Culture Great Writers History

Ernest Hemingway: A man with nine lives.

Have you ever heard of the saying ‘a cat has nine lives’? Well, picture a cat that walks effortlessly along your neighbours two storey roof and suddenly slip on a loose tile and falls. As that cat falls, it will manage to balance itself right side up, due to an unexplained inbuilt automatic twisting reaction, and land on its feet first. This suppleness and swiftness allows cats to escape life threatening situations more often than not. Therefore, we come to use this term or metaphor of ‘nine lives’ to describe the amazing luck or good fortune a cat has and how it often without a care in the world continues on its merry way.

This quirky little opening brings me to introduce Ernest Hemingway. We all know that Hemingway was often regarded as America’s foremost literary celebrity, who spent more than 30 years in the spotlight. What some people don’t know and others overlook is that what really a ‘lucky’ man he was to live through his 61 larger than life years.

Hemingway’s ‘tale of nine lives’ begins in Oak Park, Illinois, where he is born in 1899. As an adolescent he rebelled against his mother by adopting a very masculine facade that was expressed in his lifelong pursuits of physical activity, hunting and fishing. He would later of course catch the writing bug in his high school years and develop his trademark declarative style that we would all come to know. Following his schooling years, he would work for a short while as a journalist before experiencing his first life changing experience during the Great War.

Hemingway, as always, was drawn to action and joined the army. It was here as an ambulance driver on the Italian front that his life was for the first time in danger when his vehicle came under heavy mortar fire. In short, despite being badly wounded with shrapnel in both legs, he bravely managed to carry to safety an Italian soldier. At day’s end, so bad were his leg wounds that he required immediate surgery and spent 5 days at a field hospital. Not surprisingly he would receive a medal for bravery and a ticket out from the front lines. Hemingway would later remark: “When you go to war as a boy you have great illusions of immortality. Other people get killed, not you…”

Moving on, in the year 1926, he found fame and fortune with his successful novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and other subsequent short stories that he had written. He relished the limelight, but would ruin his first marriage because of his pursuit for new experiences. He would remarry shortly after, but while on his honeymoon he would contract the potentially dangerous disease of Anthrax. Bad luck would continue to haunt him again in 1928. He would suffer a severe injury in a Paris bathroom, when he pulled a skylight down on his head. (This left him with a prominent forehead scar.) A year after that he broke his arm in a car accident and was subsequently hospitalised for seven weeks. As a result he damaged the nerves in his writing hand, which took as long as a year to heal. Wow! How much can one man take?

Hemingway during this period would continue to write. But carelessly he would also continue to pursue excitement and other violent experiences. He attended bullfighting, went on safari in East Africa and covered the Spanish Civil War for newspapers.

When World War II broke out, he found himself in all sorts of bother again, both in London and mainland Europe. In London, he ended up in hospital with concussion after another car accident, while later in Europe, he was caught up in heavy fighting along the western front and for his bravery he would be awarded a Bronze Star. Importantly, his coverage of the frontline soldier and their hardship and triumphs enabled readers around the world to obtain a vivid picture of World War II. Hemingway himself, would also suffer from some of these ‘hardships’ being hospitalised in late December 1944 with pneumonia.

Hemingway’s life and literary output in the post war years began to decline, but one last ‘hurrah’ scored him a nobel prize and pulitzer for literature with his novel’ The Old Man and the Sea’. Sadly, this last comeback would see him dogged by a series of health crisis in his last years.

He would survive two separate plane crashes in Africa in 1954, each time emerging with severe internal injuries. He would later get burnt in a bushfire accident, develop high blood pressure and suffer from liver problems related to his drinking problems. Furthermore, electroshock therapy, for depression which had haunted him for most of his adult life, would also wipe out most of his memory.


Hemingway at a fishing camp in 1954. His hand and arms are burned from a recent bushfire; his hair burned from two recent plane crashes.

His last days were unfortunately no better. He became increasingly depressed and had to be often heavily sedated, to prevent him from taking his own life. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to stop him one day from getting a hold of his shotgun. He killed himself on June 2nd 1961. 

This remarkable man had lived at times an exciting and dangerous life. His naturally dark mood and independence allowed him to experience and achieve things many of us can only dream about. Funny enough, no matter which way we decide to look at it, whether he was fortunate or misfortunate, this is what had made him such a larger than life character. Finally, it is not always mentioned or well known that Ernest Hemingway was an passionate cat lover. He greatly admired their free spirit and independence. It definitely make me think that maybe he might have been a cat in a previous life? In this life at least he was a man with nine lives!

*This article was first published on July 9th 2013.

Photo credit: All images used are in the public domain. The header image is a family photo of Hemingway with his sons and cats in Cuba.

2 comments on “Ernest Hemingway: A man with nine lives.

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday Ernest! | Always a Reason to Party

  2. Excellent post!

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