Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Orson Welles vs. Ernest Hemingway: Who was the greatest bearded inebriate?

Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles stood at the top of their respective mediums. Revered as geniuses in their lifetimes, they lived at a time where artistic accomplishment mingled with celebrity in a nascent age of mass media as evidenced by these fantastic Salvador Dalí commercials. Both responded in the only reasonable way: by growing beards and lashing out upon the world through heroic acts of drunken derring-do. But which man can truly be called the twentieth century's greatest bearded inebriate?


Hemingway moved around an awful lot, including stops in Paris, Toronto, Key West, and Cuba, occasionally returning to the U.S. to punch somebody in the face. His time in Paris is of course chronicled wonderfully in A Moveable Feast where he delves into the Paris literary expatriate community including the acerbic Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, whose relationship can best be described as a grandiose celebration of dysfunction, Ezra Pound, and gaping-mouthed gadfly Ford Madox Ford, who Hemingway describes as "breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead."

Ford Madox Ford, in fact, seemed be photographed only with his mouth agape, not unlike a muppet or the type of fish that sucks the muck off of aquarium walls. This posture fascinates me, since it did not appear to stop him from having a somewhat rakish reputation. I've done some cursory searching to see if Ford Madox Ford suffered from some sort of condition that gave him this unique expression or if he wore it as a sort of bizarre affectation of perennial mouth-breathing surprise. Barbara Bedford, author of A Female Rake, a biography of his lover Violet Hunter with whom he had a ten-year affair, describes him as "tall and thin and fair-haired, with a blond mustache that failed to conceal defective front teeth and a mouth that always hung open," and contemporary Wyndham Lewis flatteringly called him a "flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at a zoo inviting buns - especially when ladies were present," but neither offered a reason.

The slackened jaw of Ford Madox Ford remained a staple of the Paris literary world

The greatest hagiography of Hemingway comes from his close friend and acolyte A.E. Hotchner in Papa Hemingway. Hotchner befriended Hemingway in the late 1940s on an assignment from Cosmopolitan magazine when it aspired to literary ambition instead of serving as a glossy clearinghouse for makeup tips and an apparently inexhaustible number of ways to bring out the animal in your man. Hotchner quickly joined Hemingway's intimate circles and fell under his drunken, bearded spell as the author regaled him with his considerable macho resumé and introduced him to the pre-Castro Cuban world of fishing, drinking, and a large array of bloodsports. My favorite passage involves Hotchner's trip with Hemingway to the circus:

We went around to a side entrance on Fiftieth Street and Ernest banged on the door until an attendant appeared. He tried to turn us away but Ernest had a card signed by his old friend John Ringling North, which stated that the bearer was to be admitted to the circus at any time, any place...

Ernest became fascinated with the gorilla; although the keeper was nervous as hell and warned him not to stand too close, Ernest wanted to make friends with the animal. He stood close to the cage and talked to the gorilla in a staccato cadence and kept talking, and finally the gorilla, who appeared to be listening, was so moved he pickedup his plate of carrots and dumped it on top of its head; then he started to wimper; sure signs, the keeper said, of his affection...

"I should get through to him," Ernest said, staying with the polar bear, "but I haven't talked bear talk for some time and I may be rusty."...He began to speak to the bear in a soft muscial voice totally unlike his gorilla language, and the bear stopped pacing. Ernest kept on talking amd the words, or should I say sounds, were unlike any I had ever heard. The bear backed up a little and grunted, and then it sat on its haunches and, looking straight at Ernest, it began to make a series of noises through its nose, which made it sound like an elderly gentleman with severe catarrh.

"I'll be goddamned!" the keeper said.
In fact, Hemingway's prowess with bears becomes almost a minor theme in the book. Earlier, Hotchner refers to an incident where Hemingway got out of his car and confronted a snarling black bear by calling it a "miserable-son-of-a-bitch" and insulting its place on the grand bear pecking order and instilled in it a fear of cars. Later on, he describes an anecdote where Hemingway claimed to have killed three grizzlies single-handedly with a rifle, ostensibly because he did not want to wash bear blood off of his knuckles.

