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Mythologies: Hemingway’s Bicycles

Ernest Hemingway on the Vel d’Hiv, from ‘A Movable Feast’
In his posthumously-published memoir, A Movable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote about watching bike races in the Vel d’Hiv during his years in Paris in the 1920s.
BnF / fmk

We all love a celebrity cycling fan.

For the better part of a century the Tour de France has been associating itself with celebrities: Josephine Baker in the 1930s, Orson Welles in the 1950s, Dustin Hoffman in the 1980s, Robin Williams in the 2000s, Cameron Diaz in the 2010s, they have all dusted the Tour with a sprinkling of their stardust.

Cycling’s literary fans, though, linger longest in the memory. James Thurber and Damon Runyon wrote about Sixes in American publications during the heyday of the sport over there. Dino Buzzati wrote about the Giro d’Italia. Antoine Blondin wrote about the Tour de France. Gabriel García Márquez wrote about cycling in Colombia.

We especially love our association with the Father of Science Fiction HG Wells, even if it is through one of his least-futuristic – and least-read – novels. And few can get enough of the diminutive dipsomaniac Alfred Jarry, who, I’m sorry to have to tell you, can in no way be credited with being the inspiration for what would become the Dada movement.

But one man stands head and shoulders above all of these: the six-foot tall giant of American literature, the novelist, Nobel laureate and all-round symbol of a particular form of manliness, Ernest Hemingway. Among cycling fans he is revered as the literary cycling fan who was incapable of writing about cycling.

“I have started many stories about bicycle racing,” Hemingway wrote in his posthumously-published memoir A Movable Feast, “but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor tracks and on the roads.” We treat Hemingway, it seems, much the same way as we treat riders like Frank Vandenbroucke: celebrating him less for what he actually did and more for what we like to imagine he might have done, if only he’d been able.

Ernest Hemingway, October 1939.
Ernest Hemingway at work in Idaho, October 1939. Like so much to do with this giant of American literature, this photograph is not quite a true-to-life portrait of the man, with Hemingway himself criticising it, saying “I don’t work like this.”
Lloyd Arnold / Hulton Archive / Getty

Part One – Hemingway in the Velodrome

Hemingway was introduced to track cycling in Paris by a friend, Mike Ward, sometime in 1924. As he tells it in A Moveable Feast – written three decades later with unbelievably amazing powers of recall – that introduction came at a time when he’d been betting on horse races at Auteuil and Enghien but was tiring somewhat of that avocation:

“You never went to the track much, Mike,” I said.

“No. Not for quite a long time.”

“Why did you lay off it?”

“I don’t know,” Mike said. “Yes. Sure I do. Anything you have to bet on to get a kick isn’t worth seeing.”

“Don’t you ever go out?”

“Sometimes to see a big race. One with great horses.”

We spread paté on the good bistro bread and drank the white wine.

“Did you follow them a lot, Mike?”

“Oh yes.”

“What do you see that’s better?”

“Bicycle racing.”

“Really?”

“You don’t have to bet on it. You’ll see.”

“That track takes a lot of time.”

“Too much time. Takes all your time. I don’t like the people.”

“I was very interested.”

“Sure. You make out all right?”

“All right.”

“Good thing to stop,” Mike said.

“I’ve stopped.

“Hard to do. Listen kid, we’ll go to the bike races sometime.”

That was a new and fine thing that I knew little about. But we did not start it right away. That came later. It came to be a pig part of our lives later when the first part of Paris was broken up.

Quite how soon it was after that lunch-time conversation that Ward took Hemingway to his first bike race isn’t clear, but cycling did come to be a big part of Hemingway’s life. For a short while anyway.

The first intimation of how big a thing comes in several letters from April 1925, when Hemingway attended the Six Jours de Paris for the first time.

The Vel d’Hiv, 1910
The Vélodrome d’Hiver – best known as the Vel d’Hiv, sometimes referred to as the Palais des Sports – went through various incarnations dating back to the 1890s. Its most well known version, the version Hemingway knew, was opened by Henri Desgrange and Victor Goddet in 1910, and closed in 1959 having played host to a variety of sports as well as political rallies.
Agence Rol / BnF

At this stage Hemingway had been living in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, for three years. He was yet to publish his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which came out in 1926. Having quit a job in journalism he was trying to make a living as a writer of poems and short stories.

It was 900 francs received for a short story published in Ethel Moorhead’s literary magazine This Quarter that funded Hemingway’s first visit to the Paris Six (in a letter to Moorhead he thanked her for the cheque and wrote: “We are going to pay the rent with it. Pay a first instalment on a suit of clothes. Buy a lot of groceries and go to the Six Day bicycle race. I wish you were going along”). The race itself he wrote about in an all-caps letter to Jane Heap (his typewriter was knackered):

“HAVE JUST COME FROM AND MUST GO BACK TO THE SIX JOURS DE PARIS. BEST IN YEARS. YOU OUGHT TO SEE BROCCO AND MACNAMARA NEVER TRYING TO WIN THE SPRINTS OR GET ANY GLORY OR CLASSIFICATION BUT EVERYTIME A PRIME OF ANYTHING ABOVE A THOUSAND FRANCS IS OFFERED MAC DETACHES FROM THE PACK AND NOBODY CATCHES HIM TILL HES EMPOCHED THE DOUGH. SOME STALWART FROG IS WINNING ALL THE SPRINTS BUT MAC IS POCKETING THE DOUGH. HE AND BROCCO HAVE A GOOD CHANCE TO LAP THE FIELD AND COP THE RACE. FINISHES TONIGHT AT ELEVEN. GOD ITS A SWELL RACE THIS YEAR. HADLEY AND I GO WITH A QUART OF LIQUOR AND BASKET OF FOOD AND STAY TILL BOTH ARE GONE. I WOULD RATHER SEE BROCCO RIDE THAN DAMN NEAR ANYTHING. LITTLE GUY. CAP ON ONE SIDE. TINY FEET JUST BARELY REACH THE PEDDLES. RIDING HIS OWN RACE. NEVER SUCKED IN. KILLS THE OTHERS OFF WITH A CHASE SO MAC CAN COME IN FRESH AND COP THE BIG MONEY PRIMES. WISH YOU WERE HERE TO GO TO IT.”

Empoched: Franglais, from the French verb ‘to pocket’, empocher

NB: letters appear as printed – typos and all – in either Selected Letters, edited by Carlos Baker, or the various volumes of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Sandra Spanier et al.

While that letter offers little detail, we do get to see Hemingway favouring the sort of rider who seems almost perfect for a man with a passion for boxing and bull-fighting. Known as the Iron Man – one of many who bore that nickname – the Australian Reggie MacNamara shrugged off injuries with insouciance, still riding on even when crashes resulted in wounds having to be stitched at the side of the track. Maurice Brocco could be considered another rider you might expect a man like Hemingway to admire. His mercenary tendencies during the 1911 Tour led his Alcyon team-mates to describe him as a domestique after he’d hired out his services to other riders in the race, for which crime Henri Desgrange had him booted off the race.

The 1922 Paris Six
The 1922 Paris Six, as seen by readers of Le Petit Journal Illustré and drawn by André Galland. The leading quartet of riders is made up of Piet van Kempen (winner of the 1923, 1925 and 1932 races), Alfred Grenda, Georges Sérès (winner in 1921, 1922 and 1924) and Maurice Brocco.
Le Petit Journal Illustré / BnF

We also get a glimpse here of one of Hemingway’s key traits, bullshitting, the first-time visitor to a Six declaring the 1925 event, the seventh edition of the race, the “best in years.” As for MacNamara and Brocco lapping the field and winning the race, that did not come to pass, the Australian hardman abandoning the race in its closing hours. Brocco was able to continue, paired with Émile Aerts, whose original partner had also abandoned. At the end of more than 3,500 kilometres of racing they were sixth of the eight teams that finished the race, 14 of the 30 riders who started having withdrawn.

The novelist John Dos Passos – who, like Hemingway, had served with the American Red Cross in Italy, although the two did not cross paths there – watched some of that Six with the Hemingways and wrote about it in his memoir The Best Times, where he noted that “Hem was mad about bicycle racing”:

“He had an evangelistic streak that made him work to convert his friends to whatever mania he was encouraging at the time. I did enjoy going to the six day bicycle races with him. The Six Jours at the Vélo d’Hiver was fun. French sporting events had for me a special comical air that I enjoyed. We would collect, at the stalls and barrows of one of the narrow market streets we both loved, a quantity of wine and cheeses and crunchy rolls, a pot of pate and perhaps a cold chicken, and sit up in the gallery. Hem knew all the statistics and the names of the riders. His enthusiasm was catching, but he tended to make a business of it while I just liked to eat and drink and enjoy the show.”

