Ernest Hemingway and Waldo Peirce

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Ernest Hemingway and Waldo Peirce

Writer Ernest Hemingway with longtime friend and notable painter, Waldo Peirce, in the Baghdad Room at the Tucson Inn in Tucson, Ariz., on March 20...

The artist Waldo Peirce (1884-1970) was more like Hemingway than any other friend.  Both men were tall, strong and bearded; good athletes, powerful swimmers and expert fishermen; heavy drinkers, aggressive and sometimes violent.  They played football: Hemingway in high school, Peirce in college.  Both drove ambulances as volunteers in World War One and earned medals for bravery.  They were both postwar expatriates in Paris, both spent years in Spain, and both were fluent in French and Spanish.  Each had four wives and several children, and married the next wife soon after divorcing the previous one.  Peirce painted three portraits of Hemingway as well as bullfights in Pamplona and fishing in the Caribbean.  Though Hemingway often criticised his friends and broke with them, he never quarrelled with the talkative and ebullient Peirce. They had a rare lifelong friendship.

Peirce was born in Bangor, Maine, the son of a powerful lumber baron.  Educated at Andover and Harvard, he was a classmate of Hemingway’s future editor Maxwell Perkins, for whom he started to write an autobiography.  At six feet, two inches tall, the bawdy, witty, lusty, cigar-smoking Peirce was even taller and stronger than Hemingway.

The biographer of the romantic revolutionary John Reed, another Harvard classmate, described Peirce’s most daring feat.  In Boston, Reed persuaded his wealthy friend to give up reservations on the Mauretania and join him.  Together they boarded the S. S. Bostonian on July 9 [1910], with Waldo already grumbling over the venture.  His fears were justified.  A British vessel carrying 648 steers, the freighter was a wretched hulk with a dank forecastle, an unbearable stench of cattle and unpleasant officers.  After a noon meal that featured worms in the soup, Waldo left his wallet and watch on Reed’s bunk and dove overboard to make a ten-mile swim back to shore.  Nobody saw him go, and when he was found to be missing, nobody except Jack believed anyone would try to swim so far.  Because he held Peirce’s effects, Reed was, by the end of his first day at sea, scheduled to face murder charges in England.

Eleven days later at a Board of Trade inquiry in Manchester, Peirce—who’d been picked up by lobster fishermen and had caught a fast liner—“bustled into the room, all smiles and hearty shouts,” and saved Reed from prison.  Peirce later recalled the mythic appeal of his adventure: “Everybody likes the story.  Likes the idea.  Jumping overboard.  Getting away from it all.  Starting new.  Everybody wants to do that.  So the story sticks.  They imagine themselves me.  Imagine themselves doing it.”

Like Hemingway, Peirce had a colourful life.  After art training at the Académie Julian in Paris, he studied from 1912 to 1914 under Ignacio Zuloaga in Segovia.  Though Zuloaga was a better draftsman and more accomplished painter than Peirce, Hemingway criticised the traditional artist’s influence and sharply remarked, “The only trouble was that Waldo couldn’t take painting Zuloagas seriously and Zuloaga could.”  Peirce later criticised his teacher and called him, with a hint of his own character, “a great masculine simple soul, rhinoceros-skinned to any subtlety of thought or paint.”  When Peirce discovered Goya, he spent a lot of time copying the greater artist.

After the war broke out, Waldo returned to Paris and joined the American Ambulance Field Service.  He won a Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery when transporting the wounded in the battle of Verdun, and described an artillery bombardment and infantry attack in his memoir “Christmas Eve 1915”: “From one mountain slope to another roared all the lungs of war.  For five days and five nights—scraps of days, the shortest of the year, nights interminable—the air was shredded with shrieking shells—intermittent lulls for slaughter in attack and after the bombardment, then again the roar of counter-attack.”  Toward the end of the war he was assigned to the Army Intelligence Service and sent to work in Madrid.

In 1921 Peirce rented an old fortress in Tunis and used it as his studio.  He lived as an expatriate in Paris in the 1920s, and met Hemingway at the Café du Dôme in about 1926.  In April 1927, the year after Hemingway’s novel was published, Peirce wrote his mother that he knew its real-life models: “Did you read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway?  A good novel of the Latin Quarter and the derelicts of the war—that lost generation –they are real people—friends or acquaintances of mine.  The heroine of the book Duff Twysden has just moved into my place in Cagnes [on the Riviera].  She’s broke and deserted.  She came here to be married to the Mike of the book but another lady removed the perfidious spouse a day before the ceremony.  The novel is brutal and triste, if you like, but true.”  Peirce described Hemingway, who was committed to his art, as “a sturdy youth, and serious contrast to the general populo of Paris that I see.”

