they've touched you - touched them that is very fulfilling for me, and it's as simple as that.

BRIGER: When Rachael said that she wanted to sing with you, did you start writing pieces specifically for her?

VILRAY: You know, I think I started off just sort of writing. Rachael was talking about, like, learning Ella Fitzgerald and learning Sarah Vaughan, and I think I was, like, very committed to the idea that I should be very pure and write for people of the era. So I was writing Sinatra songs and Fats Waller songs and Billie Holiday songs and Peggy Lee songs, and I think that's how I did it for a long time. And we certainly sing a lot of those songs.

But I think "Alone At Last" is a song for Rachael, and I think - we have a song called "Without A Thought For My Heart," which I definitely wrote with Peggy Lee in mind but with also knowing that Rachael doesn't sing like Peggy Lee very often and that I think she would kill it singing like Peggy Lee kind of in a vulnerable, whispering, soft space. And it took us a while to get to that place in the recording studio where she felt comfortable doing it, but it's everything I dreamed of when I was writing that song. And it's not exactly what you would think of as a Rachael Price song, but I think it's, like, exactly what I think of as an ideal interpretation.

BRIGER: Well, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you guys, and I'm going to ask you to do one more song. And Vilray, this is a song that you just mentioned, which was "Without A Thought For My Heart." You said this is a song that you wrote thinking about Peggy Lee.

VILRAY: Yeah. She has a very tender, very quiet way of singing that is incredibly all hers, and it's my platonic ideal of what romantic female crooning is. So yeah, that's - I wrote it with that idea.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear it? But before we do, I just want to thank you both so much for coming on the show. Rachael, Vilray, thank you very much for being on FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you for talking to us.

PRICE: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) We always knew that was too young for anything beyond just your selfish bit of fun right from the start, without a thought for my heart. You held me near and simply whispered that we should be so glad for the moments that we had. We knew you'd part without a thought for my heart. Now ain't the time for thinking. I should have done my thinking months ago. I may not know which man's worth keeping, but now I surely know the kind who ought to go. A parting kiss - with this, I crumble, and all my fantasies are scattered by the breeze. I played my part without a thought for my heart. It wasn't smart. It wasn't smart. I played my part without a thought for my heart.

GROSS: Rachael & Vilray spoke with our producer Sam Briger. Their self-titled debut album was released late last year.

After a break, we'll listen back to my interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, who died Saturday. We talked about his memoir "Papa Hemingway," in which he wrote about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The writer A.E. Hotchner was probably best known for his memoir "Papa Hemingway" about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway. Hotchner died Saturday at the age of 102. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with him about Hemingway, which we first broadcast on the centennial of Hemingway's birth - July 21, 1999. Hotchner was also a friend and neighbor of Paul Newman and cofounded Newman's food company, Newman's Own. Hotchner's memoir about his boyhood, "King Of The Hill," was adapted into a 1993 film by Steven Soderbergh.

As Hotchner wrote, the name Hemingway conjures up a man of courage and daring both in his writing and in his way of life, and those traits made an impact on Hotchner. The two men first met in a professional capacity in 1948, when Hotchner was sent to Cuba by Cosmopolitan Magazine to ask Hemingway to write a piece about the future of literature. With Hemingway's blessing, Hotchner went on to adapt several Hemingway works for CBS TV, including "The Snows Of Kilimanjaro" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

Hotchner and Hemingway remained friends until Hemingway's suicide in 1961. Five years later, Hotchner wrote his memoir, "Papa Hemingway." When we spoke, a new edition of the book had just been published with a new preface and new information that Hotchner felt uncomfortable revealing while Hemingway's widow Mary was still alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: A.E. Hotchner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

A E HOTCHNER: Glad to see you.

GROSS: Now, you explain in your new edition that Mary, who was Hemingway's fourth and last wife, tried to stop publication of your memoir back in the mid-'60s. What was her objection to it?

HOTCHNER: Well, she tried to get an injunction against it. Her objection was, fundamentally, that the last chapters of the book dealt with his decline in the last couple of years of his life mentally and physically and how it affected his will to live and resulted in the fact that two or three times, he attempted suicide and finally succeeded in it. It was Mary's story at that time of the event of that morning - that terrible morning when his head was blown off - that he had been cleaning his rifle and that he had forgotten that the chamber was loaded. And accidentally, he had committed this terrible act.

She frankly said, if you will remove the last three chapters, I'll withdraw the lawsuit. I said, of course not. That's just such a travesty that this man, who was such a great hunter - why would he be cleaning his gun the beginning of July? And he who was a stickler for protocol - how could he possibly leave the cartridges in the chamber?

GROSS: Oh, he had a whole creed about honesty in writing.

HOTCHNER: Of course.

GROSS: Why should you lie?

