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Hemingway vs. Callaghan: The Greatest Literary Boxing Feud of All Time

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

There’s something truly strange about combat between Canadians and Americans. Long after they stop fighting each other, they continue to argue about who really won. This is true of both major battles (both sides believe that they won the War of 1812) and relatively minor rivalries (many Americans tried to argue that Canada didn’t win the 2010 men’s hockey gold in the Olympics definitively enough). It’s also true in the case of the infamous boxing match between literary heavyweights Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan. Hemingway went to his grave disputing the results and trying to arrange a rematch. Callaghan shared his own version of events a couple of years later in his 1963 memoir That Summer In Paris.

Hemingway and Callaghan became friends—and fans of each other’s work —when they worked together at the Toronto Star in 1923. “They had much in common: both were serious about writing, both yearned to become novelists, and they had similar literary tastes,” the Toronto Star’s Bill Schiller wrote in the 2012 feature The Curious Case of the Stolen Hemingway Letters. When Hemingway left for Paris in 1924, he invited Callaghan to visit him there. Callaghan and his wife Loretto finally took him up on his offer in the summer of 1929 and the two men rekindled their friendship immediately.

It was during those early days in Paris that Hemingway first brought up the sweet science. During a visit to Hemingway’s house, Papa asked the younger Canadian, seemingly out of nowhere, if he’d ever boxed. Callaghan said that he had. Hemingway produced a pair of gloves and demanded proof, right in his living room.

Callaghan was quite baffled by the comment—and quite concerned about what would happen to his friend’s furniture if they came to blows—until he recalled a comment that Hemingway had made to a friend about a story pugilism-themed story that Callaghan had published recently in Scribner’s Magazine.

A Young Ernest Hemingway​

“He told this friend that when Morley wrote stories about the things he knew, there was no one any better, but he should stick to the things he knew about,” Callaghan wrote in That Summer In Paris. “What was bothering Ernest? I wondered. Did he think that in writing about a fighter I had made an unworthy excursion into his own imaginary world? Was it because I had forgotten to tell him I had done a lot of boxing and went to all of the fights?”

Callaghan initially refused to put the gloves on, but his friend insisted.

“I seemed to know then intuitively that quite aside from his interest in my career, or any changes that might have taken place in my personality since he had seen me, he had this one little curiosity about me. It is these little questions about each other that are at the root of most men’s relationships. Suppose I had been faking an interest in fighters? Would it mean the loss of his respect for me?” Callaghan mused in his memoir. “What a strange man, I thought, looking at him. Calm, untroubled, just a little amused, he waiting holding out the gloves. Was he making a point about writing? Was it why we hadn’t talked so far about his writing or mine?”

Callaghan put the gloves on and the pair sparred in front of their wives. Callaghan ducked a jab and blocked a cross. They traded a few more blows that were, in the younger writer’s words “ridiculous,” and then Hemingway was satisfied.

“I only wanted to see if you had done any boxing,” he told Callaghan. “I can see you have.” Then he invited his friend to train with him at the American Club. It had no ring, but he promised that it had enough space for sparring. The two men met up the next day and headed over to the American Club and began to box a little more seriously.

Callaghan was intimidated at first.

“In the back of my mind were all of those stories I had heard of Hemingway’s skill and savagery. That one story Max Perkins had told me about Hemingway jumping into the ring and knocking out the middleweight champion of France with a single punch made me feel apprehensive. And the way he had looked down his nose at Larry Gains! Ernest was big and heavy, over six feet, and I was only five food eight and fat. Whatever skill I had in boxing had to do with avoiding getting hit. Admittedly I had a most unorthodox style, carrying my gloves far too low, counting on being fast with my hands. Moving around, crouching, bobbing and weaving, I waited for a chance to counterpunch. I was a little afraid of Ernest. All of the lore and legend of the pros seemed to be in his stance; and in the way he held his hands, his chin down a little to his shoulder, he made an impressive picture. Watching him warily, I could only think, ‘Try and make him miss, then slip away from him.’ All I did for the first three-minute round was slip away.”

