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Bogart and Hemingway

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

The similarities between Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway are quite striking. They were both born in 1899, and Hemingway died four years after Bogart. They belonged to prominent, upper-class families, which had come from Northern Europe to America in the 17th century, and grew up with servants in large luxurious houses. They loved their weak fathers, who were doctors and had their offices on the first floor of the family residence, and disliked their domineering mothers. Maud Bogart was a nationally-known illustrator who specialized in portraits of children; Grace Hemingway was an opera singer who later exhibited her paintings. In the summers the families migrated to country houses, the Bogarts to upstate New York, the Hemingways to northern Michigan, where the fathers taught the sons to hunt and to fish. Late in life, the fathers lost a great deal of money in bad investments. Belmont Bogart became a morphine addict; Clarence Hemingway committed suicide.

In photographs taken during early childhood, the handsome, well-groomed little boys look remarkably alike. They disliked their sissy-sounding first names: Humphrey and Ernest. Their distant mothers, substituting sentimentality for genuine affection, drowned their sons in saccharine effusions. Maud wrote a story in which “Baby Dimple had a good cry in the “comfiest” of all places, Mother’s arms.” Hemingway satirized his Mom in “Soldier’s Home”: “”Don’t you love your mother, dear boy? . . . I’m your mother,” she said. “I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny boy.” Krebs felt sick and vaguely nauseated.” Bogart explained, in a frank confessional article, why he never liked his mother. John Dos Passes, shocked by Hemingway’s condemnation of Grace, said he “was the only man I ever knew who really hated his mother.” Both men learned to detect phonies at an early age, and developed what Hemingway called a “built-in shit detector.” They refused to attend college and learned from direct experience in the world. Both became liberal Democrats.

Bogart and Hemingway, heavy drinkers, were suspicious of men who did not drink. But they started late in the day and never let drinking interfere with their work. Alcohol loosened their tongues, and they were fond of obscene language, affectionately insulting nicknames, witty wisecracks and cruel mockery of friends and enemies, which Bogart called “needling” and Hemingway called “talking rough.” They developed, in both life and art, a skeptical, laconic, stoic, and belligerently masculine style, with speech and gestures cut down to a stark minimum, Men would often pick fights with them in bars to test their tough-guy image, which they maintained with reckless bravado. Bogart ate glass till his mouth bled; the accident-prone Hemingway ran with the bulls and hunted big game.

Both had four wives, one for each phase of their careers, and usually married the women with whom they slept. They adhered to an old-fashioned and somewhat puritanical morality, and criticized their friend Ingrid Bergman for destroying her film career by having an illegitimate child with Roberta Rossellini. They followed a repetitive pattern in marriages. Bogart married actresses, Hemingway married Midwestern journalists. They usually had an affair with their future wives while still married to their current ones. Lauren Bacall and Martha Gellhorn both advanced their careers by marrying famous men in their profession. Mayo Methot and Mary Welsh became alcoholics while trying to keep up with their husbands’ drinking.

Howard Hawks and John Huston, Bogart’s two best directors, were both friends of Hemingway. While Bogart played the Hemingway hero in films like To Have and Have Not, Huston became the Hemingway hero by boxing, racing horses, going to war, and killing elephants. Bogart, more interested in the man than in his work, closely questioned another mutual friend, Peter Viertel, about Hemingway and included the novelist on his list of favorite drinkers. Both men had a passion for their boats, the Santana and the Pilar. They loved to escape to the quiet and solitude of the ocean, and went on submarine-hunting expeditions in World War II. Bogart, who read all of Hemingway’s books, was fond of attributing to the writer a phrase that expressed his own feelings: “The sea is the last free place on earth.”

Otto Friedrich maintained that gangsters did not “know how they were supposed to behave. So Hollywood taught them.” But Hemingway—who had covered the crime scene in Kansas City and emphasized the dramatic and visual aspects of gangsters—actually created the natty dress, menacing wisecracks, and unrestrained violence of the movie racketeers. One of the criminals in Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1925) “wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves . . .[The hoods] ate with their gloves on . . .[and] were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. . . . The cut off barrels of the shotguns made a slight bulge under the waist.” Hemingway’s precise description clearly foreshadows Bogart’s smart attire in all his gangster roles from the early 1930’s to “Gloves” Donahue in All Through the Night(1942). As Bogart says, in Huston’s Across the Pacific (1942), of the Japanese villains who are trying to hide their weapons: “tight clothes don’t go with guns.”

In Hemingway’s story (which reads like a screenplay) the killers, awaiting the arrival of their victim, taunt and intimidate the workers in the diner with a series of threatening insults that require immediate assent:

“You’re a pretty bright boy, aren’t you?”

“Sure,” said George.

“Well, you’re not,” said the other little man. “Is he, Al?”

“He’s dumb.”

One of the killers, giving orders to his captives, is compared to a member of a vaudeville team and to “a photographer arranging for a group picture.” He tells George: “Ever go to the movies?. . . You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.” Eight years later, after the Prohibition era had inspired a series of gangster films like Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy(1931), Hemingway’s detective in “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” warns the wounded Mexican about confusing art and life: “Listen. This isn’t Chicago. You’re not a gangster. You don’t have to act like a moving picture. It’s all right to tell who shot you.”

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, strongly influenced by Hemingway, inspired one of Bogart’s greatest films. Chandler emphasized the connection between real, fictional and cinematic gangsters when he remarked of Joe Brody: “His voice was the elaborately casual voice of the [Hemingwayesque] tough guy in pictures. Pictures have made them all like that.” As Bogart’s cynical Harry Dawes observes in The Barefoot Contessa (1954): “Life now and then behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies.”

Bogart, who played a Fitzgerald hero in his romantic roles on stage in the 1920’s, was transformed into a Hemingway hero in his gangster films of the 1930’s. He starred in To Have and Have Not (Lauren Bacall’s first film) in the 1940’s; and in the 1950’s he and Bacall played in a radio series called Bold Venture that was (like Hemingway’s novel) set in a seedy Havana hotel. Bogart also appeared with Joan Fontaine in a radio version of A Farewell to Arms. The burning of the missionary outpost in The African Queen (1951) was filmed in Butiaba, near Lake Albert and Murchison Falls in Uganda, where Hemingway had two plane crashes (and was reported dead) in January 1954. The following year Bogart, an expert sailor, wanted and was well suited to play the gaunt Cuban fisherman in the film version of The Old Man and the Sea. But the ruddy and rotund Spencer Tracy (though absurdly miscast) secured the part because he had bought the rights with Leland Hayward and was co-producer.

Hemingway in fiction and Bogart in film created tough heroes, torn between ironic fatalism and despairing courage, who sought authenticity and adhered to a strict code of honor. Both imitated their own artistic creations, and were expert at inventing a fascinating public image. In the 1930’s they acted out in real life the public personae—Bogie and Papa—they had established in their work. Hemingway tapped into the national consciousness to create his laconic gangsters and vulnerable tough guys; Bogart gave these American archetypes enduring life on the screen. Their best work, The Sun Also Rises and Casablanca, remains as fresh and alive as the day it first appeared. The most popular American writer and actor of the 20th century remain vivid presences in our imagination, still widely imitated and instantly recognized throughout the world. They have become cult figures whose fame is even greater now than in their lifetimes.


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