Hemingway’s evangelistic streak notwithstanding, Dos Passos – author of the USA trilogy of novels – noted that there was a line Hemingway did not want those he converted to cross:

“Now and then he would remember that I was a rival wordfellow and clam up, or else warn me sharply that I mustn’t do any writing about bicycle races. That was his domain. I would assure him that sports writing was out of my line, and that besides Paul Morand had done the thing up brown in La Nuit des Six Jours.”

‘View from Upper Part of Coliseum of Bicycle Racers’, by John Dos Passos
As well as novels, John Dos Passos also dabbled with painting, and his body of work in that area includes ‘View from Upper Part of Coliseum of Bicycle Racers’
John Dos Passos

Another acolyte who joined the Hemingways in the Vel d’Hiv was Sylvia Beach, the proprietor of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop:

“Adrienne and I took up cycling under Hemingway’s tuition and influence; not that we did any cycling ourselves, but we attended with our professor the ‘Six-Jours,’ that six-day merry-go-round at the Vél d’Hiv, easily the most popular event in the Paris season. Fans went and lived there for the duration, watching more and more listlessly the little monkey-men, hunched over their bikes, slowly circling the ring or suddenly sprinting, night and day, in an atmosphere of smoke and dust and theatrical stars, and amid the blare of loud-speakers. We did our best to follow what the professor was saying to us, but rarely could we distinguish words above the din. Unfortunately, Adrienne and I could spare only one night for this sport, engrossing though we found it. But what wouldn’t have been engrossing in Hemingway’s company?”

That Beach understood the Paris Six to be a social occasion – “the most popular event in the Paris season” – is important to note. Sixes in general, from New York to Berlin, were places to be seen. The best place to be seen at them was not away up in the Gods but in a track-side box, which is where Hemingway watched the 1926 Paris Six from, with various letters from April that year mentioning the race, starting with a letter to Herbert Gorman:

“Have finished re-writing The Sun Also Rises and am having a swell time in town again. Have a box for all next week at the Six day Bike race. As it took all next month’s rent and food money to buy it I hope I’ll be able to sell the Extra four seats. They are easy to sell though. Bring double and triple price if I wanted to scalp them.”

Later that week he offered the poet Ernest Walsh a glimpse of what was involved in a day at the velodrome:

“The Sun Also Rises is finally finished. Scribners are going to publish it and The Torrents of Spring. I got enough of an advance so that I scuttled back with it practically intact and after deducting the cost of the trip we can still go to Spain next month for 3 months. My writing is shaky from 9 hrs at the 6 day bike race with a fiasco – completo – of chianti and 2 btls. Volnay. Maybe that wouldn’t make your hand shake but it makes my hand shake.”

In between the chianti and the red wine and the racing, there also time for some work, or at least that’s what he told Maxwell Perkins:

“We’re having a great time at the 6 day bike race this week. I’ve a box for the week and do all my work there. It’s a great show.”

Toward the end of the month Hemingway summed up the week in a letter to F Scott Fitzgerald:

“I’ve had a rotten cold. Been being very social and am god damn tired of it. […] Went 5 of the 6 days to the bike race. It was swell”.

Having started out in the stalls in 1925 and graduated to a box in 1926, in 1927 Hemingway finagled a backstage pass, as a guest of MacNamara and the French rider Gabriel Marcillac. The published letters don’t expand on why he was backstage. Was he working on something that was never published? Or was he just another chamois sniffer, eager to rub shoulders with the stars of the day?

Reggie MacNamara and Émile Aerts, Vel d’Hiv, 1927
The Australian track star Reggie MacNamara, who won the 1927 Paris Six with his partner Émile Aerts. “I have to be herein Paris from April 4-10 for the six day bike race,” Hemingway wrote in a letter to Edward O’Brien in March that year. “Have arranged to see it, from the inside with MacNamara and Marcillac.”
Agence Rol / BnF

Later in 1927 The Sun Also Rises funded a visit to another Six, this time in Berlin, as Hemingway explained to Fitzgerald:

“Have about 50,000 words done on a novel and due to these bloody damn reviews coming in and the piles and one thing and another have been knocked to hell on working all this week – going to Berlin tonight for a week and forget about the whole bloody business. Got a wire from Max Perkins yesterday that the book [The Sun Also Rises] had sold 7,000 plus and as I only drew down $750 advance that means after paying off what I still owe on the Torrents that I’ll have a thousand bucks maybe so Pauline and I are going for a week and see the Six Days, Flechtheim, Rowahlt ny German publisher and drink a little beer.”

Pauline: Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife

Apart from a visit to the Chicago Six in 1928 and a second visit to the Berlin Six in November 1929, that’s pretty much the sum of what the published letters tell us about Hemingway’s interest in Six Day racing.

For many of Hemingway’s biographers, cycling and Six Day racing are synonymous. So, for instance, discussing the breakdown of Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley in the autumn of 1926 (after she’d discovered he was having an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer), Michael Reynolds tells his readers:

“That night Ernest and Pauline went to the six-day bike races at the Velodrome where they could discuss their romance in public without fear of listeners.”

What a heartbreaker, you’re probably thinking, taking his new love to the Vel d’Hiv. But me, not being so easily impressed by such romantic gestures, I’m wondering how the Paris Six, which took place in April that year, could still be going on in September when this night of passion in the Palais des Sports is alleged to have taken place.

Reynolds is not alone in confusing any visit to the velodrome with Sixes. Carlos Baker has this to say of how Hemingway spent the autumn of 1929:

“His Sundays that fall combined duty and pleasure – Mass at St. Sulpice with Pauline, followed by the six-day bicycle races at the Vélodrome d’Hiver.”

Again, the Paris Six came at the end of the Six Day circuit, after the Sixes in New York’s Madison Square Garden and Berlin’s Sportpalast and all the other stops on the circuit of races that crossed continents and spanned the winter of 1928/29.

The New Yorker, March 1929
Hemingway’s cycling fandom coincided with a golden age for the sport in the US, the Garden Six even making it to the March 1929 cover of The New Yorker in this Theodore Haupt illustration (Madison Square Garden hosted three Sixes across the winter of 1928/29, in December, January and March). In France, track racing was at the height of its glory, its stars more popular than the vagabonds of the road racing scene.
Theodore Haupt / New Yorker

You can, if you want, take this as explanation in part for why Hemingway was unable to write about cycling: his readers – like his biographers – didn’t understand it. Or, you can see it as the problem with biographies where the author has to become a Jack of all trades and understands none of them. When it comes to Hemingway, that latter reading is probably the more important and explains why so many of his biographers have got so much of his life wrong.

From A Moveable Feast, we do know that there was more to cycling than Sixes for Hemingway. As well as the smoke-filled Vel d’Hiv he went to the outdoor velodromes the Stade Buffalo and the Parc des Princes. He claimed to have seen Gustave Ganay fall and crack his skull open, a crash we know occurred in August 1926 in the Parc des Princes.

The published letters tell us little of this other side of Hemingway’s interest in track racing. Save, that is, for a November 1929 letter to the painter Waldo Peirce, in which – like the first letter in 1925 – Hemingway again shows that it wasn’t necessarily the sporting aspect of track racing that attracted him:

“See Charley Sweeney pretty often – He came to Bike races Sundays until found races fixed. Everything’s fixed but I dont give a damn as long as I contstate it myself and dont lose any money betting. Charley’s a damned good guy though –

“We shove for US. first part of Dec. if can get away. If miss you here we’ll meet in Key West –

“It’s Sunday morning and got to go to church – Dimanch C’est l’Eglise et le Vel D’Hiv – Thank God not forced to choose between them – They are wise not to compete – Imagine the priests derrier grosse motos at St. Sulpice –”

constate: Franglais, from the French verb constater, to notice

Another of Hemingway’s acolytes, the poet Allen Tate, offers further evidence of this other side of Hemingway’s interest in track racing:

“By the […] fall of 1929, I was going every Sunday to the bicycle races at the Velodrome d’Hiver with Ernest Hemingway. I never thought I’d like a bicycle race, but he had the gift of imparting enthusiasm for anything that he was enthusiastic about. I wish I had gone to bullfights with him. It would have been much the same thing, I’m sure.”

