When Wallace Stevens hit Ernest Hemingway in Key West
By Michael Slicker
October 2 is the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens (1879), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1955 for his Collected Poems. For many years, he was frequent visitor to Key West, beginning in 1922. In 1936, he encountered Ernest Hemingway there, and thereby hangs a tale.
As Hemingway told the story in a letter to a friend, his sister Ursula was at a cocktail party and endured the apparently intoxicated Stevens insulting her brother. Ura came home crying. It wasn't the first time offensive remarks from Stevens had reached Hemingway. This time he decided to confront the poet.
Hemingway charged out into the rainy evening and found Stevens just leaving the party. Hemingway said later he was told that Stevens had just said, "By God I wish I had that Hemingway here now I'd knock him out with a single punch."
So they took the confrontation out into Waddell Avenue, the 50-something hard-drinking poet and the 30-something hard-drinking novelist. Stevens swung first and missed, then Hem (still wearing his glasses) knocked him 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 Steven 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 said he hadn't realized in the heat of the moment how big a man Stevens was. He said he was sure he wouldn't have felt up to hitting him 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.
(Posted in the Lighthouse Books Blog. Presented here by permission of the author.)