After Hemingway tried to give him some condescending tips between rounds, Callaghan had an epiphany. “I’m not trying to box with him, I thought with disgust at myself. I’m trying to defend myself against the wild legends I’ve heard.”

With this insight, and more confidence in his own background, Callaghan started fighting back.

“I could see that, while he may have thought about boxing, dreamed about it, consorted with old fighters and hung around gyms, I had done more actual boxing with men who could box a little and weren’t just taking exercise or fooling around. Since I could see this for myself, it didn’t matter to me that he would never believe it.”

Callaghan finished that session by confirming that Hemingway could take almost as well as he gave in his sparring.

“That day he took a punch on the nose like any good college boxer; he took it with grace and an appreciation of the aptitude of the man who had landed it,” he noted in his memoir.

The pair began training regularly after that, and Callaghan began to read Hemingway’s psychological connection to boxing as well as his actual fighting style. Papa, he came to see, needed to believe in his own mythology. His vision of himself as a great boxer had somehow become integral to his art. Callaghan had no such illusions about himself, nor did he particularly understand why his friend needed this belief. But he admired the man, and enjoyed both his company and sportsmanship, so they kept training together.

“Now Hemingway in his turn loved boxing,” Callaghan continues in another chapter of That Summer In Paris. “Every chance he got he must have boxed with someone, and he had all the lingo, he had hung around gyms, he had watched fighters at work. Something within him drove him to want to be expert at every occupation he touched. I think days he liked telling a man how to do things, not by way of boasting or arrogance—it was almost as if he had to feel he had a sense of professionalism about every field of human behavior that interested him. To this day I know you will find some Broadway columnist, or some gym instructor in New York, who will assure the world he had seen Hemingway working out like a pro, or taking a punch at someone. The truth was that we were two amateur boxers. The difference between us was that he had given time and imagination to boxing; I had actually worked out a lot with good fast college boxers.”

Callaghan was equally aware of his weaknesses against his friend, though.

“In Paris there were scoffers, envious men, always belittling Ernest, who would whisper that his physical roughness was all a bluff. It was utter nonsense. He was a big rough tough clumsy unscientific man. In a small bar, or in an alley, where he could have cornered me in a rough-and-tumble brawl, he might have broken my back, he was so much bigger. But with gloves on and in a space big enough for me to move around, I could be confident. My wife remembers how, when I came home, she would complain that my shoulders were black and blue. Laughing, I would explain that she should feel thankful; the shoulder welts and bruises meant that Ernest had always missed my jaw or nose or mouth. She worried about the day coming when I would walk in with welts on my jaw or cheeks rather than my shoulders.”

Their sparring continued quite amiably over the summer, although there was a minor issue when Hemingway got a split lip and responded by spitting blood all over Callaghan.

“I was so shocked I dropped my gloves,” Callaghan recounts. “My face must have gone white for I was shaken and didn’t know what to do. It is a terrible insults for a man to spit at another man. We stared at each other. ‘That’s what the bullfighters do when they’re wounded. It’s a way of showing contempt,’ he said solemnly.”

The solemnity didn’t last long. Hemingway was back to smiling a moment later and Callaghan was both too baffled and too charmed to hold the incident against him. At the bar afterwards, Hemingway told the bartender—a friend of his, and a former pro boxer—“As long as Morley can keep cutting my mouth he’ll always remain my good friend.”

This sentiment was put to the test when their mutual friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, joined them in Paris. Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s friendship was becoming strained at that point—Hemingway wasn’t a fan of Scott’s wife, Zelda—but Callaghan was managing his separate friendships with both men quite well until Fitzgerald brought up boxing, speaking about Hemingway’s prowess with a sense of unquestioned awe.

“Look, Scott,” Callaghan told him. “Ernest is an amateur. I’m an amateur. All this talk is ridiculous. But we do have fun.”

Fitzgerald asked if he could join them. The most infamous boxing match in literary history was set.

