The Chicago Tribune: Running with the Bulls

The great young American bull-runner Bill Hillman’s article in the Chicago Tribune on James A. Michener and Ernest Hemingway ‘running the bulls’ in Pamplona, featuring quotes from Ernest’s grandson John Hemingway, myself and Joe Distler. By no coincidence, we were all three of us out in Pamplona less than a week ago drinking and running the bulls together.

Now, if we could only find something else to work together on…

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

As I geared up to run with the bulls this week at the Fiesta de San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, my mind turned to literature: Both Ernest Hemingway and James Michener famously wrote about the violence and drama of bullfighting— and both took risks to do it. But which of them really lived the Fiesta to the fullest?

The contenders

Hemingway, a Nobel Prize winner and Oak Park native, did more than any other author to build and preserve the mystique of the Fiesta de San Fermin with his 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Yet many experts, including his grandson John Hemingway, believe Ernest never ran with the bulls—we’ll get back to that.

Michener, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also did his share to present Spanish culture to the world in his 1971 novel “The Drifters” and his 1968 nonfiction work “Iberia.” Michener ran with the bulls many times, although he never claimed to be good at it.

The case for Hemingway, the aficionado

Did Hemingway actually run with the bulls? John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson and author of “Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir,” is torn on the issue.

“I don’t think he ran,” John Hemingway said. “At least from what I’ve heard, he didn’t. But then who knows? After a night of drinking, he might have on the spur of the moment decided ‘what the hell,’ and he and a group of his friends took off with the locals running with the bulls. We’ll never know.”

Hemingway studied bullfighting and was known to use a cape to lure and turn vaca (2-year-old wild, fighting cows) in Pamplona’s bull ring after the run. But Alexander Fiske-Harrison, a British bullfighter and author of “Into the Arena,” sees Hemingway’s work with vaca as daring, but not quite a life-and-death feat.

“A vaca has far greater maneuverability and speed than a fighting bull,” Fiske-Harrison said in an interview. “It can turn on a dime, and its horns are often sharper than a bull’s. However, they do not have the weight behind them. Hemingway’s danger was really related to how well he could take a tumble; although a vaca did kill the great late 20th century matador Antonio Bienvenida.”

The case for Michener, the mozo

Did Michener really run? Or did he stand? Michener got into running with the bulls late in life. He already had heart trouble and wasn’t especially mobile. In the existing photos of Michener on the street, he was usually standing in a doorway as the herd ambled past. Does that count as running with the bulls?

“Technically, Michener never ran, but to be in the street with bulls takes as much nerve as running,” said Joe Distler, a New York-raised Parisian considered in Spain as the second great American mozo (or bull-runner). “Nowhere on the street is safe. Sadly, that’s been proven time and time again.”

Distler is the protege of Matt Carney, the first great American mozo, who ran with the bulls from the 1950s to the 1980s and who partly inspired the fictional character Harvey Holt in “The Drifters.”

In “Iberia,” Michener immortalized an altercation between Carney and Hemingway in the 1950s. In the book, Carney recalls, “So I grabbed my bota (leather wine sack), staggered over to his table and shouted ‘Hemingway, you old bastard, have a drink with me.’ ” Ernest refused, grabbed the bota and threw it as far as he could. A blow-up ensued. Carney said he was “getting ready to break him in half, fat old man that he was, but two Swedes dragged me away.” The next day Carney wrote a heartfelt apology, but Hemingway tore the letter up.

Michener criticized Hemingway’s thirst for publicity. “Remember when Hemingway came through Madrid incognito?” he wrote in “Iberia.” “Insisted he wanted no publicity. Big beard. Baseball cap. Hunting jacket. Wherever he went those six or eight bodyguards clearing the way for him. It was the most conspicuous literary disguise since Leo Tolstoy used to go around in his muzhik’s (peasant) costume. And you could see he loved every phony minute of it.”

Fiesta is based around a spectacle—the evening bullfights— but it makes a spectacle of those who love it, too. Michener was no exception. In 1970, Esquire magazine sent him to Pamplona to write a story on the run. A bull scraping the wall along the Santo Domingo section nearly disemboweled Michener as he huddled in a doorway. An Esquire photographer captured the drama in a sequence of shots; the bull was inches from fatally goring Michener.

In “The Drifters,” published a year later, Harvey Holt advises a character modeled on Michener that if he stands in that very doorway, he’ll be safe.

Crossing paths

In the early ’50s, Michener was at the very height of his career, having won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with “Tales of the South Pacific. ”Life magazine approached him to read and write a promotional review for Hemingway’s new novella.

Hemingway was fresh off one of his great failures, “Across the River and into the Trees,” and Life was asking Michener to help resurrect Papa. Michener, who was on the front lines in Korea at the time, sat down in a lantern-lit bunker to read “The Old Man and the Sea.” Upon finishing it, Michener was sure it was a classic. Life magazine published “The Old Man and the Sea” with Michener’s blurb: “Glad to see the champ has regained the title.” The novella won the Pulitzer in 1953, and Hemingway won the Nobel Prize the next year. Hemingway and Michener met only once, in New York, shortly before Hemingway’s suicide.

