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Hemingway in Manila

Jan 9, 2023 | Tales from the Philippines

Hemingway enjoying his Asian tour.

In November 1940, two months after publication of his Spanish Civil War novel: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, American author Ernest Hemingway married his third wife war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Paramount Studios paid him $100,000 for the movie rights and announced that film star Gary Cooper would play the leading role.

At the height of his fame Hemingway agreed to accompany his wife on assignment for Colliers Magazine to cover the Sino-Japanese war. Years later in: ‘Travels with Myself and Another’ Gellhorn wrote about: ‘the horror journeys’ of her life including what Hemingway called their honeymoon trip to China in 1941.

According to Peter Moreira’s: ‘Hemingway on the China FrontHis World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn’, they went to China:

‘surreptitiously gathering intelligence for the (US) government.’

Hemingway’s  mission was to gather information on relations between Mao Tse-tung’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists.

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Clipping from Austin American-Statesman January 31st 1941.

On February 1st 1941 the couple set sail from San Francisco to Honolulu aboard the luxury liner SS Matsonia. After Hawaii they took Pan Am’s China Clipper flying boat service to Hong Kong via Guam with a longer stop-over in Manila. Hemingway stayed in Manila again on his return journey but apart from its climate the sweltering capital didn’t make any lasting impression on the famous writer. In Hemingway’s fiction and journalism no reference of any importance is made to the Philippines. By contrast his visit was eagerly reported in the local press.

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Postcard of the Matson Lines Luxury Liner Matsonia. 

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The China Clipper in Paradise by David Ferris.

Arriving at the Manila Hotel he was mobbed by admiring Filipino journalists and authors from the Philippine Writers League who faithfully transcribed his every utterance.

The Official Gazette, official journal of the Republic of the Philippines, has the following entry in their ‘History from Day to Day’ column, Philippine Magazine 38 (April 1941):

Feb 21 – Ernest Hemingway, celebrated novelist, and wife arrive in Manila by Clipper, in message to Philippine Writers League he states:

‘I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly’.


Ernest Hemingway was greeted in Manila by F. Mangahas, President of the Philippine Writer’s League and Amando G. Dayrit.  ‘Al’ Valencia in dark glasses. (photo from Philippines Magazine, Volume 1, No.4 1941).

Six feet tall and weighing in at 225 pounds Hemingway towered above the diminutive Filipinos. Throughout his life he enjoyed the finest food and drink and in later years suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure with his weight peaking at 260. In his posthumously published novel about expat life in Paris: ‘A Moveable Feast’ he described hunger as: ‘good discipline’ becoming a metaphor for literary success. Hemingway’s impoverished life as a young man in Paris created a deep desire to experience life and channel this experience as a creative force in his writing.


Philippine journalist and wartime correspondent ‘Al’ Valencia met Hemingway for drinks at the Manila Hotel. When his home in Manila was destroyed during the war he lost everything but saved his autographed copy of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. (Source: Gina Wileman)

Hemingway Nestor

Hemingway signing a book for a young Filipino writer named Nestor Vicente Madali Gonzalez (From the Facebook page of Nestor’s daughter).

The welcoming committee were struck by Hemingway’s courtesy towards his fellow writers and throughout the author’s stay he was happy to autograph his new book. Even when presented with copies pirated in Shanghai, for which he received no royalty, he just grinned and autographed it.

Hemingway told them:

‘That you should write at all (and so well) in this intense heat makes your achievement truly marvelous. You should do all your important writing before six o’clock in the morning.’

At home in Cuba his schedule was to write every morning as soon as possible after first light when it was still cool and there was no one around to disturb him.


Hemingway’s writing has been mined for quotes on everything from life to love to war and writing. The Manila Hotel still dines out on one of the big man’s less inspired utterances: ‘If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.’

The Manila Hotel was opened in 1912 on reclaimed land along the former Malecon a famous seafront beauty spot. In the lobby was the Pan Am office where Clipper passengers made reservations and dropped off luggage. As Manila Bay was considered too rough for flying boat landings the Clipper was moored eight miles south of the city at Cavite Naval Base.

Today the hotel is opposite what remains of the historic walled city of Intramuros founded by the Spanish in 1571. The moats were later filled in by American town planners turning them into sunken gardens and a public golf course.

There are several paragraphs about Hemingway’s last night in Manila in the June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal. Published under the heading: ‘Just Little Things’, a column of anecdotes and business talk, the article bears no by-line but may have been written by the journal’s editor Walter Robb.

Much of Hemingway’s time was spent with old Basque friends from Pamplona, Havana and New York hanging out at the fourth floor Sky Room of the Manila Jai Alai Building on Taft Avenue. The Basque people originated from the mountainous region of northern Spain, which he famously called:

‘the country that I loved more than any other except my own,’

Spain provided the inspiration and setting for his major works including: The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1932) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The author was the most prominent foreigner amongst the writers and journalists who sided with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War making it problematic for him to visit after the victory of General Franco’s Nationalists in  1939. Hemingway moved to Cuba the same year living there for 22 years, longer than any place in his life.

