There may be few better insights into the mind of one of America’s most revered writers, Ernest Hemingway, than a previously unpublished letter, written on Valentine’s Day 1925, to William B. “Bill” Smith, his best male friend. Smith loomed large in Hemingway’s life in the mid-1920s. He is the joint subject of his autobiographical short story “Big Two-Hearted River” and was best man at Hemingway’s wedding to his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Smith and Hemingway were drinking buddies from way back. As young men, the two would enter into drinking contests taking “very long slugs” from a glass jug of “hard cider” with “Hornsby something something manufacturing company” written down the side. Smith recalled “a good swig was to lower the bottle about two inches, say from ‘Hornsby’ to ‘manufacturing.’”
But Smith’s hard drinking sessions with Hemingway disguised his sexual confusion. He opened his heart to Hemingway, confessing he was still a virgin. The writer responded in a typically blustering, macho, bullying style, causing Smith further anguish by advising him to “yence” – make love to – his landlady if she appeared willing and to yence American college girls in Paris to gain plenty of heterosexual experience.
Next, Hemingway told Smith to watch bullfights to understand masculinity and pain, pointing out that watching a bullfighter get gored helped his wife Hadley endure a particularly painful and troublesome childbirth.
The letter’s first paragraph concerned a failed Hemingway ruse to have Smith be made secretary to Dr. William Dawson Johnston, “a hell of a good guy” and director of the American Library in Paris, a job “a male of your calibers would handle with ease.”
Eager to get Smith to move to Paris, Hemingway wrote to him, “The low down on this Library business is that it wd. be a pipe for you. W. Johnston is a swell old guy -- just a nice guy thats all. He is really Sir William Johnston Gordon Bart but don’t believe in titles. The jawb would be a damn good thing if you decided to play Paris -- you would handle the stuff they give out to the papers, get the stuff for this magazine they have into shape and meet guys that want to see.”
However, the outgoing secretary got wind of the scheme and withdrew her resignation.
The rest of the letter runs the gamut of Hemingway’s testosterone-fueled preoccupations, from whiskey-swilling to high-stakes poker. But it is his diatribe against gay men that stands out today, an admittedly different era in terms of gay rights and perceptions.
It is Papa unplugged, a monument to the crass insensitivity, petty prejudices and character weaknesses of one of America’s finest writers. It is taken from a new collection of Hemingway letters published by the Cambridge University Press.
What follows is Hemingway’s original letter replete with his misspellings – some intentional, some not – private slang terms and more than a few grammatical acrobatics.
To William B. Smith, Jr., 14 February 
So you didnt get the screed from Doc Johnston. We’re just down from the hut and find word that when the Secretary heard they were going to proposition you she decided she didnt have to quit and withdrew the resignation. Thats that. I’m keeping in touch and will try to locate something else or this in case the Docs make the Sec. quit. It’s a hell of a disappointment for me. Of course I dont know yet how you looked on it in any event.
We’ve been a week at the hut. A woman came down from Paris with 3 q. of Scotch—Doc MacCullums Perfection. about the best sky made now—or made 15 yrs. ago rather. The Doc’s product—Haig in the Pinch bottle—Black Label Johnny Walker and Old Antiquary are the only genuwind in whiskey. All others are too new. No headaches in the above. The physicists product has all been drunk and pee lead away to help the Alpine flowers. A male has ski-ed in a track shirt for a week. blackness like a smoke resulted. The sun is so hot above 1500 meters a male doesnt need to wear anything. It aint cold 10 days out of the winter in the Alps. 10 below freezing [EH interlinear insertion: 0°] Centigrade is a low temperature. A male is warmer in the hut than in the valley. There’s a big brick oven, porcelain covered extends between 3 rooms and a fire in there pushed way back in—let to burn and then all the drafts shutt makes the bricks hot and the heat radiates to hell and gone all through the rooms. A fire about the size of a good campfire heats the hut for 30 hours. But if a man would open the draft it would all go.
In a 3 manualed poker game in which the owner of the hut participated Lent, the head of the ski school, I took the Herr for 430,000 kronen. As our whole rent for the week was 220,000 this helped. I gave him a chance to come back the next night and broke even. The bulk of the dough was won when he opened for 20,000 and held a pat hand—I drew to 4 spades King high and caught the Ace. He bet 50,000 and I upped him equally—he bucked back and I upped him, I forget whether he raised again or called that time. Anyway he called me finally and I laid down the Spades and he had Clubs—Ace, King, Queen high! It seems in Germany the suits run, Clubs, Hearts, Diamonds and Spades but we had discussed all that before hand and agreed to play by the American ranking. Lent rememembered all that and didnt claim the hand but had been over enthused by the pat club flush–he’d had such a respect for them for so long. I took about 350,000 kronen on that hand. Only five seeds—but still money and enough to pay the rent. I took about 150,000 from Jo Bennett at the same game.¹ Held manuals like I used to at the bay. It was hard not to speak of a brace of sqoabs or a trio of vaginas. I found the vocabulary limited. A reference to bare with the squard might have been misunderstood.²
You seem sound on emotion—rationalizing.
