Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hemingway Drinks Snake Wine, Gets Punched Out, And Other News From “Ernesto”

An unpublished letter by Ernest Hemingway recently came to my attention. It's a feast, moveable or otherwise, a highly personal letter that reveals more, I think, than Hemingway intended.

Dated June 9, 1943 and postmarked from Cuba, it is addressed to his boxing trainer and coach and close friend, George Brown, "a very sinister Irishman who owned a gym on 55th Street" (Patrick Hemingway) in Manhattan.

"Dear George:

How's everything?"

But before George Brown has a chance to write back with an answer, Hemingway takes off on a colorful tour of recent events in the Hemingway household and environs.

"Marty [his wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn] has two articles written and only four to go now. She's flown up to Lashio in Burma and back and we had a swell time on the flight across the Pacific. Going up now with the Chinese army for about a month and then out over the Burma Road. Am learning plenty and doing plenty of studying."

Papa discusses a recent cocktail that's strictly chef Anthony Bourdain territory, and seems to get a macho charge from the experience:

"You would go nuts in this place just walking around and seeing things. The other day I had a drink of wine that had real snakes in it. About eight of them coiled up in the jar. By God, would like to have seen the Colonel [Hemingway's buddy and hunting guide, Taylor Williams] face that one. They were snakes too. They had another wine that had dead roosters and cuckoos and all sorts of birds in it but after the snake wine I thought to hell with a chickenshit wine like that..."

I dunno, if drinking snake wine tickles Hemingway's testicles but dead rooster and cuckoo  wine isn't ballsy enough, I feel fairly confident that Bourdain would eat Hemingway under the table in gustatory test of courage. mano a mano, boca a boca. Hemingway believed he could stand toe to toe with any man; he was fiercely competitive. And yes, he could stand toe to toe with any man. Unfortunately,  with anyone other than a writer, not for very long.  I suspect Hemingway would take one look at one of Bourdain's plates of nasty bits - fricasseed scorpion, stir-fried Venus Fly Trap, the usual cornucopia of gag-inducing gourmet treats - and chicken-out but instead of gracefully conceding would instead make a scene.

Moving along, we learn that Cuba, apparently, was a magnet for a particular population of interest to Ernest.

"There are about 100,000 more or less beautiful Chinese whoors [sic] and not even Zoomo [?] could save the Colonel here."

Diet has become a major issue for Hemingway, now forty-five and thickening around the middle.

"Have been going out on the road [jogging] but get fat just the same. The food is so good and am hungry all the time. Drink milk for breakfast and have been drinking those vodkas and tomato juices the rest of the time. We will have to work like hell to get the fat off when we get home. Have about two and a half inches of fat across the bottom of my lower belly. Hard fat. You'll have to beat it off with a hammer. Weigh 223 stripped. Otherwise in o.k. shape."

Forget the hammer. All he had to do was lay off the Bloody Marys as standard, post-breakfast liquid refreshment during the day; the weight would have fallen right off.

Hemingway warms to a subject close to his heart yet so far from his abilities, boxing. As I have written previously, he was an awful boxer with a grossly over-inflated sense of his skill level, at best a rank amateur. He considered himself of semi-pro ability. Remember, he's forty-five years old at the time he wrote this letter.

"Have only boxed twice. Guy didn't know much but was 190 and only 26. Cut my lips with a good left jab when I came crowding in my new imitation of your old pal Harry but when I got in I kept on punching and it worked out just like you said. In the 2d round I kept left handing him and then when I quit and let him come to me I worked my left way out wide and set and hooked him with it and he sat down. Then we got friendly after that and I didn't do nothing wrong except backhand him a couple of times (My mistake. How could it have happened. I wouldn't know). But the second time we boxed the twirp cut my mouth again with the first punch and I went around for about a week with crusts on my kisser. But I punched him silly. I didn't make him sit down anymore because of us being such friends by then but I could have. He brought the gloves and they were little ones and hard as bricks. That was what made my mouth cut. The second time we were boxing outdoors on a cement floor in the garden behind the hotel. I was afraid to try to dump him because of the cement. To hear me tell it I must have been terrific."

