The life of Ernest Hemingway, distilled into the best facts about his colourful but tragic life
1. As a young boy, Ernest Hemingway was dressed in girls’ clothing by his mother and referred to as ‘Ernestine’. We begin this selection of great Ernest Hemingway facts with a rather revealing nugget about his childhood: Hemingway’s mother had been hoping for a girl. She also kept her son’s hair long until, at the age of six, the young Ernestine insisted on being called Ernest and, asserting himself, went on to become arguably the most thoroughly masculine writer of the twentieth century, perhaps of any century. Also known affectionately as ‘Papa’, Hemingway became the embodiment of manhood in American literary circles. Boxing legend Jack Dempsey said he would refuse to fight Hemingway because he realised that Papa would probably fight like a madman – and, whilst Dempsey knew he could overpower the writer, he was reluctant to do so because he knew he could only do so by seriously harming him. However, Hemingway did fight several other famous names, including Orson Welles in 1937 (though this was prompted by a disagreement over Welles’s voiceover for a film about the Spanish Civil War, for which Hemingway had written the script). What’s more, Hemingway and James Joyce would get into scraps with other men when they were drinking buddies during the 1920s.
Hemingway’s friendship with fellow novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is well known. When they first met, Fitzgerald was riding high on the success of his novels while Hemingway was starting out as a writer, but later Hemingway’s star would rise as Fitzgerald’s began to fade, and the two men would fall out. But they were certainly close for a while. Fitzgerald even asked Hemingway to check his penis in the men’s room of a restaurant in which they were dining. (Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife, had said it was ‘too small’.)
2. For the last two decades of his life, the FBI had a file on Hemingway, while J. Edgar Hoover kept a close eye on Hemingway during the 1950s. Recently, it was revealed that Hemingway was recruited as a spy by the Soviet Union during WWII, shortly before making a trip to China in 1941 (with Hemingway using the code-name ‘Agent Argo’), though he never fed the Soviets any intelligence.
3. He once hit a critic who’d given one of his books a bad review. This is one of our favourite facts about writer-critic encounters. After Max Eastman gave Hemingway’s novel Death in the Afternoon a bad review, – and, worse, called into question Hemingway’s manhood – Hemingway slapped the hapless Eastman, flooring him with the slap. In his review, Eastman had alluded to the ‘false hair’ on Hemingway’s chest. When the two men came face to face in the office of Hemingway’s editor, Max Perkins in August 1937, several years after Eastman’s review had been published, Ernest bared his (authentically) hairy chest to Eastman before striking the reviewer with a copy of the book. The blow – although, Hemingway maintained, not a particularly forceful one – nevertheless knocked the somewhat less powerfully built Eastman to the ground.
On the subject of Hemingway’s writing, we should clear up an oft-repeated fallacy about Hemingway: contrary to popular belief, he didn’t write the famous six-word short story, ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn‘, though it is often attributed to him.
4. Hemingway survived four car accidents and two plane crashes (on consecutive days). The plane crashes took place in 1954, the same year that Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hemingway also survived a string of illnesses and other threats to his general longevity, including skin cancer, malaria, pneumonia, diabetes, and hepatitis – and in the end his life was ended, not by an accident, but by his own hand. In 1961, aged 61, Hemingway shot himself with his favourite shotgun.
Curiously, Hemingway had been born on the same day, 21 July 1899, as another great American writer, the poet Hart Crane – who had also ended his own life, in 1932 (though there remains some doubt as to whether Crane intended to kill himself or not).
Suicide has sadly been a common feature in the Hemingway family: Hemingway’s father Clarence had taken his own life in 1928, and Ernest’s sister Ursula and brother Leicester would also commit suicide, in 1966 and 1982 respectively. What’s more, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux committed suicide on 1 July 1996 – one day before the 35-year anniversary of her grandfather’s own death.
5. In Florida’s Key West, there’s an annual Ernest Hemingway Lookalike Contest. Every July in the Florida Keys, in honour of Papa’s birthday, bearded men – and some women donning false white beards – gather to take part in the Hemingway Lookalike Contest. It is run by the Hemingway Look-alike Society and has been held at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West since 1981; Hemingway’s own brother, Leicester, was the judge for the inaugural competition.
If you enjoyed these Ernest Hemingway facts, we reveal another great fact about him (and what he did with the urinal in his favourite bar) in this post comprising 12 of our favourite literary facts. And we reveal some curious facts about ‘Hemingway cats’ in this post on writers and their cats. For more American interestingness, see these classic American film adaptations.
Further reading: see the NNDB entry for Hemingway.
Image: Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold for the first edition of For Whom the Bell Tolls, at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, late 1939; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.