The Importance Of Being Ernest: Hemingway Meets The Gay Gothic

Fifty years ago, Ernest Hemingway died by his own hand. The quintessentially American writer—and poster bear for burly masculinity—is undergoing one of his periodic revivals, spurred not only by the anniversary of his suicide but by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, set in the 1920s Left Bank of Hemingway’s heavily fictionalized memoir A Moveable Feast, and The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s novel about Hadley, the writer’s wife during the period chronicled in Feast.

Re-reading the “restored edition” of that book, which inspired controversy when it was published last year, we encounter the young Hemingway before he morphed into the mythical Papa. And what a queer character he is, fraught with sexual anxieties and unsettled in his masculinity—an accidental theorist, whether he knows it or not.

A strapping young man, a Midwesterner who talks like a poor man’s telegram and believes fervently in the manly virtues of the Strenuous Life and bluff unpretentiousness, is downstairs, sipping a glass of eau de vie, waiting for Madame to appear. He is a journalist and aspiring fiction writer whose “built-in, shock-proof shit detector,” as he calls it, is set to detect the faintest whiff of falsity in art or life, whether mere affectation or flat-out lie.

Suddenly, he hears a commotion from upstairs, a domestic quarrel between the lady and her live-in lesbian “wife,” and his drink turns sour in his mouth:

The colorless alcohol felt good on my tongue and it was still in my mouth when I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever. Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, “Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.”

(Cue Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, as rendered by Liberace on a Wurlitzer.)

This is Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, writing about Gertrude Stein in the key of the Gay Gothic. Pussy is Alice B. Toklas, whom Hemingway and this then-wife Hadley were not alone in finding “frightening,” and for good reason: with a little green make-up, she could easily have stood in for the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. She had a big, hooked nose; wore her black hair combed down to the bridge of it (to hide the chancre between her eyebrows, a deformity so striking Picasso said it made her look like a unicorn); and was graced with luxurious hair on her upper lip. (A three-year-old, on meeting the two ladies, was heard to observe that she liked the man, but why did the lady have a moustache?)

Hemingway really is masterful in this scene: feigning discretion, he forbears to report Pussy’s side of the conversation—which is crafty of him, because he knows the reader’s imagination will supply the unspeakable details of what, exactly, is going on behind the bedroom doors.

(The artist Edward Gorey exploits this gimmick to the fullest in his little book The Curious Sofa, a perverse bit of whimsy inspired by antique pornography. Showing nothing, implying everything, Gorey teases the reader with lines like, “Still later Gerald did a terrible thing to Elsie with a saucepan.” The tale ends with Sir Egbert locking his partygoers into “a windowless room lined with polar bear fur” and starting up the mechanized sofa of the title, a fantastical contraption with nine legs and seven arms. “When Alice saw what was about to happen, she began to scream uncontrollably…”)

Hemingway doesn’t quite scream uncontrollably, but he does gulp down his drink (undoubtedly with the mandatory Shudder of Revulsion) and bolt, telling the maid to give Madame his regards. That is the “strange enough ending” of his friendship with Miss Stein. Clearly, the gothic depravity of lesbian relationships, which may or may not involve unnatural acts with saucepans, is sufficient to pucker the mind of any wholesome young man from the Midwest.


Papa’s got a brand new beard: “No one is as masculine as you pretend to be.” Zelda Fitzgerald, unquote.

Of course, the True Gen—WW II military slang for reliable intelligence, and Hem’s pet phrase for the straight truth—is that Hemingway is using the half-glimpsed horrors of the Gay Gothic, in this scene, to repay Stein for her head-pattingly patronizing depiction of him in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In that book, Stein portrays the aspiring young writer as a hayseed savant whose charm is that he “does it without understanding it”; a Rotarian among the bohemians whose Midwestern, middlebrow tendencies always give him away (“He looks like a modern and he smells of the museums,” sniffed Stein).

But the jab that cut closest to the bone is the catty exchange between Stein and Sherwood Anderson, in which the two writers agree that Hemingway is too “yellow” to publish “the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway. It would be for another audience than the audience Hemingway now has but it would be very wonderful.”

In Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences, James R. Mellow argues that Hem would have heard the smear “yellow” as shorthand for queer, an innuendo that puts a damning spin on Stein’s remark that the story of “the real Hem” will never be told, at least by him, because it would be career suicide: “After all, as he himself once murmured,” says Stein, “there is the career, the career.” To be sure, owning up to your Inner Queer would have been a career-ender for any American man in Hemingway’s time. For the self-appointed Manliest Man in American Letters, it would have been that, plus a chaser of banner-headline scandal and unendurable humiliation.

