An article about sparring with Hemingway and the stamina required to be a writer fell out of Gael Elton Mayo’s copy of Robert Ruark’s Something of Value while rearranging the overfilled bookshelves in the hallway this morning. Gael wrote about 1950s Spain in the 1950s in her memoir The Mad Mosaic.
The American writer Robert Ruark was a friend of hers: “He wrote not (yet) bestsellers, but sports columns, that were syndicated and appeared in twenty newspapers at once all over America. We went to see him with Dennis, in his villa near Palamos. The atmosphere was very different from our village. Friends of the Ruarks had houses with floodlit lawns, beach houses, booze and boredom. But Ruark was as hospitable as Dennis, having people to stay, offering meals, drinks, leaving all his guests for a few hours then returning, rubbing his hands together, to announce he had just had someone killed off. He was referring to the novel that he was working on, about the Mau Mau, Something of Value. He had many Tahitian primitive paintings and played Hawaiian music. He drank mainly rum with Coca Cola, and much ice and lemon. He had two boxer dogs who went swimming with him, and a wife called Ginny who looked as if it had all got beyond her long ago.”
To box with Hemingway when he was in his prime was a rather unusual experience for a reporter who had been sent to interview him. I went to cover the arrival of the Pan-American Airways Clipper across the Pacific via Manila to find Hemingway buoyant with the success of his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. He had just sold the film rights to Paramount for a record sum. Some months before the balloon went up at Pearl Harbour he had been sent to China to cover the Sino-Japanese war for Marshall Field’s now defunct paper, PM.
Hemingway the Boxer
As a result of his Spanish friendships, Hemingway had been overwhelmed with hospitality in the Philippines. He was anxious to “sweat out the booze and over-eating” by sparring, before taking off on an arduous programme for Chungking and the battlefront. So my interview was carried on as we puffed in between our spars in the YMCA gym with boxing gloves borrowed from the British Middlesex Regiment.
I learned then that the yarns about the prowess of this barrel-chested toro of a man in the ring were not exaggerated. He used to spar in training gyms with many great heavyweights and middleweights and once went six rounds with New Zealander, Tom Heeney.
One or two of his left hooks had me slithering across the gym floor as if I’d been catapulted. I was grateful he was considerate enough to use my body as a punching bag and not my jaw.
After a swim together in a pool we were rubbed down by a little Japanese masseuse. Chuckling merrily, she bowed low, respectfully sucking in her breath while slapping the broad expanse of Hemingway’s back.
The Old Man and the Sea
Ernie packed enough power in his shoulders to land some of the biggest marlins off the Cuban coast without using the harness required by lesser Samsons. He told me he always wanted to follow in the wake of deep-sea angler Zane Grey and explore the fishing grounds in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. There the Maoris who migrated Kontiki-fashion in the 10th century by open canoes from the Hawaiian islands, have a legend in their mythology that one powerful angler chiel hauled up one of the two islands comprising Ao – Te – Aroha (Land of the Long White Cloud). Maybe Ernie will haul up another.
Hemingway’s daily routine
I couldn’t help admiring the gusto with which Hemingway explored his new surroundings in Hong Kong. He cut most of his official invitations and roamed the labyrinthine Chinatown heaped at the foot of the Peak on this tiny cramped island. His working hours were strictly disciplined. The phone to his hotel room was cut off, doors locked and keyhole stuffed up with paper to keep out any distracting extraneous noises. Rising at 6 a.m. he was at his desk by 6.30 p.m. after a light meal. He prefers not to dress fully so that he won’t be induced to wander outside. By early afternoon he has put in a full eight hours shift. Then he feels free to walk or take exercise. Most of his best work has been done early in this way he finds his mind fresher then.
Hemingway has remarkable powers of endurance, not only physical but mental. Once he never left his hotel room for a sold fortnight when revising the manuscript of a novel. To get the proofs corrected in time for For Whom the Bell Tolls, he took over a rail coach and worked solidly day and night across the States without letting up. He has always regarded the writing game as highly competitive. Perhaps his vigorous participation in sport has given him the stamina to succeed and out-distance his rivals.
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