Ernest Hemingway — The Dangerous Summer

Spain 1959

Hemingway with Antonio Ordóñez, Spain 1959. Image: Pinterest

In 1960, the year that Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer was first published in Life magazine, the fifteen year old version of my wife went to Spain with her parents to follow the bullfights, and, unknowingly, follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, and, more importantly for the fifteen year old Hilary, in the footsteps of the handsome bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín.

Hilary knew a good bullfighter when she saw one, and Dominguín was good, as Hemingway describes in The Dangerous Summer:

“ Luis Miguel was superb all afternoon. He did not look as drawn as he had looked the week before but perhaps that was because he’d had a week’s rest from fighting. He took the first bull with both knees on the sand and made a beautiful larga. All his cape work was excellent and his veronicas were the best I had seen him make. He dedicated the bull to Mary and to me, calling her name out loud and clear so she would know it was for her and stand up. We were a third of the way up in the stands in seats over an entrance to the barreras and, standing, could not hear what he said but could only watch his dark face and see his lips move. Mary was very excited and was blushing. Then Luis Miguel sailed the heavy hat up like a ballplayer. I caught it and handed it to Mary and we sat down to watch him do a wonderful faena with the muleta directly below us adjusting himself to the bull and to his speed, controlling him and passing him slowly and beautifully in all his long and varied repertoire with the muleta…”

Dominguín. Image:

How Hilary would have loved to have had Dominguín call out her name, and to have caught his hat as she stood excited and blushing.

The original Life article was to be a ‘… crisp 10,000 word…’ effort about what it was like to go back, and as James A. Michener writes in his 14,000 word introduction to the book version when it was first published in 1985:

“ …but he [Hemingway] became so obsessed by the drama of the summer…that he was powerless to halt the flow of words. The first draft ran to 120,000 words.”

Michener, the author of Centennial, goes on:

“ I cannot be critical of the vast amount of overwriting Hemingway did…because I often work that way myself. I have consistently turned in to magazines and newspapers three to four times the number of words requested, prefaced by the note that that will accompany these pages when I submit them to Scribners:

You are invited to edit this overlong manuscript to fit the space available. You are well-regarded editors and cutting is your job.

“ I wish I could have heard what went on in Life’s editorial offices when they saw what their request for 10,000 words had produced. A friend once sent me a photostat [remember those] of a marginal note which appeared on one of my submissions to a different magazine. ‘ Somebody ought to tell this son-of-a-bitch that he’s writing for a magazine, not an encyclopedia.’ ”

Michener’s intro is perhaps a bit too long as well, but it’s essential reading to try and understand Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer, because it is much more than a book about bullfighting (although it is a good companion piece to Hemingway’s 1932 masterpiece, Death in the Afternoon), but more a story about friendships, and lives lived under pressure, and the burden of experience, and love, and unhappiness, passion and having a good time, and happiness and joy, and the thrill and tragedy that is bullfighting. It’s also about an embryonic new era: the age of The Beatles, just three years away, and how those handsome bullfighters were in many ways role models for the emerging rock stars and footballers (most impressively Mick Jagger and George Best), and the second-hand glamour of London’s Carnaby Street, and the movie industry, and the clutch of young British actors taking on the world.

The Dangerous Summer is also a book that acknowledges the brutality of bullfighting, and undoubtedly helped bring forth new howls of displeasure and criticism of bullfighting as a sport: when it was never presented as a sport and was never considered by the Spanish as a sport, which it is not.

Such had always been the case. And on the first page of Death in the Afternoon, the thirty-three year old Hemingway writes:

“ At the first bullfight I ever went to I expected to be horrified and perhaps sickened by what I had been told would happen to the horses. Everything I had read about the bull ring insisted on that point; most people who wrote of it condemned bullfighting outright as a stupid brutal business, but even those that spoke well of it as an exhibition of skill and as a spectacle deplored the use of the horses and were apologetic about the whole thing. The killing of the horses in the ring was considered indefensible. I suppose, from a modern moral point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this I must altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by someone who lacks their, the readers’, fineness of feeling I can only plead that this may be true. But whoever reads this can truly make such a judgement when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of and knows truly what their reactions to them would be.”

