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‘We landed in Pamplona at night’: Hemingway’s first encounter with the Running of the Bulls

The writer and his wife Hadley arrived in the Spanish city on the evening of July 6, 1923. They would return several times, but for the rest of their lives, each would remember that first San Fermín fiesta when all was fresh and new

Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona during the San Fermín fiestas.
Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona during the San Fermín fiestas.

At 5:30 a.m. on July 10, 1923, the people waiting in the queue to purchase bullfight tickets at the booth in the main square in Pamplona are awakened by tremors that rattle the newspapers they have wrapped around themselves for warmth, unaware that the earthquake that would reverberate for the next hundred years had arrived in the square by bus four days before.

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley arrived on the evening of July 6, 1923, Hemingway’s initial visit to Pamplona. “We landed at night,” he wrote months later in the Canadian newspaper the Toronto Star. The couple had traveled from their apartment in Paris. Distances were the same in 1923 as today, but they had traveled from a Paris that was much further away from Pamplona than today.

This evening Ernest and his wife step down from the bus in the Plaza de la Constitución and struggle to make their way through the festive crowd to the Hotel La Perla. The room they had reserved in the hotel on the main square has not been saved and they are offered a single room at $14 per night, which nearly matches their monthly rent in Paris. The Hemingways complain it is too expensive and refuse. Ignacia Erro, the owner, procures a room for them in a private home at number 5 Calle Eslava for $5 per night.

Throughout his life, Hemingway perpetuated the myth that he and his wife Hadley were very poor in Paris in the early 1920s. “You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris,” Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast. It would be romantic for a young writer to be hungry in 1920s Paris, and you can even believe it while sitting at a table in La Closerie de Lilas in Montparnasse. It counterpoints the ambiance, and your faith in your work nourishes you, and your passion blunts the hunger.

It would be pretty to think so. But then reality walks in, sits at the next table and writes another story.

Hemingway In Pamplona, in 1925, with  Lady Duff Twysden, Hadley Hemingway and Harold Loeb.
Hemingway In Pamplona, in 1925, with Lady Duff Twysden, Hadley Hemingway and Harold Loeb.John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In 1923 Hemingway’s journalism combined with his wife’s trust fund provided them with an income of approximately $5,000 per year. Their apartment in Paris cost $16.83 per month. A year earlier he had published an article in the Toronto Star Weekly entitled “Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris.”

He and Hadley pass through the revolving doors of the Hotel La Perla this July evening and out into the hot, crowded main square. He observes the revelers dancing to the “Waltz of Astráin,” celebrating the inaugural evening of fiesta, listens to two men playing Basque flutes and drums as they pass by the tables of the Café Iruña, the patrons shouting to make themselves heard as white-jacketed waiters struggle to negotiate a path between the tables, and then suddenly he hears and feels the bursts and smells the acrid odour of powder as Don Manuel Oroquieta, the local pyrotechnist, launches fireworks into the night sky above the square.

“Make all that come true again,” Hemingway would write years later, but now, in this beginning, he begins to make it all come true.

“As far as I know, we were the only English-speaking people in Pamplona during the Feria,” Hemingway writes in “Pamplona in July,” an article in the Toronto Star Weekly published in October 1923. Perhaps he was correct, perhaps he and Hadley were the sole foreigners, but they were far from alone in the fiesta that July, as evidenced by this front page article in the local newspaper, El Diario de Navarra, on 6 July:

“Judging by the amount of people who have been arriving during the last few days, up to the point that yesterday and today the trains have doubled and tripled their capacity, it turns out we will not all fit in the city. For the last few years, we’ve had to take a ticket in order to drink a cup of coffee, to go to the theatre, to the circus or, even, to sleep. But this year it is going to be atrocious.”

In another front page article on July 6, the journalist José Asenjo laments: “Everything about the fiesta has changed. It is no longer what it was. They have adulterated it.”

Hemingway quickly realized the pernicious effect that publicity and the resulting mass tourism could have on the fiesta. In October the following year, he published “Pamplona Letter” in The Transatlantic Review: “Really I can’t write anything more. It’s no good. Either it would bore a lot of people or else next year Cooks would be running tours down there. The less publicity it has the better.”

Ernest Hemingway and Valerie Danby at Bar Txoko in  1959.
Ernest Hemingway and Valerie Danby at Bar Txoko in 1959.CANO (BIBLIOTECA J. F. KENNEDY)

He did write more, however, and the novel he published two years later caused tremors in Pamplona more powerful than those felt by the people waiting in line at the ticket booth three years before. In July 1929 his friend and journalist Guy Hickok, who had accompanied him to the fiesta that year, published “Novel Describing Pamplona’s Fiesta Made Hemingway Father of Spanish Town,” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“As far as the English reading world is concerned, Ernest Hemingway is the founding father of Pamplona. He put the fiesta in his novel The Sun Also Rises, and things have never been quite the same. The book, with its romance against the background of the astonishing spirit of the fiesta, has been responsible for the development of a considerable tourist business.”

