How Hemingway Became Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway in WWI

This is Ernest Hemingway in WWI, when he was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. In a few years he would be in Paris trying to become all he became.

Paris in the 1920s, with its fashionable cafés and a then very favorable, to Americans, dollar-to-franc exchange rate, drew authors and artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Pasos, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson … and, of course, Ernest Hemingway to its storied streets. But how did it happen that a Midwesterner of modest means made it to Paris and learned a new, boiled-down style of writing that would change fiction forever by publishing The Sun Also Rises when he was just 27 years old?

Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly swims deep in the wine, champagne, absinthe and egos of the time, and takes particular delight in diving to the bottom of the many affairs and scandals, to bring us a view of how Hemingway, well, became Hemingway.

I had a hard time putting the book down, but then I am very interested in the topic. (Full disclosure, my next book, out this fall, chases Hemingway from those Paris cafés to the streets of Pamplona during the San Fermin fiesta, the running of the bulls.) Everybody Behaves Badly reads easily, not because it puts you there—she actually gets some key things wrong because she obviously didn’t walk in his footsteps—but because she investigates the relationships, both public and private, Hemingway made and what they all did to one another along the way.

Blume’s retelling of how Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife, tactic by dirty deed, moved aside Hemingway’s first wife, Hadely, would be hard to believe in a soap opera, but it happened. Sure, it has all been told before, but not as succinctly and fluidly as Blume does here. You see Pfeiffer finding ways to secure invitations to vacation with the Hemingways. Even after Hadely is well aware of what Pfeiffer is up to, you see the photos in Pamplona where she is seated beside Hemingway. You see Pfeiffer being the sophisticated and fashionable Paris-based Vogue writer as she husband hunts in another woman’s bedroom. Meanwhile, you see Hadely being the Midwestern housewife in Paris trying to find the cheapest potatoes as she suffers for her husband’s art by wearing tattered clothes that were literally falling off her. And then you see him leave her.

You also see Hemingway working so hard others mocked him for it. You see him viciously and very publicly turn on some who helped him. You see him take a group of real people, some well known, to Spain for the fiesta and then write a novel so close to the truth that some who were there simply called it journalism. You find how the real people, especially Harold Loeb (Robert Cohn in the novel), arguably never recovered from how they were cast—honestly portrayed or not.

All of this has been written about before—Loeb and others were even very public about their versions of the accounts. But Blume brings it all seamlessly together.

A few mistakes did bother me. She refers to the cows that Hemingway and company got into the arena in Pamplona to “fight” (in what Hemingway called “the amateurs”) as “bulls.” They are not bulls. They are what the Spanish call vaquillas, cows with leather on their horns. After the fighting bulls run up the streets in Pamplona and into the arena, the bulls and the steers with them are herded out of the bullfighting arena in view of a packed stadium. The fighting bulls will be held in the dark by themselves until they’ll run back into the arena in the afternoon to fight and die. But when the bulls leave it’s not over for the runners who have run into the arena. The door at the entrance to the Plaza de Toros is closed and vaquillas, cows with leather on their horns, are released into arena with the runners. These cows are not new to this fun, as the fighting bulls are. These cows have learned how to aim for the person, not the cape.

Hemingway, and some of his companions, did get into the arena to play with the vaquillas. Hemingway even boasted they became crowd favorites. But these vaquillas are much smaller and less dangerous than fighting bulls. I’ve gotten into the arena with vaquillas after running with the bulls in Pamplona. It is an exciting and somewhat dangerous event that is actually common in many Spanish fiestas, but if they let fighting bulls into this arena instead there would be many dead people every day.

For more, see my column at Forbes.com.