Hemingway goes on to write about Gertrude Stein talking about the bullfights she and Alice Toklas had been to, sitting in the front row behind the wooden barreras at the bullring in Valencia, and he’d explained to them about having just come back from the Greco-Turkish War where he’d seen the Greeks break the legs of their baggage animals and shove them off the quay into the shallow water when they abandoned the city of Smyrna. He told Gertrude and Alice that because of that he could never go to a bullfight because of the horses. Then, as he learned to write, and witnessed and learned many things about death, and his helplessness in such situations, and the need to write about them for daily newspapers he went to the bullfights and learned about bullfighting and the death of the horses, and how the bullfights somehow symbolised the brutalisation of the Spanish people over many centuries, that the death of the horses, and the ritual death of the bull, and the death of many a bullfighter was, in comparison to death in war, diminished.

And it was only when he’d learned everything about bullfighting, and ran with the bulls in Pamplona, did he write about it and cement it in the minds of his generation, at least those who had experienced war.

By 1959 bullfighting had changed. Horses were no longer allowed to be killed by the bulls, which gave them a false sense of their own strength and ability (and the matador a much harder and dangerous time); but now the horses, ridden by the picadors, were padded to protect them from gorging, which made the bulls extremely angry when they couldn’t achieve a kill, making life even more dangerous for the matador.

The meeting with playwright Tennessee Williams and English critic Kenneth Tynan marked the start of Hemingway’s ‘dangerous summer’ of his sixtieth birthday. But Hemingway knew time was running out for him: he had to get back to Spain.

After visiting the new house he was having built in Ketchum, Idaho, and paying the balance, the Hemingways flew to New York before sailing on the liner, Constitution, to Algeciras. Once through customs they hired a pink Ford and drove to the estate of his rich friend, Nathan (Bill) Davis. And as Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker has written:

“ The estate reminded Ernest of the Finca, except that it was larger and older. Davis defended his privacy with two gates, each manned by a pair of servants. The large white house had been built in 1835. There were well-kept formal gardens and a sixty-foot swimming pool. The handsome interior was everywhere ornamented with Davis’s collection of paintings and prints.”

The Hemingways were given separate rooms, with Ernest’s a corner room with a balcony overlooking the gardens. Davis had supplied Ernest with a writing tower, and all the paper he could muster. Hemingway’s response was:

“ Anyone who couldn’t write here couldn’t write nowhere.”

And Hemingway did write there, and write well, including work on A Moveable Feast, and the completion of a preface to a schools edition of his short stories. But where Feast is a memoir of Paris in times past, The Dangerous Summer, is very much of the here and now that was 1959, with the occasional excursion into the past. And as mentioned at the start of this piece, The Dangerous Summer is also about rivalry which Hemingway faces straight on:

“ Bullfighting is worthless without rivalry. But with two great bullfighters it becomes a deadly rivalry. Because when one does something, and can do it regularly, that no one else can do and it is not a trick but a deadly dangerous performance only made possible by perfect nerves, judgement, courage and art and this one increases its deadliness steadily, then the other, if he has any temporary failure of nerves or of judgement, will be gravely wounded or killed if he tries to equal or surpass it. He will have to resort to tricks and when the public learns to tell the tricks from the true thing he will be beaten in the rivalry and he will be very lucky if he is still alive or in business.”

The rivals were the aforementioned Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez. It is often said the Hemingway favoured Ordóñez and was very critical of Dominguín. I have say I don’t see that, although Hemingway was always honest in his opinions, and if he was critical of a bullfighter or a writer, he would have been so in person. The two bullfighters were his friends and they sought the writers opinions as a man who had witnessed bullfights for many years, and a man who knew the bullfighters’ families.

Antonio Ordóñez was born in Ronda in 1932 into one of Spain’s foremost bullfighting dynasties: the son of the famous matador Niño de la Palma, brother of bullfighters Cayetano and José Ordóñez Araujo, and later grandfather to Francisco Rivera Ordóñez. He made his debut at the age of sixteen in the Haro bullring in Logroño, and the following year at the Plaza Monumental de Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. He became a fully qualified bullfighter on 28th June 1951. After a career studded with triumphs, both in Spain and in South America, he bid farewell to the bullring and retired in 1962. He died in Seville in 1998.

Luis Miguel Dominguín, was born Luis Miguel Gonzalez Lucas in Madrid in 1926 and was the son of matador Domingo Dominguín whose name he used professionally. Trained in the art of bullfighting from a toddler he made his debut aged eleven, killed his first bull at fourteen. He also developed a flamboyant style that involved kneeling before the bulls, turning his back on them, and sometimes kissing them on the head just before the coup de grace. A crowd-pleaser. Although a somewhat arrogant man he nevertheless gained both a good reputation in the ring and wealth fighting bulls throughout Spain and Portugal as well as in South America. He retired many times and in the mid-1950s, perhaps encouraged by either his Italian actress wife Lucia Bose or by some of his multiple girlfriends (including Ava Gardner), he even considered a career in Hollywood after appearing in Around The World In 80 Days. He died in San Roque in 1996.

