“Every man’s life ends the same way,” Ernest Hemingway once declared. “It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” With that in mind, this edition of the Why Not 100 presents 15 odd and extraordinary facts—somewhat chronologically—about the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author, his family, and how he lived and died:
1. HIS MOTHER LIKED TO DRESS HIM AS A GIRL
Grace Hemingway liked to fashion young Ernest’s hair like a girl and dress him in lacy white frocks. She called him her “Dutch dolly” and her “Sweetie.” Ernest pronounced it “Fweetee.” But he soon grew not to like it. One day he retorted, “I not a Dutch dolly… Bang, I shoot Fweetee.” As John Walsh wrote in The Independent, “He’d spend the rest of his life in a galloping parody of masculinity.”
2. HE HUNTED JUST ABOUT ANYTHING
At age three, Hemingway killed a porcupine. Then he ate it. In 1940, he went out with his third wife and two of his kids and reportedly killed four hundred jackrabbits in a single day. While deep sea fishing one day, he grabbed a Thompson submachine gun and opened fire on a group of sharks that were scavenging a huge tuna that he was trying to land. He once established a record by catching seven marlins in one day. Over countless hunting trips through the years, he bagged lions, leopards, hyenas… “I spent a lot of time killing animals and fish,” he once told Ava Gardner, “so I won’t kill myself.”
3. HE LOVED A SIX-TOED CAT
When he wasn’t hunting big cats, Hemingway loved little ones. And his most beloved pet was a polydactyl cat—that is, a cat with six toes—named Snowball. It was a gift from a ship’s captain. Today, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida—the writer’s 1930s island retreat—is positively brimming with dozens and dozens of descendants of Hemingway’s original cats, and about half of them carry a polydactyl gene.
4. HIS LONGEST SENTENCE WAS REALLY LONG
The longest sentence Hemingway ever wrote—in Green Hills of Africa—consisted of 424 words: “That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.”
5. HE LIKED TO WRITE ON HIS FEET
Hemingway supposedly said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” But legend has it (and photos confirm) that he often preferred to write standing up. He usually wrote in his bedroom, where there was a desk. But instead, he placed a typewriter atop a bookcase. He called that his “work desk.” And he generally liked to write while standing, moving only to shift his weight from one leg to another.
6. HE DIED BEFORE HE DIED
Hemingway survived two airplane crashes in two days. He was in Nairobi in 1954 when he and his fourth wife, Mary, chartered a sightseeing flight toward the Belgian Congo. But the plane struck a utility pole and crash landed in heavy brush. Mary broke two ribs. Her husband sprained his shoulder. So they boarded a second plane the next day, hoping to reach medical care in Entebbe. This time, the airplane burst into flames on the runway. Hemingway ruptured his liver, spleen and kidney and fractured his skull. By the time they finally reached Entebbe, a page one newspaper headline was shouting: HEMINGWAY, WIFE KILLED IN AIR CRASH. A photo caption began added: “NO SIGN OF LIFE” AT WRECK.
7. HE PUT THE “ART” IN PARTY
In 1959, Mary spent months preparing for a lavish 60th birthday party for her husband. She flew exotic foods into Pamplona—Chinese food from London, codfish from Madrid, champagne from Paris. She hired waiters, barmen and cooks from all over the world, too. There were flamenco dancers. There were fireworks. There was a “shooting booth.” Guests included Italian royalty and the Maharajah of Behar. The party lasted from noon of July 21st to noon of July 22nd.
8. HE COULDN’T SHAKE WRITER’S BLOCK
Once he reached his sixties, Hemingway found that he could no longer write. In the spring of 1961, he was asked to contribute something brief to a presentation volume for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Just a single sentence. He couldn’t do it. “It just won’t come anymore,” he told a close friend, and he was weeping as he said it.
9. HE COULDN’T DEFEAT DEMENTIA
At the end of his life, Hemingway was fraught with paranoid delusions. He thought his friends were trying to murder him. He thought two men working late in a bank were “Feds” auditing his bank accounts. When his car grazed another vehicle, he worried that he would be thrown in jail. He was given medication and electro-shock therapy. Three months before his death, Mary found him sitting with a gun in one hand and two bullets in the other. Not long after that, he tried to kill himself—by walking into the path of a plane taxiing on a runway.