By this stage, though, Hemingway’s Paris years were drawing to a close. Having arrived in 1922 with his first wife he left with his second in March 1928 – hence no visit to the Paris Six in April that year – and relocated to Key West in Florida. He returned to Europe in April 1929, staying mostly in Paris but also travelling to Spain, Germany and Switzerland before leaving again in January 1930.

Paris Six, 1932
Wealthy fans could dine at the side of the track during a race ...
Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho / Getty
Paris Six, 1928
... in the upper tiers of the stands less wealthy fans brought their own supplies
Le Miroir des Sports / BnF

That, more or less, is the totality of what the published letters have to add to what little Hemingway wrote about track cycling in those couple or three pages of A Movable Feast, of quite how big a thing cycling became for him for a few years in the second half of the 1920s.

It’s not much, really.

But the truth is our reverence for Hemingway isn’t based on what he wrote, or even on what we imagine he might have written if only he’d been able (some even suggest that his Great Cycling Novel might have been in a suitcase of his papers that was lost in 1922, several years before he’d been introduced to the sport).

No, our reverence for Hemingway is really based on the belief that he’s a decorated war hero, a man who served on the Italian Front, saw action at Caporetto and in the same high mountains in which Ottavio Bottecchia served. A man who became besties with Bartolomeo Aimo. A man who drove ambulances for the Red Cross.

Apart from the medal, though, little of what we are time and again told about Hemingway’s war record is true.

Part Two – Hemingway at the Front

Much of the myth of Hemingway’s war record stems from a simple misunderstanding. His 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms is not an autobiography, it is not even an autobiographical novel. It is a work of fiction. “I remember living in the book and making up what happened in it every day,” he wrote in an introduction to a 1948 edition of the book, “Making the country and the people and the things that happened I was happier than I had ever been.”

A Farewell to Arms opens in the summer of 1915, when Hemingway had just turned 16 and was still living with his parents in Oak Park, Illinois. It moves on to its hero, Frederic Henry, getting injured the following year. After recuperating in Milan, Henry returns to the frontline and becomes a part of the Italian retreat at Caporetto in October/November 1917, at which time Hemingway was only thinking of taking up arms. The novel ends the following year, some months before Hemingway himself first arrived in Italy.

Yes, A Farewell to Arms draws on personal experiences. Like Hemingway its hero is injured by a mortar shell. Like Hemingway its hero falls in love with a nurse. But it also draws on the experiences and the knowledge of others, such as George Trevelyan’s Scenes from Italy’s War. And it draws on the author’s imagination, with the nurse Frederic Henry falls in love with dead at the novel’s end, while the nurse Hemingway himself fell in love with lived into her 90s. Like a lot of novels, it is a creative blend of experience and imagination.

A creative blend of experience and imagination also best describes the story of Hemingway’s wartime experiences.

A scene from Frank Borzage’s 1932 film ‘A Farewell to Arms’
A Farewell to Arms has been filmed twice, in 1932 (with High Noon’s Gary Cooper as Frederic Henry) and 1957 (with Doris Day’s on-screen paramour Rock Hudson taking the lead), with a third version set to be filmed in 2024 (starring Tom Blyth from The Hunger Games). While the 1932 version, directed by Frank Borzage, takes artistic liberties, particularly in treating the retreat from Caporetto as an expressionist nightmare (above), it is true to reality in one regard: the hero never drives an ambulance.
Frank Borzage / Paramount / Warner Bros / BFI

The story of Hemingway’s experiences in Italy in 1918 has become one of those stories handed on from biographer to biographer, a family heirloom handed down from one generation to the next, each just accepting it and repeating it, without questioning it. Until recently, that is, with more and more of Hemingway’s biographers challenging the stories told. To the fore here is Steven Florczyk, whose Ernest Hemingway, The American Red Cross, and The Great War, focuses on this one element of Hemingway’s story and, drawing on official reports and other material, separates the facts of Hemingway’s war from the fiction of Frederic Henry’s.

A New Kind of War

Hemingway was a few months past his eighteenth birthday when he ran away from home to join a newspaper. That paper was the Kansas City Star which, American geography being what it is, is not in Kansas but the next state over, Missouri. You can understand why American kids give up on geography in High School and struggle to place Europe on a map.

According to one of his sisters, Marcelline, Hemingway tried to join the army but was rejected, wasn’t man enough for them, his eyesight failing him. Manly man that he was – despite what the army said – Hemingway refused to accept no for an answer and tried to join the navy. He was turned away there too. No not meaning no, Hemingway tried the marines. They didn’t want him either.

Macelline (left) and Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was the second of six children born to Clarence Hemingway, a doctor, and Grace Hall Hemingway, an opera singer and artist. Up to the age of about five, Hemingway’s mother raised him as the ‘twin’ of his older sister Marcelline, clothing the two alike in dresses and bonnets. Marcelline is on the left in these two pictures, Hemingway with long flowing hair on the right.
JFK Library

Given the manner in which Hemingway reinvented himself as the macho man of letters, when I first heard that story I couldn’t help but think of that other weedy reject from the US military, Steve Rogers. When offered the opportunity to reinvent himself with a top secret Super Soldier Serum, Rogers seized the day and became Captain America. Hemingway’s super serum was ink, with a twist of testosterone. Truth – the deeper truth, the literary kind that doesn’t have to be actually true – became his vibranium shield.

In total, according to another version of this story, Hemingway was 4F’ed by the military eleven times, each because of his eyesight. You imagine him going home after each rejection and buying a big sack of carrots, munching through them before trying again, hoping to have improved his eyesight. Only to be rejected again, the dumb schmuck.

But Hemingway cannot be seen as a proto-Cap. Despite these tales of being rejected by the main service arms, an increasing number of respected officers in his army of biographers doubt that Hemingway was ever rejected by any branch of the military even once. No mention of him can be found in official recruitment records.

One biographer, Kenneth Lynn, goes further and argues that Hemingway’s need for glasses – which he then did not yet wear, his poor eyesight not yet getting the better of his vanity – was not really the sort of impediment that saw potential recruits fail the physical. Lynn cites the case of Harry S Truman who “despite the fact that without his glasses he was helpless” was still accepted for service by the Kansas City recruiters.

What is known is that, in November 1917, seven months after America had entered the Great War and just a couple of months after starting his journalism apprenticeship, Hemingway wrote to Marcelline telling her that he intended to enlist in the Canadian army:

“I intend to enlist in the Canadian army soon but may wait till spring brings back Blue days and Fair. Honest kid, I cant stay out much longer, the Canadian Mission down here are good pals of mine and I intend to go in. Major Biggs And Lieut. Simmie are the officers in charge. If you enlist in the Canadian forces you are given as much time as you specify and then go to either Toronto or Halifax and the[n] to London and in three months you are in France. They are the greatest fighters in the world and our troops are not to be spoken of in the same breath. I may even wait until the summer is over but believe me I will go not because of any love of gold braid glory etc. but because I couldn’t face any body after the war and not have been in it.”

Hemingway was eager to join the Great Adventure going on in France. And at this stage, for Americans, the war was still only going on in France: America had declared war on Germany in April 1917 but it was December 7 – not the infamy one – before war was declared on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrian breakthrough at Caporetto in October/November 1917 – during which they pushed the front line from the Isonzo river as far as the Piave, a distance of about 125 kms – having significantly altered the balance of power on the Italian Front.

Like many young American men at that time Hemingway bought into the PR and propaganda being produced by the Creel Committee. War was a patriotic duty. He would have also seen articles in his own paper, the Kansas City Star, which took a romantic view of the Italian Front, one declaring it “the most dramatic, the most spectacular battle line in Europe.” There was also the pressure of family history, with both grandfathers having served in the Civil War.

In another letter to his sister in 1917 Hemingway recalled one of his grandparents when he told Marcelline that he’d make it to Europe one way or another:

“I can’t let a show like this go on without getting in on it. There hasn’t been a real war to go to since Grandfather Hemingway’s shooting at the battle of Bull Run.”

The fact that Grandpa Hemingway hadn’t been at the Battle of Bull Run – and that his own sister would have known this – doesn’t seem to have bothered Hemingway, who even then was not in the habit of letting truth get in the way of a good yarn.

