ERNEST and his boxing! After the events I’m relating had occurred Ernest back in the States could say to Josephine Herbst, “But my writing is nothing. My boxing is everything.” When Miss Herbst told this to me I laughed, but 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 own souls most men live by pretending to believe in something they secretly know isn’t true. It seems to be a dreadful necessity. It keeps life going on. We agree especially to pretend to believe in things that can never be known. Each civilization seems to have derived some creative energy from an agreement upon the necessity of a general pretending. Why it was necessary for Ernest to pretend to believe that his boxing was the root of his whole life, I don’t know. It is true some men are much better at pretending than others. It’s a built-in gift. The game for them takes on a reality that shapes their whole lives.
I had discovered that Ernest’s attitude to his boxing was related to the source of his power as an imaginative writer. His imaginative work had such a literal touch that a whole generation came to believe he was only telling what he, himself had seen happen, or what had actually happened to him. His readers made him his own hero. As he grew older it must have had tragic disadvantages for him. Now it seems to me that he shared with Sherwood Anderson, at least in this matter of his boxing, a matter of vital importance to his whole view of himself, a strange trick of the imagination—the built-in gift.
The night my wife and I went to dine with Anderson in the Washington Mews, where he was staying, we all sat around a long table after dinner, drinking and talking till two in the morning. We talked about many things. Hemingway’s name came into the conversation. Next day I was meeting Max Perkins. As soon as he saw me he said, “I hear you had an interesting evening with Sherwood last night. I hear you made a splendid defence of Hemingway’s Catholicism.” Defend it! A look of indignant consternation must have come on my face. “Why, I never mentioned it. Why—” Taking my arm, Perkins, said urgently, “Now just a minute. Before you go any further, please let me explain something to you. Don’t let this spoil Sherwood for you. It’s happened with others. You must understand Sherwood wasn’t really lying…” Surely I would understand that Anderson, a story-teller, couldn’t help going on with a story. From past experience with Anderson, Perkins knew what had happened. Last night after we had gone home, Anderson, lying awake, would have wished he had raised the subject of Hemingway’s Catholicism; in his imagination he had heard himself raise certain questions; he had heard me answer; absorbed in his dream he had supplied a brilliant defence for me. In this extension of the real conversation, the thing that should have happened, would have happened; in his imagination it would have belonged completely to the small thing that did happen, and so it had truth for him.
Now Hemingway in his turn loved boxing. Every chance he got he must have boxed with someone, and he had all the lingo, he had hung around gyms, he had watched fighters at work. Something within him drove him to want to be expert at every occupation he touched. In those days he liked telling a man how to do things, but not by way of boasting or arrogance—it was almost as if he had to feel he had a sense of professionalism about every field of human behaviour that interested him. To this day I know you will find some Broadway columnist, or some gym instructor in New York, who will assure the world he had seen Hemingway working out like a pro, or taking a punch at someone. The truth was that we were two amateur boxers. The difference between us was that he had given time and imagination to boxing; I had actually worked out a lot with good fast college boxers.
In Paris there were scoffers, envious men, always belittling Ernest, who would whisper that his physical roughness was all a bluff. It was utter nonsense. He was a big rough tough clumsy unscientific man. In a small bar, or in an alley, where he could have cornered me in a rough-and-tumble brawl, he might have broken my back, he was so much bigger. But with gloves on and in a space big enough for me to move around, I could be confident. My wife remembers how, when I came home, she would complain that my shoulders were black and blue. Laughing, I would explain that she should feel thankful; the shoulder welts and bruises meant Ernest had always missed my jaw or nose or mouth. She worried about the day coming when I would walk in with welts on my jaw or cheeks rather than my shoulders.
One dark cloudy afternoon I had called for Ernest and when we came out to the street, a soft rain had begun to fall. It was one of those lovely soft early-summer Paris rains. I was coatless; Ernest had brought a raincoat. We could have got a taxi, but the rain was now so gentle and the air so soft he said, “Let’s walk.” Taking one arm of the raincoat, he held that side of the coat out wide like a tent over me, his arm like a tent pole, and we loafed along. We talked. No big talk. Just gossip. It was like times at home at college when I might have called for an old friend and decided to walk with him in the rain because I liked being with him and felt sure of him.
That day, and for the first time, he did something that astonished me. At the American Club, we had undressed and got down to the business of boxing. By this time, knowing his style, I had worked out a routine. Moving in and out, I had to make him lead at me. He knew what I was doing. His brown eyes always on me, he waited for a chance to nail me solidly. When he finally threw his long left, I slipped it and then stepped in and caught him on the mouth with my own left. He knew by the book he should catch me with his right. It must have been exasperating to him that my left was always beating him to the punch. His mouth began to bleed. It had happened before. It wasn’t important. His tongue kept curling along his lip, wiping off blood. Again he got hit on the lip, yet his eyes held mine as he swallowed the blood. But his mouth kept on bleeding. 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. My face must have gone white, for I was shaken and didn’t know what to do. It is a terrible insult for a man to spit at another man. We stared at each other. “That’s what the bullfighters do when they’re wounded. It’s a way of showing contempt,” he said solemnly.
