Would You Like To Own This Wacky Telegram From Ernest Hemingway?

In the summer of 1959, Ernest Hemingway lit out for Spain on assignment. He was to write a long article about a series of bullfights between the country’s finest matadors, Antonio Ordóñez and Louis Miguel Dominguin.1 But on the northern side of the Mediterranean Sea, a single commission from Life swelled into a three-part series, during a long summer that would prove to be his last hurrah.

Hemingway formed his own cuadrilla in Málaga, and invited 19-year-old Valerie Danby-Smith to join.2 Val, as he called her, had been sent to interview him for the Irish Times. He rarely entertained requests from journalists at that point, but she had charmed him, and it was a summer of exceptions.3 His fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, had been surprised when he accepted an invitation to stay at La Consula, the home wealthy American expats Bill and Annie Davis. The Hemingways hardly knew them, and for wont of independence, they usually booked their own houses or hotels. For their part, the couple offered up the whole of their resources on Andalusia without reserve, and yet they rarely imposed their position as hosts, happily following Hemingway’s lead.

The Davises did insist upon, however, telegrams over phones, and the one above is currently for sale. Admirers of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author — who have at least $1,400 to spare — can purchase the Spanish telegram this spring from Alexander Historical Auctions.

Nathan “Bill” Davis on left; the producer Hercules Rupert Bellville in the middle; Hemingway on the right, lunching at La Consula.

Hemingway appears to be a considerate guest in the telegram, alerting his hosts that he and Val were out on an evening stroll, and would likely return in an hour. While Hemingway addressed his hostess as “Miss Annie,” he invoked his nickname for Bill. According to Alexander Historical Auctions, Hemingway called his host “my litter slave” because he allowed the writer “unfettered access to his considerable assets.” Val confirmed this in her own memoir, as well as multiple interviews, adding that the nickname had as much to do with what Hemingway decided were his “physical attributes” as well as his submissiveness.

Ernest called him ‘negro’ the whole time, because he had very thick lips and he felt he had this sort of Negroid… you know? So that was almost like using him as a servant, in a way. He drove the car… He was like the chauffeur, he was not so much the host. He let the Hemingways use their house as if it were their own house.

And use the house, they did. La Consula was the site of Hemingway’s legendary 60th birthday party. Mary Hemingway flew in champagne from Paris, Chinese food from London, and friends from all over the world, including the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, American diplomat David Bruce and wife Evangeline, and actress Lauren Bacall. The local Spanish aristocracy appeared en masse. Musicians played the Spanish guitar while couples danced the flamenco. Flashes of light and piercing noises prevailed, whether from the fireworks, the shooting range, or Hemingway’s own temper.4

Hemingway’s health was poor and he felt, for the first time, unable to exert control over his work. Those around him suffered greatly for it.5 He lashed out at General Charles Trueman “Buck” Lanham at the party, who had travelled all the way from Washington, D.C. to celebrate the man he fought alongside during War II. In a letter Hemingway wrote to A.E. Hotchner a few months after the party, he described life with Mary in arctic terms.6 The cuadrilla knew to tread lightly.

The year that followed the telegram was likely his worst. Life insisted the Spanish bullfighters article, “The Dangerous Summer,” be no longer than 10,000 words. Hotchner came to Cuba to help, where he found Hemingway “unusually hesitant, disorganized, and confused.” When Fidel Castro declared he would nationalize property owned by foreign nationals, the Hemingways fled Cuba, stashing manuscripts and artwork in a Havana bank. He became ill and paranoid, convinced the FBI was monitoring his activity in New York and Idaho, and that he would never retrieve what he left behind in Cuba, some of which could have paid the money he owed on taxes. Under the name of his physician, he received electroconvulsive therapy no less than 15 times at the Mayo Clinic. Two days after he returned from Arizona, he walked down to the basement and unlocked the storeroom that held his guns, and brought two shells and twelve-gauge Boss shotgun up to the foyer. Like his father before him, and his sister and brother after, Hemingway took his own life.

Alexis Coe is now a writer living in San Francisco, but not long ago, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, and other publications. Alexis holds an MA in history. Follow her.

1 Hemingway based the character Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises, on Ordóñez’s father, Cayetano. The elder Ordóñez began performing as a bullfighter in the ranches near La Palma, a shoe shop owned by his parents. Hemingway once said that Cayetano knew “everything that happened in the ring was true, and everything outside was fiction.” The Ordóñez family tradition is still alive; his great-grandsons Francisco and Cayetano Rivera two of the most famous matadors in Spain today.

2 In the world of bullfighting, the Spanish word cuadrilla includes the matador, and his team of banderilleros and picadors.

3 Hemingway was openly infatuated with the young journalist, but by most accounts, their relationship was believed to be a platonic one. Either way, Mary grew attached to Valerie, and would ask her stay on for years, sorting out the writer’s estate after his suicide. She eventually became a Hemingway herself, marrying their son, Gregory, though their union would end in divorce.

4 Hemingway’s volcanic temper was as well-known as his talent. He was a womanizer who drank to excess, an arrogant bully who was regularly estranged from his family members and old literary friends, including Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He dismissed Sinclair Lewis as a sloppy fraud.

5 Under the heat of the Andalusia sun, Hemingway’s pages swelled to nearly 120,000 words. Hemingway’s morning writing routine is now well-known, but is worth pointing out it included a sedulous endpoint; he often criticized writers who “never learned how to say no to a typewriter.”

6 Hotchner was a journalist for the Air Force during WWII. He met Hemingway in 1948, and the two remained close until his death. He is best-known, however, for his 1966 biography on his friend, Papa Hemingway, but he went on to write King of the Hill, a memoir later adopted to the screen by Steven Soderberg, and later co-founded Newman’s Own with his neighbor, the actor Paul Newman.