The smoking-gun evidence that Hemingway heard insinuations of homosexuality in Stein’s remarks can be found in a letter he wrote to the New Yorker writer Janet Flanner before he’d read the offending passages in the Autobiography: “Last time I saw [Stein] she told me she had heard an incident, some fag story, which proved me conclusively to be very queer indeed.” Thus, when he encountered excerpts from the book in The Atlantic Monthly, he read them with the more than sneaking suspicion that Stein took “fag stories” about his sexuality seriously. Why else would the Autobiography have brought Hemingway’s notorious temper to such a furious boil? He would settle his score with “that old bitch,” he swore to Ezra Pound, when he wrote his “own bloody memoirs.” Twenty-eight years later, he did just that: in his last book, the book he was working on until fears of waning potency—literary and literal—drove him to take his own life, he dipped his brush in acid and painted Stein as a groveling Bottom to Toklas’s Top, engaged in some Sexual Practice Too Monstrous to Mention. Mellow nails it with deadeye accuracy in Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company, when he writes, “With unerring instinct, Gertrude had wounded him where he was most vulnerable—in that image of untarnished courage and masculinity that he wished to project. He countered it, very effectively, by exposing her lack of ‘manliness.’” Revenge, it turns out, is a moveable feast.

Intriguingly, Janet Malcolm offers a revisionist rebuttal to the charge that Hem used the tropes of the Gay Gothic to savage his onetime mentor. “What Hemingway wrote about Stein and Toklas in The Moveable Feast [sic] has been regarded with skepticism,” she notes, in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. “It is thought to be his revenge for Stein’s putting him down in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Yet, according to Malcolm, Hemingway wasn’t far from the bull’s-eye. In her analysis, it was Pussy—knitting away while making chitchat with the wives, nibbling her “little slice” of beef “daintily, like a cat” while the exuberantly fat Stein tucked into “five pounds of rare meat three inches thick” with avidity—who had the whip hand, behind closed doors. Malcolm recounts an incident in which Toklas, livid with rage at discovering (long after the fact) Stein’s affair with another woman, destroys the former lover’s letters and orders Stein to expunge any mention of the woman from a poem. “In the light of what pussy did to Stein’s poem Hemingway’s account no longer seems so suspect,” concludes Malcolm. Diana Souhami further buttresses Malcolm’s argument when she notes, in Gertrude and Alice, the “sado-masochistic” tone of “compliance, dominance, and supplication” that suffused Stein’s pornographic love poems to Toklas; in one, Stein thrills to the prospect of a good Pussy whipping, declaring, “You will give me orders will you not. You will tell me what you prefer. … I will never question. Your lightest wish will be my law.”


But even if there was a subtext of dominance and submission in the two ladies’ relationship, it’s a public secret that Hem had his own issues with the Gay Gothic. As early as 1933, the book critic Max Eastman let fly a zinger that has taken its place in the Hall of Fame of Literary Invective:

It is of course a commonplace that Hemingway lacks the serene confidence that he is a full-sized man. … [S]ome circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity. It must be made obvious not only in the swing of the big shoulders and the clothes he puts on, but in the stride of his prose style and the emotions he permits to come to the surface there.

Obviously, Stein wasn’t alone in her eye-rolling suspicion that Hem’s machismo—a machismo so over-the-top it verged on camp—protested too much. (“What other culture could have produced someone like Ernest Hemingway, and not seen the joke?,” Gore Vidal wondered.) In his narrative voice as well as the Papa chronicled in men’s magazine exploits (personae that grew increasingly indistinguishable, over time), Hemingway created and aggressively promoted the myth of a hard-drinking, roundhouse-punching, big game-hunting man’s man who gave the American Novel a much-needed shot of testosterone.

By now, feminism, queer theory, and gender studies have drawn our attention to the masculine hysteria reverberating through Hemingway’s art and life, specifically his Fear of The Inner Queer. But while Hemingway’s fiction has launched a thousand dissertations, A Moveable Feast seems to be regarded, at least by the general reader, as a soft-focus flashback to bohemian Paris in the 1920s, juicy with morsels of gossip and table-talk about Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Foodies read the book as epicurean porn, writers as a manifesto on modernist style.

A Moveable Feast is all those things. But repeat readers—addicts of the book’s Proustian buzz, among whose number I count myself—will find themselves distracted, at some point, by the noise under the floorboards. It’s the sound of the author’s anxieties about gender and sexuality, trying to tunnel out of his id.

The Old Man and the Semen: a centerfold-ready photo from the February ’56 True magazine cover story, “Ernest Hemingway: Rogue Male.”

