“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self.”— Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was an American journalist, short story writer, and novelist who wrote most of his works between the mid 1920s and mid 1950s. Over the course of his career, he published seven novels, six collections of short stories, and two works of non-fiction. He is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and had more of an influence on the style of English prose than perhaps any other writer from that period. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t hurt that he was also an over-the-top hyper-masculine eccentric whose personal exploits rival the plots of his stories. Below are 45 facts about this old man who loved the sea.
45. Return the Medal or Else!
In 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel The Old Man and the Sea. He decided to donate the medal to the people of Cuba and gave the medal to the Catholic Church to display at a sanctuary in El Cobre. In 1986, the medal was stolen, but after an ultimatum from Raúl Castro to the thieves, it was returned. After already having it stolen once, Cuba definitely wasn’t going to let it happen a second time; it was placed into hiding, never to be displayed in public again. Thanks a lot thieves! This is why we can’t have nice things!
44. The Latin Sport
Hemingway made his first visit to Pamplona, Spain after hearing about it from his literary mentor, Gertrude Stein. The city and the sport/spectacle of bullfighting made such an impression on him that he chose it as the setting for his first successful novel, The Sun Also Rises. He attended the Pamplona fiesta a total of nine times and, in 1932, published a non-fiction guidebook about bullfighting called Death in the Afternoon.
43. One for Each
Hemingway was married four times, each within a year of divorcing the previous wife. None of them can say he didn’t leave them with anything however; each of them received a dedication in one of his novels. Call it a consolation prize?
42. Grumpy Old Man
When Hemingway saw the film version of The Old Man and The Sea, he was reportedly very disappointed. He especially disliked Spencer Tracey’s performance in the film, saying that he “looked less like a Cuban Fisherman and more like the rich, old actor he was.” Tracey had the last laugh though, as he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
41. Challenge Accepted
From the time he was a child, Hemingway enjoyed hunting, and when he heard stories about Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures on safari in Africa, he said “challenge accepted.” Despite becoming severely ill and having to be hospitalized for part of the trip, he still hunted just about every animal in Africa and returned home with multiple trophies. That totally wouldn’t fly today, but it was certainly impressive at the time.
40. A Sad Player
As a child, Hemingway was forced to play the cello. He neither enjoyed playing nor did he display any talent for it. For that matter, he didn’t even want to play the darned thing in the first place, but that didn’t matter to his mother! She kept him home from school for more than a year, trying to force him to play, but Hemingway proved more stubborn than his mother and eventually gave it up. As he put it, “That cello—I played it worse than anyone on earth.” However, this was far from the most bizarre thing his mother made him do.
39. I’m Pretty Busy Right Now
In 1954, Hemingway’s wife Mary got into an argument with Edward Scott, a New Zealand journalist who was writing for an English-language newspaper in Havana, Cuba. The disagreement occurred when Mary claimed that Lion steaks were “delectable,” a statement which earned Scott’s disapproval. Proving how much alike in temper she and her husband were, she had a few things to say about his opinion. Her comments led to Scott writing a series of columns criticizing her, and women who take after their husbands. Even half a century later, Hemingway’s exact response is still redacted by the FBI, but it was enough to get Scott to challenge him to a duel. Hemingway wisely passed, citing his ill-health and writing as an excuse. As annoyed as Scott was by the whole situation, other than trying to force him to accept the duel (which he couldn’t), there wasn’t a lot else he could do except let it go. This was in 1954 remember, not 1754.
38. Sock it to Them
Other than writing and drinking, Hemingway’s other great passion was boxing. He practiced the sport from childhood and even had a boxing ring built in the backyard of his home in Key West so he could spar with guests. At one time, he was even considered to be a successful amateur boxer. At least he would have had a back-up plan if the writing thing didn’t work out!
37. Might As Well Take ‘Em
In 1964, writer Hunter S. Thompson travelled to the house in Ketchum, Ohio where Hemingway retreated to write in the last two years of his life. While researching his article, Thompson noticed a pair of elk horns hanging above the door to the cabin and decided to help himself to a souvenir. According to Thompson’s widow, Thompson was completely embarrassed by his actions and had always planned to return them but never got around to it. In 2016, she got in touch with the family and returned them herself. Better late than never.
