As significant as his writing was, Ernest Hemingway is remembered just as much for the life he lived beyond the page. Everything about him was oversized—war service in Europe, big-game hunting in Africa, all-night benders in Paris. Hemingway embodied a full range of traditionally masculine experiences few others have. He even had a dictum that summed up his approach: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.”
His appetite for adventure only persisted later in his life, which ended tragically in 1961. If Hemingway’s literary output slowed during this final postwar decade, his celebrity spread far and wide. He wrote dispatches on bullfights and marlin fishing for popular magazines, and was the subject (sometimes willing, sometimes not) of numerous awed profiles.
Hemingway, in this final act, produced the smash hits The Old Man and the Sea, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1954, and his Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast. Meanwhile, the legend of his manliness grew. While on a big-game safari in East Africa, he stunned the public by surviving not one plane crash but two. Rather than kick open a door that had been jammed shut, in spectacular fashion, he head-butted it to escape the wreckage.
The look that ‘Papa’ Hemingway sported in these up-and-down years of late middle age was the iconic one that comes to mind when we think of him today: straight, medium-length locks of white hair and a healthy silver beard. This is not the trim, mustachioed younger man who penned The Sun Also Rises—but it’s the look that hundreds of Hemingway fans replicate in a remarkable lookalike contest that takes place every year in Key West, Florida.
The graying Hemingway wrote from his house in Cuba, where he was most productive during the morning hours. Ever the man of action, he tended to compose standing up. No matter how much red wine he’d downed or unruly conduct he’d modeled the night before, a good night’s rest seemed to cure all. He “always looked great, as if he’d slept a baby’s sleep in a soundproof room with his eyes covered by black patches,” one of his sons later recalled.
Nevertheless, personal hygiene was an afterthought. Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, described him as “one of the most unfastidious men I've ever known.” The thing he cultivated best of all, perhaps, was an image of done-it-all manliness. ‘Papa,’ a nickname often assumed to have attached itself to him later, was oddly one the author chose for himself while in his mid-twenties. But it was in these final, bearded years that it truly stuck.