Why you should care
Because Hemingway’s reality was often stranger than his fiction.
Troops marched in Rambouillet, kicking up dust just outside of Paris as the war correspondent dotted around town on assignment. Ernest Hemingway was there, ostensibly, as a reporter, not a combatant. But he may have been stretching the boundaries of press freedoms while commanding a group of French Resistance fighters and journalists to help liberate the capital in 1944.
The big story of how the Illinois native arrived in Paris as a journalist, faced a military tribunal and nearly got booted out of France is a lesson in the hazy ethics that govern embedded reporters still today. And the truth, like much of Hemingway’s life, remains blurry. “If you model your journalism after Hemingway, you have some sort of complex,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. And yet, that role was intrinsic to the famed author’s image of himself: “Hemingway saw himself as a journalist” all his life, says James Nagel, a Dartmouth scholar and former president of the Ernest Hemingway Society.
Hemingway did what he did best: spun a tale.
Launching his career when he was a mere teenager, Hemingway wrote without bylines for the Kansas City Star. The recent high school grad was known to “dash around the city compulsively, wanting always to know where the ambulance had [gone],” says Hemingway expert Kelley Dupuis. On one assignment, bystanders refused to touch a man sick with some contagious disease, and when an ambulance didn’t arrive quickly, Hemingway reportedly took action. “Why, I wouldn’t treat a dog like that,” he said, according to an account in Matthew Bruccoli’s Ernest Hemingway, Cub Reporter, before picking the sick man up, ordering a taxi and taking him to the hospital himself — later expensing the cab fare.
The incident foreshadowed a lifetime of throwing himself into the very news he was meant to simply report. After a stint as an ambulance driver in World War I that saw him return home a hero — the first American injured on the Italian front, headlines proclaimed — Hemingway settled down as a writer for the Cooperative Commonwealth magazine in Chicago. Next was a cushy gig in Paris as the European correspondent for the Toronto Star, which he was fired from after he got caught publishing articles concurrently in another publication. By now a commercial success for his fiction, having published both A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War for a North American wire service, sparking controversy in 1940 by penning For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story’s protagonist, a guerrilla soldier, invited criticisms that the novelist was writing about himself — playing soldier rather than serving as an objective observer.
At the start of World War II, Hemingway found himself unemployed in Havana and bitter that Martha Gellhorn, his new and third wife, was covering the conflict as a correspondent for Collier’s Weekly. “He was supposed to be the celebrity reporter, not Martha,” Nagel says. Hemingway got the call a year later, also from Collier’s, and landed on the beaches of Normandy … the day after D-Day. “The Private Ryan business had already taken place,” says Nagel, and Gellhorn was actually the first reporter to land in Europe. But her editors scrapped her frontline piece, choosing Hemingway’s day-after take instead for the cover. “She never spoke to him again,” Nagel says.
Reporting from the Western Front, Hemingway reunited with a friend, Maj. Gen. Charles “Buck” Lanham, who gave him a front seat for the American advance on Paris. But as they neared the City of Light, Hemingway didn’t get the word that liberation was to be left to French locals. So he, along with a few dozen reporters and Resistance fighters, “liberated” the Ritz Hotel. In truth, he was welcomed with open arms by owner Charles Ritz, an old drinking buddy from his time there in the 1920s. Luckily for Hemingway, the German lieutenants who had roomed there were long gone. He avoided trouble then, only to find it again a few weeks later when a complaint was filed accusing Hemingway of keeping firearms, bazookas, grenades and other weapons in his Parisian hotel room. It was a serious charge and suspected violation of the Geneva Convention’s rules insisting that news correspondents avoid compromising their status as noncombatants.
Faced with the embarrassing possibility that he’d be expelled, Hemingway did what he did best: spun a tale. He argued that the hefty arsenal of Resistance weaponry was only in his possession because “storage space was in short supply,” Dupuis says. Although Hemingway was known to carry a rifle, he said he never took part in any fighting. He was cleared of the charges, and in 1949 the rules advising correspondents not to carry arms were clarified.
A true legend, it’s foolish to think Hemingway wouldn’t toe the line between reality and fiction even in death. After his passing, scholars discovered his unpublished short story, Black Ass at the Crossroads. The gist? “A story about a group of journalists who are fired upon by the Germans,” Nagel says. “These guys have weapons. And they fight back.”