36. Deal with Him!
James Joyce and Hemingway were drinking buddies in Paris, but they couldn’t be more different in appearance. Joyce was physically weak and unattractive, while Hemingway was known for his ultra-masculinity and his boxing skills. According to stories, whenever he was with Hemingway, Joyce would pick drunken bar fights, and then hide behind Hemingway shouting “Deal with him Hemingway! Deal with him!” Hemingway, for his part, was more than happy to accommodate.
35. Clash of the Titans
Orson Welles, known for his live radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and the film Citizen Kane, was just 22 when he first met Hemingway in 1937. He was at the recording studio preparing to narrate a Spanish Civil War documentary which had been written by Hemingway when he decided to offer the author a few suggestions on how to improve the script. Needless to say, Hemingway didn’t exactly take it well, and the two ended up coming to blows and rolling around on the floor before opening a bottle of whiskey and drinking their way into an odd friendship. Although publicly Welles always claimed they were friends, behind the scenes, he apparently loathed Hemingway’s “macho enthusiasms” and Hemingway apparently didn’t like Welles much either. Maybe friends was an overstatement?
34. Brave Deeds
During WWI, an 18-year-old Hemingway volunteered as a canteen worker and an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross on the Austro-Italian Front. In June 1918, while giving out chocolate and cigarettes to the soldiers, he was wounded by an Austrian mortar shell. He was knocked unconscious and buried in the earth of the dugout. Shrapnel hit him in the right foot, knee, thighs, scalp, and hand. Despite these injuries, when he came to he picked up one of the wounded Italian soldiers and carried him to the first aid station. For his bravery, he was awarded an Italian medal of valor. A pretty amazing feat for a guy who was badly wounded himself!
33. Keeping it Real
Hemingway’s experiences during WWI had a profound effect on him and he developed a strong interest in the effects of war on those who live through it. Few writers are as closely associated with writing about war as Hemingway. He sent reports from the frontlines and used the war as the setting for many of his famous works. His own experiences shaped his fiction, and he believed above all that the writer’s duty is for what he creates to be “an absolute truth.” His accounts focused on the human aspect of the war and how it affected everyone from women and children to the wounded soldiers returning home. There was definitely no sugar-coating in his work!
32. The Original Standing Desk
Hemingway did most of his writing in his bedroom, but for the most part, not at the desk that dominated the space. His typewriter sat on top of a bookcase that he called his “work desk,” which he’d stand over for hours at a time while he wrote. On a good day, he would wear down seven pencils, and only moved to shift his weight from one leg to the other. Hard on the feet, but good for productivity I suppose!
31. A Little Overkill
One of Hemingway’s passions was fishing, and as a group of unsuspecting sharks learned, you don’t mess with his catch! While on a trip to the Bahamas in 1935, he used a Thompson submachine gun to open fire on a frenzy of sharks who were trying to steal the giant tuna he was after. The blood from the shots only served to stir up the sharks even more, and they ended up winning the prize. Hemingway made up for the loss by setting a world record in 1938 by netting seven marlin in one day. The moral of the story? Bait works better than bullets.
30. Hunting for U-Boats
During WWII, Hemingway used his fishing boat, the Pilar, to hunt for German U-Boats that had entered Caribbean waters. He had Huff-Duff direction-finding equipment installed on the boat, as well as a keeping a Thompson sub machine gun and hand grenades on board. Hemingway figured that if he did spot a U-boat, the Navy wouldn’t be able to get there fast enough to destroy it, so he came up with a simple solution—attack and run. He never had the opportunity to see whether or not the plan would have worked, but most accounts agree that it probably wouldn’t have.