By this point, Hemingway’s military ambitions had already seen him join the Home Guard. At six foot tall and still in his teens it’s hard to not to think of him turning up to parade with a scarf wrapped round his neck. He was soon to rank up, applying to join the American Red Cross in February 1918. Which, I guess, would actually make him more Private Godfrey.

The American Red Cross then and the International Red Cross today served different functions. By the time Hemingway joined, the ARC was very much a part of the American PR and propaganda war. It had abandoned neutrality and was limiting itself to providing succour to only one side in the fight, the Allies. It worked with the Creel Committee to create propaganda supporting the war effort, producing posters, newspaper and magazine spreads, and even films.

American Red Cross posters from World War One
American Red Cross posters from World War One
LoC

Hemingway’s application to join was accepted and he was inducted in May 1918, allowing him to exchange his Home Guard uniform – with or without scarf – for an American Red Cross one. Or, as it actually proved to be, a US military uniform with an ARC insignia on its collar, as he wrote in a letter to his parents:

“Our uniforms are regular United States Army officers’ uniforms and look like a million dollars.”

As good as his uniform looked, even for a man who wasn’t interested in gold braid glory, it didn’t look good enough and Hemingway pimped it up with a $30 pair of Cordova leather boots (allowing for inflation, you’d need to be splurging about $600 on a pair of cycling shoes to match that today). When he got to Europe he added a superfluous Sam Browne belt.

Hemingway in uniform
If you overlooked the absence of a gun, Hemingway looked the very picture of an American soldier, which was the intention. Steven Florczyk quotes one ARC official who noted the force multiplier effect of Italians seeing Americans in uniform: “We recognize the importance of the propaganda element in our work and wish to leave nothing undone to mark us as Americans. […] For every American seen in Italy, ‘rumor’ gives 10 more. At no time were there more than 100 ambulance men in Milan; and yet a Milanese whom I met in Rome told me that one of his friends had written him there were at least 3000 American troops in the city and that the uniform had already ceased to attract attention.”
LoC

Before departing for Europe, the ARC marched Hemingway and 75,000 others down Fifth Avenue, from 82nd Street to 8th. In letters home he boasted to his parents of having led the parade. According to Florczyk it was actually President Woodrow Wilson who played that role, followed by Red Cross nurses. Behind them came assorted Boy Scouts and members of the Loyal Order of Moose, with Hemingway and his fellow ARC ambulance drivers, along with sundry others, bringing up the rear of the parade.

American Red Cross parade, New York City, May 1918
ARC NYC parade, May 1918. The New York Times described it as being the “greatest procession ever held of women engaged in war work.”
LoC

On May 23, 1918, Hemingway sailed for Europe. The war was into its fourth year. Millions were dead, many more were wounded, but Hemingway couldn’t wait to get to the Land of Adventure.

American Bohemians in Paris

After landing in Bordeaux on June 3 Hemingway travelled on to Paris by night train. The story goes that Big Bertha was showering shells on the City of Light when Hemingway arrived and he and a friend hired a cab and haired all over town hoping to be able to predict where the next shot would land and get there in advance. Eventually boring of their fruitless chase they returned to their hotel, where a shell landed and shrapnel blew a chunk off the hotel’s facade.

In the trade, they call that story foreshadowing. They also call it bunkum, for great as that story is it’s not quite true and Hemingway mostly had a quiet few days in Paris doing the tourist thing – the Champs-Élysées, the Tuileries, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe – before being moved on to Milan by way of another overnight train ride.

The First Glimpses of War

Arriving in Milan on June 7 Hemingway was immediately put to work, the Franco-Swiss Suter & Thèvenot munitions factory outside Castellazzo di Bollate, 15 kilometres north-west of the city, having exploded. Fifty-nine people, mostly women, were killed and Hemingway and his ARC colleagues were set to work recovering their bodies, or what remained of their bodies.

Suter & Thèvenot munitions factory in 1917
The Italian photographer and documentary film-maker Luca Comerio documented the reality of life in the Suter & Thèvenot munitions factory in 1917. Hemingway fictionalised the aftermath of the 1918 explosion in his 1932 short story ‘A Natural History of the Dead’
Luca Comerio

A month shy of his nineteenth birthday and hopped up on romantic notions of service and duty, Hemingway’s introduction to the horrors of war had a lasting impact on him. In the short term, though, the impact was not so much, as a postcard home to a friend at the Kansas City Star shows:

“Having a wonderful time here!!! Had my baptism of fire my first day here when an entire munition plant exploded. We carried them in like at the General Hospital, Kansas City. I go to the front tomorrow. Oh, Boy!!! I’m glad I’m in it. They love us down here in the mountains.”

Just one month after that baptism of fire Hemingway’s front line adventure ended and he claims to have received the last rites after being wounded when an Austrian mortar shell exploded near to where he was standing.

It is into those 30-some days that all the stories told of Hemingway’s war must somehow be fitted, from the plains of Caporetto to the heights of the Dolomites, all the ambulance driving, as well as the lifelong friendships formed with Bartolomeo Aimo and Ottavio Bottecchia. Four weeks filled to overflowing with all the lies we choose to believe about Hemingway at the front.

Florczyk’s research has identified the four sections behind the Italian Front the American Red Cross was operating in at the time Hemingway arrived in Italy in June 1918. Section One was at Bassano, near Monte Grappa. Section Two was at Roncade. Section Three operated out of Casale Sul Sile. Section Four was in Schio. A fifth section was in development at Fanzolo, between Bassano and Roncade.

Schio – where Hemingway was stationed – was the largest section, having a fleet of 17 Fiat and six Ford ambulances, with 36 drivers to crew them. It was also the furthest from the front lines, the quietest of the four stations then in operation.

Italian Front, 1918
Italian troops in the Carnic Alps. “The mountain warfare of Italy is extraordinarily unlike that upon any other front,” HG Wells wrote in a 1916 article published in the New York Times under the headline ‘Italy’s Picturesque Mountain War.’
Robert Hunt / Windmill Books / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Schio had been closer to the action. Thirty-or-so kilometres north of the town, the 2,239 metre high Monte Pasubio – Cima Palon – rose out of the Venetian plain to the edge of the Trentino Salient, that part of Austria that bulged into Italian territory.

Pasubio had seen fierce fighting in the summer and autumn of 1916, when the Austrians attempted to push forward. The following year the area very much became part of the Italian Front’s engineering war: hundreds of kilometres of aqueducts built to carry water; a road built with more than 50 tunnels; electricity generating plants installed in rock caverns; cable car systems built to carry supplies. Throughout 1917 and into 1918 explosions tore through the Pasubio massif as, in the words of Tom Isitt, “mine warfare was elevated to an art form”. The most powerful mine saw the Austrians setting off 50,000 kilograms of explosives in March 1918.

Field guns were hauled up mountainsides Fitzcaraldo fashion.
The Italian Front was not without the senseless sacrifice of life associated with the Western Front. At Caporetto alone tens of thousands died on both sides. But much of the fighting in Italy happened at altitude, each side occupying ridges from which they lobbed shells at one another as they attempted to command the valleys below. Field guns were hauled up mountainsides Fitzcaraldo fashion.

Hemingway saw nothing of that war. By the time he arrived in the Schio Country Club – as it had become colloquially known – on June 10 the fighting around Pasubio had quietened and the action moved east, toward Monte Grappa. There was so little to do that days were spent swimming and playing baseball, nights drinking and courting the local women. It was fun. But it wasn’t the Great Adventure that Hemingway had signed up for.

Florczyk quotes one veteran driver who had already served in France, Emmet Shaw, describing Hemingway as wanting action:

“He wanted to ‘participate in the struggle’. He thought we were a bunch of do-nothings. On our part we thought he was an impulsively presumptuous child come to endanger our nice life at Schio.”

Ernest Hemingway behind the wheel of an ARC ambulance
Hemingway at the wheel of an American Red Cross ambulance. According to Florczyk’s research, across the whole of June 1918 the ambulances at Schio made just 140 trips, carrying 1,020 patients. That compared with 406 trips and 4,549 patients for Section One, the busiest of the ARC’s outposts. It is unlikely that Hemingway, in his two weeks in Schio, ever got to drive an ambulance, no matter how many times he is described as having been an ambulance driver on the Italian Front.
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On June 15 a fresh Austrian offensive commenced, the Second Battle of the Piave, Italy’s ‘picturesque’ White War giving way to mud-churned fields as the fighting shifted to the Venetian Plain. Nine of Schio’s 36 drivers and more than half of its ambulances were temporarily transferred to Section Two at Roncade. Hemingway was not among them and his experience of the Austrian offensive was that of a distant observer.

