A Literary Larceny
In the interests of law and order, and the historical record, I have to report a larceny.
It’s a literary larceny, perhaps not punishable in prison, but a theft, nonetheless.
In the course of Hemingway and Gelhorn, Philip Kaufman’s docu-melodrama that ran — and ran — for two-and-a-half hours Monday night, May 27, on HBO, the script writers crafted a scene in which Martha Gelhorn, with battlefield blood on her shirt, laments to Ernest Hemingway that she cannot write about the war. She doesn’t know enough about it, she says, to write about it. Writer’s block, you know.
The Great Man, standing in a t-shirt and pounding on his portable typewriter, looks up irritably and says: “There’s nothing to writing, Gelhorn, you just sit down at your typewriter and bleed.”
It is a memorable line, but Hemingway never said it. My father, Red Smith, the late sports columnist, did.
Not only is the line stolen without credit, it is misquoted. The correct quote, attributed in print to Red Smith by the columnist Walter Winchell in 1949, reads: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” I heard my father repeat it many times.
Was it original with Red Smith? Not necessarily. The sportswriter, Paul Gallico, said something similar in 1946, and others are quoted before that.
But not Hemingway.