Hemingway and Fitzgerald Loved to Drink But Only One Did It While Writing

From a thedailybeast.com story by Phillip Greene headlined “Drinking While Writing: Ernest Hemingway & F. Scott Fitzgerald”:

“Write drunk. Edit sober.”

This popular quote is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway since, you know, he was happy to have a drink or two.

I’ve never believed A) that he said or wrote it, or B) that he practiced it. In fact, through the bulk of his career, Hemingway categorically stated that he never drank while writing. In an interview in 1958 with Milt Machlin for the magazine Argosy, when asked if it were true that he took a pitcher of Martinis with him every morning on his way to work, Hemingway replied, “Jeezus Christ!…Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes–and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides, who in hell would mix more than one Martini at a time?”

Meanwhile, you have Hemingway’s contemporary and friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who actually did admit to drinking while writing. Indeed, he once confided to a friend that he relied on drink to infuse more feeling into his work, that “drink heightens feeling. When I drink, it heightens my emotions and I put it in a story…My stories written when sober are stupid…all reasoned out, not felt.”

So, here you have two of the most successful and revered American prose writers of the 20th century with distinctly opposite views on alcohol.

For the most part, Hemingway didn’t drink while writing. Rather, he drank in his off hours as a way of clearing his head, to relax, and to allow his mind to subconsciously work on the story, so in the morning he could continue his work sober. . . .

A 1935 letter Hemingway wrote to his friend Ivan Kashkin further reveals his perspectives on drink. “I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane than whisky?…The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold…Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”. . .

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald reportedly drank copiously while writing. Oddly enough, he initially eschewed drinking while writing when he was in his 20s, or at least he claimed as much. In 1922, at the age of 26, he wrote to his friend Edmund “Bunny” Wilson that “I have never written a line of any kind while I was under the glow of so much as a single cocktail.” Alas, by 1935, the wizened, 39-year-old author admitted to his editor Maxwell Perkins (who was also Hemingway’s editor) that “It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book…do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head…I would give anything if I hadn’t had to write Part III of Tender is the Night entirely on stimulant. If I had one more crack at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference.”. . .

Fitzgerald’s biographies and memoirs of his cohort are punctuated by stories of his drunken sprees and horrid behavior toward his friends. After ruining yet another dinner party hosted by his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy in Cap d’Antibes (where “during the dessert course, he threw a ripe fig down the back of the princess’s décolletage,” and later tossed several of “Sara Murphy’s prized Venetian glasses, full of liquor, over the garden wall, ruining her tomatoes,” not to mention breaking the glasses), Fitzgerald was banned from their home for three weeks. As noted by friend and author John Dos Passos, “Like many drunks Scott took a malicious pleasure in making his friends uncomfortable.”. . .

Fitzgerald knew he was a bad drunk, and wove it into his characters. In the short story “A New Leaf” is the autobiographical recognition that “like so many alcoholics, he has a certain charm. If he’d only make his messes off by himself somewhere—except right in people’s laps. Just when somebody’s taken him up and is making a big fuss over him, he pours the soup down his hostess’ back, kisses the serving maid and passes out in the dog kennel. But he’s done it too often. He’s run through about everybody, until there’s no one left.”. . .

Curiously, within each author’s most well-known works, where you perhaps find both writers’ most noble heroes, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the protagonists aren’t really drinkers at all. Sure, Jay Gatsby is a bootlegger, but he only had the occasional cocktail at his lavish parties, wanting to be the consummate host. And Santiago the fisherman? He had but an occasional Hatuey Beer after a long day on the Gulf Stream. Perhaps both authors wished to clad each character with a bulletproof armor of nobility and strength to ensure that each soared above the other characters in the estimation of the reader.

It’s something to contemplate as you sip a favorite drink of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the classic (and low-alcohol) Champagne Cocktail, which they often enjoyed at the Ritz Paris.

h/t Barney Collier

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