HOTCHNER: So why? And that was really the genesis of the lawsuit. And then she had another very peculiar original thought about what belongs to a writer. She said that my use of dialogue in which I quote Hemingway talking to me in the book - I recreated some of what we said to each other. She said, you know, when a writer talks, his words are his, and so even his verbal words spoken out into the air are copyrighted. So that was a...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...Contention that the court of appeals threw out in a hurry.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you first met. It was 1948. You were in your 20s.

HOTCHNER: Yeah.

GROSS: You were sent down by Cosmopolitan Magazine to Hemingway's home in Cuba to invite him to write a piece for the magazine about the future of literature. You say you felt like a horse's ass going down to make him that offer. Why did you feel that way?

HOTCHNER: Well, I mean, that was such an asinine assignment. But at that point, Cosmopolitan was a literary magazine before Helen Gurley Brown got hold of it and turned it into a sex-for-the-single-girl magazine. Hemingway had written for the magazine before. As a matter of fact, I think the - one of the sections of "To Have And Have Not" had been published in Cosmopolitan.

They wanted to run a series on the future of everything - the future of the automobile, written by Henry Ford II or whatever - and literature was to be Ernest. So I felt - what a dumb thing to do. Also, I'd been in awe of him since high school, reading his books. You know, he was somebody that I didn't want to approach no matter what. I was in awe of him. So I simply sent a note out to his place in San Francisco de Paula saying, I'm down here on this ridiculous assignment. Could you just scribble something that says get lost or something like that so I can go back and show that I contacted you? And to my absolute amazement, the next morning the phone rang and - Hotchner, this is Hemingstein here. I can't let you get kicked out of your job by the Hearst people. That's like if you're a leper getting kicked out of the colony.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: He said I'll meet you at the Floridita for a drink - 5 o'clock. And that's how I met Hemingway. And we did have several Papa Dobles, which is a drink that was invented for him. It's a - really a frozen daiquiri but served in a vase big enough for long-stemmed roses. And from that point on, he took me out on the boat and we hit it off just fine. And he did write something for Cosmopolitan. But what it developed into - instead of a short story, it became "Across The River And Into The Trees," which is a novel that was published in three installments.

GROSS: It seems to me several times in the early part of your relationship, he put you in an awkward position, where he wasn't meeting a deadline and he was at the same time asking for more money to complete the piece. So you'd have to go back to the publisher or the editor and say, well, he doesn't have the piece and he wants more money. And you couldn't tell for sure if he'd ever really deliver the goods. Wasn't that an awkward position to be in?

HOTCHNER: I'll to you what he was doing - in the case of "Across The River," for example, he was about to take off with Mary, his wife. He was going to Paris. Then he was going to go over to Venice, and he was going to check up on stuff that was in the book.

And he was at The Sherry-Netherlands Hotel (ph) at the point, and we were having an evening in his suite with Marlene Dietrich and other friends of his. And he looked at me and he said, well, Hotch, you should be going home on this trip. He said, why don't you do this? You go back and tell the editor - by then, my friend was no longer the editor, but a man that I wasn't very friendly with was the editor. He said, here's the manuscript. But you don't have the last two chapters, which he (unintelligible). And he said, just tell him you don't have the last two chapters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: So I went back. And I said, here it all is, but we don't have the last two chapters. But how could we be in publication? You stick with him until you get the two chapters. So I went back to The Sherry-Netherlands. I walked in. And he - as I walked through the door, he said, when are you leaving?

GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. Now, you did several TV adaptations of his work for CBS.

HOTCHNER: For "Playhouse 90," yes.

GROSS: Now, Buick, I understand, wanted you to write happy endings to "A Farewell To Arms" and "The Sun Also Rises" and "To Have And Have Not." What was your reaction? I think they offered you a free car for the (laughter) - happy endings.

HOTCHNER: Yeah, they offered me -- that's right. They said, you know, are you interested in ratings? Because it's a series. And if people feel that they have these down endings, they won't come back for the next one. And I said, well, it's amazing how Mr. Shakespeare was able to survive all those bad endings. I haven't seen any rewrites of the end of "Macbeth" or any of the other plays. And I don't think, really, that you would like Catherine instead of dying in childbirth in "A Farewell to Arms" suddenly to recover at the last second with...

GROSS: I feel good again.

HOTCHNER: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...And the screaming little Catherine Jr. come...

GROSS: Papa (laughter).

HOTCHNER: ...Galloping out of her womb. So I simply laughed them off of that. I can see the Jake Barnes at the end. Suddenly, there sprouts this heretofore not present penis, and we are in business.

GROSS: (Laughter) So - but they didn't fire you after that?

HOTCHNER: No, they didn't fire me. No, they couldn't because they had signed me to a contract. That was a big mistake. But the funniest thing that happened was when we did "For Whom The Bell Tolls" with Jason Robards and Maria Schell and Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, whatever.

GROSS: Good cast.

