To have and have not

The story of how one Sacramento resident ended up with one of the world's best private collections of Ernest Hemingway books and memorabilia

David Meeker holds a sketch of Ernest Hemingway drawn by an inmate.

David Meeker holds a sketch of Ernest Hemingway drawn by an inmate.

photos by lisa baetz

David Meeker pulls out a beautiful folio box from one of his piles of written materials—stacks that crowd tabletops and spill off crammed-to-capacity bookshelves. Inside is the first issue of Esquire magazine, printed in the autumn of 1933 and with a lead article by Ernest Hemingway. It’s titled “Marlin off the Morro: A Cuban Letter” and is illustrated with 19 photographs.

Meeker, in his early 70s, a tall man, with thick, graying hair, doesn’t just have the magazine, however. Also inside the box are the 19 original photos, on the backs of which, in faded ink, can still be seen Hemingway’s handwritten captions.

How did they end up in a collector’s home in Sacramento?

Meeker laughs. Like most collecting, it’s all about a friend who knew a friend, about hearing on the grapevine who is selling what and where, about an eye for a good buy and the thrill of the chase.

A Hemingway bust gets the hipster hat treatment.

A lawyer by training, though now long-retired, Meeker has been collecting modern fiction trophies—rare first editions, autographed books, letters, photographs, corrected book proofs, statuettes of his chosen authors—for decades, since a few years before he moved to the state capital from Southern California in the mid-1970s. He specializes in Hemingway—the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, the University of Texas and a handful of other academic institutions have larger collections, but he has what’s considered one of the finest Hemingway troves in private hands. He also has a pretty decent collection of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy material. One can also, however, find works by the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson on his shelves, as well as some Jack Kerouac and a handful of other writers.

Meeker began collecting Hemingway back in the 1960s, when he was in the Peace Corps in Liberia. Looking for reading material, he went into the only English-language bookstore in the country and asked if they had any Hemingway.

“Who’s Hemingway?” was the response.

So the young traveler told the store owner about the great writer, and the owner said, “I’ll get some.” Meeker read one book, became fascinated, read some more and, ultimately, read every book the seller got his hands on.

“When I got back to the U.S., somebody gave me a first edition of Death in the Afternoon. I was hooked. I started hanging around rare books stores, and I was off.”

Yes, that really is an X-ray of Hemingway’s knee.

Although Meeker is a dealer, eventually selling most of his finds to others, in many ways he has the monomania of a true collector. He is a member of the Hemingway Society and a book-fair participant (he sells books and develops relationships with clients at these shows). He also travels the world going to academic conferences on Hemingway and scours the arcane, and somewhat hidden, world of rare-books dealing, always on the lookout for the perfect find. On a scouting mission in Cuba once, he managed to find a Vincent Van Gogh art book in which Hemingway had written a birthday dedication to a friend, in which he had pretended to be Van Gogh. Only an expert in Hemingway’s handwriting, a person with the specialty knowledge that Meeker possesses, would have managed to authenticate that particular item. Another time, he managed to locate and buy X-rays, taken in a hospital in Italy during World War I, which showed teenage Hemingway’s bullet-damaged kneecap.

In a closet he keeps a brown-suede hunting vest worn by the big-game hunting author, as well as one of “Papa’s” cigar cases.

“It’s the hunt, really,” he says of his obsession with finding rare and beautiful items related to the writers he collects. “For me, possessing it isn’t that great a thing. It’s the looking for it, finding it, that activity is fun. It gets us [collectors] going.”

His eyes light up as he talks about his collection. When he shows a particularly fine letter or a unique inscription, he practically caresses the document.

There’s an artistry to the building of a collection, says Meeker’s longtime friend and fellow rare-books dealer Barry Cassidy, who runs an antiquarian store out of a house in Midtown.

Meeker’s collection includes this leather vest once worn by the late author.

“You’ve really got to work [on it]. There is major competition. You can’t just sit back.”

Another local collector-cum-dealer, Jim Kay, puts it this way: “We go out and hunt for books, but most of the time we don’t find anything. It’s intermittent reinforcement. We keep going and going and going, because it’s treasure hunting, and you don’t know if you’re going to find treasure or not. We’ve all found books in obscure, out-of-the-way places.”

There are the books picked up for a song at estate sales that can be resold for thousands of dollars, the rare letters found in junk shops.

Meeker takes off the shelf a first printing of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, turns to page 181, and points to the word “stoppped.” It’s a typo, with three p’s. “That,” he explains, “is the way you tell the true first printing of that book.”

When his two daughters were growing up, they found it somewhat intimidating, almost as if they were sharing their father’s loyalties and their own house—the house Meeker lived in with his first wife, before they separated—with a literary icon.

Meeker started collecting Hemingway books and memorabilia in the 1960s while working in Liberia.

“I couldn’t understand the fascination with authors who became alcoholic and suicidal,” says his daughter Lisa Alexia, a physician assistant who now lives in Alaska.

“He was enthusiastic, like a child. It was his obsession. ’There he goes again.’ We’d roll our eyes. That was Dad, and that was his thing.”

Lisa’s sister, Jenny Entezari, who still lives in Sacramento, recalls her father working for hours at a time to cover his valuable books in protective plastic sleeves.

“That’s a lot of work right there,” she says. “He’d talk about books; I would kind of just tune it out. I don’t think I ever felt jealous. There was irritation a little bit—that’s not quite the right word. More like when you have a passion and no one else has it, how do you relate to them? If I talked about Hemingway, he’d be very animated. If I talked about something else, he’d be less interested.”

Meeker’s second wife, Stephanie, to whom he has been married a dozen years, is a voracious reader. She isn’t, however, by temperament, a collector.

“I just don’t have that itch at all,” she says with a laugh.

Once upon a time, it might have been a nervous laugh, a “what have I got myself into?” sound. Now, however, she’s come to accept and, in some ways, love the world of collecting, with all of its enthusiasms and the aficionado’s passion for the written word.

“For a collector, there never is enough room,” she says.

Meeker smiles, perhaps just a little sheepishly. For all of his seriousness about his collection, there’s also an undertone of humor to it all. In the corner of one of his rooms, there is a bust, almost Roman in style, of Hemingway, just on the cusp of an old age that he would not live to experience. He’s bearded, his eyes extremely focused. To add a dose of levity, someone—Meeker, presumably—has dumped a sloppy-joe baseball cap atop the revered writer’s curls.

“I feel very fortunate,” Meeker says of his collection and his love of books. “Very lucky. There are books in every room in the house. I can’t imagine a house with no books. One occasionally goes into a house with no books, and it just seems, ’What a shame.’ You know?”