10. HE DIDN’T KILL HIMSELF, BUT REALLY HE DID
The New York Times headline that appeared on the morning of July 3, 1961 declared: HEMINGWAY DEAD OF SHOTGUN WOUND; WIFE SAYS HE WAS CLEANING WEAPON. The early assessment was that, clad in a robe and pajamas on a morning 19 days before his 62nd birthday, he was cleaning his favorite double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun at his house in Ketchum, Idaho. Mary, still in bed, was awoken by a shotgun blast. She went downstairs to find her husband’s body near a gun rack in the foyer. After a preliminary investigation, the Blaine County sheriff stated that the death “looks like an accident” and “there is no evidence of foul play.” As it turns out, along with the two air crashes, over the years Hemingway survived everything from skin cancer and malaria to hepatitis and diabetes to blood poisoning and a car accident that hurled him through the windshield. That may be one reason why it took Mary several months to admit that her husband had actually killed himself.
11. SUICIDE WAS A TRAGIC FAMILY TRADITION
Hemingway’s grandfather committed suicide. His father shot himself at the age of 57, using a Civil War pistol. His brother and sister and a granddaughter killed themselves, too. The New York Times described the family tree as “blood-soaked as any from Greek tragedy,” and the term ”Hemingway curse” has become shorthand for the cycle of mental illness, addiction and suicide can afflict multiple generations. In his book Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir, John Hemingway (the author’s youngest son) called suicide “the family exit.” In 2013, a documentary chronicling the family’s troubled history was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It was called Running from Crazy.
12. HE NEVER MET HIS MOST FAMOUS DESCENDANT
Actress Mariel Hemingway was born less than five months after her famous grandfather ended his life. For years, she believed that he had accidentally killed himself. No one told her otherwise. She was named after the Cuban port of Mariel, where her father and grandfather regularly went fishing. She’s an author, too—of a yoga memoir, an organic foods cookbook, and two self-help books. When she was a baby, her older sister Margaux (who would die from an intentional overdose at the age of 41) was so jealous that she cut off Mariel’s eyelashes with a scissors. Mariel’s oldest sister Joan (called Muffet) used LSD so prolifically that it triggered a full-blown psychosis. After she ran naked through the streets of Ketchum, Idaho, she was finally institutionalized.
13. HIS BROTHER FOUNDED A MICRO-NATION
Leicester Hemingway, Ernest’s younger brother and a somewhat successful author himself, towed a small barge 12 nautical miles off the coast of Jamaica, anchored it to the floor of the Caribbean with the aid of an old Ford Engine block, and declared it New Atlantis. Citing the 1856 Guano Islands Act, he claimed half of the barge as a new nation and half for the United States. A tropical storm destroyed it two years later, so he created a second micro-nation—on a 300-foot-long sandbar in the Bahamas. The U.S. State Department’s response? “Attempts at creating this island would be viewed by the United States as a highly undesirable development averse to our national security, particularly as it might encourage archipelagic claim.” Leicester shot himself less than a decade later.
14. HIS SON SPENT HIS LAST DAYS AS A WOMAN
Hemingway’s son, Gregory, was a doctor who lost his medical license, a husband who divorced four wives, and a transvestite and transsexual who late in his life was arrested for walking down a Key Biscayne street naked, carrying a dress and high heels. A kind and gentle person who sometimes preferred to be called Vanessa or Gloria, Hemingway collapsed and died six days after being arrested (for the naked thing) in 2001. As the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The third son of the 20th century’s most resolutely macho literary figure had died, at age 69, in a women’s jail.”
15. HEMINGWAY COMES BACK TO LIFE EVERY JULY
Every year on the third Saturday in July at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, the Hemingway Look-Alike Society holds the largest sanctioned look-alike competition in the world. The 34th annual “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, a highlight of the annual Hemingway Days celebration, took place in 2014. More than 120 look-alikes entered, the winner (selected by previous winners) being crowned “Papa.” It’s a bunch of portly, white-bearded men, most of them wearing safari garb or wool fisherman’s sweaters. One winner (Bob Anderson, 1991) previously made props and sets for the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Another (Leo Rost, 1983) was a published playwright. (By the way, there’s an urban legend that Charlie Chaplin once anonymously entered a Chaplin look-alike contest. He finished in third place.)