29. The Six-Word Story He Never Wrote
There’s a popular urban legend surrounding Hemingway in which he made a $10 bet while at lunch with author friends that he could write a novel in six words. He then supposedly scrawled the phrase “For sale, Baby shoes, never worn” on a napkin and passed it around the table. The line has long been a favorite example of writing teachers, but it turns out it wasn’t really Hemingway’s. A similar line appeared in a newspaper as early as 1906, and there’s absolutely no proof that the bet ever happened or that he ever wrote or even talked about the micro-novel. The whole story was apparently made up by a literary agent in 1974, and the legend continued to spread until it was finally debunked in 2012. Even if he didn’t write it, it’s still a good example of minimalist writing!
28. Shot Again
Getting shot once is already a painful experience that you probably wouldn’t want to repeat—especially not at your own hand. Unfortunately for Hemingway, that was exactly his experience, and it definitely wasn’t anything to brag about. While trying to spear a shark on a fishing trip in Key West, he managed to shoot himself in both calves. This led him to write the dispatch “On Being Shot Again” for Esquire, where he offered some sound advice on how to kill a large animal: “shoot it in the brain if it’s close, the heart if it’s far or the spine if you need to stop it instantly.” Not terribly elegant, but much better than shooting yourself.
27. Crook Factory
As if spying for the KGB wasn’t enough excitement, in 1942, he decided to set up a real-life intelligence network called the Crook Factory in order to watch pro-Franco and pro-Hitler agents in Cuba. He was meticulous in recording his sightings and submitted them to American Intelligence agencies. One year later, the FBI disbanded the network, largely because they thought his activities were embarrassing and he needed to be stopped. No love lost there!
26. Severe Criticism
It’s no secret that Hemingway didn’t much care for the FBI, and he was an outspoken critic of the agency. He called it “the Gestapo” and felt that their activities were dangerous and “anti-liberal.” For his part, Hoover didn’t like Hemingway any better, mostly because of his criticism of the FBI, but maybe also a little because of his politics.
25. A Violent Reaction
Critic Max Eastman once questioned Hemingway’s masculinity and told him to “come out from behind the false hair” on his chest. A few years after, when the two met face-to-face in Hemingway’s editor’s office, Hemingway showed Eastman his genuinely hairy chest and slapped his face with a copy of the book.
24. Twenty-Four Hour Party People
For his 60th birthday, Hemingway’s wife Mary planned a lavish party that ended up lasting twenty-four hours. She flew in Chinese food from London, codfish from Madrid, and Champagne from Paris for the party, and hired equally diverse waitstaff, barmen, and cooks. In addition to the exotic food, there were flamenco dancers, fireworks and a shooting booth, and the guest list even included Italian royalty and the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. Even Jay Gatsby would have been impressed!
23. Do You Think It’s Too Small?
Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were friends of a sort, and one day, while the two were having lunch at a Paris café, Hemingway found himself in the unenviable position of having to reassure Fitzgerald about the size of his penis. Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda apparently told him that it was too small to satisfy a woman, and Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to take a look and tell him what he thought. Hemingway reassured him that it was of normal size, and suggested that he go to the Louvre to look at the people in statues and then go home and look at his own profile in the mirror. Can you say awkward?
22. A Furry Bedmate
A 1950 profile of Hemingway from the New Yorker relayed a story where Hemingway told writer Lillian Ross that he once lived with, slept with, got drunk with, and was close friends with a bear. The story has never been verified, so it could have been another urban legend, or was perhaps something exclusively told to Ross for the article.
21. Don’t Drink and Write
There once was a rumor that Hemingway took a pitcher of martinis with him to work every day. When asked if that was true, Hemingway replied: “Jeezus Christ! Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?… Besides, who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time?” Well, he at least had some sense.
20. Martini—Cool and Clean
One of Hemingway’s favorite drinks was a dry martini, and boy did he like them dry! He often had his characters drink whatever he was drinking in whatever city he was in when he was writing, and each martini was drier than the last. In Across the River and Into the Trees, his character Colonel Richard Cantwell orders a bone dry Montgomery martini that’s one part vermouth and 15 parts gin. As his character Frederic Henry said in A Farewell to Arms, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” That’s funny, because I’m the exact opposite of civilized after a few too many martinis.