The men were brothers-in-law and managed by brothers, consequently it appeared to many to be a manufactured rivalry. Either way it pulled in the crowds as Hemingway describes:

“ The opening night of the rivalry was in Zaragoza. Everybody who cared about bullfighting and could afford the trip was there. All the Madrid critics were there too and the Grand Hotel was jammed at lunch time with bull breeders, promoters, aristocracy, people with titles, ex-horse contractors and all of Antonio’s small band of followers. There were a great many followers of Luis Miguel, politicians, officials and the military. Bill and I had lunched at a tavern he knew in the town and when we went up to Antonio’s room we found him cheerful but a little detached. I could always tell when people were getting on his nerves by the way he moved his head as though his neck were a trifle stiff and by his Andalucian accent becoming a little more pronounced.”

This is Hemingway at his observational best, and the book is full of such descriptive encounters, and where Bill and Ernest ate, and where and when their wives joined them on the journey in the wake of the bullfighting circus, and when journalist Aaron Hotchner joined them, and the bars, and the day Kenneth Tynan gate crashed a lunch, and the quality (bad) of the driver they’d hired, and the injuries suffered by the bullfighters, and the quality of the bulls, which on the whole, was good, as were the expensive hotels.In many ways the book is as exhaustive and exhausting as the experience must have been. Hemingway wanted to get everything in, and he pretty much did. It’s a marvellous read.

Aaron Hotchner, who had been a close friend of Hemingway’s for eleven years, had the job of editing the thing down, but was able to convince Scribner’s that it could make a good series of articles; which is what happened. It wasn’t turned into a book until 1985, with the first paperback coming out in 2004.

In 1960 Hilary found herself in the same hotel as Luis Miguel Dominguín. The hotel, in Vitoria (where Hemingway had stayed the year before) was very quiet (the 1960 circus had moved on) with Luis Miguel sitting in an armchair relaxing. Hilary went over and introduced herself, he stood and bowed and shook her hand and graciously signed his autograph on a late November page of her diary. It was better than having her name called out in the bullfight ring and the heavy hat thrown at her. She has the autograph to this day.

Luis D

A few days later, on Hilary’s return flight from San Sebastian to London, the BEA Viscount made a sudden and unscheduled landing in an unnamed airport in France, where six bearded and uniformed Cubans boarded the aircraft. And only after the plane was back in the air did a crew member explain. With the Cuban revolution only a year old it was a frightening experience.

It’s almost impossible to know what those Cuban revolutionaries were doing in France fifty-nine years ago, although we know that Che Guevara had, early in 1960, invited his old friends from the French intelligentsia Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to visit him and Castro in Cuba. The meeting was convivial but there’s no record of what was discussed. But whatever the reason for the visit by Sartre and de Beauvoir, the chances are the French communist party sought an alliance with Cuba and — no doubt at the behest of their Russian masters — may have asked the famous pair to act as initial ice-breaking intermediaries for the purchase from Belgium of 76 tons of munitions which, in March of that year, was transported to Cuba aboard the French freighter La Coubre which, soon after its arrival in Havana, and while it was being unloaded, exploded killing at least one hundred people. Castro always blamed the US for the sinking. But who knows.

The six Cubans who boarded Hilary’s aircraft somewhere in the middle of France may certainly have been a Cuban delegation to perhaps discuss the purchase of replacement arms for those destroyed just a few months earlier.

Hilary tells me the Cubans were escorted off the aircraft at London Airport ahead of the other passengers.

Che Guevara with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in 1960. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Dangerous Summer

After returning from his bullfighting trip to Spain, late in 1959, Hemingway settled down to write The Dangerous Summer, which, by May of 1960, had run to 120,000 words, with Life magazine wanting 10,000. What to do?

A. E. Hotchner, who was staying with him, suggested he take what he had to New York, where he could discuss Hemingway’s options with the magazine.

In the end it was published as a series of articles, and as a book after Hemingway’s death.


A. E. Hotchner — Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1967) John Atkins — Ernest Hemingway: His Work & Personality (Spring Books, London, 1952 & 1961); Ernest Hemingway — The Dangerous Summer (Scribner, New York, London, 2004); Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969);

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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