By Michael Gilmore
Ernest Hemingway, on his way to cover the civil war in Spain, stops in New York for a couple of days and drops in at Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house. He wants to touch base with editor Max Perkins. Hemingway’s arrival is unannounced, and another writer, Max Eastman, is in Perkins’s office at the time. Hemingway nods at Eastman and proceeds to ignore him until he remembers a comment of Eastman’s. In a review titled “Bull in the Afternoon,” Eastman had described Hemingway as a member of the “False Hair on the Chest School of Writing.” Hemingway exposes his chest and asks, “Look false to you, Max?” Hemingway unbuttons Eastman’s shirt, and Eastman’s chest proves to be, in Perkins’s words, “as smooth as a bald man’s head.” Perkins tries to demonstrate that it’s not such a bad review by reaching for Eastman’s essay collection and reading a passage. This proves to be a tactical error. Hemingway snatches the book from Perkins’s hand, reads a passage that inflames his temper, and snaps the book shut on Eastman’s nose, and the two began grappling on top of Perkins’s desk and then the floor—until Hemingway, whom Perkins thinks is going to tear Eastman apart, begins to laugh.
If you think this a never-filmed Woody Allen parody, you’d be wrong. The Hemingway/Eastman dust-up is documented in various forms in newspaper columns of the time and in several biographies of Hemingway, Eastman, and Perkins. Depending on the teller, punches, slaps, shoves, and wrestling figure into the narrative.
This narrative featured into my work at the Ransom Center decades later in relation to Lee Samuels, a tobacco importer who travelled back and forth between New York and Havana. He collected Hemingway first editions and ephemera and not infrequently lent Hemingway money. He hung out with Hemingway, and the poolside author photo on the original dust jacket of The Old Man and the Sea was taken by Samuels. Samuels donated a box of manuscripts and books to the Ransom Center in June 1963, but the materials were restricted from access for 25 years.
When I learned the Hemingway/Samuels box was to be opened in 1988, I “volunteered” to catalog the Hemingway monographs. Most of the contents were manuscripts and went to that department, but about 15 books made their way to my desk. I was excited to examine the titles. I picked one up, and it opened flat between pages 100 and 101 because the spine was cracked. I was surprised because I thought Hemingway took better care of his books. I could see threads in the broken binding. Then I noticed the header “Bull in the Afternoon” above the text block.
No, it couldn’t be.
I turned a few pages and at the bottom of page 95, at a slant in the corner, “Witness: Max Perkins” and underneath, in a different hand, “Aug 12 1937 / for archive / Papa.” I then turned to the front free endpaper and halfway down the page was a crude drawing of a hand, beneath which was written, “This is the book I ruined on Max (the Prick) Eastman’s nose, I sincerely hope he burns forever in some hell of his own digging. — Ernest Hemingway.”