‘Three hundred years in a convent and fifty in Hollywood’  – is a shorthand for the Philippines colonial experience;  governed by Spain from 1565 to 1898 and then America from 1898 to 1946.

To the English writer Aldous Huxley writing in the 1930’s the Philippines was unlike any other country in the Orient:

‘It is Spain – diluted, indeed, distorted, and overlaid with Americanism.’


The Jai Alai fronton.

Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting and deep sea fishing, sports that became recurring themes in his fiction. Although his Manila sojourn was too short to enjoy either he was an enthusiastic spectator at the jai alai fronton. Jai alai (Pronounced ‘HY+UH+LY’) involves bouncing a ball called a pelota off a walled in space or fronton using a hand-held wicker basket known as a cesta. The game originated in the Basque region. Dubbed the fastest sport in the world it was also extremely dangerous. Played originally without helmets so the crowd could see the player’s expressions smashed teeth were common and sometimes death.

Jai Alai Skyroom.jpeg

Before World War 2 the Manila Jai Alai Building was considered the finest art deco building in Asia. After the sport was banned in 1986 because of game fixing and murder it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2000.

On Hemingway’s final night he had to leave the Manila Hotel at 2am to catch the China Clipper but at midnight was still drinking in the Sky Room. One of the Basques took him back, helped him pack and together they sang folk songs all the way to Cavite. Hemingway just made his flight to Hong Kong.

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The walled city of Intramuros, Manila. (Image copyright: Justin James Wright)

Pre-war Intramuros was famous for its places of worship known as the Seven Churches of Intramuros an allusion to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Most were destroyed during the battle for Manila in 1945. One of the most distinctive with its tall bell tower was the San Nicolas Tolentino Church of the Augustinian Recollects. The Augustinian Recollects are a catholic religious order of friars and nuns who came to the Philippines from the Basque region of Spain in 1606. After the war the ruins of San Nicolas remained standing, until it was demolished in 1959.

Hemingway took time to visit these priests who he admired from his time in Spain. He told his interviewer that men:

‘don’t come any better in any package.’

One of the fathers presented him with a suitable gift – a bottle of 80 years old Napoleon brandy.

Ernest Hemingway grew up a Protestant in Oak Park Chicago but converted to Catholicism when he married his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. He later told Gary Cooper that becoming a Catholic was one of the best things he’d done in his life.

At his funeral in 1961 there was no formal Catholic service. Whether his death was an accident or suicide by shotgun was undecided at the time but had no bearing on the funeral. The fact that Hemingway had been divorced barred him from a Catholic Church funeral.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn arrive in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post.

Hemingway was still on good form when he arrived in Hong Kong on February 22nd. Holding court  at the bar of the Hong Kong Hotel he boasted to one reporter about his book sales:

‘Drink up, drink up, I’m in the money,’

Gellhorn, unimpressed and largely ignored went out to do some serious reporting on Hong Kong’s social condition. Eventually tired of her husband’s ‘loafing’ she persuaded him to move to the Repulse Bay Hotel on the south of the island for some rest before their trip to China. She had been eager to visit China since childhood but Hemingway had little interest. He had not he said spent his formative years:

‘stuffing his imagination with Fu Manchu and Somerset Maugham,’

The couple travelled to Chongqing, Chengdu and Shanghai meeting Chiang Kai-shek, his wife Soong Mei-ling and Zhou Enlai but the trip was physically demanding. They endured dangerous flights, travel by mule, bedbugs and Gellhorn suffering from ‘China rot’ that caused the skin between her fingers to ooze puss. Hemingway moaned constantly. In her memoirs, she refers to him as Unwilling Companion, or U.C. for short. He only seemed to come alive when challenged to a drinking competition by a group of Chinese generals.

Gellhorn soon lost all her illusions, disappointed by the lack of vigour with which the war was was being waged against the Japanese and appalled by the squalor, the corruption and the deep social divisions:

‘An overlord class and tens of millions of expendable slaves was how China looked to me,’ 

Hemingway travelled home alone while Gellhorn flew on to Burma, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. He was still in a sour mood when seen off from Hong Kong on May 6th. The Clipper was crowded and he was not looking forward to the flight to Manila, to Guam, to Wake Island, to Midway, to Hawaii.

According to Moreira Hemingway couldn’t stand Manila and spent five nights there drunk and miserable:

‘He described the city as a place where people didn’t ask for someone at a hotel desk; they just asked a houseboy where the room was and barged in. He was getting sick of people talking to him about For Whom the Bell Tolls…and he was tired of answering questions about it.’

