Ernest Hemingway drank far more than most people, and probably more than was good for him. He loved liquor so much that when he was in his late 50s, and a diabetic, his doctors tried to ration his alcohol consumption—to a liter of wine a day.
But Hemingway was far from being an uncontrollable drunk. He did most of his writing in the mornings, and he made sure not to drink while he was writing. Nor did he drink late at night. Moreover, Hemingway well understood the problems that uncontrolled alcohol consumption could cause for a writer’s career: Reminiscing about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who often was barely able to control his drinking, Hemingway recalled, “I told Scott that being a rummy made him very vulnerable—I mean, a rummy married to a crazy is not the kind of pari-mutuel that aids a writer.”
Drinking was an essential part of Hemingway’s character and of his fiction. Here, Philip Greene provides a highly entertaining look at what Hemingway drank, where he drank, and the characters Hemingway encountered while drinking.
Greene is part of the coterie of cocktail writers, along with Jared Brown, Wayne Curtis, Anastatia Miller, and David Wondrich, who are diligently creating new cocktails and striving to expand our knowledge of cocktail history. Greene is also a very careful researcher. For example, he concludes that one drink Hemingway probably did not have was the rum-based mojito. The “evidence” that Hemingway drank mojitos is a framed piece of paper in Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio bar that says, “My mojito in La Bodeguita / My daiquiri in El Floridita.” Hemingway did spend a lot of time drinking daiquiris in El Floridita, which is still in business and will be happy to give you a souvenir coaster with Hemingway’s signature. But there’s no evidence that Hemingway was ever in La Bodeguita. And while Hemingway used his daiquiri drinking as the basis for scenes in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream, no character in any Hemingway novel or short story ever drank a mojito. Moreover, Hemingway didn’t like sweet drinks—he took his daiquiris without sugar even before trying, in a futile effort to stave off diabetes in late middle age, to cut out sugar entirely from his diet.
Finally, Greene showed a copy of the note to Key West Art and Historical Society archivist Brewster Chamberlin, who has spent countless hours studying Hemingway’s handwritten fishing logs. Chamberlin says that he believes Hemingway did not write the mojito note.
Greene tells many stories about Hemingway in bars, and he realizes that some stories are too good to check. For example, Hemingway claimed that, on three occasions, he was at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris when a former boxer showed up with an incontinent lion, which fouled Harry’s with animal waste. On the third occasion, Hemingway claimed, he picked up the boxer and his beast and threw both of them out of the bar: “Out on the sidewalk the lion gave me a look, but he went quietly,” Hemingway told his friend A. E. Hotchner.
No one knows if the story about Hemingway and the lion is true. But Greene shows that there is a great deal of supporting evidence for most of the stories about Hemingway in bars. It is true, for example, that Hemingway, as a war correspondent for Collier’s in 1944, managed to attach himself to a group of French resistance fighters organized by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hemingway demanded that the maquis call him “captain,” and they proceeded to march into Paris and head for the Ritz Hotel, where (according to Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker) they decided to treat themselves to 50 martinis. That was only the start of their drinking. An hour later, Alan Moorehead met them: “It was a little galling to find Ernest Hemingway sitting in the dining room of the Ritz over a bottle of Heidsieck,” Moorehead wrote. “He had liberated the Ritz just an hour before.” Hemingway later wrote to Moorehead, correcting him that he had actually been drinking Perrier-Jouët.
Bars, for Hemingway, had all sorts of uses. Once, in 1940, at the Stork Club in New York, Hemingway successfully got the club’s owner, Sherman Billingsley, to cash a $100,000 check he had just received for the film rights to For Whom the Bell Tolls. Billingsley said he could cash the check if Hemingway could wait until closing time. Hemingway dutifully waited, and the Stork Club paid him. Hemingway even met at least one of his future wives in a bar: One day in 1936, he was drinking daiquiris at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West when Martha Gellhorn and her mother came in. Gellhorn’s youth, beauty, and intelligence entranced him. Gellhorn fondly remembered Hemingway’s “odiferous Basque shorts,” and the two spent the afternoon drinking frozen daiquiris. They kept seeing each other, and Gellhorn ultimately became Hemingway’s third wife.
Hemingway was familiar with all sorts of mixed drinks, but his two favorites were daiquiris and martinis. If you want to drink martinis like Hemingway did, you must serve them ice-cold. In 1947, he told his publisher Charles Scribner that he had “found a way of making ice in the deep-freeze in tennis ball tubes that comes out 15 degrees below zero and with the glasses frozen too makes the coldest martinis in the world.”
But even without his freezer, Hemingway’s martinis made him many friends. One afternoon in 1948, Hemingway was invited to a black-tie party featuring the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Hemingway ignored the rule that jackets were required and showed up with his personal assistant, René, and some sliced onions, olives, Gordon’s gin, and dry vermouth. He set up a table, got some ice and a mixer, and made many very dry martinis. The Windsors enjoyed them so much that they ended up drinking with Hemingway both at his Cuban farm and at El Floridita. (According to the gossip columnist Leonard Lyons, Hemingway solved the problem of whether to call the Duchess “Your Highness” or “Your Royal Highness” by calling her “Wallie.”)
When, in the 1920s, Gertrude Stein warned Hemingway and his friends that they were a Lost Generation, she was specifically warning about excessive alcohol consumption: “You are a lost generation,” Stein declared. “You have no respect for anything. You will drink yourselves to death.”
Indeed, alcohol was a two-edged sword for Hemingway: It shortened his life, and it made him more of a character. Had Hemingway been a moderate drinker, he would have lived longer—but he would not have been Ernest Hemingway. Drink was Hemingway’s weakness, but the people he met and the time he spent drinking in bars in Key West, Manhattan, Paris, Venice, New Orleans, and elsewhere informed some of the greatest fiction in American literature.
Martin Morse Wooster is the book reviewer for American Brewer and Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.