The name’s very mention brings to mind not only bullfights, deep-sea fishing, and big-game hunting, but also barroom brawls, absinthe parties and wild booze binges—his is a legend as steeped in alcohol as it is in adventure.
Vigorously reflecting the author’s life, the protagonists of his books and short stories also fought, loved and drank hard. His literary heroes not only used alcohol as ready incendiary to start dramatic fires, but also as a wall against humanity—drinking to excess was viewed as the one sure way a man could build a barrier between himself and the world he had come to loathe.
One Trip Across
No one knows for certain when Hemingway took his first drink, but most biographers agree he started boozing in earnest shortly after a 17-year-old Hemingway signed on as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star. Impressed by the hard-drinking, two-fisted veteran reporters, he took to carousing until closing time then going home to read dead poets aloud until the wee hours, drinking from a bottle of “dago red.”
It wasn’t until he served as an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I that he began expanding his frontiers beyond draft beer and cheap wine. In the Italian officer’s mess tent he began his lifelong study of Europe’s wines, liqueurs and brandies. Being wounded at the front didn’t detract from his studies—it accelerated them. During his stay at an Italian hospital he charmed nurses and bribed porters into bringing him a steady stream of cognac, Cinzano vermouth, Marsala and Chianti. As he became more ambulatory his range expanded to Asti Spumante parties on the nurses’ floor and wild drinking bouts in the nearby Anglo-American Club.
He eventually fell into the company of a local Italian nobleman, Count Emanuele Greppi. The ancient count instructed his young ward on how to appreciate fine wines, champagnes, cigars and women in an attempt to impart to his young pupil “the beautiful manners a gentleman should have.” The results were mixed. “A couple years later,” Hemingway reported, “I was bouncing in a whore-house night-times and writing day-times.”
His heart broken by the romantically fickle American nurse who tended his wounds, Hemingway took the slow boat back to the States, “making nightly and rigorous assaults on the ship’s terrified wine stocks.”
Returning home a hero, Hemingway continued his recuperation at his parents’ home in Oak Park, IL. Drinking was ostensively forbidden under their roof, so Hemingway drank clandestinely in his room, drawing from a host of liberated Italian liqueurs hidden in his bookcases. He spent his days reading, drinking, and occasionally trying to teach his sisters how to smoke cigars, swear in Italian and take “nippers” of kummel.
“Don’t be afraid to taste all the other things in life that aren’t here in Oak Park,” he instructed them. “There’s a whole big world out there full of people who really feel things . . . sometimes I think we only half live over here.”
His body recuperated, Hemingway returned to the northern woods of his youth to heal his mind and soul. He fished, hunted and drank bootleg liquor he termed “grog.” These idyllic weeks would eventually become the bricks with which Hemingway would build many of his Nick Adams stories.
Prohibition eventually drove Hemingway to Canada and Toronto’s inclimate weather pushed him to Paris, accompanied by his new wife, Hadley Richardson.
In Another Country
Paris and the aspiring young author proved a perfect match. The city’s many cafes and zinc bars came to know his tread and more than ever before alcohol played a major role in his writing. He would sit alone at a table on the patio of the Dôme, drinking fines and writing Nick Adams stories. The strong brandy helped him remember the slap of a lake trout jumping and the crackle of pine needles underfoot, it insulated him from the bustling city and carried him back to the deep solitude of the Michigan backwoods.
Alcohol also served as the glue that bonded together the legion of expatriate talent that had gathered along Paris’ Left Bank. The cafes, bars and bal musets became rallying points, look around the table and you might see the brightest minds of the Lost Generation—F. Scott Fitzgerald insanely drunk on champagne, Ezra Pound sipping absinthe, Gertrude Stein enjoying a fine red, James Joyce savoring scotch and Ford Maddox Ford sending back a brandy for the fourth time. They drank up liquor, they drank up life, they drank up each other. Decades later critics would try to explain away the excessive drinking as an unnecessary evil that plagued the era but Fitzgerald begged to differ.
“Sometimes I wish I’d went through those good times stone cold sober so I could remember everything,” he said, “but then again, if I had been sober the times probably wouldn’t have been worth remembering.”
A Man of the World
When he wasn’t in Paris writing short stories, Hemingway was dashing about Europe, covering wars and insurrections for the Toronto Star. He drank wine with Mussolini, vodka with the Soviet Foreign Minister, beer with German anarchists, and (probably much to his chagrin) coffee with Muslim generals. He was as quick to seek out danger as he was to seek out the local version of the tavern. “Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” he would later write, “if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”
It wasn’t all work. Hemingway and Hadley managed to scrape up enough money to spend summers fiesta-ing and attending bullfights in Spain, and still have enough francs left over for winter skiing trips to Germany where he developed a lifelong love for kummel and schnapps.
“One of the best things about being a writer,” Hemingway wrote to Ezra Pound, “is when you’re having the wildest time, when you’re completely on the bum, you’re still working, or you at least you should be.” The young lion was living out the adventures he would later shape and blend into his first and arguably best novel, The Sun Also Rises.
