Boxing was an enduring passion in the life of Nobel-prizewinning novelist Ernest Hemingway from his adolescence on. At 16 he was already trading punches with his friends, using his mother's music room as a gym. The burly Hemingway (he was about 6 feet and 210 pounds) must have developed considerable skill, because as a young expatriate in Paris he was able to earn pocket money as a sparring partner for professionals.
Boxing was not only a pastime, but also a source of literary inspiration for Hemingway. One of his most powerful short stories, Fifty Grand, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927, was about boxing; a chief character in his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, was Robert Cohn, who had been a middleweight boxing champion at Princeton. Once Hemingway attained fame and fortune he journeyed regularly to New York City to view world championship fights at Madison Square Garden, about which he wrote a number of articles. And during his final years in Ketchum, Idaho, he would invite friends over to watch the Friday night fights on television.
The years between 1928 and 1940, when Hemingway lived in Key West, Fla., were among the most colorful in his life. In those days the town bore little resemblance to the tourist center it is today. Until a road from mainland Florida was completed in 1938, the only way to get there was by boat or train, and during Prohibition—and afterward, too—gambling and drinking flourished. Hemingway was a regular at Sloppy Joe's, a speakeasy owned by his deep-sea-fishing companion, Josie Russell, which became a legitimate bar after the repeal of Prohibition. It was here that he met Martha Gellhorn, the woman who was to become his third wife.
As always, boxing was part of Hemingway's rough-and-tumble existence. There was a group of five black fighters who sparred with Hemingway at the two-story house on Whitehead Street that he shared with his second wife, Pauline, and their children, Patrick and Gregory. James (Iron Baby) Roberts and Kermit (Geech) Forbes, also known as Shine, are the only two of the five boxers still living.
Roberts remembers the night they first met Papa. Hemingway used to referee fights at the town's outdoor arena, located on an empty lot at Thomas and Petronia streets. Temporary bleachers would be set up for the biweekly Friday night events. That evening Hemingway's appearance belied his status as a world-famous author.
" Hemingway looked like an ordinary hippie," Roberts remembers. "I always tell people that it was the first time I saw a hippie, because he used to dress that way. He had a long beard, and he needed a haircut, and he was wearing shorts and an old shirt, just like a common person. You'd never have guessed that he was the big writer he was. He carried right on like everyday people. That's the way he lived here."
Roberts, then a 19-year-old light heavyweight, had just boxed in the evening's semifinal bout. Forbes, 22, a lightweight, was just back from a hoboing trip to South Carolina ("I left a boy and came back a man") and consequently had never seen Hemingway in the ring. He was working the corner of Alfred Colebrooks, also known as Black Pie, and was scheduled to fight on the next card in two weeks.
Colebrooks's opponent in that night's main event was a Cuban fighter who went by the name of Joe Mills. "Joe Mills was a pro, a real pro," Forbes says. "He couldn't speak much English, but he had that American name, Joe Mills, and man, could he fight. He went up to Miami and' beat everything there after he had beaten everything in Key West. He didn't weigh but 114 pounds, but he could beat anything he met." Mills proved to be a formidable opponent for Colebrooks.
"The first time we saw Hemingway," Roberts says, "he happened to be refereeing the fight between Joe Mills and Black Pie. So Geech [ Forbes], he was in Black Pie's corner, and Black Pie got knocked down about eight times. And every time Black Pie got knocked down, he would get right back up. After about the fourth or fifth time, Geech said, 'This is enough,' and took the towel and throwed it into the ring to say the fight was over with.
" Hemingway took the towel and throwed it back. Geech was on the ground, and he'd throw it back in, and Hemingway would throw it back out. The third time Geech throwed it back in, he was on top of the ring apron, and when Hemingway throwed it back out, Geech came in the ring and swung at Hemingway. But by Hemingway being taller, Geech couldn't reach him, so he had to jump up. And when he jumped up and swung, he missed Hemingway, and when he missed Hemingway, he fell right on Hemingway's chest.