Unlike modern Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell who saw nature as
benign and harmonious, Hemingway saw the common character of the
universe as not harmony, but hostility, chaos, and murder


Hotchner's book is full of Hemingway's accounts of his past heroics some of which do not specifically involve bears, including his famous claim that he led the liberation of Paris while serving as a journalist in the Second World War and that he had narrowly avoided a duel with General Modesto during the Spanish Civil War over his wife because the republican partisans did not have enough money for a monument customarily given to all dead generals.

Hotchner and Hemingway at a bullfight (Hotchner is on the right) and after
hunting where undoubtedly those son-of-a-bitch pheasants planned to show
them the business end of their beaks and claws until Hemingway shot them in
the nick of time except for the big one, the smart one, that he hunted down and
clubbed to death with the butt of his shotgun for its goddamn impudence

Naturally, being a Hemingway book, Hotchner describes in great detail a 1954 trip to Spain where Hemingway could soak up as much bullfighting and booze as he could handle, having developed a considerable tolerance for both. Bullfighting was Hemingway's favorite bloodsport, although in Cuba he settled for cockfighting, and presumably in Hong Kong he would go to the Kumite to see a vicious battle featuring nature's greatest predator: man. I do not recommend reading Death in the Afternoon before attending a bullfight unless you are fully prepared to accept that the courage and artistry that Hemingway so painstakingly describes in the matadorical arts on closer inspection turns out to be a bunch of guys in Liberace costumes slowly stabbing a bull to death and ramming it with armored horses and then parading the carcass around the ring while accompanied by jaunty bullfighting music serving as a festive counterpoint to the gruesome spectacle.

Hemingway favorite Antonio Ordoñez doin' work in the 1950s. Ordoñez had a rivalry
with Luis Miguel Dominguin and they squared off in series of what Hotchner
describes as "deadly combats" known as mano a manos where two bullfighters attempt
to one-up each other. The mano a manos ended somwhat anticlimactically as Dominguin
got badly gored in the groin and soon after Ordoñez was wounded which, as Hotchner
mournfully reflects, "really put the quietus on our bullfight plans, and the intricately
worked-0ut itinerary had to be discaded."

Hotchner's account gives us everything you'd want in a literary lion: world-traveling bloodsport tourism, rambling violent anecodotes of questionable veracity, constant dropping of pithy epigrams, all fueled by a mainline of wine, whiskey, and anything else on hand.


Welles, much like Hemingway, spent much time abroad in Europe. Of course, while Hemingway chose the life of the expatriate, Welles found himself blacklisted from the Hollywood establishment, mainly thanks to the steely-eyed vengeance of William Randolph Hearst, establishing a good rule of thumb in Hollywood not to make movies satirizing powerful media magnates with a penchant for declaring enemies as communists and sending a number of governmental goons to prevent them from working and forcing them to assert specifically why they are against communism in HUAC meetings.

Hearst did not shy away from attacking his enemies with his contacts in the
FBI and the secret of the ooze

One of Welles's projects abroad was a BBC travel show entitled Around the World with Orson Welles, a series of documentaries highlighting quirky aspects of Europe including, in a particularly Hemingway-esque touch, Spanish bullfighting. Here, for example, is a clip from the show, with Welles giving a short speech about the joys of train travel that starts out scripted but then rambles off into his own stream-of-consciousness narrative about trains without attempting to short-change the venerable airlines, an effect not unlike a far more articulate James Brown rattling off dance moves as they come to him in a bout of inspiration from the James Brown song that he is dancing to.

Thanks to the internet, there is also a portion of his documentary on Basque country available here, which is put together more effectively, although it is somewhat disappointing that the entire series is not just him ruminating on whatever mode of transportation happens to be available to him including fan boats, monorails, and zeppelins, mules, and Ferris wheels.


Of course, Around the World with Orson Welles does not really count in the standings for greatest bearded inebriate. Welles in the above clips is entirely clean shaven and at least apparently sober. Welles's greatest period of bearded inebriety came with his return to the U.S. in the late 1960s.

Much like Hotchner and Hemingway, Joseph McBride fell in with Welles during his older years and became a member of his circle. And, like Hotchner, McBride published a celebratory defense of Welles entitled Whatever Happened to Orson Welles, although his account is less personal than Hotchner's and written with a clearer agenda of showing Welles as a viable filmmaker through his later years despite his unfinished projects.

McBride became involved with Welles playing Mister Pister, a satire of a nerdy film critic in his epically unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. This film rivals his Don Quixote for his greatest abandoned project spanning years, although the impossibility of finishing a Don Quixote film has essentially become an iron law of Hollywood.