My sense of outrage was weakened by my bewilderment when he suddenly smiled. Apparently he felt as friendly as ever. I tried to laugh. But we had to stop boxing so I could wipe off the blood. I didn’t even complain, for I saw that he had more complete goodwill for me than ever. But I was wondering out of what strange nocturnal depths of his mind had come the barbarous gesture. What other wild gesture might he make in some dark moment in his life to satisfy himself, or put himself in a certain light, following, or trying to follow, some view he had of himself? But here he was, so sweet and likeable again, so much at ease with me. I tried to tell myself he had put it just right; he had yielded to his boyish weakness for amusing and theatrical gestures. The whole thing could have been pure theatre.
As we sat down to talk before we dressed he seemed to be full of lighthearted enthusiasm. Standing up he regarded me with a professional eye. “You’re really a light heavyweight,” he insisted. “It’s the way you’re built. I thought at first it was just fat on you.” I assented to this rather reluctantly, knowing I was twenty-five pounds overweight, simply potbellied and secretly ashamed of it. I liked eating. Then he told me he had written to Max Perkins, trying to describe the fun we had been having and my peculiar boxing style.
He suggested we go up to the Falstaff, off Montparnasse, an oak-panelled English bar presided over by Jimmy, a friend of his, an Englishman who had been a pro lightweight fighter. At that hour hardly anyone else was in the bar. Behind the bar Jimmy now looked like an amiable roly-poly host. Just a day or two ago I had been asking Jimmy what Lady Duff, the Lady Brett of The Sun Also Rises, was really like. Leaning across the bar, Jimmy had said confidentially, “You won’t tell Hemingway, will you? No? Well, she was one of those horsey English girls with her hair cut short and the English manner. Hemingway thought she had class. He used to go dancing with her over on the Right Bank. I could never see what he saw in her.”
But now Jimmy, observing the bag with the boxing gloves Ernest was carrying, and our scrubbed, wet-haired look, the look of men who have been exercising then showering, grinned knowingly. “You’ve been boxing, eh?” Smiling happily Ernest touched his swollen lip, rolling it back to show it to Jimmy, the old fighter. I remember Ernest’s line: “As long as Morley can keep cutting my mouth he’ll always remain my good friend.” We all laughed. Yet Ernest did look remarkably happy. His cut and swollen, mouth seemed to make him feel jolly and talkative. He told how good Jimmy had been in the ring. He insisted Jimmy have a drink with us. And the strange part of it was that in spite of the fact that Ernest had spat blood on my face, I felt closer than ever to him.
But the look on his face as he spat at me must have stayed in my head. Of course I had to explain to Loretto the cause of the blood marks on my gym shirt. We wondered at the source of his unbridled impulse, so primitive and insulting. Supposing it had enraged me and caused us to part forever? Had such a thought ever entered his head?
Late one night we were at the Select, six or seven of us around two tables, and a pretty woman named Mary Bryant, whom I had never met before and who had been the wife of William Bullitt, the US Ambassador to Moscow, told a story about Hemingway. She had had a Turkish boy as a protege. This boy was an expert knife thrower. The boy had been with her one time when she had told Hemingway he could throw a knife at twenty paces and pin an object, a man’s hand, for example, to a door. Getting up suddenly, Hemingway had gone over to the door, and thrust out his hand. “Come on, show me. Come on,” he challenged the boy. “Pin my hand to the door.” The story may or may not have been true. I had been rejecting all stories about Ernest that made him a strange dark primitive nocturnal figure. Yet now I seemed to know from what happened between us that any time he faced a situation from which he ought to recoil protestingly or normally, he might start to play around with the destructive idea, testing his own courage in his imagination. In those days, as I said before, it seemed to me he could make the imagined challenging fear become so real, it might become unbearable. And he would act. Somehow these thoughts seemed to tie up with that picture I had of him spitting the blood at me with such theatrical scorn, and then knowing he shouldn’t have done it, laughing.
At the Select that night, after hearing the story about the Turkish boy, I laughed with the others. Ernest did a lot of things that were merely imaginative gestures, I said. But they were only gestures. And I told about him spitting a mouthful of blood all over me when we were boxing, and how it hadn’t altered our relationship at all. It was the only time I had talked about any incident in our boxing matches. Later on it became important to me to recall this one occasion. But the Quarter in those days, crowded as it was at certain hours with tourists, was a very small, backbitting, gossipy little neighbourhood.