19. Now That’s Cold
Hemingway loved his drinks icy cold and was known to not only freeze his cocktail glasses, but his cocktail onions as well. He also once described a method of using tennis ball cans to make tubes of ice for mixing martinis and bragged that he made the coldest martini in the world. In fact, the glasses were so cold, he claimed that “you can’t hold it in your hand. It sticks to the fingers.”
18. Finish it!
One thing that Hemingway apparently could not abide was leaving the table before the Champagne was done. In a 1950 New Yorker Profile, Hemingway got frustrated with his lunchmates for trying to leave an unfinished bottle of Champagne on the table. He proclaimed that “the half bottle of Champagne is the enemy of man” and he made the group sit down and finish it. He was also quoted as saying that he “can’t think of any better way of spending money than on Champagne.” Nice life, if you can get it!
17. Seeing the Sunrise
Hemingway was always awake at daybreak, claiming that his thin eyelids made his eyes highly sensitive to light. He was quoted as saying that he had “seen all the sunrises there have been in my life” and that he basically wakes up immediately with a head full of sentences that he has to get rid of either by saying them or writing them down. No roosters needed here!
16. Rewrites and More Rewrites
The last page of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten 39 times before Hemingway was satisfied with the result. When an interviewer asked him what exactly was causing him trouble, Hemingway replied “Getting the words right.” Talk about a perfectionist!
15. No More Words
When he reached his 60s, Hemingway suddenly found himself with a killer case of writer’s block that he was never able to shake. When he was asked to contribute a sentence to a presentation volume for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, he was unable to come up with a single word. His inability to write shook him so badly that he cried while telling a friend that “it just won’t come anymore.”
14. The Carbons Too?
In 1922, Hemingway’s wife Hadley learned first-hand why you should never put all of your eggs, or in this case, your husband’s writing, in one basket. Hemingway was still working as a journalist at the time and was on assignment in Switzerland. He asked Hadley to join him for a vacation and, in an effort to surprise him, she packed all of his stories, typescripts, and carbons in a single suitcase. In a particularly boneheaded move, she left the suitcase unattended at Gare de Lyon station, and to the surprise of no one except maybe Hadley, it was gone when she came back. All but two of his stories were in the suitcase—one that he’d already sent to an editor, and one that he’d locked in a drawer after Gertrude Stein expressed her dislike of it. At that point, he almost gave up writing entirely, but one of his friends convinced him to keep going.
13. Six-Toed Cats
As tough as he was, Hemingway had a soft-spot for polydactyl cats (cats with six toes on each foot). His first six fingered feline was named Snowball and that one soon snowballed into 50 cats running around his Key West home. Today, polydactyl cats are synonymous with Hemingway, and are referred to as “Hemingway cats.”
12. I Own It!
Of all the eclectic items that are on display in the Hemingway museum, the oddest might be the bar urinal that he converted into a garden fountain. Hemingway stole the urinal from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s, after deciding that he’d “pissed away” so much money in that urinal that he owned it. That’s one way of looking at it!
11. The Irregulars
While working as a correspondent for Collier’s Magazine in 1944, Hemingway somehow managed to get permission to run an intelligence operation in Rambouillet, France. He put together his own version of the Dirty Dozen, forming a militia made up of a secret agent, French soliders, and civilians. This posse obeyed his every command and called him Papa, Captain, or Le Grande Capitain. The group, known as the Irregulars, supposedly idolized Hemingway so much that they copied his mannerisms. Although he did technically have permission to be doing this, a correspondent fighting in the war was a violation of the Geneva Convention and Hemingway was court-martialled. Hemingway, being Hemingway, was able to lie his way out of it and head back to war, where he participated in a huge battle at the German border and was awarded a bronze star.
10. They’re Watching Me
At the end of his life, Hemingway grew more and more paranoid, and believed that he was being bugged, followed, and constantly spied upon by the FBI. He thought that cars on the road were following him, believed he was being watched in the bar, and thought two bank employees that he spotted working late one night were government agents auditing his account. His fears weren’t totally unfounded, though, as it did turn out that Herbert Hoover and the FBI definitely had their eyes on him.
