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Ernest Hemingway: Literary Giant and Boxing Pretender

BY Jonathan Rendall ON October 31, 2004
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One of the most notorious boxing matches of all time involved a portly, rabid self-mythologizer who had no real boxing ability, and a tubby, minor Canadian writer who, despite appearances, did. Step forward Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan. They boxed at the American Club in Paris in June 1929. Their audience was the time-keeper, the writer F Scott Fitzgerald.

The action – in particular a knockdown of Hemingway – was to influence all their lives. For Hemingway, it signified the end of his (unadmitted and, as far as one can see, platonic) love affair with the hedonistic Fitzgerald. For Fitzgerald it represented the moment after which Hemingway was not for turning by his charm. For Callaghan, a former colleague of Hemingway on the Kansas City Star, it meant fleeting fame and then, 30 years on, more fleeting fame when he published his memoir, That Summer In Paris. All because of that boxing match. What happened?

Fitzgerald and Hemingway had been to Pruniers restaurant. Hemingway had had lobster thermidor and, according to him, “several” bottles of white burgundy. In line with the rampant delusionism evident from his letters, it was Hemingway who thought Fitzgerald had a drink problem. Well, Fitzgerald did. It had probably started off as a joke, but “Fitz’s” falls had become more commonplace. A few years earlier they had shared an intense if rather brief friendship, characterised by inordinate espousals of admiration for each other that Hemingway seemed to take more seriously than Fitzgerald, but which both soon found hard to keep up.

At the start Fitzgerald had been the star writer, author of The Great Gatsby and the notion of the “Jazz Age” of the 20s, while still in his 20s himself. Hemingway was then an unknown who traded on his “hick” credentials. Fitzgerald had lent him money and helped him get both an agent and a publisher. They shared two traits. First, obviously, the ability to invent new styles of writing that would revolutionise 20th century literature and beyond. The second was a belief that, in their own ways, they could dominate any room they entered, mould the wills of anyone within it to their own ends, and create lifetimes that would, till the finish, be gloriously to their own dictation. Their methods were different, indeed perhaps opposite – with Fitzgerald, fey attention-seeking; Hemingway, brute manliness – but the aim was broadly the same. In this aim, life proved each spectacularly wrong.

By the time of the Hemingway-Callaghan bout, their relationship was edgy, but not admitted as such. They – Hemingway particularly – seem to have avoided seeing each other, while keeping up occasional ardent correspondence. Hemingway told his agent under no circumstances to give out his address to Fitzgerald, because of his drunkenness. Having privately thought it for years, he was now airing the view that Fitzgerald’s problems stemmed almost wholly from his wife, Zelda, whom he considered mad and destructive, competing with her husband and disrupting him when he tried to work or get sober. Probably not coincidentally, Zelda thought exactly the same about Hemingway.

Certainly Zelda, southern belle who tapped into Fitzgerald’s old-money preoccupation, and both prima ballerina and great novelist manqué, would have been a handful. But she was also one person who did not buy into the Hemingway myth, mocking him for having “more hair on his chest than any man could”, and calling him a “phony”. To Hemingway, hugely sensitive despite outward appearances, this would have been provocative poison.

He was also keen to remind Fitzgerald obliquely of their change in status. Hemingway was on his way by then, and had refused earlier requests by Fitzgerald to watch him box. However, shored up by Pruniers burgundy, it is probable he was finally looking forward to showing off in front of him. There was something else in the mix: gossip spread about American circles in Paris, by the gay writer Robert McAlmon, that Fitzgerald and Hemingway had had a homosexual affair, prompting Hemingway to aver that he would knock McAlmon’s block off.

At the American Club, Hemingway and Callaghan squared up as usual. All accounts suggest that Hemingway was clumsy and uneducated as a boxer, but was interested in it intellectually and was evangelistic, often getting artistic types into the ring to show them gently how it worked. Callaghan was rather different. He had trained for a year with proper boxers in Canada. He had sparred with Hemingway three or four times before. Their gulf in ability and experience had not been exposed because the sessions had been subdued and recreational (even if he had sometimes inadvertently bloodied Hemingway’s lip).

Fitzgerald was given a watch and told to call “Time” after three minutes, with one-minute rests between rounds. In That Summer in Paris, Callaghan related that, with Fitzgerald present, in the second round Hemingway started to box with an aggression he had not experienced before: “I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become rougher, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me.” Callaghan responded with his own heavier punches, and immediately put Hemingway down.

’Oh my God!’ Scott cried suddenly … ‘I let the round go four minutes!’

‘Alright Scott,’ Ernest said savagely. ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.’”

Hemingway stomped off to the showers. The story found its way into the New York papers, and Fitzgerald and Callaghan exchanged acerbic letters. Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald “forgiving” him. But he never did.

It was the end of their friendship. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44, ironically when he was showing signs of conquering drink. Zelda was by then in a mental institution. Hemingway went on, drinking and drinking, always denying it, his writing deteriorating with commercial success, until suicide, his letters dotted with references to Callaghan.

His last one says: “Scott let the first round go thirteen minutes”.

Fitzgerald had been dead more than fifteen years. From the first round to the second, and from one extra minute to 13 – whatever one thinks of Hemingway’s writing, he had the soul of an artist, but no sanity by the end.

Jonathan Rendall is the author ofThis Bloody Mary: Is the Last Thing I Own

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