That Summer In Paris received modest critical praise at best when it came out, and perhaps deservedly so. Outside of the boxing and the psychological interplay that results from it, the memoir is disappointingly dry for someone of Callaghan’s talents. But even the book’s greatest and most famous detractors, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, were fascinated by this one particular anecdote. And understandably so, the chapter is an epic story about boxing, male ego, and the ridiculous gravity that so often comes with the low stakes world of amateur sparring. It’s really worth reading in its entirety (Chapter 27, which you can find here) but here are the highlights:

When the three men arrived at the American Club, Hemingway handed Fitzgerald a watch and told him how to keep time: three minute rounds with one minute of rest in between. Fitzgerald seemed to be eager about his task, and things began on an entirely friendly note.

“Our first round was like most of the rounds we had fought that summer, with me shuffling around, and Ernest, familiar with my style, leading and chasing after me. No longer did he rush in with his old brisk confidence. Now he kept an eye on my left hand and he was harder to hit. As I shuffled around I could hear the sound of clicking billiard balls in the adjoining room.”

Fitzgerald called time and the three men joked around until it was time to fight again.

“Right at the beginning of that round Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed. It had often happened. It should have meant nothing to him. Hadn’t he joked with Jimmy, the bartender, about always having me for a friend while I could make his lip bleed? Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott’s face. Or the taste of blood in his mouth may have made him want to fight more savagely. He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly. As I circled him, I kept jabbing at his bleeding mouth. I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become rougher, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself.”

Callaghan noticed that other people at the club were starting to watch, and noticed that Fitzgerald seemed to be in awe.

“I was wondering why I was tiring, for I hadn’t been hit solidly. Then Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his gloves, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning he went down, sprawled out on his back.

“If Ernest and I had been there alone I would have laughed. I was sure of my boxing friendship with him; in a sense I was sure of him, too. Ridiculous things had happened in that room. Hadn’t he spat in my face? And I felt no surprise in seeing him flat on his back. Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.”

It was then that Fitzgerald realized that he’d let the round go an extra minute.

“‘Christ!’ Ernest yelled. He got up. He was silent for a few seconds, Scott, staring at his watch, was mute and wondering. I wished I were miles away. ‘All right, Scott,’ Ernest said savagely, ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake,’ and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.’”

The men continued to box after he returned, and Fitzgerald continued to plead his innocence, but the fun was over. The rest of the session devolved into a series of minor humiliations for Hemingway, and he never really forgave either man for it. His friendship with Fitzgerald essentially ended that day. His relationship with Callaghan was irreparably strained.

When a gossip paper back in New York got ahold of the story, Hemingway blamed Callaghan for running to the press. All three became embroiled in a snippy letter war of sorts. Callaghan insisted he’d done nothing of the sort, and even wrote to the paper asking for a retraction. Hemingway wrote Callaghan two more letters after that. In one, he demanded a rematch.

“I honestly believe that with small gloves I could knock you out inside of about five two-minute rounds,” Hemingway wrote in one of the infamous stolen Hemingway letters, a collection of correspondence between Morley and Papa that was stolen in Toronto in the early nineties. “So if you want to disarm let me know.”

Hemingway also wrote to his agent Max Perkins in an effort to set the record straight.

“I had a date to box with him at 5 p.m.—lunched with Scott and John Bishop at Pruniers—ate Homard thermidor—all sorts of stuff—drank several bottles of white burgundy. Knew I would be asleep by five... I couldn’t see him hardly—had a couple of whiskey’s en route...” He went on to insist that Fitzgerald had actually let the round go on for eight minutes.

By 1951, Hemingway was telling Fitzgerald’s biographer, Arthur Miziner, that he has actually been swilling sancerre that day, and that the round had gone on for 13 minutes.

Callaghan kept his own account to himself until Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. He refused to share Papa’s letters about the fight with the public as long as Hemingway’s widow was still alive. Those letters were stolen in 1993. They’ve yet to be recovered.

 

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