Hemingway never thanked Michener for the book blurb. Michener recalled their meeting in his 1985 preface to Hemingway’s posthumously published “The Dangerous Summer,” a scorching tale of the 1959 mano a mano between Spain’s top two bullfighters. Michener called it “a loving account of Hemingway’s return to those heroic days when he was young and learning about life in the bull rings of Spain.” He also exposed the terrible response much of the bullfighting world gave “The Dangerous Summer,” while fawning over the book’s powerful passages, such as: “Then the wrist would turn and bring the heavy black bull with the death in his horns past his chest again in the last and most dangerous and difficult figure of all.”

The decision

History has had its say on which of these two American masters was the greater author. It has even had its say on who wrote the greater literature on Fiesta: A Hemingway statue stands outside Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros, a stone’s throw from the run route. As Fiske- Harrison said:

“In terms of writing, Michener is a great breath of fresh air after Hemingway, but Hemingway is the real old, good stuff. Sometimes, after some really excellent red wine, a Saint-Julien or Saint-Estèphe, I’ll have a cold beer to clear my palate and I’ll love it. But to pretend it is better, even at that moment when it is what you want, would be a form of madness.”

But on the question of who lived Fiesta to the fullest, the bullfighter thinks Michener wins.

“In terms of their lives, I suspect that for all the romantic fascination Hemingway brings with him, he could not be happy, nor did he bring great happiness to those around him,” Fiske-Harrison said. “Michener seems to me to beat Hemingway on living—which isn’t hard—and that would include living Fiesta too.”

Bill Hillmann is a writer and storyteller from Chicago who has run with the bulls for the past seven years. If all goes well, he’ll achieve his 50th run this week in Pamplona

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  1. Ron Rubin says:

    In “Iberia,” Michener who wasn’t there, neglects a key element of Matt Carney’s “altercation” with Ernest Hemingway. First of all, Matt was a great admirer of Ernesto, although he thought the great writer over-stated his knowledge of the bulls.

    Matt certainly did, as MIchener wrote, stagger up to Hemingways table, that morning. He did thrust his bota at Hemingway and in Spanish, with a macho swagger, told Hemingway to drink with him. Here’s where Michener’s tale falls short. Hemingway was all too ready to take the bota, but Mary Hemingway, who was guarding her husband’s every move, was dead set against it. Matt insisted, in the process insulting Hemingway’s manhood, and finally Hemingway pushed his wife’s arm aside and snatched the bota from Matt.

    As he raised it above his head, the screw top of the bota inexplicably fell off , and a pint of good (or bad) vino tinto gushed down on Hemingway’s face and head. Talk about an outraged bull, Hemingway, frail by then, leaped out of his chair, and heaved the bota half way across the plaza.
    He then balled his fists and begain attempting to punch Matt all the way to Burgos. Matt, who had been a light-heavyweight champion in the marines, reluctantly raised his arms and easlly held off the charging Hemingway. Of course, Matt never would have thrown a punch, and Hemingway certainly never landed one. Finally, a swarm of onlookers dragged the still enraged Hemingway away.

    After the fiesta ended, Matt and I hitchhiked back to Paris – we shared the same small floor – at the Impasse de L’Astrolabe, and we spoke of having never before seen a bota’s top fall off. We even stopped to test it a few times with an ordinary french wine, and the well-used blackened bota did its job as it was meant to.

    Years later in Ireland, a week before Matt died of cancer, I brought up that old bota; but it was the last thing he was interested in.

  2. Thank you for that Ron. And I’ll pass this on to Bill as well. I heard something vaguely similar from Deidre, Matt’s daughter when we met at Fiesta last year, but she couldn’t be sure. Nice to have it in writing. Alexander

  3. Call me old school, old fashioned, or just simply OLD, for me, it has never been a contest….. As far as I am concerned, there should be a statue of Matt in Pamplona! Although I never had the honor of meeting him, I have spent many days with his “cuadrilla”…. And these guys LIVED Fiesta they way the locals do! Family, Friends, and Fiesta! I came for the Bulls, stayed for the people, and am in love with Pamplona!

    I feel quite privileged to have come to Pamplona when I did. It was the era of ESPN. And ESPN is a MAJOR part of the problem in Pamplona, as far as the encierro, in my opinion. They made it an X games thing and forgot the 500+ years of tradition. And that is/was SAD!

    At the end of the day, it is a SPANISH(Basque) Festival.. We are guests! And because of Matt and Joe and David Black and Bomber and a whole host of other “Guiri’s” that the rest of us are so WIDELY embraced in Fiesta!

    So, THANK YOU Matt, thank you Joe, and thank you to all the other foreigners who made it so easy for the rest of us to be so welcomed and accepted in Fiesta!

    For me, the ULTIMATE compliment! “Nice to see you Rick, Bienvenidos”

    Viva San Fermim, Gora San Fermin!

  4. Well said Rick, well said! Xander

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