When an opportunity came to transfer to a more forward position with the canteen service, Hemingway took it. On June 24, a fortnight after arriving in Schio, he temporarily transferred out of the Ambulance Corps and joined the mobile canteen service.

“What I am supposed to be doing,” he wrote in a letter, “is running a posto di ricovero. That is, I dispense chocolate and cigarettes to the wounded and the soldiers in the front line.”

An American Red Cross mobile canteen.
An American Red Cross mobile canteen. No actual mobile canteen was available at the time of Hemingway’s transfer and he had to make do with a bicycle and a rucksack. Much of his first week with the canteen service was spent getting his inventory in order. It was July before he made his first trip to the trenches, distributing cigarettes, chocolate and postcards. Six days later he made his last.
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The Second Battle of the Piave was more or less over by the time Hemingway transferred to the canteen service. Austrian troops had crossed the Piave and advanced through the Italian lines as far as Fossalta di Piave, only to be beaten back, beginning a retreat on June 22. By the time Hemingway arrived at his new posting in Fornaci the Austrians were back on the other side of the river. All around the land bore the scars of war, the earth churned up by bombardment, the ground littered with discarded equipment. Bodies rotted where they lay.

For the callow war tourist, it was a source of souvenirs to be bragged about in a letter home:

“I was all through the big battle and have Austrian carbines and ammunition, German and Austrian medals, officers automatic pistols, Boche helmets about a dozen Bayonets, star shell pistols and knives and almost everything you can think of. The only limit to the amount of souvenirs I could have is what I could carry for there were so many dead Austrians and prisoners the ground was almost black with them.”

For the more mature writer it became grist to the mill of imagination, adding verisimilitude to the 1933 short story ‘A Way You’ll Never Be’:

The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farm houses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. Coming along the road on a bicycle, getting off to push the machine when the surface of the road became too broken, Nicholas Adams saw what had happened by the position of the dead.

They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.

In the grass and the grain, beside the road, and in some places scattered over the road, there was much material: a field kitchen, it must have come over when things were going well; many of the calf-skin-covered haversacks, stick bombs, helmets, rifles, sometimes one butt-up, the bayonet stuck in the dirt, they had dug quite a little at the last; stick bombs, helmets, rifles, intrenching tools, ammunition boxes, star-shell pistols, their shells scattered about, medical kits, gas masks, empty gas-mask cans, a squat, tripodded machine gun in a nest of empty shells, full belts protruding from the boxes, the water-cooling can empty and on its side, the breech block gone, the crew in odd positions, and around them, in the grass, more of the typical papers.

American Red Cross personnel distributing gifts in Italian trenches
American Red Cross personnel distributing gifts in Italian trenches, 1918
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Around about July 2 Hemingway was finally ready to visit the trenches, a bicycle and haversack transporting he and his supplies to the front lines, the Piave river acting as no man’s land between the Italian and Austrian soldiers entrenched on either side of it.

On the evening of July 8 he was delivering his supplies of cigarettes, chocolates and postcards to a forward listening post on a bend in the river when an Austrian mortar shell landed in the trench he was in. An Italian soldier standing between Hemingway and the blast bore the brunt of the explosion and was killed instantly. Hemingway’s lower body was peppered with shrapnel.

The short version of what happened next is that Hemingway made his way from the trench to the first aid post, approximately 150 metres away. His wounds were treated there as best they could be before he was transported by ambulance to the nearest field hospital. Five days later he was transported by train to the American Red Cross hospital in Milan, arriving there July 15. Over the next few months he went from wheelchair to crutches to cane as he recovered from his injuries, fell in love and spent a lot of his time getting drunk.

He was still in Milan when his six month tour of duty with the ARC concluded on November 16, five days after the war itself had ended. In January Hemingway boarded a ship taking him back to America. The Great Adventure was over and all he had to show for it was some lousy scars and a broken heart. And the battlefield trophies he’d taken from the dead near the Piave.

Hemingway on crutches
After four weeks near the front line of the fighting, Hemingway’s Italian campaign gave way to six months of convalescing in Milan.

The long story is a lot more exciting than the short, especially so the further it gets from the truth. When the Austrian shell exploded, Hemingway was knocked unconscious and buried with earth. When he came to he picked up an injured Italian soldier and carried him over his shoulder to the first aid dug-out 150 metres away. Fifty metres into the journey a bullet from an Italian machine gun ripped into his knee. Hemingway, as if climbing his own personal Calvary, stumbled but did not fall, and completed the remaining 100 metres to the first aid post. But by the time he got there the soldier he was carrying was dead. Worse, he had bled out and soaked Hemingway’s own clothes with so much blood that it was thought he was about to die too. He had to pull his tunic open Chippendales fashion to show he wasn’t injured, save for his leg. (What a guy.)

Another version has even more excitement. Hemingway, when visiting the forward trenches, had taken to borrowing a gun from the Italian soldiers there and taking potshots at the Austrians on the other side of the river. He is said to have felled a sniper in no man’s land – the Piave river, remember – and gone over the top to bring him back to the Italian trenches when the mortar shell landed near him and then doing the whole et cetera thing to the first aid dug-out with a soldier over his shoulder and an Austrian machine gun strafing his knee. (Makes you cry.)

Hemingway himself claimed to have no memory of his alleged act of bravery, first offered it as a story told to him the next day. He only later claimed the story for himself, with – of course – embellishments.

For the record, here’s the bit in Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms, in which the protagonist talks to a doctor, Rinaldi, about getting wounded:

My orderly had finished pouring water and the bed felt cool and lovely and I was telling him where to scratch on the soles of my feet against the itching when one of the doctors brought in Rinaldi. He came in very fast and bent down over the bed and kissed me. I saw he wore gloves.

‘How are you, baby? How do you feel? I bring you this – ’ It was a bottle of cognac. The orderly brought a chair and he sat down, ‘and good news. You will be decorated. They want to get you the medaglia d’argento but perhaps they can get only the bronze.’

‘What for?’

‘Because you are gravely wounded. They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I was blown up while we were eating cheese.’

‘Be serious. You must have done something heroic either before or after. Remember carefully.’

‘I did not.’

‘Didn’t you carry anybody on your back? Gordini says you carried several people on your back but the medical major at the first post declares it is impossible. He has to sign the proposition for the citation.’

‘I didn’t carry anybody. I couldn’t move.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Rinaldi.

He took off his gloves.

‘I think we can get you the silver. Didn’t you refuse to be medically aided before the others?’

‘Not very firmly.’

‘That doesn’t matter. Look how you are wounded. Look at your valorous conduct in asking to go always to the first line. Besides, the operation was successful.’

If you go to the Piave river today and find the bend where Hemingway was wounded, you’ll find a plaque erected, memorialising events of the night of July 8, 1918. Absent from it is the name of – any mention of – the Italian soldier who was killed instantly as his body bore the brunt of the mortar round that wounded Hemingway. For a century few even wondered who he was. That changed only a few years ago, when researchers in the US and Italy identified him as Fedele Temperini, a 26-year-old conscript from Tuscany serving with the 69 Reggimento Fanteria, Brigata Ancona.

There is no record of another soldier being killed that night and his body carried on anyone’s back to the nearest medical post.

Hemingway was awarded a medal by the Italians for what happened that night, though it took several years to arrive. The citation for it states that, having been wounded, he allowed others more seriously injured to be transported to the nearest field hospital before he was. You could say it was awarded less for heroics and more for his triage abilities and good manners. (“No, please, after you, I insist.”)

Most accounts of Hemingway’s wounding tell you that he was hit by 237 pieces of shrapnel that night, all in his leg, the uncelebrated Temperini having taken the main force of the blast. Numbers being what they are, that sounds like an awful lot of shrapnel. The important number in terms of Hemingway’s shrapnel wounds is that all bar about ten of them were superficial. Life nor limb was in immediate danger, save for the ever present threat of infection in a pre-penicillin world.

Some, however, like to big up Hemingway’s injuries and claim that his life so hung in the balance that he was given the last rites by an Italian priest, Don Giuseppe Bianchi.