But this evening as the couple starts off through the dark, narrow, fiesta-mad streets with a boy carrying their rucksacks toward their lodgings on Calle Eslava, Hadley six months pregnant, it is all fresh and new, and 23-year-old Ernest Hemingway is but an anonymous foreign face in the crowd, and he bears no burden upon his shoulders.

Fiesta: drinking in the café Iruña, dancing in the Plaza de la Constitución, dining on five and six-course meals in the downstairs dining room of the Hotel La Perla.

Hemingway could drink in the Café du Dôme and the Closerie de Lilas in Paris, he and Hadley could dance in the bal musette below their apartment on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine; for less than the price of a corrida (bullfight) ticket in Pamplona they could both eat a meal in Le Pré Aux Clercs, their favorite Paris restaurant. But there were no bulls in Paris.

Nor were there bulls in staid Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway’s boyhood hometown, for bulls had been banned within the city limits, their huge testicles judged indecorous by the city fathers.

In 1928 the peto, a heavy protective mattress used to protect the horses from the horns in the bullring, was legislated by the government of Primo de Rivera, but in 1923 bloody, eviscerated horses were a common sight in the ring.

No eviscerated horses ran through the streets in the genteel village of Oak Park. Doctor Hemingway’s horse had once bolted down Oak Park Avenue, but the only casualty was his black buggy. But Hemingway was on intimate terms with disembowelment and blood, for during his service in the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver in Italy during the Great War, he and his fellow volunteers had collected the body parts of the factory workers of an ammunition plant that had exploded near Milan, and in a trench at Fossalta di Piave, he had watched as his own blood leaked from the wounds in his legs after an Austrian mortar had exploded, killing one Italian soldier and wounding another.

That summer in Pamplona Hemingway was a taurine neophyte, although he had seen his first corrida in Madrid on May 27. He viewed the corrida as a tragedy, admiring the courage and honour required to fight a bull, but in essence, he immediately sensed the mystical, mortal art of the corrida: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour,” he wrote in Death in the Afternoon. Bullfighting, “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he wrote to fellow ambulance driver Bill Horne following the feria that year. The previous season death in the afternoon had been present on the sand in Spain: eight bullfighters had been killed in the ring.

Hadley’s only contact with fighting bulls had been Ernest’s enthusiastic tales of the bullfights he had seen on his first trip to Spain a few weeks before and the evenings discussing bullfighting with Gertrude Stein, avant-garde writer and Hemingway’s mentor, and her companion Alice B. Toklas in their Paris salon. “I am very anxious to talk about Toros y Toreros with you,” he wrote to Stein in a letter dated June 20. On July 7 at 6 a.m., Hadley was to glimpse her first “toros bravos.”

They hurry along with the crowd toward the bullring to witness the encierro, the running of the bulls. In his article “Pamplona in July” Hemingway feigns ignorance for the sake of dialogue:

" ‘Hey, what’s going to happen?’ I asked a newsboy.

‘Encierro,’ he said scornfully.

‘What’s the encierro?’ I asked him.’ "

They rush to the bullring, which has been at capacity since 5:30 a.m. The couple pay 15 cents each for a ticket to the upper deck, where they stand on the balcony and watch the six bulls, five black and one dark grey, emerge from Estafeta Street and gallop down the fenced-in chute and into the ring. Hadley and Ernest rush inside to watch the bulls on the sand. None of the some 50 men in front of the animals fall at the entrance to the bullring this morning, and the bulls, escorted by steers, gallop calmly through the gate and into the corrals behind the arena. After the encierro, three fighting cows, their horns padded, are released into the ring so the men and boys can test their courage with makeshift capes. The 15,000 people wedged into the bullring cheer both the cows and the men attempting to pass them, and only one man is taken to the infirmary.

Some mornings Ernest slips through the wooden barricade and enters the ring to face the fighting cows, along with some 300 other men and boys. It is a test of courage, but above all a thrilling experience. “I used to go into the amateur fights in the morning,” he later writes, a practice he will continue for the next few years.

Later that morning as the couple attempt to cross the square in front of City Hall, they are enveloped by the crowd watching the procession of San Fermín as the effigy of the saint is carried from his chapel and borne through the narrow, cobblestoned streets, accompanied by local officials and the municipal band. The procession is followed by eight papier mâché giants measuring over eleven feet tall. Representing four continents, America, Europe, Asia and Africa, they whirl and spin among the crowd amid the beat of drums and the notes of Basque flutes.

Ernest and Hadley cross the square, walk down Santo Domingo Street, cross the Rochapea bridge over the Arga River, through the gate in a stone wall and into the Corrales de Gas, the corrals where the bulls are enclosed until they are herded to a holding corral at the beginning of Santo Domingo on the evening before the encierro. They pay 10 cents each and, through apertures in the stone walls, carefully observe the bulls from three bull breeding ranches. At 11 a.m. the first of six large wooden crates on wheels is drawn up to a chute in a wall and a bull from the Villar ranch is unloaded into a corral with steers. Ernest and Hadley observe as the remaining five bulls they will see in the ring on the last afternoon are unloaded.