HOTCHNER: Good cast. It was in two parts. We were driving - Ernest and Mary and myself; I was the driver - from Ketchum to Key West. And when we were going across the Texas plains somewhere, Ernest said, this is the night that the second part's on. I nearly fell over because I didn't think he was keeping...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

HOTCHNER: ...Any track. So he stopped at some flea-bitten little motel and went into the lobby and said to the innkeeper, who nearly fainted when he saw who it was - he said, listen, I have something want to see on television. And the fella said, well, we only have this one big television down in the lobby. We don't have television in the rooms. Well, he said, do you think you could bring it upstairs? So they carted this up to his room.

It was one of those televisions that had rabbit ears. It didn't have an antenna outside. We couldn't get any reception except if you held the rabbit ear. So get this picture. We're in this motel room. Ernest and Mary prop themselves up with pillows with their backs on the bed. And the television set - this big old lumbering television set was in front of them. And I had to sit next to it holding the rabbit ears.

Afterwards, he went to the phone and called Maria and called Jason and told them how terrific he thought it was. He was very considerate that way. He really was very generous other writers - if they weren't Faulkner, whom he'd never be generous with. That was a...

GROSS: Jealous?

HOTCHNER: Oh, that was - that was a real warfare there.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1999 interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, who died Saturday at the age of 102. We'll hear more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION IN THE SKY'S "REMEMBER ME AS A TIME OF DAY (REMASTERED)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with writer A.E. Hotchner, which was first broadcast in 1999 on the centennial of Ernest Hemingway's birth. A new edition of Hotchner's memoir "Papa Hemingway" about his friendship with Hemingway had just been published. Hotchner died Saturday at the age of 102.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You have been a very careful Hemingway reader. You loved Hemingway's writing long before you met him, and then you had to reread him very carefully because you were adapting his work. I asked you to just choose a few lines of Hemingway's writing that you think are very Hemingway (laughter) and talk about what they reveal about Hemingway's style. What do you want to read for us?

HOTCHNER: I'm going to read the very opening of "A Farewell To Arms." This is as much Hemingway's style as anything of Hemingway's.

(Reading) In the late summer of that year, we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river, there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road, and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees, too, were dusty, and the leaves fell early that year. And we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards, the road bare and white except for the leaves.

GROSS: Now, what's quintessential Hemingway about that?

HOTCHNER: Notice the simplicity of the language that's used and the almost poetic repetition. It's almost as if it's poetry. You could scan that, I'll bet, and you would find that it has a scan to it. But the realism of it - when I first read that, I could feel the autumn in the air. I could feel leaves falling, and there was a brook rushing outside. He transports you into the area with a minimum of description so that you furnish some of the description. That's the great gift that he had that he brought to American literature. That was his skill. That was his spareness.

GROSS: Hemingway had a lot of interesting things to say about writing. I thought I'd read one of those things. And this is from his posthumously published book "A Moveable Feast," which you gave the title to. And this is about trying to write in the '20s when he's in Paris, and he says, I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, do not worry. You have always written before, and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally, I would write one true sentence and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true, simple, declarative sentence I had written.

I like the idea of throwing away the ornamentation and realizing when he was sounding too presentational. Did you get a sense of that ever from observing him write or...

HOTCHNER: He told me...

GROSS: ...Hearing him talk about that?

HOTCHNER: ...That he really picked up on that business of editing out from Gertrude Stein because he had had an introduction to her in her salon from - Sherwin Anderson had given a letter introduction. And he had subsequently shown her one of his stories. They weren't selling, and they were all being rejected. And she had said, Hemingway, take this back and just remove all of the verys (ph) that are in there - the word very. Don't use any of the very - not very late or very beautiful. Take all the verys out. So he said, I picked the verys like you pick berries.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HOTCHNER: I picked verys. And he said - and it strengthened it a lot.

GROSS: Your memoir is called "Papa Hemingway." Did you call him Papa?

HOTCHNER: I call him Papa.

GROSS: How did that feel?

HOTCHNER: Well, I didn't for a while, but he called himself Papa. He would sign his letters Papa. And he began calling himself Papa, you know, when he was a young man. It was not something - so I didn't have much of a relationship with my own father. And it was an easy transference because his attitude toward me was that of father to son. He taught me all the things I knew about fishing and hunting and traveling and wines and foods and what oysters were good. And almost everything that I came to prize later on I learned from Ernest, so it was an easy transition.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure to hear you speak. Thank you.

HOTCHNER: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with A.E. Hotchner was originally broadcast on July 21, 1999, the centennial of Hemingway's birth. Hotchner died Saturday. He was 102.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Deutsche Bank, the German bank that kept lending money to Donald Trump when the rest of Wall Street had turned its back on him. Our guest will be journalist David Enrich, financial editor for The New York Times and author of the new book "Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, And An Epic Trail Of Destruction." It chronicles how the 150-year-old bank went from a respected institution to a company engaged in money laundering, manipulating markets, violating international sanctions, defrauding regulators and more. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD'S "BEBE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO AND ODAIR ASSAD'S "BEBE")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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