To escape ‘the dreariness’ of Manila Hemingway accepted an invitation from local flyer George Rowe to fly to Baguio known as the ‘Summer Capital of the Philippines’ because of its altitude and cool climate.

On May 11th he attended a dinner by the Philippine Writer’s Association. Carlos Baker in his official biography of Hemingway wrote:

‘everyone’s attempt to be gaily informal bored him so much that he got too drunk to care….

In Manila Hemingway made a few more notes and explored some of the Spanish bars of Intramuros. Otherwise his sole gain from the Philippine stopover was a good short summer haircut.’

He became short tempered with journalists when reporters asked him what was happening in China shouting at them that if they wanted to find out they should go for themselves. Hemingway did however pay attention to local news being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated 500 pesos to a fund for the victims. Tondo remains a notorious slum area still prone to fires today.

Manila’s coat of arms incorporates the waves of Manila Bay surmounted by a sea-lion and a pearl in its shell. The sea-lion represented the islands’ former status as a Spanish colony whilst the upper portion references the city’s nickname – ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Pre-war Manila was far from dreary it’s culture closer in atmosphere to Havana than to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. There were no high-rise buildings, it was clean, the water was safe and crime practically non-existent The city’s total population was around six hundred thousand, a tenth of present day Metro Manila.

In a region of colonies the Philippines was unique in having an assurance of independence. The islands had been granted Commonwealth status in 1935 with full independence scheduled in 1946. High society was dominated by old established families but a colonial mentality persisted conjured by the phrase ‘Manila Americans.’ According to a 1939 census, excluding the military, there were only 8,709 Americans resident in the Philippines with 5,149 living in Manila and the neighbouring province.

Florence Horn’s 1941 travelogue – ‘Orphans of the Pacific’  had this to say about the American community:

‘Americans in Manila are like Americans in Mexico City and Americans in Maracaibo and Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. They build for themselves a barricaded American life wherever they are. They insulate themselves as thoroughly as possible against the life of the country they are in. . . They grouse continually about petty inconveniences, and berate this miserable native bitterly and endlessly … The American women heartily despise the Filipinos.’

Manila with its tropical lifestyle, similarity to Havana and expatriate American community should have been Hemingway’s kind of town. The city was the same, what had changed during his three month’s tour was Hemingway’s mood. He later referred to his Asian journey as: ‘that unshakeable hangover’.

In 2006 Dr. Christopher D. Martin, a psychiatrist, published a study on Hemingway’s mental health history finding significant evidence that he presented symptoms of bipolar disorder, possible borderline and narcissistic personality traits exacerbated by a lifetime of alcoholism along with a genetic predisposition towards mental illness.

When the United States entered World War 2 Hemingway was at home in Cuba. He armed his boat the Pilar with tommy guns and grenades supplied by the Office of Naval Intelligence before setting out on anti-submarine patrols. Thinking that a German submarine would come close to barter or steal fish his crew of Basque jai alai players would lob hand grenades down the conning tower of the submarine and open fire with machine guns. They never encountered any submarines. Gellhorn unimpressed saw it as an excuse to go drinking and fishing with his crew and promptly left to cover the real war in Europe.

In 1945 the couple were divorced Gellhorn famously stating that she didn’t want to become a footnote in someone else’s life.


Hemingway’s 1937 novel: ‘To Have and Have Not’ set in Key West and Cuba was the template for countless books and movies about a tough guy on a boat. In 1952 Warner Bros. released ‘Mara Maru’  starring Errol Flynn and Ruth Roman. Flynn played an ex-PT boat commander running a salvage business in Manila and hunting for sunken treasure.

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Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, (1969), Carlos Baker

Travels with Myself and Another. New York: Penguin, (2001), Martha Gellhorn

Orphans of the Pacific, (1941), Florence Horn

Language of the Street and other Essays, (1980), Nick Joaquin

Ernest Hemingway: How Mental Illness Plagued the Writer and His Family, Barbara Maranzani, April 2 2021,

Hemingway on the China Front – His World War II Spy Mission with Martha Gellhorn, (2006), Peter Moreira

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, (2017), Nicholas Reynolds

Ernest Hemingway and my Grandfather: An Enduring Friendship, Gina Wileman,

‘Just Little Things’, June 1941 issue of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal

The American Minority in the Philippines During the Pre-War Commonwealth Period, Gerald E. Wheeler, Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia

‘Glory Days’ published in the November 2007 issue of Tatler Philippines

‘In love and war: a Hong Kong honeymoon for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’, Stuart Heaver, South China Morning Post Magazine, October 12th 2019

About The Blog

About Blog In March 2020, after 28 years in Hong Kong, I moved to Penang as a base to travel in the region. The Covid 19 pandemic ended that plan and I spent much of the time re-reading books I had collected over the years. The only new book I bought was ...
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