How Ernest Hemingway really responded to the Spanish flu pandemic

Eamonn O'Neill, Associate Professor in Journalism, Edinburgh Napier University
·7-min read
<span class="caption">Ernest Hemingway, July 1918, American Red Cross Hospital, Milan, Italy.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ernest_Hemingway,_1918,_American_Red_Cross_Hospital.jpg" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Buckley, Peter, Ernest, Dial Press, New York, 1978">Buckley, Peter, Ernest, Dial Press, New York, 1978</a></span>
Ernest Hemingway, July 1918, American Red Cross Hospital, Milan, Italy. Buckley, Peter, Ernest, Dial Press, New York, 1978

Earlier this year, as the world came to terms with the coronavirus pandemic, a letter purporting to have been written by F Scott Fitzgerald in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic did the rounds on the internet. It was, of course, a parody, but the writing style and notes to his pal Ernest Hemingway meant the letter – unless you’re a Fitzgerald expert – was pretty convincing:

At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.

Its real author, Nick Farriella, had expertly muddied the tone of Fitzgerald’s language with, some contemporary 21st century concerns, and a dash of the clichéd image of the character we’ve come to know as “Hemingway” – something of a macho bore, brawler and liar.

It’s an unfortunate, but sometimes well-deserved, persona, as I have come to know intimately whilst doing research for a new book examining his often ignored, shadowy time spent in London and Europe before and after D-Day.

This was an arguably defining time in his life and career, when he was possibly the best known living writer in the world and something of a one-man global commercial brand. Even then, I have discovered that when he was in the company of undercover spies and well-known authors (sometimes, like his friend Roald Dahl) he could be, by turns, thoughtful, loving, brilliant, brave, embarrassing, abusive and downright nasty.

For some, the tone of the parody pandemic letter was a brief moment of entertainment because it was the return of the cartoonish wild-eyed and comical version of Hemingway from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. For others, who knew a little more about Hemingway, it was yet another simplistic attempt to besmirch his deeply complex legacy – fake news, you might say.

Hemingway and the facts

In fact, Hemingway’s response to the pandemic of 1918-19 – and later waves too – was very different from the parody. The truth is effortlessly stranger and more enigmatic than any fiction. Of course Hemingway was guilty of hyping facts to meet his mantra that fiction could be truer than the truth. But that didn’t change his basic respect for scientific facts and the natural world.

He was, after all, the dutiful son of a doctor from Oak Park, Illinois who’d witnessed first-hand his father’s work and used the experiences in his later fictional works. The Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel has shown how serious illness, disease, sudden and prolonged death were nothing new to him. He was aware, in humans and animals, of the fragility of life.

A formal picture of a family.
An early picture of Ernest Hemingway with his family, 1905. Ernest stands at the far right. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The GP’s son later had his own appalling experiences in the first world war, when he volunteered for the Red Cross. Bad eyesight meant normal duty was out of the question, but a determined Hemingway used the Red Cross to get to the Italian front line instead.

A man in army uniform stands on crutches.
Ernest Hemingway recuperates from wounds in Milan, 1918. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Within hours of arriving in Italy, Hemingway was tasked with cleaning up the body parts of victims of shelling, a sight he recounted in his controversial short work “A Natural History of the Dead”, that both fascinated and horrified him. Within weeks he would be pulled off a battlefield himself, a bloodied wreck more dead than alive, with 228 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his legs. Long days and painful nights of touch-and-go recuperation followed.

Yet later, after shadowing Red Cross nurses, Hemingway wrote about the worst death he ever saw. It hadn’t been from a bomb or a bullet: “The only natural death I’ve ever seen […] was death from the Spanish influenza. In this you drown in mucus, choking, and how you know the patient is dead is; at the end he shits the bed.”

This horrendous scene was common amidst a global pandemic which had claimed, by December 1919, 50 million people. There was no coordinated national and international research as we would know it, no effective treatment, and certainly no vaccine on the way. Soldiers and volunteers like Hemingway were literally swimming in the virus.

Dodging disease

Yet Hemingway dodged the peaks of the 1918-19 pandemic waves by weeks, sometimes days, as he convalesced in Italy, and then returned to the US. Once home, he discovered family and friends had perished from it. Despite youthful public insouciance, all these experiences privately scarred him, and that dying soldier in Italy was never far from his mind.

According to as his masterful biographer Michael Reynolds, Hemingway’s superstition about death meant that “the slightest possibility of flu often sent him scurrying for healthier conditions, for he had a particular horror of drowning in his own fluids”. Consequently, by 1926 and now living in Paris, when his son Jack, nicknamed “Bumby”, developed a “hacking cough”, Hemingway immediately sent him and his wife Hadley off to the clean air and sunshine of the Riviera to recover, while he went solo to Spain to work.

A black and white picture of parents and a child.
A black and white picture of parents and a child.

Hadley and Bumby Hemingway arrived at Antibes on May 26 1926, and the child was immediately diagnosed with the infectious – and potentially fatal – whooping cough. Quarantine was called for, so both were summarily housed by their hosts, the ever-generous patrons of the arts Sara and Gerald Murphy, in a small dwelling near their own 14-roomed Villa America.

One week later they were moved again, under quarantine conditions, to a hastily vacated Villa Paquita at Juan les Pins, previously inhabited by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who had zipped off to the safety of another coastal retreat. To complicate matters, Hemingway’s mistress Pauline Pfeiffer, a chic Paris-based editor at Vogue magazine, arrived from Paris, and within 48 hours, they were joined fresh from Madrid by the central figure in this peculiar set-up, Hemingway himself.

For a while, quarantining was all very jolly. By day, Hemingway dedicated himself to editing corrections to his soon-to-be bestseller The Sun Also Rises. By evening, everyone gathered for socially-distanced cocktails with the Murphys and Fitzgeralds, who stayed outside the garden fence. Empty bottles, drained and upended, were mounted like heads on the spiked fence. Each one marked another day of quarantine for the Hemingway child.

It worked – to an extent.

Quarantine ended when his son got better, though as a precaution he and his nanny were housed nearby, leaving Hemingway in a nice hotel with the two women. He pretended he was happy but inevitably, the post-lockdown arrangement slid into emotional anarchy. Hadley Hemingway and he argued, while Pfeiffer hung on for the prize she wanted most – Hemingway himself. It stayed that way as everyone decamped from the Riviera to Pamplona, Spain for the annual fiesta.

Within a year of that quarantined summer, the Hemingways were divorced.

A couple.
Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, Paris 1927. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

In 1937, 11 years later, despite quarantining in Saranac Lake, Upstate New York, the Murphy’s 16-year-old son Patrick died from tuberculosis.

Hemingway rose at dawn on July 2 1961 in Idaho and took his own life.

The child who had the whooping cough in 1926, Jack “Bumby” Hemingway, had a happier outcome than most in his family. He became a decorated second world war veteran who survived capture and imprisonment after parachuting into Nazi Germany, and died peacefully in 2000.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Eamonn O'Neill does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.