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The case for

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, on safari in Kenya, 1952. Earl Theisen/Getty Images

A new six-part documentary on BBC4 argues that Ernest Hemingway’s reputation as the macho man of letters doesn’t do him justice.

Is the macho reputation a myth?
Ken Burns’s film, Hemingway, comes at a time when American culture is reconsidering many of its “lionised men”, says James Poniewozik in The New York Times, from historical figures to Woody Allen. And there are few authors more associated with masculinity, “literary, toxic or otherwise”, than the writer “who loved it when you called him Papa”. He wrote standing up, shirtless, in baggy shorts held up by a leather belt he’d taken off a dead German soldier, tracking his daily word count on a cardboard wall chart under the horns of a mounted gazelle head. He once stole a urinal from a favourite bar, arguing he’d “pissed away” so much money into it that he’d paid for it already.

But others saw him differently?
You’d be surprised. When Lady Emerald Cunard, an American socialite living in London, first met Hemingway, she was “startled”, telling literary critic Cyril Connolly: “You may think it bizarre of me but he struck me as androgynous… Distinctly emasculated.” She was on to something. Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, kept things spicy by playing sex games in which their gender roles were reversed. The author’s mother used to dress him up as a girl and call him Ernestine. She hadn’t wanted a son, so she grew his hair long and, until he was six, pretended he and his older sister, Marcelline, were twins. In a family scrapbook, a photo of a two-year-old Ernest is captioned “summer girl”.

What about the tough-guy stuff?
There was plenty of that. In 1920s Paris, he went out drinking with James Joyce, who would pick drunken fights, then duck behind his burly friend and shout: “Deal with him, Hemingway. Deal with him.” In the 1930s Hemingway had a boxing ring in his back garden in Key West, Florida, regularly taking on fighters half his age. When he went off to Spain to write about the civil war, he had an affair with another woman, so his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, sold the boxing ring and had a swimming pool built for $20,000 – nearly $400,000 in today’s money. It was the only pool for 100 miles in any direction, and nearly bankrupted them.

And the adventures were real?
Yes, though he was incredibly accident-prone. As a Red Cross ambulance driver in the Italian Alps during the First World War, he was passing out chocolate bars to soldiers when a mortar exploded, leaving him peppered with shrapnel and badly concussed. “It has been fairly conclusively proved,” he wrote to his family from hospital, “that I can’t be bumped off.” It seemed to be true. In 1954, the year he won the Nobel prize for literature, he was on safari with Mary in Uganda, and the tiny plane they were in crash-landed, narrowly avoiding a pit full of crocodiles. The next day they were rescued by a second plane – which promptly caught fire and crashed. They were presumed dead until he was spotted coming out of the jungle carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin. Not all his mishaps were so glamorous. He earned his most prominent scar – unmissable across his forehead – in a Paris bathroom. He yanked a chain thinking it was the flush and brought a whole skylight down on his head.

Wasn’t hunting his real love?
Yes, and he had unusually broad tastes when it came to prey. Famed for his love of shooting lions and catching marlin, he also shot 44 hyenas “for amusement” on one of his trips to Africa. And, though he never enlisted, he spent the Second World War hunting Nazis from a boat equipped with high-tech navigation equipment, a machinegun and a box of grenades. He used to practise sinking German U-boats by throwing the grenades at turtles.

So he didn’t care much for animals?
Quite the opposite. According to a 1950 profile in The New Yorker, he once lived with a bear in Montana, and the bear “slept with him, got drunk with him, and was a close friend”. He also loved cats: he had more than 50 of them. He taught three of them to “make a pyramid like lions”, and another to drink whisky and milk with him. But in his own words, “even that doesn’t take the place of a wife and family”.

That’s kind of sad
Yes, it wasn’t all glamour and fun. Which may be why, 60 years ago this week, he shot himself in the head. Hemingway’s life story was far from a fairytale. But, as he once said: “If it is all beautiful you can’t believe it. Things aren’t that way.”

What’s happened to his literary reputation?
Hemingway’s books are defined by his allergy to adjectives, and the spare, muscular style of novels such as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea remains hugely influential. American author Tobias Wolff says that for writers, Hemingway “changed all the furniture in the room, and we all have to sit in it”, such was the impact of his work on “the American declarative sentence”. And according to literary critic Amanda Vaill, “people have been copying him for nearly 100 years”, although no one has quite nailed his terse style.

🍾 Hemingway is almost as famous for his alcohol consumption as he is for writing novels. His bons mots on booze include “If I have any money, I can’t think of any better way of spending money than on champagne”, and “I drink to make other people more interesting”.

🦘 Hemingway was part kangaroo. When he broke his arm in a car crash, the doctor looking after him bound his bone together with kangaroo tendon. It was a common (ish) medical procedure at the time.

🕵🏻‍♂️ According to documents obtained by the authors of Yale University Press’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, Hemingway was recruited by the Russians in 1941, though he never actually provided any useful information. He was put on the FBI’s surveillance list in the 1940s by J Edgar Hoover.

🔬🍆 In 1920s Paris, Hemingway recalls in A Moveable Feast, he was drinking with F Scott Fitzgerald at Michaud’s, a chichi brasserie, when Fitzgerald made a confession. His wife, Zelda, had said the way he was “built” could “never make any woman happy”, adding that it was “a matter of measurements”. Hemingway invited him to the gents (“Le water”) and had a look. “You’re perfectly fine,” he told Fitzgerald. “There’s nothing wrong with you… Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues.” Those statues may not be accurate, Fitzgerald objected. “They are pretty good,” said Hemingway. “Most people would settle for them.”

👨‍👩‍👧‍👧 Hemingway had four wives and three sons – one by his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and two by his second, Pauline Pfeiffer. His youngest son, born Gregory, partially transitioned later in life, taking the name Gloria. His granddaughter Margaux Hemingway, a supermodel and actress, was one of seven members of the family to commit suicide, overdosing in 1996.