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Accident-Prone Ernest

Hemingway Scar

Accident-prone Ernest after his collision with a Paris skylight, 1928
(Photo Credit:

Despite believing he was lucky, Ernest Hemingway was unlucky when it came to accidents. He arrived in Wyoming in the summer of 1928 sporting a fresh, horseshoe-shaped scar over his forehead from an accident in Paris that spring. He’d gotten up in the middle of the night and had mistakenly pulled the hanging chain for the skylight instead of the toilet—pulling the glass down onto his head. He’d needed stitches at the hospital and the resulting scar gave him the appearance of a dope peddler, he joked.

Ernest had his share of additional mishaps while on his summer adventures in Wyoming. He arrived at the Nordquist Ranch near Yellowstone in 1930, nursing a wounded finger with stitches resulting from punching a protruding bolt on a boxing bag, unable to type with it or hold a pencil.

Ernest Hemingway Bear Hunt

Pauline, Ernest and Nordquist ranch hands after successful bear hunt
(Photo Credit: courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).

Eventually it healed, but later that summer while setting bait for bear, his horse Goofy bolted through the trees and Ernest, afraid for the safety of his beautiful new rifle in the scabbard, didn’t jump off. A tree branch gashed his chin and he had to drive three hours to Cody for a doctor. The doctor, formerly a veterinarian, wanted to put Ernest out with anesthesia while he stitched him up, but instead Ernest endured the pain with Old Oscar Pepper medicinal whiskey. It was during prohibition, so the doctor had to write a prescription for the two bottles Ernest needed, and when returned to the ranch, he was feeling no pain.

That same year, in late October after hunting season had ended, Ernest was driving back to Florida from the Nordquist ranch in his Model A Ford Coupe with his friend the novelist John Dos Passos and a wrangler from the ranch. Outside of Billings, the sun blinded him (or it might have been whiskey) and he swerved to avoid an oncoming car, rolling the Ford in a ditch. Dos Passos and the wrangler escaped with minor injuries, but Ernest was admitted to St. Vincent Hospital in Billings with an oblique spiral fracture above his elbow. That time, the surgeon had to use a kangaroo tendon to put Ernest back together.

Probably Ernest’s most famous accident occurred years later, in 1954, not in Wyoming, but in Africa. He had taken his fourth wife, Mary, on a 600-mile chartered sightseeing flight over Lake Victoria and Lake Albert to the 400-foot Murchison Falls on the lower Victoria Nile River. The pilot attempted an emergency landing to avoid hitting a flock of ibises and their plane crashed in the jungle. None of the trio were badly injured and they spent the night in the jungle surrounded by elephants. The next day they were picked up by a launch taking tourists to the falls, where they were brought to Butiaba, on the shores of Lake Albert.

They boarded a rescue plane that also crashed, this one on takeoff. A police rescue party took the Hemingways to Masindi and they were reported heading for Entebbe—by road not plane. When newspapers learned of the accident, they ran headlines reporting that the Hemingways were dead. Both were seriously injured, Mary suffering broken ribs and Ernest with a concussion and fractured kidney. Time magazine reported that Hemingway walked out of the jungle in high spirits, “carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin, and was quoted as saying: ‘My luck, she is running very good.’”