Joseph McBride and Orson Welles, with Peter Bogdanovich on the set of The
Other Side of
the Wind (right). Welles is wearing a linen suit stolen from the
set of Fantasy Island originally designed to hold upwards to two Ricardo

McBride is up against a lot of Welles ridicule as he blearily starred in terrible movies, made guest appearances on ridiculous seventies television shows, and, of course, appeared in countless ads. Unlike Hemingway, Welles's body of embarrassing work was filmed and is now readily available on the internet. For example, his wobbly Long John Silver from a Spanish version of Treasure Island can be seen here, although it is missing Welles's dubbing into a voice that McBride describes as "mumbled into his beard in a strange pseudo-Cockney accent that sounds like Falstaff with a terrible hangover" because he "dubbed the entire part in a Roman studio one night while guzzling through a bottle of white wine."

Welles's commercial disasters are already legendary including the frozen peas spot and the "mwah-ha the French" outtakes from a Paul Maisson wine commercial in which Welles is comically blotted into oblivion past the point of coherence. My favorite Welles moment is his appearance at a roast of Dean Martin notable for him emerging from behind the dais like a tuxedoed mountain of humanity and then taking a number of highbrow potshots at Don Rickles.

Probably the most ridiculous role of Welles's career was his last, playing the voice of Unicron in the 1986 Transformers movie as a planet-sized transformer that devours other heavenly bodies possibly in search of their liquor cabinet or as Welles describes: "I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that change from one thing to anther...all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then, I'm destroyed...I tear myself apart on the screen." On the other hand, McBride relates in the same paragraph that Welles thankfully turned down a part in Caligula.

McBride gives various portraits of working with Welles, who stemmed from playful to wrathful on his actors. For example, he quotes John Houseman, who described Welles's Mercury Radio rehearsals:

Sweating, howling, disheveled, and singlehanded, he wrestled with chaos and time--always conveying an effect of being alone, traduced by his collaborators, surrounded by treachery, ignorance, sloth, indifference, incompetence, and--more often than not--downright sabotage.
This image gets only funnier if you read it in a John Houseman voice that you can get a flavor of in this inexplicable commercial featuring him squaring off with an impudent Teddy Ruxpin. By the 1970s, Welles had mellowed a bit, as McBride describes him as "often in a playful mood. He liked to direct in a purple or white bathrobe that gave him a regal air, waving his cigar like a sceptre, with a can of Fresca always nearby."


Let us summarize already in this already interminable post what we have already learned in order to determine an outcome:

BEARS: Hemingway gets the edge because as far as I can tell, Welles never lifted a hand against any bear whereas Hemingway basically lived with them and spent his life battling them in deadly ursine combat.

BLOODSPORT: Again, Hemingway leads in this category, although Welles did make a documentary on Spanish bullfighting. We need more information on his predilection for cockfights.

FISTICUFFS: Hemingway gets this one as well because of his record against literary antagonists.

BEARD: Welles is identifiable beardless, his unbalanced Old Testament prophet look defeats Hemingway's grizzled prospector with a lexicon of authentic frontier gibberish.

DRUNKENNESS: Hemingway was more consistently drunk, almost drunk enough to qualify for a British imperial post where men were essentially hooked up to IVs of gin, but Welles occasionally rises to the occasion, promising us no wine before its time.

Result: I'll allow this anecdote from McBride to settle the score:

Welles recorded the narration Hemingway wrote for Joris Ivens's documentary feature on the Spanish Civil War, The Spanish Earth. When Welles and Hemingway met at a preliminary screening, Welles suggested eliminating some lines and letting the pictures speak for themselves. Hemingway snarled "Some damn faggot who runs an art theater thinks he can tell me how to write narration." Welles put on a mocking swish act ("Oh, Mr. Hemingway, you think because you're so big and strong and havae hair on your chest..."), and they had a fistfight in front of the images of people fighting and dying on-screen...

Welles and Hemingway were able to laugh about their fight over a bottle whiskey after the screening, beginning a long if sometimes strained friendship.


Unknown said...

This post is epic. I'm surprised that the fight between Welles and Hemingway did not rip a hole in the space-time continuum.

Matt said...

Great post, but I think Wells is the clear winner.

pmm said...

this just became my favorite blog.