Even some of literature’s most iconic authors were responsible for behavior more befitting a barroom brawl than intellectual provocation. In Writers Gone Wild, Bill Peschel has culled together the most notorious embarrassments, love affairs, and addictions of beloved literary heroes. In honor of the infamous feud that overshadowed recent Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s relationship with fellow laureate Gabriel García Márquez for 30 years, here are five other instances where the sword pulverized the less-than-mighty pen.
Marcel Proust versus Jean Lorrain
After journalist Jean Lorrain subtly outed Marcel Proust’s sexuality in a review of Pleasures and Days, the French author challenged his meddling critic to a duel. Although Proust was disappointed that the fight would interfere with his usual sleeping in, the perpetually sickly writer remained otherwise unmoved by the implications of the face-off — especially after it was rescheduled to be held in the afternoon. The shoot out was settled after Proust’s bullet hit the ground and Lorrain missed completely, but Proust later referred to it as one of his best memories.And the winner is: Proust! Though Lorrain was comfortable with his own public flamboyance, he had no right to spotlight Proust’s secret (especially at a time when being gay could lead to arrest). Proust later parodied his opponent in Remembrance of Things Past as Baron de Charlus.
Sinclair Lewis versus Theodore Dreiser
When asked to offer an impromptu speech at a dinner party in 1931, a drunken Sinclair Lewis instead stood and berated several members of the literary crowd. Among his targets was Theodore Dreiser, who Lewis referred to as a “son-of-a-bitch” and accused of having plagiarized his wife’s articles from a trip the three of them had taken together. Dreiser later dared Lewis to repeat what he had said, and the Nobel laureate happily obliged twice over despite receiving blows from the offended journalist.And the winner is: Lewis! His accusations of Dresier’s plagiarizing ways had also been widely documented by others, and later speculation suggests that the stealing journalist may have also slept with Lewis’ then wife-to-be during the aforementioned trip.
Ernest Hemingway versus Wallace Stevens
After Wallace Stevens openly informed Ursula Hemingway that her brother was “no man” and a “sap” during a party in Key West, the easily incensed Ernest chased down the modernist poet. Both men were drunk at the time, and although Stevens had previously been an amateur boxer, he was, at 56, twenty years Hemingway’s senior. Stevens ended up with a broken hand, black eye, and bruised face, forcing him to beg his younger colleague to keep the incident quiet.And the winner is: Hemingway! He honored his word to stay mum about the kerfuffle, but managed to get in one final last blow by parodying Stevens’ cowardice in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Brendan Behan versus J.P. Donleavy
Irish-American novelist J.P. Donleavy and Irish playwright Brendan Behan began their friendship with a near brawl outside a Dublin pub, but it was eight years later in London that blows were actually exchanged. After a long night of drinking, Behan cursed out his friend for belatedly revealing that he still had money once the bars had all closed. And because no one likes to be called “a no-good, fucking, mean, miserly cunt,” Donleavy responded by pushing Behan into the street and punching him squarely in the nose. Police soon arrived and arrested both men before letting them off with a warning.And the winner is: Donleavy! Behar later died of complications from alcohol, a fate that his former friend might have been helping to prevent by not shelling out all his cash on the night in question.
Norman Mailer versus Gore Vidal
When it comes to notorious hotheads, few rival Norman Mailer’s erratic temperament. Although he was known for attacking everyone from singer Jerry Leiber to screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman to actor Rip Torn (part of whose ear was an unfortunate casualty of the scuffle), Mailer’s favorite victim appears to have been Gore Vidal. Mailer first headbutted Vidal in 1971 after the latter compared Prisoner of Sex to “three-days of menstrual flow,” and then, six years later, knocked him onto the floor at a party in New York.And the winner is: Vidal! He wittily responded to the second incident with: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”