Cavorting and writing, drinking and reporting, sowing and gathering, it was a heady time for a young writer—but alas, from the midst of beauty, as Hemingway liked to say, so comes the beasts. Tragedy was brewing and it would be alcohol, his energetic companion in the good times, that would stand beside him and see him through the bad.
The End of Something
When Hemingway finally left Paris he would not leave with his first wife, but rather his second, Pauline Pfeiffer. He also left with a new ethos about drinking. Where before he’d been a classic binge drinker, he now kept a steady bottle-killing pace. The transition had taken place just months earlier, after Hadley had lost a trunk containing most of his early work, literally years of labor. Crushed, Hemingway turned to alcohol as a means of drowning his bitter rage—when the anger came, he would slip down to the cafe and drink brandy and carouse with friends until happiness seeped back in.
Hadley wasn’t the only one he would abandon in Paris. Perhaps understanding that he’d never be recognized as a truly independent and unique writer until he broke all ties with those who taught him the craft, he employed alcohol as a conflagrant to burn the bridges between himself and his mentors.
Hemingway took to continually showing up drunk and surly at the home of Gertrude Stein, the woman who had taught him much of what he knew about writing, until she took him to task.
“Why do you always come here drunk?” she demanded.
“I don’t know, Miss Stein,” he sarcastically replied. “Unless it’s to see you.”
The next time he came by he found a padlock and a sign on Stein’s door: KEEP OUT, THIS MEANS YOU.
He next broke clean with his other great influence, Sherwood Anderson. Inviting the famous writer to a Parisian bar, Hemingway symbolically severed the bond by ordering two beers, saying “Here’s how,” draining his glass and walking out without another word.
A Clean Well-Lighted Place
In the spring of 1928 Hemingway first set foot on the tiny island that would later become irrevocably associated with his name and drinking habits. Eager to have their child born in the States, Hemingway and Pauline sailed to Cuba then transferred to a boat bound for Key West.
Impressed by the fact that the prohibition that ravaged the mainland seemed to hold no influence on the key, Hemingway took an apartment on Simonton Street. It wasn’t long before he fell in with the locals who would form his infamous circle of drunkard sportsmen, and shorter time still ‘til he found the saloon that would become his home away from home during his years at Key West.
Sloppy Joe’s was a dark cave of a bar with a painting of Custer’s Last Stand above the bottles, and it was here that Hemingway would gather the background for his classic hard drinking and brawling story, “After the Storm.”
When the local barflies failed to keep pace with his voracious appetite for bootleg liquor, Hemingway began importing internationally famous drunks to get loaded with, including John Dos Passos and his old Parisian drinking buddy F. Scott Fitzgerald. Setting out at dawn with a formidable supply of beer and rum, they would fish all day then return under moonlit skies to dine and drink jugs of Rioja wine in local Spanish restaurants. A typical inventory of stocks for a one-day junket included “three coolers of beer, five or six bottles of rum, fourteen bottles of Chateau Margaux salvaged from a sunken ship, plus a stock of pre-war absinthe.”
Fathers and Sons
When the summer heat became too much to bear, Hemingway ventured northward. When he wasn’t hanging out with bootleggers in Wyoming roadhouses, he was going on great binges with F. Scott. During one episode, after putting away six bottles of Burgundy, Hemingway had to lay drunken siege to a police station to free the even more intoxicated Fitzgerald who had been arrested for running amok in a train station.
A short time later Hemingway was wracked with the suicide of his father. Again, it was alcohol he turned to for solace, it was liquor that “got you through that black-ass middle of the night and let you live until morning.”
Despite this loss and demands of a hectic schedule, Hemingway still found time to hammer together one of his finest novels, A Farewell to Arms. Floating on a wave of critical and financial success, Ernest sailed to Spain to study the art of bullfighting. A savvy researcher, most of his research was conducted while getting loaded with bullfighters. He would later describe those golden times in the final chapter in his treatise on the deadly art, Death in the Afternoon.
“Make all that come true again,” he wrote, “the one year every one drank too much and no one was nasty. There really was such a year.”
He returned to find Key West had finally succumbed to the cruel fist of prohibition. Drugstore prescription whiskey, a loophole in the law, he thought foul tasting and under proofed: druggists were cutting it with grain alcohol and distilled water. He began making more frequent trips north to drink with Fitzgerald, who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of Canadian whiskey and French champagne. Oftentimes starting in the morning and always drinking through the night, Fitzgerald would inevitably become moody and falling down drunk, requiring Hemingway to hold him up as he vomited into the sinks and toilets of some of New York’s finer clubs and restaurants.
At thirty years of age, Hemingway had already established himself as a living legend. More than a fantastically talented writer, he was a man who lived the fiction. If a character in one of his novels drank two bottles of rum then spent the night brawling in the bars and the morning sleeping in the dirt, it rang true because Hemingway had drank the rum, fought the brawls and slept in the dirt.