I strongly suspect that if anybody else told it,  he wouldn't have been so terrific. Let's parse that 'graph:

He immediately gets cut by what must have been a very stiff jab. Hemingway doesn't like getting cut; when he and novelist Morley Callaghan sparred in Paris during the 20s, Hemingway spat blood in Callaghan's face after Callaghan bloodied his mouth but good. Hemingway's sense of his masculinity was pretty fragile; Callaghan had humiliated him in front of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Hemingway easily looses control; he gets mad and typically begins to try to bull-charge his way in. That's how the mouths of blind, unschooled and undisciplined amateurs get bloodied. "I worked my left way out wide and set and hooked him with it." Amateur Hour. Work your left "way out wide" and say hello to a straight, inside right that greets your chin first. Only a tyro, an idiot or no-nothing would extend such an invitation.

 When things get tough, he fights dirty. "I didn't do nothing wrong except backhand him a couple of times (My mistake. How could it have happened. I wouldn't know)." Yeah, right. But he gets lucky and puts the kid on his fanny. Forty-five year old man exults over his apparent "win" over a twenty-six year old.

When I was young, dumb, and made of rubber, I toiled in the amateurs for a few years during my early twenties. Once, I sparred with a forty-three year old guy. I figured, gramps better have medical insurance.

Gramps made me look silly. He knew what I was going to do before I did it, I'd throw a punch and he'd be in another state by the time it would have landed. He'd take a half-step one way and tie me in knots the other way.

But though he was a former pro and could have easily hospitalized me, he didn't. I recall that I actually landed a single, solid shot. What did gramps do? He nodded in appreciation. Later on, he shook me up real good. What did he then do? Nothing. He backed off; he had nothing to prove by taking advantage of my relative inexperience.

Hemingway had to prove to the kid and himself that he was boss.

Next time they spar, the kid, now derided as a "twirp," once again tattoos Hem's phiz and spills his blood. This time, Hemingway can't sit the kid down despite "punching him silly." Excuse? They were now friends. Baloney. Friendship never stopped Ernest Hemingway from screwing with his friends. Reality: Hemingway wore the same "hard as bricks" gloves that the kid wore and bloodied him with (it couldn't possibly have been the power behind them. It was the magic gloves!). If Hemingway had indeed "punched him silly" with the "cement gloves" (they were probably regulation 8 oz. gloves used by pros with little actual padding), the kid would have been thoroughly beaten up.

Note that in his entire narrative only one person's blood is being spilled yet Hemingway gives himself the decision.

Does it sound to you like Ernie "the Oak Park Pretender" Hemingway is writing in Brooklynese? Hemingway is jumping through hoops to bond with and impress his trainer. But George Brown was no fool; he surely knew the reality:

"When [ George Brown] boxed with my father he would always warn him once that he was crowding too close and if the warning was not heeded, then knock him on his ass with the deftness of a striking cobra" (Patrick Hemingway, op cit).

The reality was that anyone who had even the slightest idea of what they were doing in the ring could take Hemingway, who was notorious for foolishly trying to actually fight trained boxers. It was the reason why Jack Dempsey avoided him in Paris - he knew Hemingway would try to get cute and Dempsey would have to seriously hurt him to keep him away. Hemingway was a danger to himself in the ring and no one else.

Having told all, Hemingway closes the letter with:

"I'll tell you about everything when we get back.


Poor George Brown probably never did get a chance to tell Hemingway, "How's everything?" Ernesto was too preoccupied with his own wonderfulness.

George Brown remained with Ernest Hemingway for the rest of the novelist's life as trainer, coach,  friend, and factotum. Brown reinforced and flattered Hemingway's sense of himself. But if Hemingway got cute and crowded him, he'd knock him on his ass. George kept it real without being a threat. Hemingway so wanted some of George to rub off on him, boxer by association.

Letter courtesy of James Cummins.


  1. The letter is obviously not from Cuba but from Hong Kong, before Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn went into China to interview Chiang Kai-shek in 1941.

  2. When I originally read the letter, I, too, was suspicious of its actual locale

    The letter is undated. The original envelope is dated, June 9, 1943, and is postmarked from Cuba.

    It is quite possible that at some point in the past the letter was inserted into the wrong envelope by George Brown (This letter is one a a handful from Brown's estate that have come to market within the last few years.

  3. Leave your personal biases and jealousy out of your writing and maybe you can be a mediocre journalist. But first, you'll have to realize that Burma is nowhere near Cuba and Hemingway is obviously somewhere in Asia if he is drinking snake wine. Anyone with half a brain could have figured that out. I take it you lost that half boxing so much better than Hemingway (like anyone believes that, or cares, loser).

  4. Once again, read the post carefully - the letter is postmarked Cuba and Hemingway is obviously relating events that occurred earlier, elsewhere before he returned to Cuba and wrote this letter.


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