Hemingway had been going to the feria and bullfights in Pamplona, northern Spain, since 1923, and in July 1927 Peirce went with him.  He didn’t have the same afición for the corrida as Hemingway and was upset by the disemboweling of the picador’s horses (who only became padded in 1928).  But he watched the spectacle, painted the bullfights that Hemingway wrote about and told his mother about their adventures: “Hemingway fights bulls on occasion and I stand every morning on the top outside gallery of the coliseum [bullring]—whence we could watch the running [through the streets], then go down to see the entry into the ring. . . . Hemingway got in with the cow the last day—who isn’t dangerous, but he wasn’t keen on the sudden appearance of the steer from behind. . . . Hemingway left last night for San Sebastian to meet his new wife [Pauline].  He doesn’t want people to know about his second marriage as he had another wife [Hadley] here last year and the Spanish are not as [tolerant] with divorce as we are.”

He later recalled his failure to record Hemingway’s bravery: “One day Ernest got in the ring with a cow.  I was supposed to take pictures of him, but put in my camera a previously used film backwards and didn’t get a single thing.  Ernest performed prodigies of courage in the ring, but could have killed me when he discovered my stupidity.”  In October 1929, however, Peirce took a grim photo of a man’s intact arm taken from the belly of a shark.  He also recorded his friend’s passion for fishing in the mountains: “Whenever we went riding in a car and drove over a stream, Ernest insisted upon getting out of the car to see if there were any trout swimming around.”

In a letter to Hemingway of June 1929, Peirce described, in his most perverse and lubricious style, an imaginary monstrous fish they could include in a fishing book they planned but never wrote.  Punning on vernal equinox, he wrote:

Balls like a Bull, wings like a bat, shits like a sawmill, half man and half woman, three hind quarters, self-sufficient androgynous hermoaphrodizzycal son of a bitch, a Jacal with seventy-three arseholes which he scratches on the sand on the venereal equinox by fair weather only and one hundred and eighty-seven cocks with which he buggers himself to death in the rutting season, which is very often, causing few of these comparatively unknown monsters to attain full growth owing to aforesaid pernicious habit.

Peirce had to shave off his massive beard during the war in order to wear a gas mask.  When he cut it again in 1920 Hemingway asked Perkins: “How does he look without the beard?  It’s a loss to the world.”  In 1920 George Bellows painted a fine portrait of the still-bearded Peirce (now in the de Young Museum in San Francisco).  Hemingway liked to recall a heroic encounter that took place in a bar when two drunken sailors made fun of Peirce’s beloved beard.  He then picked up one in each hand and banged their heads together.  Hemingway, who exaggerated stories of Peirce’s great strength, claimed that his friend was “as fast and as strong as a bear and damned impressive when he was angry.”  Peirce modestly responded, “looking strong is more impressive than being strong, so what the devil, if Ernest has a good story let him stick to it.”

Beginning in 1928, Peirce visited Hemingway for several fishing trips out of Key West and had many wet drinks in the Dry Tortugas.  He painted the rowdy Silver Slipper  dance hall, with a sign over the door, “No vulgar dancing”, adjacent to Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favourite Key West bar.  In Death in the Gulf Stream (1932), Peirce sits in the stern of a small boat, steering it with a pole.  Bill Smith, Hemingway’s boyhood friend, stands in the bow pulling mightily on a rope attached to a harpoon in a shark.  In the center of the boat Hemingway, armed with a machine gun, shoots the huge shark in the belly.

Peirce said, “I always make sketches and then I go to it without inhibition. . . . I like to paint the man in his true authentic milieu.”  His loosely painted pictures have soft forms, intense colors and elaborate decorations.  But his work is not, as some claim, like the art of Matisse and Renoir.  His hastily executed second-rate work, with sentimental pictures of children and flowers, resembles the illustrations of popular magazines.  His witty titles include Breakfast on the Beach: a mother nursing her child; and On Again Off Again: a mother persuading her child to use the potty.  He turned out hundreds of pictures and gave away many he could not sell.

Peirce painted several portraits of his friend.  Hemingway as “Kid Balzac” (1929) did not look at all like the flabby French novelist nor much like Hemingway himself.  Against a cloudy and green-sea background, the chest-length, full-face subject, in an open-collared white shirt, has a pillar-like neck, helmet of dark hair, thick eyebrows, red-blotched face, drooping mustache, strong chin, tight lips and severe look.  Peirce’s ink-on-paper portrait (1928), superior to the oil painting, captures Hemingway’s appearance and brooding character.  In a head-and-shoulders three-quarter view, Hemingway wears the same white shirt and reveals a hint of chest hair.  He has a dark mane, shadow circling his firm jaw, straggly moustache and eyebrows, asymmetrical eyes and pensive expression.

