Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When Stevens hit Hemingway in Key West

Wallace Stevens
It is the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens (1879), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 for his Collected Poems. For many years, Stevens was a frequent visitor to Key West, beginning in 1922. In 1936, he encountered Ernest Hemingway there, and there hangs a tale.

Hemingway told the story in a letter to a friend. His sister, Ursula, was at a cocktail party, where she was forced the endure an apparently intoxicated Stevens' insults to her brother. Ursula came home crying. It wasn't the first time offensive remarks from Stevens had reached Hemingway, and this time, he decided to confront the poet.

Hemingway charged out into the rainy evening and found Stevens just leaving the party. Hemingway wrote, later, that he was told Stevens had just said, "By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now; I'd knock him out with a single punch."

The 50-something hard-drinking poet and the 30-something hard-drinking novelist took the confrontation out onto Waddell Avenue. Stevens swung first and missed. Hemingway (still wearing his glasses) then knocked Stevens down three times, into a puddle in the middle of the muddy street.

Bystanders wanted Hemingway to remove his glasses, and when he did, Stevens popped him on the jaw. The punch didn't hurt Hem's jaw at all, but Stevens broke his hand in two places. Hem pummeled him again, and Stevens spent five days in his room, attended by a doctor and nurse.

A week or so later, Stevens went over to Hemingway's house and the two made up. Still, in his letter, Hemingway wrote, "But on mature reflection I don't know anybody needed to be hit worse than Mr. S." Hemingway also reported that he hadn't realized, in the heat of the moment, how big a man Stevens was. He wrote that he was sure he wouldn't have felt up to hitting Stevens if he had gotten a good look at him.

When he returned home to Hartford, Connecticut, several weeks later, Stevens still had a puffy eye and a broken hand. He is said to have told his own versions of the story of the fist fight with Ernest Hemingway for the rest of his life.

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