And the No-bell prize goes to . . .
An Irishman’s Diary about a clash of literary heavyweights
‘F Scott Fitzgerald hero-worshipped Hemingway (above), as much for his physical courage as his writing, and he had an exaggerated opinion of his fellow American’s pugilistic skills.’ Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
The Irish-Canadian author Morley Callaghan is now best remembered not so much for anything he wrote as for an achievement in what might be called the paraliterary sphere.
During a boxing match in Paris in 1929, he knocked Ernest Hemingway onto the seat of his pants. Harsh treatment, perhaps, of a man who had championed his early career. Against which, Hemingway was a more-than-willing victim.
A big boxing enthusiast – he once claimed it was more important to him than writing – he respected Callaghan’s superior skills in the sport, and enjoyed testing himself against them, suffering many split lips in the process and usually laughing them off.
Indeed, insofar as the 1929 fight had long-term consequences – as it did – it wasn’t because of the knock-down in itself. It related rather to the time-keeping for the bout, entrusted to another famous writer, F Scott Fitzgerald: one of many Parisian luminaries to whom Hemingway had introduced the young Canadian.
Born in the Toronto suburb of Cabbagetown, so-named because of the 19th-century Irish immigrants who grew the plant in their front gardens, Callaghan first met Hemingway through their mutual employment by the Toronto Star, and followed him to Paris, to mix in a milieu that included James Joyce.
Callaghan was soon astonished to be invited to dinner by the Joyces at their favourite restaurant, the Trianon, and then asked back to their apartment to drink whiskey. Not long after that, he was the guest in the same eatery of the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, who made a point of dining at what they thought (wrongly, as Callaghan didn’t tell them) was “Joyce’s table”.
Fitzgerald hero-worshipped Hemingway, as much for his physical courage as his writing, and he had an exaggerated opinion of his fellow American’s pugilistic skills. He thought Hemingway could fight professionally. Callaghan argued otherwise. But even as they agreed to differ, Fitzgerald asked if he could watch one of their occasional bouts together.
In the event, when it came to pass, he was appointed timer, to call the three-minute rounds. And the fight began, as had become usual, with Hemingway the aggressor, but wary of Callaghan’s counter-punching left hand. Despite which caution, and also as usual, he was quickly the possessor of a cut lip.
Ordinarily, he would have shrugged it off. But on this occasion, maybe embarrassed by the watching Fitzgerald, Hemingway made the mistake of getting angry. In the second round, he became more aggressive and reckless. And it was as the round wore on, with both men tiring, that Callaghan struck again, flooring his opponent.
Only then did Fitzgerald, completely absorbed in the spectacle, remember the watch. “Oh my God!” he cried. “I let the round go to four minutes.” His evident horror at the discovery didn’t impress the now-even-angrier Hemingway. “All right, Scott,” he said, nursing his jaw. “If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”
The thrower of the punch was suddenly irrelevant. It was the relationship between the two Americans that never recovered. Fitzgerald was mortified to think his friend and idol should believe he had wanted to see him hurt. And in time, his own pride required an apology from Hemingway, for which he would wait in vain.
First they all went separate ways for a while: in Callaghan’s case on a tour of Britain and then Ireland, en route home. Then, further muddying the water, a distorted version of the fight leaked into the literary pages of the New York Herald Tribune, with Hemingway portrayed as a bullying braggart who had challenged a smaller man and had his bluff called.
Now it was the Canadian’s turn to be mortified. He demanded and received a clarification by the newspaper, but not before the story set off another chain of events including a high-handed telegram to Callaghan from Fitzgerald (who blamed Callaghan), an angry letter in return, and other misunderstandings.
It was a comedy of egos, but the wounds festered fatally for all the friendships involved. Callaghan, in any case, went on to have a reasonably successful career. And it may be unfair that this is now largely forgotten (his 1963 memoir was reviewed in the inaugural edition of the New York Review of Books, a 50th anniversary reprint of which has just been published).
He was clearly a better boxer than Hemingway. But the latter, whatever his true priorities, left a much bigger impression on literature than on other men’s chins. If there had been a world heavyweight championship for writers, Hemingway would have held the title for several years between the wars until, as happens with so many champions, the public adulation and hard living combined to take their toll.