‘Hemingway Almost Killed Me': A LIFE Photographer Remembers

Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, 1952.
Alfred Eisensteadt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, 1952.
Alfred Eisenstaedt
'50s

Ernest Hemingway, LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt once stated, “was the most difficult man I ever photographed.” Coming from someone who (as we’ve pointed out elsewhere on LIFE.com) made portraits of emperors, scientists, testy athletes, egomaniac actors, insecure actresses and once, famously, a glaring, homunculus-like Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, that bald assertion about Hemingway is striking, indeed.

[MORE: "Hemingway in Cuba: Portrait of a Legend in Decline"]

Here, LIFE.com features one of Eisenstaedt’s photos from a famous, disastrous 1952 photo shoot in Cuba—a picture that, in light of Eisenstaedt’s memories, carries with it a hint of genuine menace.

In a 1992 interview published in John Loengard’s LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Eisenstaedt recalls that, when he went to Cuba in ’52 to photograph “Papa,” the writer was drunk “from morning till evening.”

We photographed a deep-sea fishing contest in Havana. I visited Hemingway the night before, and he told me, “Don’t come closer than 200 feet or else I will shoot at you.” This was a deep-sea fishing contest! We . . . kept at least 400 feet away. That afternoon the Royal Yacht Club gave a cocktail party, and he came over, blue in his face from drinking and said, “Alfred, you came too close to my boat. I shot at you.” With Hemingway, you had to think first before you answer, as he was an alcoholic. I’d forgotten that, and I said, “Papa, I don’t believe you.”

You know what he did? Dropped his glass. Foam came to his mouth. He grabbed me by the lapels and bent me backwards. My cameras flew all over. He almost killed me; he wanted to throw me into the water. . . . He said to me, “Never say you don’t believe Papa.”

Thirty feet away was his wife, Mary. An hour later she said to me, smiling, “Alfred, I didn’t know that you liked men so much.” She thought I wanted to kiss him.

The myth that has grown around Hemingway, and that Hemingway himself assiduously nurtured—that of the tough, hard-driving, hard-drinking, larger-than-life figure who hunts big game on the savannah, cheers toreadors, covers wars and always, always writes—endures because, deep down, that’s what so many of us want to believe the lives of our literary lions really looked like.

Far fewer of us, meanwhile, recall that a life lived on that scale, and at that pace, often peters out into a series of small, sordid scenes. When Hemingway killed himself in July 1961, blowing out his brains with, it is said, his favorite shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, he was a shadow of the man who reinvented American literature four decades before and who embodied a new American archetype—the macho novelist-adventurer—for most of his working life. He was 61 years old.
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