Scribes on wheels: the cars of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, and more

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F. Scott Fitzgerald behind the wheel of a car with his wife Zelda Princeton University Library

They took us to dusty bull rings and into the blood-soaked trenches of world wars. They invited us to 1920s poolside affairs with characters like Jay Gatsby and into smoky Paris cafes with the members of “The Lost Generation.” They even took us searching for the American dream on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, writers so influential in 20th century writing, used a form of experiential prose to take us places we’d never see in our daily lives. Because they often lived on the ragged edge, we marvel at their lifestyles, curious about what automobiles might have been in their garage.

Hemingway’s stable

Along with snow skiing, fishing, and bullfighting, Hemingway enjoyed cars. He drove a green 1929 Rolls Royce Phantom II around the United States after A Farewell to Arms was published, complete with a minibar and cubbies for hunting and golf gear. Buicks and Lincolns were often in his garage at his residences in Key West, Florida, and Cuba, including a yellow Plymouth convertible with wire wheels he bought for his fourth wife, Mary.

Hemingway was best known for a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker similar to this one but in a two-tone Navajo Orange and Desert Sand paint scheme.
Hemingway was best known for a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker similar to this one but in a two-tone Navajo Orange and Desert Sand paint scheme. Mecum

But he was best known for his Navajo Orange and Desert Sand 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. The Virgil Exner design had the kind of presence and stance that served Hemingway’s enormous ego well. According to a piece by David Frey on the web site narrative.ly, “Hemingway would drive the big Chrysler, cigar in mouth, from his Cuban Finca Vigía estate to Havana and the long bar at the Floridita, which he called ‘the best bar in the world’ for daiquiris mixed strong and sour.” Hemingway also referenced this car in his Islands in the Stream.

Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and although Hemingway loved Cuba and enjoyed cordial relations with Castro, he was—according to a new Hemingway biography by Mary Dearborn—pressured to leave by the U.S. State Department after the new government nationalized all private property. After 22 years in Cuba, Hemingway left his cars behind, as well as his treasured wooden fishing boat, the Pilar. Even though he maintained a residence in Key West, Hemingway’s health began to fail and he moved to Ketchum, Idaho, in 1960. A year later, he would take his life after battling the effects of depression, which ran in his family.

Mary Hemingway had given the Chrysler to her husband’s doctor when they left, according to David Frey, but from there, the car exchanged hands numerous times and finally dropped out of sight. Ada Rosa Alfonso, the determined director of the Hemingway Museum in Cuba, resumed the search and was finally able to track it down. She has since commissioned a restoration. Helping that effort is David Soul, who starred as “Hutch” in the TV series Starsky and Hutch. He is making a documentary called Cuban Soul and told me recently that they are still trying to wrangle through red tape to get the necessary restoration parts into Cuba.

Fitzgerald’s fancy tastes

F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of Hemingway’s Paris contemporaries in the 1920s and he was also drawn to fine automobiles. Fitzgerald referenced Duesenbergs and Rolls-Royces in The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. But given a tumultuous life in which alcoholism and a troubled marriage to his brilliant wife, Zelda, he often had to settle for well-worn versions of the cars he fancied. He did manage to own a Rolls, Buick, Stutz, Packard, and finally, a second-hand 1937 Ford convertible, according to a 1993 article by Luis Girón Echevarría, The Automobile as a Central Symbol in F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Duesenberg II SJ Phateon in The Great Gatsby
Duesenberg II SJ Phateon in The Great Gatsby Warner Bros. Pictures

In fact, Fitzgerald was the subject of one Hemingway’s chapters in his autobiographical A Moveable Feast, as the two of them take a train from Paris to Lyon to fetch a 1922 Renault MT Torpedo that had been abandoned by Zelda on a trip back from Marseille.

“At the garage where Scott had left the car,” Hemingway wrote, “I was astonished to find that the small Renault had no top. The top had been damaged in unloading the car in Marseille or it had been damaged in Marseille in some manner, and Zelda had ordered it cut away and refused to have it replaced. His wife hated car tops, Scott told me, and without the top they had driven as far as Lyon, where they were halted by the rain.”

Hemingway described how the two survived the trip: “In that day we were halted by rain possibly 10 times. There were passing showers and some of them were longer than others. If we had waterproof coats, it would have been pleasant enough to drive in the spring rain. As it was, we sought the shelter of trees or halted at cafés alongside the road. We had a marvelous lunch from the hotel at Lyon, an excellent truffle roast chicken, delicious bread, and white Mâcon wine, and Scott was very happy when we drank the white Mâconnais at each of our stops. At Mâcon, I had bought four more bottles of excellent wine, which I uncorked as we needed them.”

The eclectic collection of Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer’s best-known novel, The Naked and the Dead, captured the pain and intensity of his World War II experiences in the Philippines. Like Hemingway, Mailer immersed himself into his stories, as demonstrated by The Executioner’s Song about the controversial firing squad death of Gary Gilmore in 1977, and Marilyn, an ode to the legendary Marilyn Monroe. Mailer was also the co-founder of the Village Voice.

1958 Triumph TR3
1958 Triumph TR3 Mecum
1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner
1953 Studebaker Commander Starliner Mecum

Mailer appreciated automobiles, Patrick Smith wrote on phscollectorcarworld.com. He owned a wide assortment of cars over the years, including a Citroën Traction Avant. He later drove a 1953 Studebaker Commander and traded that for a 1958 Triumph TR3. Somewhere along the way, he also picked up a custom Mercedes-Benz that had been owned by Pedro Domecq of the wine and spirits empire. Later, when he lived in Nantucket and Provincetown, Mass., Mailer drove a less-exciting 1961 Ford Falcon convertible and a Kaiser Jeep.

Nabokov and Hunter S. Thompson and life on the road

Even Russian import Vladimir Nabokov, who didn’t drive, wrote his controversial novel, Lolita, from the passenger seat of a 1952 Buick as his wife Vera drove across country, according to his biographer, Andrew Field, in The Life and Art of Vladimir Nabokov.

Buoyed by Mailer’s success, Hunter Thompson ditched objectivity altogether in creating his cynical commentaries on the 1960s for Rolling Stone magazine. His style was dubbed “Gonzo journalism.” He was well known for his red 1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible with a white interior, nicknamed the “Great Red Shark.” The car appeared in the book and film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, according to Patrick Smith, a lookalike second Chevy, a 1973 Caprice convertible, was also used for some scenes in the movie, as well as a Cadillac convertible that Thompson rented once he arrived in Las Vegas. Like Hemingway, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005 after a hip surgery went bad.

1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Universal Pictures

The automobile as a character

Steven King, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Wolfe were not so much known for their personal cars but rather for the ones they wrote about. King made a 1958 Plymouth the star in Christine, while Kerouac drove a 1949 Hudson Commodore into immortality in his postmodern, cross-country epic On the Road. Tom Wolfe took us into the kooky world of George Barris and custom cars (or kustom kars) in his famous piece for Esquire, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He also painted moonshiner and NASCAR star Junior Johnson as The Last Great American Hero. John Irving, most noted for the World According to Garp, made Volvos, wrestling matches, and New England boarding schools a staple in many of his books. Finally, the central character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions was Dwayne Hoover, a deranged Pontiac dealer.

Christine the 1958 Plymouth Fury
Christine the 1958 Plymouth Fury Columbia Pictures

And in real life, Vonnegut himself owned a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Massachusetts until it closed in 1961. Indeed, our favorite authors love cars as much as we do.

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