His macho mystique spread quickly and it wasn’t long before curious tourists and belligerent drunks began showing up at his haunts to see if the legend really was fifteen-feet tall with ham hocks for fists. One self-styled he-man of a lawyer made the mistake of testing Hemingway’s mettle in a swanky New York lounge, trying to push him in the face. Hemingway knocked him cold with a single punch. And the legend grew.
With prohibition and family life interfering with his writing, Hemingway decided it was time to head further south—Cuba.
Islands in the Stream
Papa went to Cuba with three things in mind—pounding booze, writing books and catching big fish. In between he found time to have an affair with Jane Mason, a rich model who also happened to be the wife of one of Hemingway’s friends. After a day of writing or engaging in infidelity in his room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel, he’d bar hop with visiting journalists and photographers. The young and later famous photographer Walker Evans remembers Hemingway loaning him a substantial amount of money so he could stay on and continue their already two-week old bender.
The Last Good Country
When Hemingway left for Africa in the summer of 1933, he left his son Bumby with a nanny and some facetious advice: “Go easy on the beer,” he said, “and lay off the hard liquor until I get back.”
Hemingway stopped in Paris on the way, only to be profoundly disappointed in what his beloved city of exile had become. Many of his favorite bars and cafes had been torn down to make way for business towers. The only highlight of the trip was a long drunken dinner with James Joyce and Ezra Pound, both whom he tried to talk into joining him on a big game safari in Africa. Both swore they would, but found themselves too hungover to catch the train in the morning.
Into the heart of the Dark Continent Hemingway brought comfortable habits. Finding kindred spirits in the white hunters (and another kind of spirits in their provision trunks), Hemingway immediately took a liking to the African savannah. At the end of the day, the guides and their guests turned away from the stress and violence of the hunt to storytelling and drinking around the campfire. Whiskey, aperitifs and wine were on hand, with some local beer thrown in for good measure. Hemingway would never forget his walk in the African sun and when he returned to Key West he would write a good book, The Green Hills Of Africa, and perhaps his best short story, “The Snows Of Kilimanjaro.”
The Sea Change
The more famous he became, the more the world encroached upon Hemingway. As a means of escape, he invested $7500 in a 38-foot cabin cruiser he christened the Pilar. With a small crew of local drunks, Hemingway took his ship on month-long forays into the Gulf Stream. Sipping daiquiris from the bridge, Hemingway searched for a solace that had evaded him since he’d become a household name, his meditations broken up only by marlin fishing, the machine-gunning of sharks trying to steal his catches and forays into Tortugas for more liquor, and occasionally, food.
Celebrity and circumstance still managed to find him in between forays into the deep blue waters, including a Key West brawl with the great American poet Wallace Stevens. While attending a cocktail party, a wildly drunk Stevens boasted that he wished Papa was on hand so he could put him in his place. Unfortunately for Stevens, Hemingway’s sister Ursula was on hand. She fled in tears and sought out her brother, who was drinking quietly at home. Papa decided to pay the poet a visit. He arrived as Stevens was saying goodbye by loudly announcing, “By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now! I’d knock him out with a single punch!”
Stevens got his chance. Bigger but older than Hemingway, Stevens took his shot, landing one of his famous donnybrooks on Hemingway’s jaw. Miraculously, Hemingway shook the punch off then proceeded to floor Wallace three times before mutual friends broke it up. Wallace spent the next five days in a hotel room with a nurse and doctor. Papa sent up a bottle of good scotch and they later became friends.
Winner Take Nothing
In 1937 Hemingway sailed to Spain to cover the civil war on behalf of the North American Newspaper Alliance. Though he was sent to act as a neutral reporter, Hemingway found himself drinking at Republican-frequented bars and it showed in his reporting. He also began having an affair with Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious and attractive American journalist. What began as drunken flings in a besieged city grew into a deeper relationship. They decided to get married.
When the Republic surrendered to the fascists, Ernest returned to the States to surrender his Key West home to Pauline in the divorce then move south to his beloved Cuba. He purchased what would become his true home, La Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) in San Francisco de Paula. In this tropical seclusion Papa would write some of his finest books, including For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man And The Sea. He ascribed to a “done by noon, drunk by three,” work ethic, i.e. he would rise at 6 a.m., write standing up at his typewriter until noon, then sally forth to the Floridita Bar where he would hold court and invent the daiquiri.
Hemingway’s pleasures turned to work, of a sort, when the U.S. entered World War II. Outfitting the Pilar with grenades and machine guns, he used his influence to get it registered as a military ship charged with patrolling Cuba’s shores for Nazi submarines. Though he would later be awarded a bronze medal for his deeds, Papa actually spent more time sinking daiquiris than submarines. His wife Martha would later accuse him of using what she called “the booze patrols” as an excuse to get away from her, fish for marlin and get loaded with the boys rather than help win any wars.
To which Hemingway replied, “Honey, drinking is war.”
—Frank Kelly Rich