In Pamplona—named for the storied Spanish town that is home to the annual running of the bulls at the Festival of San Fernín—we meet Ernest Hemingway in what will turn out to be the final year of his life. He recently turned 60—an event that Mary, his fourth wife and ultimately his widow, marked with an elaborate party at La Cónsula, a historic villa in southern Spain, owned by Bill and Anne Davis. The wealthy American couple hosted the Hemingways as they crisscrossed Spain throughout the spring and summer of 1959 following the corridas (bullfights), a favorite subject of Hemingway’s. The sport was depicted in works throughout his career—perhaps most famously in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, featuring the fictional young bullfighter Pedro Romero. Romero was inspired by a real-life matador, Cayetano Ordóñez, whose son Antonio would also become a leading bullfighter. It was Antonio who Hemingway would follow throughout the long, bloody summer of 1959 for an article Life magazine commissioned him to write.
By many measures, his 60th birthday should have been the joyous recognition of a remarkable life and career. Five years earlier, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and one year prior, his novel The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize. He owned property in Cuba, Key West and Idaho, and was among a select group of Americans able to earn a substantial living as an author. But that summer, Hemingway was besieged with troubles—financial, physical, emotional and political. His lavish birthday party, which featured a small orchestra, an impressive supply of alcohol and a fireworks display, created more conflict with his wife Mary, whom he often ignored that night in favor of his attractive 18-year-old secretary, Valerie Danby-Smith.
The trip was hard on Mary from the start, with her husband’s band of corrida gypsies each day trekking from one bullring to the next. “The pattern would become so ingrained that Ernest could and did follow it in his sleep: drive, watch, eat again if nothing went wrong, sleep briefly and drive on the next morning,” recounts biographer Michael Reynolds in Hemingway: The Final Years. “Some days there would be no time for sleep, and they would drive through the night: Zaragoza, Alicante, Barcelona, Burgos.” The only break in their schedule came during a competition in Madrid when Antonio, making a “back to the bull pass,” slipped, and the bull’s horn caught him deep in his left buttock. The matador refused to leave the ring until he finished his work and the bull was dead. As Antonio was finally rushed to a waiting ambulance, the Hemingways and their hosts returned to La Cónsula to rest at last.
While Mary suffered from nagging colds and a broken toe that summer, Ernest also struggled to maintain the demanding pace, as the preceding years had taken a toll on his health. In 1954, an East African safari involved two consecutive plane crashes; while Mary escaped with cracked ribs, Ernest suffered a torn scalp, damaged kidneys, a dislocated shoulder, a collapsed lower intestine, hearing and vision loss and his fourth serious concussion in less than a decade. Alcohol, his painkiller of choice, only made things worse. Following the accidents, Reynolds notes that friends found Hemingway markedly changed, “his beard whiter, his eyes frequently vacant, his moods mercurial.” Later that year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not yet fully recovered from his injuries, Hemingway declined to attend the award ceremony; his short acceptance speech, delivered by the American ambassador to Sweden, stated: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life…For he does his work alone, and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Though concerned that the publicity from the Nobel Prize would “destroy that inner well from which his writing was drawn,” Hemingway continued to write each day—creating a series of stories that ultimately grew into an 856-page unfinished manuscript set in Africa. He was also collaborating on a film version of The Old Man and the Sea, contemplating a memoir of his early days in Paris alongside artists Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and periodically returning to The Garden of Eden, an unfinished novel he started in 1946. But his health, and his moods, worsened. He suffered from hepatitis, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He required Seconal to sleep, Serpasil to treat depression and anxiety, Whychol for his liver condition and Oreton, a steroid, to maintain “male sex characteristics.” His doctors warned against drinking alcohol—advice he periodically tried to obey, but rarely for long.
By spring 1958, the world outside the Hemingways’ idyllic Cuban home had descended into violence. Young men were arrested, tortured and imprisoned on suspicion of aiding Fidel Castro’s rebels, and stories circulated about bodies found in wells. While sympathetic to the cause of Castro and the rebels, Hemingway was concerned for his and Mary’s safety; by August, they made arrangements to return to the States, renting a home in Ketchum, Idaho. From there, they tracked the progress of the Cuban Revolution, which erupted on New Year’s Day, 1959. Approached by the press for a statement, Hemingway stated, “I believe in the historical necessity for the Cuban Revolution, and I believe in its long-range aims.” In the final years of his life, Hemingway often railed against the FBI, suspecting the Bureau was listening in on his phone calls and reading his mail—fears that many of his friends chalked up to paranoid delusions. But in 1983, the FBI re-leased a 127-page file it had kept on Hemingway since the 1940s—confirming he was watched by J. Edgar Hoover’s agents suspicious of the author’s Cuban connections.
By April of 1959, the Hemingways were preparing for their journey to Spain to follow the corridas. In addition to the Life magazine article (eventually published as the full-length volume, Dangerous Summer), he would gather material for a new edition of Death in the Afternoon, his 1932 non-fiction book about the history and grandeur of Spanish bullfighting. This return to Spain—to Pamplona—was an opportunity for the aging writer, increasingly betrayed by body and mind, to revisit a wellspring of inspiration that had led to his first literary triumph: the tragedy and ritual of the bullfight. According to Reynolds, Hemingway once told Martha Gellhorn, his third wife, that “no one he knew had ever recaptured lost youth.” That summer in Spain, he forgot his own advice; returning to the site and source of his early inspiration made him feel like he was recapturing his younger self. But that feeling was short-lived, and by December Hemingway’s youth was firmly in the rear-view mirror.
Back in Ketchum, Hemingway’s depression engulfed him, and Mary became increasingly concerned about her husband’s mental state. In January of 1961, he was taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he received electroshock therapy to treat depression and delusions. Six months later, Ernest Hemingway, like his father before him, took his own life. He was 61.