Ernest and his boxing!....Ernest back in the States would say to Josephine Herbst, 'But my writing is nothing. My boxing is everything.' When Miss Herbst told this to me, I was full of wonder. That a great artist like Ernest could have such a view of himself seemed incredible. Yet in the strange dark depths of his being he had to pretend to believe it. For the sake of the peace of their souls most men live by pretending to believe in something they secretly know isn't true.
Morley Callaghan, That Summer in Paris
One of the pleasures of reading memoirs of 1920s Paris is finding different, and contradictory, accounts of the same event. A good example of this is the 1929 boxing encounter between Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, refereed by F.Scott Fitzgerald. This is the centrepiece of Callaghan's memoir, which Truman Capote described as 'a modest bad dull book which contains a superb short story about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Callaghan.'
Callaghan and Hemingway had become friends while they were both working as journalists on the Toronto Star. Hemingway admired Callaghan's writing, though he was not happy when the latter published a story about a prizefighter.
In a letter to a mutual friend, he made one critical comment....He told this friend that when Morley wrote stories about the things he knew, there was no one any better, but he should stick to the things he knew about. What was bothering Ernest? I wondered. Did he think that in writing about a fighter I had made an unworthy excursion into his own imaginary world? Was it because I had forgotten to tell him I had done a lot of boxing and went to all the fights?
That Summer in Paris
When the two writers met again, in Paris in 1929, the first thing that Hemingway asked Callaghan about was boxing.
He turned to me as he sat down, and apparently at random, just to make conversation, asked if I had ever done any boxing. Yes, I had done quite a bit of boxing, I said truthfully. 'Just a minute', he said quietly and he left the room....Then Ernest reappeared with a set of boxing gloves. 'Come on, let's see,' he said holding out a pair of gloves to me.
The next day, they went to the American Club for a proper scrap.
Ernest was big and heavy, over six feet, and I was only five foot eight. Whatever skill I had in boxing had to do with avoiding getting hit. Admittedly I had a most unorthodox style, carrying my gloves far too low, counting on being fast with my hands....I soon found that I could hit him easily. Seeing that I was carrying my left far too low, he would half jab with his left, then try the right, but his timing was way off. I would draw him closer by feinting a step backward, inviting him to move in with his long left, then step in and beat him to the punch with my own left. His right, coming at me correctly was far too slow. I was catching him on the mouth or jaw. As the round progressed I became at ease and sure of myself. I could see that, while he may have thought about boxing, dreamed about boxing, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms, I had actually done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren't just taking exercise or fooling around.
On a later occasion, Callaghan made Hemingway's mouth bleed.
He loudly sucked in all the blood. He waited, watching me, and took another punch on the mouth. Then as I went to slip in again, he stiffened. Suddenly he spat at me; he spat a mouthful of blood: he spat in my face. My gym shirt too was spattered with blood.
I was so shocked I dropped my gloves....It is a terrible insult for a man to spit at another man. We stared at each other. 'That's what bullfighters do when they're wounded. It's way of showing contempt,' he said solemnly.
In Paris, Callaghan also got to know F Scott Fitzgerald, whose behaviour was even more bizarre than Hemingway's. At their first meeting, Fitzgerald talked about a number of writers he admired, none of whom impressed Callaghan.
He smiled sweetly, his head on one side again, as he considered some grave problem....Then half to himself, 'Who does impress you, Morley?'
My face began to burn....before I could speak, stand up, make the necessary polite little remarks, Scott himself stood up slowly. 'Would this impress you, Morley?' he asked sweetly.
Suddenly he got down on his knees, put his head on the floor and tried to stand on his head. One leg came up, and he tried to get the other one up and maintain his balance....Then he lost his balance and sprawled flat on his face.
Fitzgerald was impressed by tales of Hemingway's boxing.
Scott began to repeat to me the story...about Hemingway jumping into the ring and knocking out the middleweight champion of France. He told it as if he were letting me in on something and he sounded a little awed. I could hardly conceal my exasperation. 'Do you really think Ernest is that good?' I asked.
...With a judicial air he pondered, 'Ernest is probably not good enough to be the heavyweight champion, ' he said gravely. 'But I would say that he is about as good as Young Stribling.'
Young Stribling was a famous first-class light heavyweight who was so good he was forced to fight heavyweights. 'Look Scott,' I said to him. 'Ernest is an amateur. I'm an amateur. All this talk is ridiculous. But we do have fun.'
