Ernest Hemingway was a titan of 20th-century literature, converting his lived experiences in multiple wars into rich, stirring tales like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The avid sportsman also called upon his love for the outdoors to craft bittersweet metaphorical works like Big Two-Hearted River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea. Here are 10 facts about the writer known as Papa, who was born on July 21, 1899.
1. Ernest Hemingway earned the Italian Silver Medal of Valor and a Bronze Star.
Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, and on July 8, 1918, he was badly wounded by mortar fire—yet he managed to help an Italian soldier reach safety. The action earned him an Italian Silver Medal of Valor. That honor was paralleled almost 30 years later when the U.S. awarded him a Bronze Star for courage displayed while covering the European theater in World War II as a journalist. His articles appeared in Collier’s and other magazines.
2. Ernest Hemingway was also accused—and cleared—of war crimes.
Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, when Hemingway, a civilian, was not allowed to disembark on Omaha Beach, he led a band of Resistance fighters in the French town of Rambouillet on a mission to gather intelligence. The problem was, war correspondents aren't supposed to lead armed troops, according to the Geneva Convention. The Inspector General of the Third Army charged Hemingway with several serious offenses, including removing patches from his clothing that identified him as a journalist, stockpiling weapons in his hotel room, and commanding a faction of Resistance operatives. Eventually, he was cleared of wrongdoing.
Hemingway always maintained that he’d done nothing but act as an advisor. He wrote to The New York Times in 1951, stating he “had a certain amount of knowledge about guerilla warfare and irregular tactics as well as a grounding in more formal war, and I was willing and happy to work for or be of use to anybody who would give me anything to do within my capabilities.”
3. Gertrude Stein was godmother to Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack.
Renowned American modernist writer Gertude Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and hosted regular salons that were attended by luminaries and artists of the time. They included Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a young Ernest Hemingway. Stein became godmother to Hemingway’s first son, Jack, in 1923.
4. Ernest Hemingway was allegedly a KGB spy—but he wasn't very good at it.
When Collier's sent the legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to China for a story in 1941, Hemingway, her husband, accompanied her and filed dispatches for PM. Documentation from the Soviet Union (revealed in a 2009 book) shows that Hemingway was possibly recruited as a willing, clandestine source just prior to the trip and was given the codename “Argo.” The documents also show that he didn’t deliver any useful political intel, wasn’t trained for espionage, and only stayed on their list of active sources until the end of the decade.
5. Ernest Hemingway checked out F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis in a Paris men's room.
Hemingway chronicled his life in Paris in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast, in which he claimed he had one memorable encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby author shared that his wife Zelda had mocked his manhood by claiming he wouldn't be able to satisfy a lover. Hemingway offered to investigate the matter and render a verdict. He took Fitzgerald to the bathroom at Michaud's, a popular restaurant in Paris, to examine the organ in question. Ultimately, Hemingway assured Fitzgerald that his physical endowment was of a totally normal size and suggested he check out some nude statues at the Louvre for confirmation.
6. One of Ernest Hemingway's best works came about from him leaving some luggage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
Speaking of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote it later in life (it was published posthumously) after a 1956 stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris wherein he was reminded that he’d left a steamer trunk (made for him by Louis Vuitton) in the hotel’s basement in 1930. When he opened it, he rediscovered personal letters, menus, outdoor gear, and two stacks of notebooks that became the basis for the memoir of his youth in Paris's café culture.
7. The famous "Baby Shoes" story is most likely a myth.
Oddly enough, a story many people associate with Hemingway probably has nothing to do with him. The legend goes that one night, while drinking, Hemingway bet some friends that he could write a six-word short story. Incredulous, they all put money on the table, and on a napkin Hemingway wrote the words “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” He won the bet. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it ever happened. Some newspapers had printed versions of the general plotline in the 1910s without crediting Hemingway, and there's no record of his link to the phrase until 1991 (in a book about the publishing business), three decades after Hemingway’s death.
8. Ernest Hemingway almost died in back-to-back plane crashes.
In 1954, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Time and Life correspondent Mary Welsh, were vacationing in Belgian Congo when their sightseeing charter flight clipped a pole and crashed. When attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe the following day, they boarded another plane, which crashed upon takeoff, leaving Hemingway with burns, a concussion, and his brain leaking cerebral fluid. When they finally got to Entebbe (by truck), they found journalists had already reported their deaths, so Hemingway got to read his own obituaries.
9. Ernest Hemingway dedicated a book to each of his four wives.
Each time he got divorced, Hemingway was married again within the year—but he always left something behind in print. The dedication for The Sun Also Rises went to his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson; Death in the Afternoon was dedicated to second wife Pauline Pfeiffer; For Whom the Bell Tolls was for third wife Martha Gellhorn; and Across the River and Into the Trees went “To Mary with Love.”
10. Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West features a urinal from his favorite bar.
Hemingway wrote several iconic works, including To Have and Have Not, at his house in Key West, Florida. It’s also where he converted a urinal from a local bar into a fountain. Local haunt Sloppy Joe’s was a favorite watering hole of the irascible author, so when the place went under renovation, Hemingway took one of the urinals as a memento, quipping that he’d already poured enough money into it to make it his.
Do you love reading? Are you eager to know incredibly interesting facts about novelists and their works? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!