Peirce’s painting of Hemingway fishing appeared on the October 18, 1937 cover of Time magazine to coincide with the review of his novel To Have and Have Not.  Against a sharply divided blue sea and cloudy background, Hemingway in profile has broad shoulders, thick eyebrows, small eyes, half-open mouth and indented chin.  Wearing a long-billed striped cap and striped shirt, clutching the fishing rod and winding the reel, he’s crouched over while struggling to land a huge catch.

In February 1940, Hemingway wrote Perkins about Peirce’s unusual tolerance when their irascible and arrogant friend, Charles Sweeny, interfered with his art: “Waldo gets along with him by taking what no human would take.  Ask Waldo about the time he was painting Charley’s portrait and Charley finally started painting it himself.  Boy I’d like to have that confidence.”  In his posthumous novel Islands in the Stream (1970), the Hemingway character, remembering the old days in Paris, tells his sons that he’s an old, old friend of Picasso, Braque, Miró, Masson and Pascin.  His son then adds: “And of Waldo Peirce.”  But there’s an awkward contrast between these major artists—Hemingway owned works by Miró, Gris, Masson and Klee—and the inferior work of his old pal Waldo.

Hemingway and Peirce watched prizefights in New York in October 1928 and went to a Harvard football game in October 1931.  Hemingway wrote many chummy, comradely, man-to-man letters to Peirce about bulls, fishing, guns and drink.  He claimed he’d been poor in Paris, and noted his current money problems, accidents and illnesses, the birth of his sons Patrick and Gregory, the difficulty of writing and raising money to buy ambulances for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.  He wrote about his wives and the scars of divorce, frequently summoned Peirce to Key West, and confirmed his friendship and high regard for his art.

Hemingway felt there was no one he could really talk to while isolated in Key West (the southernmost point in the Continental USA) and in January 1929, with great emotion, told Peirce how much he missed his old friends: “I am lonesome to see some of youse guys . . . I am in need of society and want you down whenever you can come. . . . Miss you like hell down here.”

He said if he had a daughter he would name her Pilar, but without a daughter gave his boat that name.  Always generous with money, in February 1929 he said he was supporting his recently widowed mother, two sisters, one brother, one ex-wife, one current wife and two sons, and amusingly announced: “I have to work or thousands starve.”

In December 1929 his six-year-old son accidentally poked his finger in Hemingway’s one good eye, cut the pupil with his nail and gave Hemingway “a hell of a time”.  Still suffering three years later, he referred to the half-blind James Joyce and told Peirce: “My bloody eyes are bad (not trying to pull a Joyce on the boys but they give me bad trouble reading and writing and I am dictating this to Pauline).”  When he finally lured Archibald MacLeish to fish in Key West, the rather proper poet and stiff government official was not, like the roisterous Peirce, a good companion.  He reported that Archie has become, between ourselves “righteous, fussy, and a bloody bore.  Strange mixture of puerility and senility.”

Peirce had an extremely complicated married life.  He met his first wife, Dorothy Rice—a wealthy socialite, artist, aviator and motorcyclist—after both had studied with Zuloaga and were painting in Madrid, and they were married from 1913 to 1917.  He said that the colourful bohemian Dorothy “paints her lips a bit and puts shoe black on her eyes, wears earrings like bracelets, looks like a gypsy.”  In 1918 his French lover, Gabrielle, died of influenza in Biarritz and shattered Peirce.  He and his second wife, the American actress and painter Ivy Troutman (1883-1979), met in Paris and were married from 1920 to 1930.  He met his third wife, another wealthy artist, Alzira Boehm (1908-2010), at a Matisse show in New York.  She was Jewish and 24 years younger than Peirce, and they were married from 1930 to 1945.  They had twin sons, Mike and Bill, in 1930, and a daughter, Anna Gabrielle, in 1934.