Not convinced at all, he shook his head. But then at last he said it; what he had been wanting to say for weeks. 'Could I come along with you sometime?'
So, a week later, Callaghan and Hemingway were squaring off at the American Club, while Scott Fitzgerald held a watch, timing two minute rounds. The presence of Fitzgerald made Hemingway fight more recklessly than usual.
Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed....Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott's face...He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly....Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his glove, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing may have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning around he went down, sprawled out on his back.
....Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.
'Oh my God!' Scott said suddenly. When I looked at him, alarmed, he was shaking his head helplessly. 'I let the round go four minutes,' he said.
'Christ!' Ernest yelled. He got up....'All right 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' and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.
That's Callaghan's own version of the fight. Here's the story reported by John Glassco.
Morley was babbling quietly....Bob had taken him to see Joyce; and his new novel was almost finished. But he was especially pleased to have boxed with Hemingway, and to have either knocked the great man out or given him a nosebleed – it wasn't clear which. He was thrilled by this triumph, though he played it down modestly; in his quiet way he was able to invest the experience with a certain mystical quality. It was clear it was a major event.
'Well,' said Graeme after he had gone, 'I'm glad he pasted Hemingway.'
We agreed it was peculiarly fitting that the master had been bested in the ring by a man smaller and stouter than himself.
John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse
Robert McAlmon also heard all about it.
The famous Callaghan-Hemingway bout that took place in 1929 was reported to me several ways: by Hemingway, by Callaghan, and by Scott Fitzgerald. Callaghan's report was that Scott was to referee, and they were to have three or four two minute rounds. Hemingway was the taller and heavier man. Callaghan, actually, was short and inclined to a look of flabbiness and rotundity. Scott was sure that Hemingway only needed to play with Callaghan, and let him down easily, without showing him up in a mortifying way. The first round did not turn out that way, however, and so Scott forgot to tell time....Hemingway's story was that he had been drinking the night before and was boxing on three pick-me-up whiskies, and that his wind gave out. The decision results were, however, that neither Hemingway not Callaghan could decide what the bout proved. Was one a better boxer but not so good a writer as the other, or was one a better writer and boxer, or had Scott framed one or other of them?
Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together
Hemingway told a very different story to Samuel Putnam, the American translator of Cervantes, who wrote yet another memoir.
He was quite excited over a boxing match which he had staged with Morley Callaghan, who was passing through Paris...Callaghan, it seemed, had defeated him in a set of tennis and he had to have his revenge. They accordingly had put on the gloves in the basement of Hemingway's house, and Ernest, by his own account, had 'knocked hell out of' his opponent. He appealed to Mrs Hemingway to corroborate this, and it seemed to me that she treated him somewhat as one might a bright and loveable child. But it was plain that for him this was another of life's important exploits.
Samuel Putnam, Paris Was Our Mistress, 1947
That Summer in Paris has a postscript to the story. A few months after the boxing encounter, Callaghan, back in New York, picked up a copy of the New York Herald Tribune, and turned to Isabel Paterson's gossip page.
My eye caught Hemingway's name, then my own. This story was about my meeting Hemingway in Paris. According to this story Hemingway, sitting at the Dome when I came along, told me the story I had written about a prize-fighter was no good; it was obvious I knew nothing about boxing. And there and then he challenged me to a match. I had knocked him out in one round.
Callaghan wrote a letter to the paper saying the story was not true, but then received a cable, collect, from Fitzgerald:
HAVE SEEN STORY IN HERALD TRIBUNE. ERNEST AND I AWAIT YOUR CORRECTION
Callaghan wrote a furious letter back
I told him it had been unnecessary for him to rush in to defend Ernest. For him to hurry out and send that cable to me collect without waiting to see what I would do was the act of a son of a bitch and I could only assume that he was drunk as usual when he wrote it.
Finally I heard from Ernest. The letter was a beauty....He took the entire responsibility for sending of the cable to me....If I wanted to switch to him the abusive terms I had directed at Scott, he was coming to the States shortly and would be at my service wherever it could be kept private.
So Ernest wanted to meet me and knock my block off!
All this is a long way from James Joyce, whose own attitude to boxing was described by his brother, Stanislaus:
My brother detested rugby, boxing and wrestling, which he considered a training not in self-control, as the English pretend, but in violence and brutality.
My Brother's Keeper, 1958
|The artist, Harland Miller, hits the nail on the head|