Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship
by Scott Donaldson

To Vivie, who knew it could be done


As every writer knows, when you're “living in the book”—as Fitzgerald put it— the characters begin to inhabit your life. They are in your mind as you work, and do not go away when you leave your desk. Often they make a call during the night, leaving behind a reminder of something you overlooked during your conscious hours, or of something—as Frost said of the thrill of discovery in poems—that you did not know you knew. Sometimes they invade your dreams.

During the early morning hours of March 31, 1999, I dreamed about Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps it was the blue moon outside the window that brought them to life, but there they were, in the ring, boxing. I knew this made no sense. There is no record that Scott and Ernest ever duked it out, and it would have been a terrible mismatch, with the larger and heavier and more experienced Hemingway liable—as Maxwell Perkins used to say about him, as a fighter—to “kill” the slightly built Fitzgerald.

And yet… Scott got into his share of fights when drunk, and was regularly beaten up for his trouble. It was a tangible, physical expression of his compulsion to court humiliation. Ernest loved to fight, and was proud of his prowess. He did not move with the grace of an accomplished boxer, but as Morley Callaghan and others have testified he loved to hit and could hit very hard. In a real fight, he would surely have knocked Fitzgerald out.

In the dream, that did not happen. Traditionally boxers have been taught to go first for the body, and to deliver the crushing blow to the head only after the opponent's hands come down. In the dream bout, Hemingway went for Fitzgerald's upper arms instead. He punched and jabbed at Scott's biceps until they grew numb. So immobilized, Fitzgerald could neither strike back with force nor do much to protect himself. After that, Ernest simply used Scott as a punching bag, hitting him at will with enough force to inflict pain, but not enough to bring the torture to a conclusion. It was terribly cruel.

This was only a dream, and proved nothing about Hemingway or Fitzgerald or the relationship between them. Yet there was a logic to the fight my imagination conjured up. At the beginning, the friendship between Scott and Ernest was extraordinarily close. These days people ask if they were lovers. The only sensible answer is that one cannot know for certain, but that it was extremely unlikely. Both men shared the homophobic sensibilities characteristic of the times and their midwestern upbringings. But to another question—did they love each other?—the answer almost certainly is yes. The letters of the mid-twenties show that Scott and Ernest shared an extraordinary warmth. The feeling lasted much longer for Fitzgerald than for Hemingway. Ernest tried to break things off by way of insult, time and again. Scott took the blows and came back for more.

What the dream suggested was that Hemingway wanted or needed to strike out at his former friend at least as much as Fitzgerald wanted or needed to be hurt.

In David Levine's wonderful drawing, the two writers appear as a song-and-dance team, natty in polka-dot bow ties and shuffling off to Buffalo behind the stage lights. Both of them carry pens. Hemingway smiles toothily at the audience as he embeds his pen in Fitzgerald's heart. Fitzgerald, maintaining the trace of a grin, looks like a startled ghost.


For half a century now, I have been reading and writing about Fitzgerald and Hemingway. For thirty years I have been teaching their fiction. I wrote my 1950 senior honors thesis on Hemingway's short stories, a choice of subject grudgingly allowed by a Yale English department committed to British authors and distrustful of any writer still alive. The family connection to Fitzgerald may go back even farther in time. My mother grew up in the same St. Paul neighborhood Fitzgerald occupied. I like to think that she danced with him and he flirted with her. But she died young, just as he did, so that by the time the question occurred to me, there was no one left to ask.

This is not the first book on the friendship between these two writers, or even the second. In two separate volumes Matthew J. Bruccoli has provided “a documentary reconstruction of their friendship and estrangement.” The documents he presented—letters mainly, but also notes and comments from the published writings—constitute an invaluable resource for aftercomers. You cannot, after all, interview the dead. What I have tried to do is to engage those documents, along with many others, in telling the story of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway relationship. I've had a still more difficult goal in mind, too: to arrive at an understanding of their failed friendship and what it has to tell us about each of these two great writers and their work.

When Hemingway was writing A Moveable Feast in the late 1950s, his wife, Mary, read a few chapters and objected that this was not autobiography at all. Ernest was writing about other people, not himself. “It's biography by remate,” he explained. Remote is a jai alai term meaning a two-wall shot. In Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald, also, I've tried to work by reflection and rebound, bouncing the material off others who knew both men well. Maxwell Perkins is the principal example, but he is joined in the pages ahead by Gerald and Sara Murphy, Gertrude Stein, Morley Callaghan, and Edmund Wilson—all of whom become characters in the story.

So do Clarence and Grace Hemingway, and Edward and Mollie Fitzgerald, the parents whose importance in shaping these writers' lives and personalities can hardly be overstated. Ginevra King and Agnes von Kurowsky, the young women who jilted Fitzgerald and Hemingway during their most vulnerable years, play major roles in that process as well. I've taken up the painful issue of alcoholism as a malady afflicting both writers, and considered in some detail Hemingway's unfortunate assault on Fitzgerald's reputation. Finally, and with trepidation, I've drawn on the assistance of psychological interpretation in coming to account with Scott and Ernest.

Who is the better writer? people ask, Which of them do you like better, or at all? These are the wrong questions. Fitzgerald was a great writer and so was Hemingway, each in his incomparable way. They may have thought themselves in competition, but the race is over and both tortoise and hare have won. Hemingway was a difficult human being and so was Fitzgerald, again in markedly different ways. I have no wish to judge them—only to tell their story and to arrive at some understanding. If that gets done, it will be enough.

—Scott Donaldson Scottsdale, Arizona


The notes below track the text of the book, and are keyed to the bibliography that follows.


SD                        Scott Donaldson

FSF                      F. Scott Fitzgerald

ZF                        Zelda Fitzgerald

EH                       Ernest Hemingway

MP                       Maxwell Perkins

EW                       Edmund Wilson

JFK                      Hemingway Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston

Neville                  Collection of Maurice and Marcia Neville

PUL                      Firestone Library, Princeton University

Yale                      Beinecke Library, Yale University

Fitzgerald's letters have been printed in several different volumes.

As Ever                 As Ever, Scott Fitz

Correspondence     Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Letters                   The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Life in Letters        F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters

Scott/Max              Dear Scott/Dear Max

To date there aretwo significant collections of Hemingway correspondence.

Only Thing            The Only Thing That Counts

SL                        Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway


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Berg, A. Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. New York: Dutton, 1978.

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---------. The Last Tycoon. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941.

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