Without wanting to be that guy who’s granny lived to 102 and smoked like a kipper factory, I do feel I should share my experience with the Catholic Church and the ease with which it awards Get Out of Purgatory Free cards to the sickly. When I was seven I came down with a bit of a chest infection. A tickly cough, no more. The doctor, though, talked the whole thing up and told my mother it was pneumonia. The mother not being easily impressed the doc had to inflate it to double pneumonia. She was too impressed. The men in black were called in and I was given the last rites. A few boxes of tissues later I was grand. There are limited edition chocolate bars that are harder to get than the last rites.

Whether Hemingway did receive the last rites or not is, as you will have doubtlessly worked out for yourself by now, debatable. At the time of his injury he was a Protestant, only converting to Catholicism after being divorced by his first wife and marrying his second (when Boris Johnson converted to Catholicism for his third marriage after after two divorces he relied on the Jesuitical argument that the first two weddings didn’t count as they were never valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church).

The primary source for the claim he received the last rites is a letter Hemingway wrote in 1926 in which he claimed that, if anything “I am a Catholic. Had extreme unction administered to me as such in July 1918 and recovered. So I guess I’m a Super-Catholic.” (Three divorces. Three.)

It has to be said, the more you read Hemingway’s letters, the more you find yourself thinking of things like American Psycho and trying to work out did any of this stuff actually happen to him or did he just imagine it all.

Agnes Von Kurowsky with Ernest Hemingway
A 19-year-old Hemingway with 26-year-old Agnes Von Kurowsky, a former librarian who had put away the books when the call was made for women to join the American Red Cross. Hemingway was totally besotted with the idea of being in love. While in New York for his ARC induction he had written his parents that he had become engaged to the actress Mae Marsh, a fantasy that his parents initially took seriously. Between 1921 and 1946 Hemingway went through wives like some people go through houses, each time trading up to a new spouse before trading in the old.

Hemingway’s injury, then, it was not quite what the stories tell us it was. It was, though, the end of his active duty. His four weeks of active duty, much of which had been filled with inaction.

In January 1919, eight months after sailing from New York, Hemingway returned. The New York Sun hailed him as a conquering hero, reporting that he was the first American to be wounded in Italy (he wasn’t) and that he had received more wounds than any other soldier or civilian in Europe (he hadn’t). They also claimed that, his wounds notwithstanding, Hemingway had returned to action at the front and taken part in the fighting on Monte Grappa (he didn’t).

Hemingway chose not to correct the Sun’s errors, preferring instead to get sauced with friends in the city that never sleeps. Given that the each of the erroneous claims had come from letters he’d written home, this is perhaps understandable.

Less understandable is why he made such claims in the first place, given that his fellow ARC volunteer Edward McKey had been killed on June 15, during the Austrian offensive on the Piave. It’s one thing to talk up minor wounds into major, but placing your own injuries above the death of another is a whole other level of self-aggrandising fantasy.

As for taking part in the fighting on Monte Grappa, this was another case of war tourism, Hemingway decamping Milan for a few days to watch the fighting from a safe distance. It was an adventure that did not end well, a dose of jaundice cutting short his trip.

If you still choose to believe A Farewell to Arms to be autobiographical then it’s probably worth recalling this passage from Frederic Henry’s convalescence in Milan:

One day while I was in bed with jaundice Miss Van Campen came in the room, opened the door into the armoire and saw the empty bottles there. I had sent a load of them down by the porter and I believe she must have seen them going out and come up to find some more. They were mostly vermouth bottles, marsala bottles, capri bottles, empty chianti flasks and a few cognac bottles. The porter had carried out the large bottles, those that had held vermouth, and the straw-covered chianti flasks, and left the brandy bottles for the last. It was the brandy bottles and a bottle shaped like a bear, which had held kümmel, that Miss Van Campen found. The bear-shaped bottle enraged her particularly. She held it up; the bear was sitting up on his haunches with his paws up; there was a cork in his glass head and a few sticky crystals at the bottom. I laughed.

“It was kümmel,” I said. “The best kümmel comes in those bear-shaped bottles. It comes from Russia.”

“Those are all brandy bottles, aren’t they?” Miss Van Campen asked.

“I can’t see them all,” I said. “But they probably are.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“I bought them and brought them in myself,” I said. “I have had Italian officers visit me frequently and I have kept brandy to offer them.”

“You haven’t been drinking it yourself?” she said.

“I have also drunk it myself.”

“Brandy,” she said. “Eleven empty bottles of brandy and that bear liquid.”

“Kümmel.”

“I will send for some one to take them away. Those are all the empty bottles you have?”

“For the moment.”

“And I was pitying you having jaundice. Pity is something that is wasted on you.”

“Thank you.”

“I suppose you can’t be blamed for not wanting to go back to the front. But I should think you would try something more intelligent than producing jaundice with alcoholism.”

“With what?”

“With alcoholism. You heard me say it.” I did not say anything. “Unless you find something else I’m afraid you will have to go back to the front when you are through with your jaundice. I don’t believe self-inflicted jaundice entitles you to a convalescent leave.”

Hemingway’s bicycle?
Nothing about Hemingway’s brief time in Italy can be taken at face value. In this photograph the bicycle, the gun and even the helmet have all been borrowed from an Italian solder just for the purpose of the photograph, are not ARC-issued equipment.

Part Three: Hemingway in the Saddle

There is a bit more to Hemingway than the disappointment of stories untold and of a war record oversold. He was also a Fred, a woolly MAMIL from the time before Lycra. One of us.

John Dos Passos, in his memoir The Best Times, offered this description of Hemingway the cyclist:

“He used to get himself up in a striped shirt like a contestant on the Tour de France and ride around the exterior boulevards with his knees up to his ears and his chin between the handlebars. It seemed silly to me but in those days Hem submitted to a certain amount of kidding.”

There are a few references to Hemingway’s recreational riding in the published letters. This, the longest, is from an October 1927 letter to Archibald MacLeish, a friend he had cycled with to Chartres – about 100 kms southwest of Paris, out past Versailles and Rambouillet – the previous December:

“Been back three weeks or so, haven’t been in bed later than 10 o’clock – seen nobody. Day before yesterday Pauline and I rode to Versailles and back without getting off the bikes. This may be hard on Pauline but I am training to surprise Archie. You must promise not to get on a bike until you come back and then I’ll say I haven’t too and we will go out to ride and I’ll say let’s ride op the cote du Picardie, Archie and you’ll say no Hem that’s too hard. Shit I’ll say that’s not hard. And then we will start and I hope to kill you off a third of the way up. We rode up the Cote du Behobie this summer four kilometers long and climbing Christ nose how many meters without getting off the bikes. First time tried it had to get off 5 times and was dead. Well now you see where I get at training to surprise Archie. Bragging ruins the whole thing. That’s what braggibg does and when we start to ride of course you will laver me that same as ever. There is no damn justice.”

Pauline: Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife

cote du Picardie: The Côte de Picardie is on the outskirts of Paris, on the road between Versailles and Ville-d’Avray.

Cote du Behobie: an unidentified climb near Hendaye, in the south-west of France, down on the border with Spain, where the edge of the Pyrénées slopes into the Atlantic.

laver: French. To wash.

Both in Hendaye – which he visited frequently – and other holiday resorts, cycling was a way of unwinding for Hemingway (“It is not enough to just jam ahead with writing all the time,” he wrote Waldo Peirce in July 1928, “needs more than that – I need tranquillity in the head and not too much heat – also need fishing or bike riding”). In a June 1926 letter from Juan-les-Pins on the Côte d’Azur he wrote that “we’ve been swimming all the time and just eating and going on very long bike rides and sleeping every night at nine o’clock.”

The Côte de Picardie, Bordeaux-Paris 1925
The Côte de Picardie is more a big-ring drag than an actual climb, about a kilometre long, dead straight and rising maybe 40 metres. It used to be an important point in Bordeaux-Paris (this is from the 1925 edition of the race), a last chance to launch an attack before a sprint finish in the Parc des Princes.
Agence Rol / BnF

Nostalgia for the past is another aspect of Hemingway’s references to cycling. A September 1928 letter to Guy Hickok sees him “cockeyed nostalgique for Paris – for Buffalo and the Parc du Prince and the rue de la Gaitre and the bloody Luxembourg with the leaves fallen and riding down the Champs Elysees on the bike from the Etoile to the Concorde – and for everything to drink – Cinzano and Lipp’s Beer and I could drink 200 bottles of St. Estephe – that’s what I miss – not the burgundys or Chateau Yquems of literature but good 6 to 11 franc Bordeaux”.

