A literary fistfight might sound amusing in concept: You can picture the glasses flying, with pasty, indoor kids swinging and missing. But in reality, there are many writers that we should be scared to face. Let’s take Mario Vargas Llosa, for example: Just look at him above on the right. That man could put up a fight. Thirty-eight years ago today, Llosa punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez (above left) in the face. The incident might be old news, but the first time you learn of the showdown, it’s hard not to catch yourself between two reactions: “Say it ain’t so!” and “So ... who won?”
Because every pencil-pusher sometimes dreams of being a prize fighter, here are seven literary stand-offs that are more fit for the ring than the printed page:
Round 1: Mario Vargas Llosa vs. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Friendship, betrayal, politics, women — the throwdown between these two Latin American authors was something of a soap opera. Llosa and Marquez had been longtime literary friends until February 13, 1976, when they encountered each other at a film screening in Mexico City. On that fateful day, when Marquez went in for an embrace, Llosa decked him the eye. There was apparently blood everywhere. Many assumed that the reason behind the attack was political as Llosa was just then migrating to right-wing politics, opposing Marquez’s leftist views; however, Rodrigo Moya, a friend of Marquez who shot the famous photograph of his black eye from the fight, revealed that the spat was due to a dispute over Llosa’s wife, Patricia. It seems that Marquez and his wife consoled Patricia during a rough patch in her marriage with Llosa … and gave her the wrong advice.
Round 2: Jeffrey Eugenides vs. a New Jersey Transit Drunk
In 2011, on his way home from Manhattan on New Jersey Transit, Eugenides was socked in the face by a drunk asshole who was singing about his penis. Sadly, this is no exaggeration. According to the author, he witnessed the intoxicated man and his friend ignore a female passenger’s request for them to keep it down (ZING!) and proceeded singing their genitalia anthem, even phoning friends to have them sing along. Fed up, Eugenides snatched the phone, earning a black eye and a few stitches for his effort.
Round 3: Ernest Hemingway vs. Wallace Stevens
As literary history will have it, in 1936 Stevens broke his hand in two places while throwing a punch at Hemingway’s jaw. Stevens was 56 at the time, on a business-related trip to Key West, when he ran into Hemingway’s sister, Ursula, at a cocktail party. Ursula came home crying to her brother about the belligerent insults Stevens was spewing about Hemingway — and this wasn’t the first time he had been caught foul-mouthing the name. Papa made his way straight to the party, where he knocked Stevens into a puddle and the two brawled it out. Stevens eventually got a punch in on Hemingway, but not without breaking his hand on impact with Hemingway’s jaw. After that, Papa gave Stevens such a bad asswooping that he spent five days in a bed with a doctor and nurse at his side.
Lesson of the story: Never mess with a man 20 years younger than you, especially if he has an affinity for bullfighting.
Round 4: Jack Kerouac vs. Florida Bar Patrons
Just weeks prior to Kerouac’s death in 1969, he was badly beaten in a brawl at a St. Petersburg, Florida bar called The Cactus. As the story goes, Kerouac was running his mouth at the “predominantly black” hangout, likely drunk off his ass, and never sought treatment for his wounds. He wrote to a friend two days later and complained that he was still struggling with injuries from the fight. Weeks later, he died of a stomach hemorrhage attributed to liver issues caused by his lifelong drinking habits, but some surmise that the injuries he had suffered in the bar fight were an additional cause of death.
Round 5: Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal
In December of 1971, Mailer and Vidal had a very public stand-off on The Dick Cavett Show, just months after Vidal reviewed Mailer’s Prisoner of Sex in The New York Review of Books. At the core of it, Mailer was pissed that Vidal had likened him to Charles Manson, challenging him “Why don’t you read what you wrote?”, then interrupting the critic before he could say much of anything with, “We all know I stabbed my wife many years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.” Mailer then went on a sloshed rant (he had a few cocktails before the show) about “intellectual pollution” and how he could smell it in Vidal’s work.
The argument on-screen wasn’t even the worst of it: Backstage in the green room, before even starting the show, Mailer head-butted Vidal after the two had a bit of a slapping match, a fight that allegedly began when the latter tried to play nice and ease the tension between them. It’s safe to say these two never became friends.
Round 6: Hunter S. Thompson vs. The LeRoy Park Pool Boys
Surely Thompson is someone you can envision getting into a fist fight. At the start of his career, just after he was discharged from the airforce, he moved to New York and worked briefly at TIME magazine as a copyboy. Of course, Thompson loved to bar hop and did so often with his buddy Gene McGarr. One night, after prowling the bars, Thompson, his then girlfriend, McGarr and his wife all decided to escape the swampy New York summer heat by taking a dip in the LeRoy Park pool in the West Village. In the midst of their pool party, the group was surrounded by five guys who asked “What the fuck are you doing here?” and claimed their turf by throwing the group’s clothes into the water. Thompson grabbed two of the guys and pulled them into the pool while McGarr beat on the remaining three until they all ran away, hopping the fence around the pool.
But the story doesn’t end there: The original five came back with more friends, surrounding Thompson’s group once more. The ladies escaped over the fence while McGarr and Thompson had bottles thrown at them and were slugged, kicked and beaten with sticks. The pool boys eventually left them, and the two were soon brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Later, McGarr would tell biographers: "Hunter didn't know how to fistfight, let alone fistfight against overwhelming odds, but he wasn't running away. He was very brave."
Round 7: Richard Ford vs. Alice Hoffman
This was much more of an aggressive threat than a violent fight, thank god, yet despite the lack of black and blues, it might be the most spine-chilling literary feud on this list. Tension began when Hoffman wrote “nasty things” in a New York Times review of Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Ford, who is one known to hold violent grudges against reviewers, later ran into Hoffman at a literary party and took a copy of one of her books outside to shoot it with a gun several times. Ford would later tell the media: "Well my wife shot it first. She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it — shooting a book — it's not like I shot her." The confrontation is a thing of literary legend at this point, and one that thankfully did not go any further.
Did we miss your favorite literary brawl? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
(Image credits, from top: from Wikimedia Commons; from Wikimedia Commons; from University of Chicago; from Flickr user Andres Rodriguez; from Wikimedia Commons; from The Wallace Stevens Society; from Wikimedia Commons; from Flickr user J. D. Thomas; from Wikimedia Commons; from Flickr user Anthony Albright; from Richard Ford's website; from Alice Hoffman’s website)
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