Hemingway’s most interesting letters to Pierce concern Alzira and their twins.  In May 1930, while settling his divorce with Ivy in Paris, Peirce sent his pregnant future wife, 22-years-old but looking much younger, to Key West to await his delayed arrival.  Hemingway, as when he hid Pauline in Spain, was torn between his Oak Park puritanism and European bohemianism.  With considerable embarrassment, he told Peirce that Alzira was causing an intolerable scandal among the respectable folk in town:

What’s simple as hell in Paris is as complicated as same in U.S.A.  If you’re planning to stay somewhere and have a baby, K.W. is too small a place now that you know or anyway are known by so many local merchants. . . . She’s had and has a hell of a difficult show with having to go to the Dr. who is also director of the bank in as small a town as this. . . . If you think you could come here where you’re as widely known as say the Eiffel Tower and live with her alone with her looking about 16 and things the way they are without getting into a jam you’re crazy. . . .

Guys that you and me that live and have lived around and don’t give a damn what people say about anything so long as the law ain’t invoked are one thing and merchants that have to live on in a town and have people say to them “so your swell friends just turned out to be a bunch of scandalous bastards” are another.

The worldly and sophisticated Hemingway claimed he didn’t care about what other people thought.  But he was terribly worried, in this nervous and contorted letter, about Alzira creating a scandal, getting into a jam and earning the disapproval of the conventional merchants!  Peirce heeded his warnings, and Alzira had their twins in a more congenial locale.

Hemingway and Peirce had very different ideas about how to bring up children.  The writer strongly felt that work, even fishing, should come before paternal duties.  In July 1928, before the twins were born, Peirce punned on “wedlock” and wrote Hemingway, “having no offspring I have only the machinery of life, that is of holy bedlock to contend with, without the major consolation, penalty or reward as you like. . . . Children should be had if at all when you and the girl are young, park em with the grandparents afterwards, who are of the age to care for and enjoy them, then look em over on return from Mesopotamia.”  But when his offspring were born two years later, conditions had changed and his feelings were quite different.  At 46 and no longer young, he became completely domesticated, was deeply attached to them, did not leave them with grandparents and did not take long trips without them.  In November 1931 Hemingway urged him to free himself from degrading household chores: “Now that you know you have twinmaking cojones [balls] for gods sake layoff of domestic life and come down to Key West.”  By contrast to Peirce, in 1933 Hemingway and Pauline left their three children with nursemaids and went on a three-month African safari.

In February 1936 Peirce’s visits to Key West with his five-year-old twins provoked Hemingway’s most furious and hilarious letters about him.  He wrote John Dos Passos (whose future wife had been seriously courted by Peirce) that the artist was foolishly besotted by his offspring: “with absolutely nothing wrong with the kids nor to worry about them he worries all day and all night and literally, actually, thinks nor ever talks of anything else. . . . I am prejudiced against them as a full time occupation for a man—and old Waldo is certainly damned nice.”

In a letter that February to Sara Murphy, whose exceptionally well bred boy had died tragically in 1935, Hemingway insisted that Peirce’s wild children had to be disciplined and tamed: “Waldo is here with his kids like untrained hyenas and him as domesticated as a cow.  Lives only for the children and with the time he puts in on them they should have good manners and be well trained but instead they never obey, destroy everything. . . . They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potato into his canvases.”  Peirce seemed to encourage and enjoy their outrageous behaviour.  When one twin hit him over the head with a beer bottle, he smiled tolerantly and said, “Well, pretty soon they’ll be in school.”

Peirce’s marriage to Alzira ended during World War Two just as his marriage to Ivy had ended in World War One.  In 1946 he married his fourth wife, the artist Ellen Larsen (1920-2001), and had two more children, Jonathan in 1941 and Karen in 1948.  H settled down and remained with her until his death in 1970.   Each marriage to his wealthy artist wives had lasted longer than the previous one: five, ten, fifteen and twenty-four years.

Hemingway kept in touch with his old friend and knew that Peirce was living in the dry climate of Tucson, Arizona, to alleviate Ellen’s asthma.  When Hemingway drove from Idaho to Key West in 1959, they met there, for the last time, two years before his death. Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, who adopted his inflated view of Peirce’s art, gushed that he “seemed a flowing fountain of volubility, a cigar-ash dropper with an entrancing childish delight in ideas, jokes, words, and a true modesty about his excellent work and an overwhelming generosity.  An enchanting man.”  Hemingway once asked his young son Jack, “Who’s the greatest man you know?” expecting him to say “Papa”.  Instead, Jack answered “Waldo”.  Always faithful to the burly and bearded Peirce, Hemingway overrated his work, overlooked his faults and admired his character: “As a painter I think he is one of the very finest in America.  As a friend he is loyal, understanding, generous and the best company anybody ever had.”


Jeffrey Meyers has published Hemingway: The Critical Heritage (1982), Hemingway: A Biography (1985) and Hemingway: Life into Art (2000).

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 87%
  • Interesting points: 96%
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8 ratings - view all

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