The most famous piece of nostalgia has become karaoke for bookish cyclists:

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

That’s the sort of commonplace wisdom people have been parroting since the days when Arthur Conan Doyle was shilling for the bicycle industry in America. The sort of fridge-magnet quote more celebrated for the person it is attached to than any intrinsic value it might have.

The source of that quote is more interesting than the words themselves: it appeared in a 1944 article Hemingway wrote for Collier’s magazine, reporting on the liberation of France.

Men at War

By then on to his third wife – the war reporter Martha Gelhorn – and largely based in Cuba, Hemingway had returned to Europe, where as well as reporting on the war he racked up his third divorce and fourth wife. His war reporting saw him witness D-Day, though he was not allowed to go ashore and had to return to England after having watched the action from a distance. (Gelhorn, on the other hand, went ashore on June 6th, having disguised herself as a nurse and stowed away on a hospital ship, her requests for press accreditation having been turned down).

Hemingway finally made it ashore in July and attached himself to an American unit as they pushed forward toward Paris. As a war correspondent, he was there to observe and report. But – as with the stories told about him taking potshots at the Austrians when with the American Red Cross in Italy – Hemingway wanted to be involved in the action. Here he got lucky and hooked up with a group of French résistants near Rambouillet, his old stomping ground to the southwest of Paris, joining them and engaging in action against German forces.

Ernest Hemingway, France, 1944
France, 1944. Hemingway (left) was nothing if not good at playing soldiers. But even his most ardent admirers believe he overstepped the mark during the liberation of France, though to what extent is not clear.
Anthony Potter Collection / Getty Images

The September 30 issue of Collier’s carried Hemingway’s report of what had occurred:

“I was informed there was heavy fighting outside of Rambouillet. I knew the country and the roads around Epernon, Rambouillet, Trappes and Versailles well, as I had bicycled, walked and driven a car through this part of France for many years. It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and can coast down them.

“Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motorcar only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. At the outpost of the regiment we found some Frenchmen who had just come in from Rambouillet by bicycle. I was the only person at the outpost who spoke French, and they informed me that the last Germans had left Rambouillet at three o’clock that morning but that the roads into the town were mined.”

Hemingway was well aware of the rules of engagement (“War correspondents are forbidden to command troops,” he wrote in Collier’s) and publicly played down events, which surely must have been a first for such a renowned braggart. He did, however, hint there were tales being untold:

“The main high lights of this period that I remember, outside of being scared a number of times, are not publishable at this time.”

The letters, on the other hand, talk the whole thing up, with claims made that he killed anything between 26 and 112 Germans during this time. One particular alleged incident is described in detail in a 1949 letter to Charles Scribner:

“One time I killed a very snotty SS Kraut who, when I told him I would kill him unless he revealed what his escape route signs were said: You will not kill me. Because you are afraid to and because you are a race of mongrel degenerates. Besides it is against the Geneva Convention.

“What a mistake you made, brother, I told him and shot him three times in the belly fast and then, when he went down on his knees, shot him on the topisde so his brains came out of his mouth or I guess it was his nose.

“The next SS I interrogated talked wonderfully. Clearly and with intelligent military exposition of their situation. He called me Herr Hauptman and then decided that was not enough and called me Herr Oberst (I wore no insignia). I would have worked him up to general. But we did not have time. After that we chased them very fast because we knew exactly what the signs they chalked up meant and who and how many they were.

“Will now go back to being a christian again.”

How much of this happened in reality and how much it happened only in the author’s imagination is, as you might imagine by now, open to question. One thing is beyond question, though: those who most love to tell you that Hemingway drove ambulances in the First World War are remarkably quiet when it comes to what he claims to have done in the Second. It’s one thing to celebrate a liar and a braggart, it’s another to glorify a man whose actions – if his own accounts of them are to be believed – may have bordered on war crimes.

Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, France 1944
France, 1944. Hemingway (right) with Robert Capa (left) and their unnamed army driver. Both were reporting on the war for Collier’s
Getty Images

That brief period of fighting around Rambouillet ended with the Liberation of Paris in the middle of August, and Hemingway’s own ‘liberation’ of the Ritz Hotel, one of his favoured drinking holes in Paris during the 1920s. He then settled into life in Paris, occasionally venturing out to see how the rest of the war was going on. A November 1944 letter to his second son, Patrick, sees cycling again feature briefly in his correspondence:

“Paris beautiful but still bad chow situation. Bicycle racing going on. Very fine new riders. Harry’s Bar open – but only at 5 pm and no whiskey nor any but phony gin. Papa still living at Ritz (joint we took) when back in town. Town so lovely but with the exchange 50 to 1 dollar (when really worth about 200 francs to 1 dollar) that very terribly expensive. None of the great pictures on exhibition. Lots of fine new very fine pictures by Picasso and other good painters.”

He was back in action again in December, reporting on the Germans’ Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge. As with his war tourism to Monte Grappa in 1918 things ended ignominiously, a dose of pneumonia rendering him bedridden. His war ended in early 1945 and thereafter Paris again receded into the rearview mirror of nostalgia. A 1948 letter saw him again pining for the old days “when we would ride Paris-Versailles, Rambouillet and return, back in the days when learned that country by heart.” This even as the “good European bicycle” he took with him to Key West seems to have rusted away, the letters so far published having little to say of him riding it in the US.

One Trip Across

A third aspect of cycling in Hemingway’s letters is trips planned but untaken. In September 1926 – at which point he was separated from Hadley, she having found out about his affair with Pauline – he wrote Fitzgerald that he was thinking of “riding down to Marseilles on my bike in Oct and living in Marseilles for a month or so and working – will ride over and see you when you get the book finished.” That letter went on to offer an unexpected reason for not setting out immediately:

“I haven’t been drinking, haven’t been in a bar, have’nt been at the Dingo, Dome or Select. Haven’t seen anybody. Not going to see anybody. Trying unusual experiment of a writer writing. That also will probably turn out to be vanity. Starting on long semi-permanent bike trip to last as long as the good weather lasts as soon as my present piles go down. Then will get a lot of work done, all the stories I want to write, probably working in Marseilles. Then we’ll see.”

We never did see. In a November letter to Fitzgerald he wrote:

“The bad weather has made biking impossible. I started once that way but had a hell of a spill and lux-ed my epaule”

lux-ed my epaule: Franglais. From the French for dislocated shoulder, épaule luxée.

It would have been quite an epic trip had Hemingway been able to make it happen, Marseille being about 850 kms south of Paris and Fitzgerald then being in Juan-les-Pins, another 200 kms to the east. With the trip from Paris to Versailles and back being around 60 kilometres, that would have been quite a step up from what appears to have been a normal ride for Hemingway.

The book Fitzgerald was writing, by the way, was Tender is the Night, which he didn’t complete until 1933, publication coming the following year. In it The Great Gatsby author allows the arrival into Cannes of the Tour de France to punctuate a conversation between the two men at the heart of the novel’s love triangle:

Boys sprinted past on bicycles, automobiles jammed with elaborate betasselled sportsmen slid up the street, high horns tooted to announce the approach of the race, and unsuspected cooks in undershirts appeared at restaurant doors as around a bend a procession came into sight. First was a lone cyclist in a red jersey, toiling intent and confident out of the westering sun, passing to the melody of a high chattering cheer. Then three together in a harlequinade of faded color, legs caked yellow with dust and sweat, faces expressionless, eyes heavy and endlessly tired.

Tommy faced Dick, saying: ‘I think Nicole wants a divorce – I suppose you’ll make no obstacles?’

A troupe of fifty more swarmed after the first bicycle racers, strung out over two hundred yards; a few were smiling and self-conscious, a few obviously exhausted, most of them indifferent and weary. A retinue of small boys passed, a few defiant stragglers, a light truck carried the dupes of accident and defeat. They were back at the table. Nicole wanted Dick to take the initiative, but he seemed content to sit with his face half-shaved matching her hair half-washed.

The Tour makes just one appearance in Hemingway’s novels and stories, and barely features in the published letters. A 1928 letter sees him sharing the result (“Frantz won the Tour and Leducq was second”) while a 1932 letter sees him asking who won. A 1929 letter tells us that Pauline was following the Tour with the photographer Robert Capa, who Hemingway knew from the Spanish Civil War.

