Hemingway. The name's very mention brings to mind bullfights and barroom brawls, deep-sea fishing and daiquiri parties, big-game hunting and booze binges; it is a legend as steeped in alcohol as it is in adventure. Vigorously reflecting the author's life , the protagonists in all his books and most of his short stories also fought, loved and drank hard. Alcohol was not only a ready conflagrant to start dramatic fires, it was also 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.
No one knows for sure when Hemingway took his first drink, but most biographers agree he started boozing in earnest shortly after he took a cub reporter's job, at age 17, at the Kansas City Star. Influenced by the heavy-drinking, two-fisted veteran reporters, he took to carousing until closing time then going home to read dead poets aloud until four o'clock in the morning, 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 the finer wines, champagnes, cigars and women in an attempt to impart to Hemingway "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 a fickle-hearted English nurse, 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 called "grog." These
idyllic weeks would eventually become the bricks with which Hemingway would
build many of his Nick Adams stories.
Prohibition helped drive Hemingway to Canada and Toronto's inclimate weather pushed him to Paris, accompanied by his new wife, Hadley Richardson.
Paris and the aspiring young author proved a perfect match. The city's many cafe's 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 an excellent 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. Critics decades later would try to explain away the excessive drinking as an unnecessary evil that plagued the era, but, as Fitzgerald noted, "Sometimes I wish I'd went through those good times stone cold sober so I could remember everything--but then again, if I had been sober the times probably wouldn't have been worth remembering."
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 fiestaing and watching bullfights in Spain and still have enough francs left over to winter in Germany, drinking kummel and schnapps on the slopes.
"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 possibly 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.