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.
December 23, 1985
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.
"So Hemingway just grabbed Shine [Forbes] by his two ears and shook him. By that time about four or five policemen got into the ring, and they wanted to arrest Geech. Hemingway told them, 'No, don't arrest him. Anytime a man's got guts enough to take a punch at me, he's all right.' And Geech was such a small man, and Hemingway was a big man.
"The fight went on for about two more rounds, and then Hemingway stopped the fight. This is when we got friendly with Hemingway."
"I didn't know who he was," Forbes remembers. "Nobody told me. I thought he was some bum trying to pick up on a dollar. When I got home my mother said, 'Do you realize who you just took a punch at? It was Mr. Ernest Hemingway, the famous writer.' I went over to Hemingway's house that night to apologize. Hemingway shook my hand, and then he challenged me to come over the next day. That's when our sparring began."
Hemingway would spar with Forbes and Roberts—amicably—in a portable ring set up in front of the pool house, which was also Hemingway's workroom, near the long swimming pool on the grounds of what is now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Hemingway had two speed bags and a heavy bag and three kinds of gloves—eight-, 10- and 16-ounce.
"We'd go about three or four rounds with Hemingway," Roberts said. "I was the only one he was kind of leery of, on account of my weight. We were pretty young, and Hemingway was older than us [in his 30s], but he'd give us a tussle. I didn't wear any headgear, but Hemingway did. Geech didn't wear any headgear, either.
"He paid us to fight with him. He was crazy about us. When he was in Key West, we would go over to his house once or twice a week and spar with him and we would get money from him. He would never let us spend anything, because he'd do all the spending. Anytime we wanted to use any of the equipment, we could go over there.
"Hemingway loved beer, even when he came to the arena. Next door was a beer and liquor joint, and he'd buy a case of beer and he'd sit there and drink it and give it to his friends. He would drink beer sometimes when we were sparring. He was pretty active."
There was little conversation during the sparring sessions, but Hemingway shared his boxing knowledge with the young Key West fighters. "He'd have something to tell you if you were holding your arms too low, or if you were hitting too low," says Forbes. "I used to have to get in and get out because he was right there. I had to dodge him, and sometimes I'd go a little too low.
"He caught me one time and sailed me across the place, but it didn't hurt me too much because the gloves were big. And when he hit you like that he'd say, 'You all right? You all right?' and he'd check and make sure you were all right. He didn't want to hurt you.
"I think he would pull the punches, but sometimes you just can't pull the punches. I told him not to pull the punches. I used to tell him to go ahead and turn loose. He was a nice guy; he didn't want to hurt us."
"I started off fighting as a kid," Roberts says. "I would hold my right guard and have my left out so anyone could come in and slip right under me. I had no defense. Hemingway told me, 'Don't ever do that. Always take your elbows and hold them in to guard your stomach.' I was just learning then. I was fighting on the reputation of my father. He used to be called the Cinderella Man, and then he was the first Iron Baby."
According to Roberts, the absence of racial prejudice in Hemingway was the norm in Key West; the bitter segregation prevalent in the rest of the South did not exist there.
"The average person in Key West didn't believe in this segregated stuff with black and white," Roberts says. "We all lived next door to each other. We didn't know anything about white sections and black sections. I was raised with white guys; Hemingway was friendly with black people. But the whole town was that way."
Roberts and Forbes recall that as semi-pros, they made $25 to $30 per fight at the Key West Arena. The arena's gate paid their wages. Ringside seats cost $3, and general admission to the grandstands that were erected in the vacant lot cost $1.25. Usually several hundred spectators attended these fights.
"Back then during the Depression, 30 dollars was real good money," Roberts says. "Back then, a man would work a whole week and make about 14 to 15 dollars." It was the era depicted in Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not, which appeared in 1937 and is set in Key West.
Roberts later made his living in the dry-cleaning business, and Forbes became a cook at a Naval hospital and is now retired. Both have retained the stature of their youth—Roberts is big and burly like Hemingway, and Forbes still has the trim physique he had in his 20s.
Near the end of his Key West period, Hemingway threw a big outdoor Christmas party on the grounds of the Whitehead Street house. One party highlight was a boxing exhibition put on by Roberts, Forbes and other Key West fighters.
"It was on a Christmas Eve, and he had Gene Tunney [Roberts pronounces it TOO-ney] here," recalls Roberts. "So he had a great exhibition over in his yard. He had some more big-time people with him, but Tunney was the only one we recognized and the only one we talked to other than Hemingway. Hemingway told us that day that he was going off to write a book."
Hemingway left Key West for Cuba in 1940 and made his next home with Martha Gellhorn in the house called the Finca Vigía in San Francisco de Paula, a suburb of Havana. "We were thinking that he would be back on the grounds after he finished the book," says Forbes, "because this was his home. He had a wife and children here." But the Christmas party was the last time either Roberts or Forbes saw Hemingway.
Paul Heidelberg is a sports and features writer for the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel. He also writes poetry and fiction.