AE Hotchner, in his memoir Hemingway in Love, wrote of Hemingway talking to him about the women in his life and explaining how cycling, including the Tour, was part of what bound him to Hadley, his first wife:

“She lived her life loving the things I loved: skiing in Austria, picnics on the infield at the Auteuil races, staying up all night at the bicycle races at the Vélodrome, fortified with sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, trips to alpine villages to watch the Tour de France, fishing in the Irati, the bullfights in Madrid and Pamplona, hiking in the Black Forest.”

Whether the alpine villages the Hemingways visited were Alpine or just alpine is an important question to ask (as is how Hotchner, who was listening to Hemingway tell this tale, could differentiate one from the other).

If Hotchner meant Alpine, Hemingway’s visits to the San Firmín festival in Spain would have clashed with the Tour’s visits to the Alps in 1925 and 1926, the only two years he and Hadley could have visited the race together.

But some Americans have a “look at me, ma, I’ve read the dictionary!” tendency to think it clever to describe the Pyrénées as alpine (see, for instance, Adin Dobkin). This may be a case of alpine Pyrenean villages. In which case the only time Hemingway and Hadley could have visited the Tour together would have been in 1925, when a fishing trip to Burguete, in Spain, saw them about 90 kilometres south of Bayonne and so maybe able to catch some of the early part of the Bayonne-Luchon stage.

Hotchner, however, is an even less reliable narrator than Hemingway himself and his claims must be taken with a pinch of salt. Maybe it’s true that Hemingway visited the Tour, maybe it’s not. As with so much to do with Hemingway, fact and fiction are confused.

A Situation Report

So where did cycling fit in Hemingway’s affections? Clearly, the sport meant something to him. But only a handful of cyclists are name-checked in the published letters, compared with dozens and dozens of boxers (the published letters contain multiple requests for friends to send him copies of L’Auto when he was not in Paris, with the context more often suggesting he wanted news of boxing than any other particular sport).

In a July 1948 letter to Lillian Ross he offered that he “would rather watch Big Time tennis than almost anything except bicycle racing and ball. Like to watch professional fights too, of course. Bull fighting (in Spain) of course is best. But it isn’t a sport. Pro-football and fights aren’t either.”

Does that mean that cycling was Hemingway’s favourite ‘real’ sport? Given his earlier quoted comment about the races in the Vel d’Hiv being fixed, that might be hard to argue.

The role cycling played for him may have been summed up in The Sun Also Rises, in the short passage in which the book’s narrator, Jake Barnes, crosses paths with the Vuelta al País Vasco – the Tour of the Basque Country – in San Sebastián in 1925. There Hemingway again noted that cycling is not a pure sport:

They did not take the race seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.

He does, however, go on to imbue cycling with a higher value, commenting on how the Tour de France was a way of getting to know France:

The Tour de France was the greatest sporting event in the world. Following and organizing the road races had made him know France. Few people know France.

In that scene cycling becomes an important metaphor in the story of the novel’s sundered friendships. The friendship shared by the País Vasco’s riders contrasts with the breakdown in the relationships between Barnes’ friends. Ultimately it serves to offer a glimpse of a form of friendship the Hemingway-like Barnes is unable to engage in, actively shies away from.

More than a writer who couldn’t write about cycling, Hemingway was a rider who understood cycling’s power as a social sport.

Gaston Bénac’s reports from the 1925 Vuelta al País Vasco.
Gaston Bénac’s reports from the 1925 Vuelta al País Vasco.
Le Miroir des Sports / BnF

As well as Ottavio Bottecchia’s off-stage appearance in that scene (think Marcus Sommers in The Big Chill), another Italian cyclist makes an appearance in one of Hemingway’s other novels, A Farewell to Arms. There Bartolomeo Aymo is a colleague of the novel’s hero, Frederic Henry. This has led many to believe that Hemingway and Aimo met in Italy in 1918 and became friends. Unlike the real Aimo, though, who won stages in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in the 1920s, Hemingway’s Aymo gets shot and killed during the retreat from Caporetto.

Another character in that novel, Miss Van Campen, has a name bearing a passing resemblance to another cyclist, Piet van Kempen, a rider Hemingway would have known of through the Six Day races in Paris.

Curiously, though, Hemingway was insistent that no characters in that novel were real:

“using so many Italian names there must be real people with those names [...] All I know is the book is fiction and I have not used the name of anyone I have ever known or seen.”

Ottavio Bottecchia
The many faces of Ottavio Bottecchia, as seen by French cartoonists in the 1920s. Bottecchia plays no great role in The Sun Also Rises but his absent presence helps some to date the story to 1925, something Hemingway himself made no secret of.
Abel Petit / LJac / Maurice Picaud / BnF

One other race features in passing in Hemingway’s fiction, in the 1936 short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, as the narrator recalls scenes from his life in Paris:

“The locataire across the hall whose husband was a bicycle racer and her joy that morning at the Cremerie when she had opened L’Auto and seen where he placed third in Paris-Tours, his first big race. She had blushed and laughed and then gone upstairs crying with the yellow sporting paper in her hand.”

locataire: French. Tenant.

Promise unfulfilled is a key theme of that story: Harry, a writer, faces death and thinks back on his past and how he never fulfilled his potential as a writer. Like many writers, many artists, Hemingway was conscious of the claims he had never achieved his potentiality. But unlike the writer in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ he kept on pushing, he kept on trying.

Even in the late 1950s, as he was drafting A Moveable Feast, Hemingway was dreaming of one day writing about cycling (“I will get to the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon”). The letters offer the hint of a suggestion that this may actually have been true, a 1952 letter to Bernard Berenson – pre-dating the drafting of A Moveable Feast by several years – shows him turning to cycling to describe the completion of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises:, still trying to use the sport as metaphor as he had in the 1927 short story ‘A Pursuit Race’:

“I started The Sun Also Rises in Valencia on my birthday because I had never completed a novel and everyone else my age had and I felt ashamed. So I wrote it in 6 weeks. I wrote it in Valencia, Madrid, St. Sebastian, Hendaye and Paris. Toward the last it was like a fever. Toward the last I was sprinting, like in a bicycle race, and I did not want to lose my speed making love or anything else and so had my wife go on a trip with two friends of hers down to the Loire.”

The End of Something

Clearly, then, cycling made a lasting impact on Hemingway, even if his fandom is very much linked to the second half of the 1920s when he could visit the velodromes of Paris and when he could ride his own bicycle on the roads around Versailles and Rambouillet. Despite our best attempts to reduce him to a couple of soundbites about the smoke-filled Vel d’Hiv and the joy of coasting down hills you’ve just sweated up, there is more to Hemingway the cycling fan and Fred.

What is known of Hemingway the fan is probably more true than not, a complicated mix of competing passions. He was introduced to the sport as something you didn’t need to bet on and celebrated its “driving purity of speed” but he was equally at home drawing attention to the outcome of a race like the Vuelta al País being agreed by the riders among themselves and noted how he himself was happy to bet on races he knew to be as choreographed as Josephine Baker’s shows at the Folies Bergère.

Equally clearly, celebrating Hemingway as a war hero is problematic, whether you are talking about his few weeks of active duty with the American Red Cross in Italy in 1918 or his reporting on the Liberation of France in 1944.

Perhaps most importantly, in treating A Farewell to Arms as an autobiographical novel all we are really doing is demonstrating how little we are familiar with his actual biography and how much we allow ourselves to be seduced by mythology.

All of this, though, is why the Hemingway we celebrate – the myth, not the man – is, in truth, as perfect a celebrity fan as cycling can get. Who better for a sport whose heroes could always have won more than they did than a writer who couldn’t write about it? Who better for a sport whose history has been overtaken by myths than than a master mythologizer?

Ernest Hemingway is very much the celebrity fan cycling deserves.


Sources: The main sources here are the published letters: Carlos Baker’s Selected Letters 1917-1961; and the first four volumes of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway edited by Sandra Spanier et al and covering the years 1907 to 1931. Steven Florczyk’s Hemingway, the Red Cross, and the Great War provides key information on Hemingway’s brief time with the American Red Cross in Italy in 1918. Other sources are linked in the text. As always, thank you to those who answered questions: your patience was invaluable.