Chest-baring in the Afternoon

Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman wrestled to a split decision in the office of Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins on this day in 1937 — both Hemingway and Eastman claiming victory, Perkins refusing to score the bout. Eastman’s 1933 review of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s bullfighting book, had been titled “Bull in the Afternoon”; in it he had attributed Hemingway’s “juvenile romanticism” of bullfighting and all things Spanish to the author’s insecurities over not being “a full-sized man,” and “wearing false hair on the chest.” Hemingway had interpreted this as penis-talk, and in a letter to one of the literary magazines had extended an invitation to the older Eastman to spell out his “nostalgic speculations on my sexual incapacity.” To Perkins, editor to both authors, Hemingway had vowed to go beyond words if he ever ran into Eastman in person.

This happened four years later, when Hemingway dropped in on Perkins and found Eastman already there. The initial handshakes gave way to Hemingway baring his hairy chest, then baring Eastman’s unhairy one — at this point, trying to keep it light, Perkins bared his own chest — then demanding, “What do you mean accusing me of impotence?” When Hemingway slapped Eastman in the face with his own book, the two of them tumbled across Perkins’s desk to the floor — Hemingway on the bottom, though staring up with a smile when Perkins got there to settle things down.

When the story broke in the papers three days later, Hemingway was just about to sail for Europe. Interviewed at the dock, his parting shot was reported by the New York Times:

If Mr. Eastman takes his prowess seriously — if he has not, as it seems, gone in for fiction — then let him waive all medical rights and legal claims to damages, and I’ll put up $1,000 for any charity he favors or for himself. Then we’ll go into a room and he can read his book to me — the part of his book about me. Well, the best man unlocks the door.

This reading did not take place; if it had, Eastman might have chosen a passage from his most recent book, The Enjoyment of Laughter: “Dogs laugh, but they laugh with their tails. What puts man in a higher state of evolution is that he has got his laugh on the right end.”