Lay off the boards, lay off the barber’s chair. In them occupations a male competes agin the homosexual in his worst and most malignant form. And when a male competes agin the fairy on his own grounds he loses out on acct. the fairy will do stuff to get on that a male is barred from. No Fairy ever starved nor was hungry. Lots of swell guys have done both. Unfortunately a male runs up agin them in the practice of Literature. Ferinstance there is a guy named Glenway Westcott who was going to Chicago University and engaged to some girl. Along comes a rich buggar and Glenway and he fall in love. The goil is forgotten. She had no dough. The rich guy had. Glenway goes to Europe, comes back, the guy finances him. Glenway sucks his way into the Dial and now they’s full page euologies on him in N.Y. Times.³ And he’s nothing but a faker boid. He fakes from me, from Anderson, from everybody. But the Royal Road to quick Literary success is through the entrance to the colon. Gaw it disgusts a male. There’s a homosexual claque that make a guy overnight. Once in with the buggaring pooblic he’s made. They’re organized like the Masons⁴—only not really organized but everybody knows everybody else. It’s funny too. I’ve fought ’em like hell. And so I’ve got a bunch of guys that hate my guts. Still, enemies are good advertisement so long as you’ve got some solid friends.
The Screeder lays tongue to the German language but but small success. It aint easy for me. French is a pipe.
Train fare dont cost much here. In Austria it dont cost nawthing. In France about 1/3 of U.S. or rather U.S. as I remember it. But Pullmans cost like hell.⁵ I never ride in one unless on an expense account. Fare down here 18 hrs ex Paris was 150 francs—not bad.
The enditer was never one to spend a day pulling the legs of[f] of hoopers—⁶ I dont think the bull fights is sadism. It’s just that a male don’t care any more about those god damn bone bags of horses than he did about stringing on a triple hooper. There aint no voluptuous sensation. There aint any repugnance. When you watch a lot of death in the bull ring it seems so god damn unimportant and a dead horse aint no more than a dead sardine. Maybe it’s sadism. If so I got it. Shouldnt wonder if we’d all got some. Witness how we’d ride a guy like Hoopkins [Charles Hopkins]. Teasing and riding is all that. But bulls are just like rattle snakes—Gaw—they aint human and they aint animals. They got something damn strange about ’em. For 600 years they been bred for viciousness, and speed. They aint like our bulls. They got the speed of a racehorse, they never move except on the run, and they never back up. Never. They dont do anything to ’em to make ’em sore before they fight. They just let ’em loose into the ring. I’ve seen ’em come out at 90 miles an hour and chase a picador on his horse clear around the ring and pick the pick out of the saddle and kill him. Gaw they’re swell to watch. Just like prehistoric times. They keep them in a dark pen for 3–4 hours before the fight just to rest ’em. Like a guy takes a nap. They reach the highest point in their lives when they go into the ring. There’s damn little we get like the satisfaction a bull has when he hits a horse. And the horse gets death and that’s a damned fine thing. The form dont make any difference in death. If there were homes for old horses to live on their incomes it would be different. It aint a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it from a moral standpoint there isnt any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gaw what a hell of a wonderful show.
See Bottomius of page 2⁷
Well, a male must write closet to this. Mention the enditer to Butstein when you screed.
Wife sends greetings. Der Barometer’s dropped 15 points. What it means gawd knows.
1 Josephine (Jo) Beach Day Bennett (1880–1961), a well-to-do American activist who worked for women’s suffrage and African American and labor rights, ran for the U.S. Senate on the Farmer-Labor ticket in 1920, and was married to prominent Connecticut attorney Martin Toscan Bennett (1874–1940), with whom she had three children and whom she would divorce in 1926. She lived off and on in France, where she was romantically involved with Harold Stearns and became friends with Dossie Johnston, daughter of William Dawson Johnston, whom she had joined on the trip to Schruns.
2 Reference to the private slang that EH, Smith, and other friends had invented during card games in Horton Bay. Although some of their slang seems unintelligible, “manuals” are hands, a “brace” is a pair, and “a trio of vaginas” is three queens.
3 Glenway Wescott (1901–1987), American author who, between 1921 and 1925, had published work in Poetry, the New Republic, Contact, the Little Review, the Transatlantic Review, and the Dial. While a student at the University of Chicago, he became engaged in 1917 to Irish-born poet Kathleen Knox Foster (later Campbell, c. 1897–1991), with whom he had a platonic relationship. In 1919 he met American writer, editor, and publisher Monroe Wheeler (1899–1998), who published Wescott’s first book, The Bitterns: A Book of Twelve Poems (Evanston, Illinois: Monroe Wheeler, 1920) and would financially support Wescott throughout their lifelong relationship. Wescott’s story “In a Thicket” appeared in the June 1924 Dial and in O’Brien’s The Best Short Stories of 1924 (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1925). In the 18 January 1925 New York Times Book Review, Wescott’s photo was prominently featured alongside a review of the anthology by Lloyd Morris (1893–1954), who described Wescott’s story as “compact, compelling and artistically true.” Wescott would be the model for Roger Prentiss in SAR.
4 The centuries-old fraternal order of Freemasons is characterized by secret rites and an organizational structure of ranked degrees.
5 Pullman, term for a railway sleeping car, originally designed and manufactured by American industrialist George Pullman (1831–1897).
6 Grasshoppers, used for fishing bait.
7 EH ran out of room on the fourth page, so he finished the letter at the bottom of page 2.
8 Waiter (German), a mutual nickname of EH and Smith.
The Letters of Ernest Hemingway (in the USA) © 2013 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation and Society and The Hemingway Foreign Rights Trust. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.