9. Zapping His Brain
In the 1960s, the most common treatment for mental illness was Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), or basically, an electric shock to the brain. To cure his depression, Hemingway underwent 20 rounds of the therapy. Not only did it not help, but it messed with his memory and he ended up committing suicide with his shotgun a few months later.
Every July for the last 37 years, Hemingway look-alikes gather at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West for a Hemingway look-alike contest. The contest is the highlight of the Hemingway Days celebration and the winner of the contest is crowned “Papa.” In 2016, by sheer coincidence, a man named Hemingway (of no relation to the author) won the Hemingway contest. What are the chances?
7. Kiss My Butt
In what was a colossally stupid move, author F. Scott Fitzgerald once sent Hemingway a ten-page letter giving him some advice on which passage Hemingway should use to end A Farewell to Arms. The advice was not well-received, and Hemingway sent back a note with just three words: “Kiss my a**!”
6. My Pal the Dictator
Hemingway and Cuban leader Fidel Castro were long-rumored to be friends. They met briefly at Hemingway’s annual Billfishing Tournament and Castro had great respect for the writer. Castro told him that his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls gave him ideas for battling the Sierra Maestro. Beyond that, sources suggest that Hemingway’s sole purpose for talking to Castro would have been to convince him not to confiscate his property.
5. Compiling a File
During J. Edgar Hoover’s time as Director of the FBI, he authorized and helped compile a fairly thick file on Hemingway. The file is 127 pages long, with 15 pages completely withheld or blacked out from public view, supposedly as a matter of “national defense.” The file was started in October 1942, and continued until January 1974, almost 13 years after his suicide. There are also references in the file that suggested that Hoover had been keeping tabs on him for close to a decade prior to starting the file. Hoover’s exact reasons for targeting him are still classified, but evidence suggests that Hoover likely believed that he was a Communist and a radical, as he did many modernist writers of the time.
4. Spy Games
In 2009, the publication of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America revealed some surprising and previously unknown facts about Hemingway. It turns out that in 1941 he was secretly recruited by the KGB prior to a trip to China. He was given the code name Argo and was apparently willing to spy for the Russians. According to Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB Officer and author of the book, it all amounted to nothing, as Hemingway never gave them any political information or anything they could verify. Bet Hoover’s ghost felt pretty validated when that book came out, though.
3. Cheating Death
In 1954, Hemingway escaped death again by surviving two plane crashes in two days. The first crash happened in Nairobi when his sightseeing charter hit a utility pole and crashed into the brush. Hemingway sprained his shoulder, and his wife Mary broke two ribs. The following day, they boarded a second plane to try and seek medical care in Entebbe, and this plane caught fire on the runway. Hemingway ruptured his liver, spleen and kidney, and also suffered a fractured skull. By all rights, he probably shouldn’t have survived, and according to a local newspaper, he didn’t. A headline proclaimed him dead before he even got to Entebbe, so imagine their surprise when he came back from the dead!
2. Forced Twins
When Ernest Hemingway was born, his mother had allegedly wanted another girl, and for at least the first five years of his life, she raised him and his older sister Marcelline as twins. She dressed them in identical fancy dresses and bonnets, and even held his sister back from going to school for a couple of years so they could attend the same grade. No wonder people thought that he “rebelled against that identity” for the rest of his life. That’s enough to give anyone issues!
1. Genteel Manhood
While Hemingway’s early appearance seems odd by today’s standards, it wouldn’t have been that unusual for the time. Hemingway was born at the tail end of the Victorian era, when young boys often had feminine dress and appearance. The trend was largely derived from author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy, which particularly captured the imagination of American readers. Children were also viewed differently at that time, and they were often portrayed as props or dolls in photographs and works of art. Regardless of this influence, going to those lengths to portray Hemingway and his sister as same sex twins was still pretty weird.