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Ernest Hemingway

A life writ large

Ernest Hemingway

Author, alcoholic, philanderer, revolutionary: on the 50th anniversary of his death, ShortList celebrates Ernest Hemingway

Standing on the bridge of his 38ft cruiser, the Pilar, as it skimmed through the deep-blue Gulf Stream, Ernest Hemingway downed another daiquiri. It was April 1935 and the 35-year-old writer was on one of his regular jaunts where he would set out at dawn with a crew of local staff and friends to fish marlin.

Suddenly, there was a commotion on deck. Hemingway had landed a shark, eventually hauling the thrashing beast into the cockpit. Reaching for his Colt Woodsman .22 automatic, he fired at the 6ft fish. Only, he missed, and the ricocheting bullets found their way into both of his legs.

Booze, guns, animal-hunting, manly one-upmanship: the entire public perception of Ernest Hemingway is encapsulated in that one incident. The author — who committed suicide 50 years ago this week — was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, with his sparse, tightly-written prose shaping everything from Hunter S Thompson’s work to the pulp fiction genre itself. And it’s this unique brains-and-brawn combination that made him a literary icon unlike no other.


Born in Chicago in 1899, Hemingway’s first brush with fame came in the dying embers of the First World War. The 18-year-old had enlisted as a Red Cross ambulance driver, but within weeks of arriving on the Italian front he was wounded carrying a soldier to safety. As the first American injured in Italy, images of Hemingway, sitting up in bed, smiling boyishly, were relayed on newsreels back home. But it was the six months spent recuperating in a Milan hospital from his shrapnel wounds that really shaped him. The patient charmed medics into bringing him cognac and Cinzano, while, somewhat inevitably on a ward with 18 nurses and just three other patients, he fell in love, with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky.

”Hemingway seemed to celebrate the fact he was wounded — it was a career-boost for him,” says James Meredith, president of The Hemingway Society. “But his rejection by Agnes [who became engaged to another soldier] was a far greater wound. He was crushed.”

Hemingway later used the experience for 1929’s semi-autobiographical A Farewell To Arms, while biographers claim that after being dumped, he adopted a pattern of abandoning women (or, more precisely, his first three wives) before they deserted him.

By the Twenties, Hemingway was living in Paris working as a foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star. When he wasn’t gallivanting around Europe, meeting Mussolini or filing articles entitled ‘Trout Fishing All Across Europe: Spain Has The Best, Then Germany’, he pounded Left Bank bars as part of an absinthe-swigging group dubbed the ‘Lost Generation’ (other members included James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald).

Alcohol was a mainstay of Hemingway’s life. Living on the Florida island of Key West between 1928 and 1936, he’d spend hours drinking in Sloppy Joe’s bar, where legend has it he invented cocktails Death In The Afternoon (“one jigger of absinthe with iced champagne”) named after one of his books, and the Papa Doble daiquiri. Before then, it was Paris’s café culture that acted as the backdrop for much of his early writing, including his acclaimed 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, inspired by annual trips to Pamplona’s Running Of The Bulls festival.

Bullfighting fascinated Hemingway and he slaughtered animals with macho gusto throughout his life. Summers were spent in Wyoming hunting grizzly bears, while he was reputedly petulant on his first African safari when his second wife Pauline shot a lion before him. He was also made an honorary Wakamba tribe member, after they ripped off his largest toenail in an initiation ceremony, with the writer forbidden from expressing any pain.

Such action-man antics enhanced Hemingway’s machismo, aided by the odd drunken brawl — poet Wallace Stevens ended up bed-ridden for five days after one such leathering.

In fact, his brutish ways have often overshadowed his belief in self-improvement and education. Hemingway scholar Dr Stone Shiflet from the University Of South Florida explains: “He wasn’t just a jock. His pastimes were typical for men of that time. Hemingway always told us that in order to succeed at boxing or bullfighting, you needed to study. He was a serious writer, fisherman and hunter — he really wanted to reach his full potential as a human being.”


Indeed, Hemingway was more than a booze-sodden bully. According to Meredith, on a safari in the Fifties, he was “seriously thinking about becoming a game warden” —though it didn’t stop him from reputedly squiring a Masai bride while his wife was out shopping.

Then there was his prolific work ethic. Hemingway may have emptied his drinks cabinet in the afternoons, but he would rise at dawn to write at his typewriter until noon. Even during his alcohol-addled later years, he managed to churn out 1952’s magnum opus The Old Man And The Sea, with its tale of an ageing fisherman struggling with a giant marlin scooping a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize.

He also sprung up as a war reporter at some of the century’s most gruesome conflicts. In 1937, he headed to the Spanish Civil War, where he had a drunken fling with American journalist Martha Gellhorn and was inspired to write For Whom The Bell Tolls, about an American anti-fascist fighter falling in love with a peasant guerrilla. During the Second World War he covered the Normandy D-day landings and the liberation of Paris (where he himself ‘liberated’ the Ritz Hotel bar).

When he wasn’t in Europe, Hemingway ‘helped’ the war effort by persuading the US Navy to fit the Pilar with grenades and machine guns so that it could patrol US/Cuban waters in search of German U-boats. None were found, but the grenades were tossed into the water for ‘sport’ while the machine gun shot sharks scavenging his fish.

Yet for all his gallantry, Hemingway was also strangely accident-prone. Over the years, he survived anthrax, dysentery, second-degree burns, multiple car crashes and the curious case of pulling a skylight on to his own head when he meant to yank a toilet chain. The most fateful mishap occurred in 1954 while on safari in Africa.

Hemingway’s plane crash-landed when his pilot nipped a telegraph wire. The following day, the rescue plane burst into flames on the runway, and Hemingway fractured his skull by using his head as a battering ram to open the door.

“After the plane crashes, he started to go downhill,” says Meredith. “He had high blood pressure from the drinking, diabetes and kidney problems. Towards the end of his life, he also received electroshock therapy at a psychiatric clinic. This destroyed his memory and his writing.” He also suffered from haemochromatosis: a hereditary disease causing depression. It looms large in the Hemingway lineage — his father committed suicide in 1928, while two siblings also killed themselves.


On Sunday 2 July 1961, aged 61, Ernest Hemingway placed a 12-gauge shotgun to his forehead and took his own life.

“I’m surprised he survived as long as he did,” adds Meredith. “Hemingway lived his life at 90mph. Combine that with depression, and you’re asking for an accident-prone individual. He did everything larger than life.” And 50 years after his death, there’s still a relevance to his life and work. “There are many parallels to Hemingway’s time,” says Shiflet. “Much of the west remains at war, and the economy is uncertain. In such times we look for role models, and Hemingway fits the bill. Not only because he was macho, but also because he was a good man speaking well.”