That same Saturday at noon, the couple, along with one hundred aficionados, pay 50 cents each to witness the apartado, the sorting of the bulls for the afternoon corrida. Hadley and Ernest lean against the railing above the passageway through which each bull is driven on its way to an individual stall under the lower tiers of the bullring. As each animal passes below, its name and the name of the torero who is to fight it that afternoon is announced: Compuesto (Luis Freg), Aguado (Antonio Márquez), Formalito (Nicanor Villalta) … Hadley is astounded by the raw power and the blurring agility of the bulls.

This afternoon as Hadley and Ernest walk toward the reinforced concrete bullring and their first corrida in Pamplona, it is 93ºF, but they have seats in the shade. They have choice seats for the five scheduled corridas. This afternoon and on days 8 and 9 they will sit in contrabarrera seats (second row) in the shade costing approximately $1.50 per ticket, while on days 12 and 13 they will be in sobrepuertas (first row above entrances to the bullring) in the shade costing some 15 cents more. The face value of the tickets equals their monthly rent in Paris.

The first bull, Compuesto, dark grey, explodes out of the gate to their left and, dazzled by the sun, stops. Quivering. Shifting his horns left and right. Then as he charges, Hadley suddenly sees what bullfighting is all about. The third bull of the afternoon eviscerates a picador’s horse. Ernest has advised Hadley to look away while the horses are in the ring, but she observes and is unaffected, more interested in the gold and celestial blue suit of lights of the 25-year-old Aragonese torero Nicanor Villalta. After two sword thrusts, the bull collapses on the sand and Villalta, amid applause, circles the ring. Villalta had fought at Hemingway’s first bullfight in Madrid, and both Hadley and Ernest are so impressed by him they decide to name their future son after the torero — John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway. After his birth, Hadley writes that he is destined to become a bullfight aficionado. Later, Hadley describes bullfighting as “that gorgeous brutality.”

Rising at daylight. Encierros at 6 a.m. Processions and giants. Sorting of the bulls. Lunches at 2 or 3 p.m., lasting nearly until the corrida at 4:30 p.m.. Dinners at 9 or 10 p.m. Fireworks. Unrelenting music and dancing. Alcohol. Cacophony. Bulls in the corrals, in the streets, in the ring.

Everything became quite unreal finally, and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.

On Tuesday a heavy rainstorm is threatening the dawn, but the encierro is held without incident. Shortly after the encierro, the black clouds explode and it rains throughout the day and the corrida is cancelled. The following day even more rain falls than the previous day and the corrida is canceled. The Diario de Navarra reports: “We thought that after all the rain that fell on day 10 there would be no pluvial reserve remaining. But yesterday it rained as never before, so hard, in fact, that the bulls in the corrals had watercresses on their hooves and frogs sat croaking on their backs.”

The rain came down and drove everyone under the arcades and made pools of water in the square, and the streets wet and dark and deserted; yet the fiesta kept up without any pause. It was only driven under cover.

The two corridas are rescheduled for days 12 and 13.

On July 13 at 4:30 p.m., Hadley and Ernest are sitting in their front row seats in the shade. Across the ring, the toreros Rosario Olmos, José García Carranza, “Algabeño,” and Miguel García, “Maera,” begin to stride across the sand. It will be a bloody afternoon.

Maera, who has been paid the equivalent of $1,850 in 1923 dollars for three afternoons, dislocates his right thumb hitting bone with the sword as he attempts to kill his first bull. He manages to kill it but is taken to the infirmary and cannot continue.

Olmos is gored by his first bull, Cantarero, and rushed to the infirmary. Algabeño dispatches his bull.

Due to the injury of Maera and Olmos, Algabeño must fight and kill the remaining four bulls. The third bull leaves the horses of two picadors inert on the sand. It then gores one of Algabeño’s banderilleros in the right thigh. His companions carry him to the infirmary. In the ring “fear and the toreros are on intimate terms,” writes “Arako,” the taurine critic.

Bull number five dispatches the mounts of two picadors and is described as “a specialist in gutting horses” by “Arako.”

Caritarrosa, the final bull of the afternoon also terminates two horses and is quickly killed by Algabeño.

Throughout the corrida, Ernest observes, studies and remembers. An artist practicing his craft. Upon his return to Paris he will use this experience in the bullring to compose five vignettes for his book In Our Time.

As they walk out of the ring that last evening, Hadley and Ernest stroll with the crowd toward the Plaza de la Constitución and find a table at the Café Iruña. They order their last drink of the festival and begin to watch the beginning of the evening of the last night of the fiesta.

In the morning it is all over. The fiesta is finished.

Hadley and Ernest depart for Paris. At the end of August they will travel to Toronto, where Hadley will give birth to their son and Ernest will continue to work as a journalist for the Toronto Star.

For Hadley it was the first fiesta of San Fermín, the first of four before she was replaced by Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. For Ernest, the first of nine. But for the rest of their lives, each would remember that first fiesta of San Fermín, there alone together when all was fresh and new.

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