Book offers fascinating glimpse into Hemingway’s time in Spain

Tony Castro’s unique book, “Looking for Hemingway: Spain, the Bullfights, and a Final Rite of Passage,” offers a rare in-depth study of the final period of Ernest Hemingway’s life. The book captures the famous author’s final trip to Spain in 1959, where Hemingway wrote about the traditions of bullfighting for Life magazine, which turned into the nonfiction book “The Dangerous Summer,” released posthumously.

“Looking for Hemingway” is an important book because it displays his passion for bullfighting and his mental deterioration, culminating with his suicide just two years later in Ketchum.

With the help of his longtime friend Teo Davis, veteran reporter Castro transports the reader to 1959 Spain, where Hemingway celebrated his 60th birthday with his fourth wife, Mary, at Bill and Anne Davis’ capacious La Consula Villa in Malaga.

Hemingway set up shop at La Consula, for Charles Scribner’s Sons had requested a new epilogue for its reissue of “Death in the Afternoon,” Hemingway’s 1932 treatise about the traditions and rituals of bullfighting. However, when he arrived in Spain, Hemingway’s focus switched to the high-profile mano a mano duel between the two best matadors in the world: Luis Miguel Dominguin and his brother-in-law, Antonio Ordonez. Not only did his observations and reporting turn into magazine articles and a book, but Ordonez’s father, Cayetano, became the model for Pedro Romeo in “The Sun Also Rises.”

The Davises, who owned Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Goya prints, reminded Hemingway of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the wealthy expat couple who threw lavish parties for members of the Lost Generation at their French Riviera estate in the 1920s. Both couples enjoyed mingling with popular writers and stars. Like the Murphys, the Davises hosted numerous actors and writers at their villa, including Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Cyril Connolly and the Hemingways.

Bill Davis, a Yale alumnus, was from a wealthy Indiana family that was the subject of Booth Tarkington’s 1919 Pulitzer prize winning novel “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Davis was obsessed with Hemingway, so he ensured the author had a comfortable room (he also arranged for Mary to have her own room), kept reams of special onion-skin typewriter paper on hand, made sure his pool was open for the author for his daily swim and paid Valerie Danby-Smith’s salary when Hemingway first hired her as his assistant. (Smith later married Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory.) And he offered to lend Hemingway money for back taxes. In total, the Davis spent “upward of $75,000” on the Hemingways (in just food and liquor) during their six-month stay.

Although Hemingway was treated like a king at La Consula, Castro points to his mental deterioration throughout his book. In one instance, Hemingway was annoyed with Mary for breaking her toe on a picnic trip near the Irati River. On another occasion, during a party at the Hotel Miramar in Malaga, “Lanham momentarily grazed the back of Hemingway’s head” after placing his hand on the author’s shoulder, “but Hemingway erupted as if ready to fight. Yelling as if his head had been burned.” The famous author later apologized, “but it left Lanham convinced that Hemingway was now suffering from some mental disorder.”

Because Castro understands news hooks, he reports accurately on Hemingway’s final trip to Spain, where the famous author’s declining mental condition becomes more evident. Hemingway scholars and followers should read Castro’s book with “The Dangerous Summer” to gain a better understanding of Hemingway’s final years, and to learn about the traditions and pageantry of bullfighting.

Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.

“Looking For Hemingway: Spain, the Bullfights, and a Final Rite of Passage” by Tony Castro; Lyons Press ($26.95)