What looked, in your freshman English class, like a romantic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man turns out to be a Rough Guide to Papa’s sexual insecurities and gender anxieties. Even the book’s tone strikes a queer note in the caricatured, Paul Lynde sense of the word; Hemingway’s strident homophobia notwithstanding, A Moveable Feast is one seriously bitchy book, with its feline swipes at Stein, Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford (“I had always avoided looking at Ford when I could and I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room”) and Wyndham Lewis, who in Hem’s unhappy appraisal had the face of a frog (“not a bullfrog but just any frog”) and the eyes of “an unsuccessful rapist.”

The subject of homosexuality, which Hemingway abhorred in men and was fascinated by in women, is a refrain throughout the book, sometimes openly but more often through innuendo. There is the famous Sex Ed lesson Stein gives the square-jawed young man from the Midwest, who concedes all these years later that, well, yes, “I had certain prejudices against homosexuality”—who knew?—“since I knew its more primitive aspects,” summed up in the phrase “that wolves used on the lake boats, ‘Oh gash may be fine but one eye for mine.’”

In the “Birth of a New School” chapter appended to the Restored Edition, there is the effete, whiny poseur and writer manqué, a “tall fat young man with spectacles” who dares to break Hemingway’s concentration when he’s writing in a café. “Take your dirty camping mouth out of here,” Hem snarls, using “camping” in the Sontagian sense. “Why don’t you go up to Petit Chaumière where you belong?,” referring to a popular gay bar in the Montmartre, noted for its drag queens. “A bitch like you has plenty of places to go,” Hem tells the man. If the Bitch’s sissified spectacles didn’t give him away—Real Men squint, like Clint Eastwood—his drama-queen dialogue would (“Oh dear. Don’t be so tiresome.” “You’re beastly.”) Interrupting The Bitch’s bleating about his failed attempt to write while in Greece, Hemingway quips, “You say you used it or you went there?” Get it? Greece, as in grease, as in K-Y jelly, as in This. Is. Sparta!, where they separate the men from the boys…with a crowbar. Among the hairy chested, this is what passes for wit. No wonder the Wildes of the world run circles around the earnest.

More cheesecake, from the February ’56 True cover story.

And then there’s a spark gap between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose face is “between handsome and pretty,” with “a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty.” On their stag road trip, Scott is thrilled by drinking straight from the bottle, excited “as a girl might be excited by going swimming for the first time without a bathing suit.” When the hypochondriacal Scott takes to his bed and Hemingway plays doctor, taking his temperature, Hem jokes, “You’re lucky it’s not a rectal thermometer.” (Pass the grease, will you? And that copy of Men Without Women?)

The plot thickens when we learn that Scott likewise nursed a lifelong loathing of homosexuals and lived in mortal fear of his Inner Queer. (Why are we not surprised?) In Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise, Sally Cline claims that Scott was forever on the lookout for “fairies,” whom he regarded with a mixture of revulsion and “voyeuristic interest in their sexual habits,” and that his “paranoid preoccupation with homosexuals daily infiltrated his writing.” At the same time, he believed he was “half feminine—that is, my mind is”; liked to crossdress; and according to Cline was often “outrageously camp” in his letters, telling one friend, “I long to go with a young man…for a paid amorous weekend to the coast.” As it happens, he and Hemingway wrote each other “teasing homoerotic letters,” notes Cline, which evinced a “shared attitude of antipathy yet attraction towards ‘fairies.’” Hem inscribed a 1931 photo of himself, “To Scott, from his old bedfellow Richard Halliburton,” the knee-slapper being that both men suspected the daredevil adventurer of being gay, as indeed he was.

There’s a poetic justice, then, in the rumor, spread by the gay writer and notorious gossip Robert McAlmon, that Scott and Hem were themselves fairies—a rumor Zelda happily used as a stick to beat Scott with. Zelda, who had her doubts about Scott’s virility and thought Hemingway’s macho bluster was “bogus,” was gnawed by the fear that the two men were having an affair. She told Hemingway to his face, “No one is as masculine as you pretend to be.” As far as she was concerned, she told Scott, the “rugged adventurer, big-game hunter, sportsman, and professional he-man” was really just “a pansy with hair on his chest.”

There’s no evidence that anything happened between the two men, although as Cline allows “it is plausible that Scott and Ernest at some level had sexual fantasies about each other,” fantasies they would never have acted on because they “came from a generation hypersensitive about homosexuality to the point of paranoia.” Theirs was a generation that “saw sexuality in absolute terms: either men were ‘queer’ or they were not. If they were, it was a hideous matter.”

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