He remembers Papa

They fought about politics, he stole Hemingway's girl. An old war buddy reminisces.

Published July 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Soon after the American soldiers were pulled out of the civil war in Spain in 1938, Ernest Hemingway wrote this description of Milton Wolff, commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion: "Twenty-three years old, tall as Lincoln, gaunt as Lincoln, and as brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg. He is alive and unhit by the same hazard that leaves one tall palm tree standing where a hurricane has passed."

Now 83, Wolff will leave his small apartment outside San Francisco this week and fly to Illinois to pay his own tribute to Hemingway. The ceremony, at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, marks the 100th anniversary of Hemingway's birth and coincides with the publication of Hemingway's last "posthumous novel," "True at First Light."

Wolff first met Hemingway when Wolff was a 22-year-old private in the International Brigades, a force made up of volunteers from more than 50 countries who went to Spain to fight alongside the troops of the liberal government of the Republic against Gen. Francisco Franco's military revolt. While the two men would call each other friend until Hemingway's death, their first encounter was not promising. Wolff stole Hemingway's girlfriend.

Tall, dark-eyed, a thatch of black curls atop his handsome head, Wolff marched into the swank Cafi Chicote in Madrid and lured away a raven-haired beauty who was Hemingway's mistress.

"He didn't object," Wolff recalls, one of his dozen or so pipes held between his teeth. "He didn't say anything. Never brought it up with me."

Wolff admits, though, that for a while he did feel a hint of pride at having taken Hemingway's girl. "He was a bull, a big strong guy. She was just hungry."

Wolff says he forgot the woman's name long ago but does recall that she spoke little English. "She didn't know what they were bullshitting about and neither did I. They were talking tactics and strategy and I couldn't care less."

On leave from the front, Wolff knew only that the burly man seated among a group of well-dressed women and men that evening had invited him for a drink. The bar was one of the poshest meeting places along Madrid's Gran Vma, and it was the drink that he'd come for.

"I hate to admit this but I had not heard of him," says Wolff, who sketched the scene in "Another Hill," his 1994 novel about the Spanish Civil War. "I had not read his books. I had not read 'A Farewell to Arms.' I had not read 'The Sun Also Rises.'"

Wolff, understandably, had more important things on his mind. Arriving in Spain from Brooklyn in March 1937, he'd served first as a medic, then as a machine-gunner in the Washington Battalion. He fought in fierce battles at Brunete, Quinto, Belchite and Fuentes de Ebro. By the battle of Teruel he was captain of a machine-gun company. When his commander was killed, Wolff took charge of the battalion of 3,000 Americans and led an offensive into the Sierra Pandols. Altogether more than 45,000 volunteers from Europe, Canada, the United States and Mexico fought in the war against Franco. Some 16,000 of them died before the force was disbanded and sent home as Franco's army, backed by the fascist governments in Germany and Italy, closed in on victory. Wolff went on to fight in Italy and Burma during World War II, but in the '50s he and other Americans who had served in Spain were marked for persecution in the anti-Communist fervor of the day.

Wolff still speaks in support of the beliefs that took him to Spain, but he is
not an idealist. "There are no heroes in this Balkan war," he says. "There are villains but there are no heroes. In the Spanish Civil War it was different. And as far as the International Brigades were concerned, there was nothing like it in history. We were all volunteers, there were no mercenaries. There wasn't a pot to piss in. There were no rewards, no medals. There was nothing. We got our asses kicked in Spain and then we came back. It's been called the pure war, but nothing's pure in life, I've decided. But it's the closest thing to it that I know of."

Despite the fact that Wolff had snatched his girl, Hemingway later summoned the newly promoted officer to his room at the Hotel Florida, in Madrid, and asked him to read a rough draft of his play "The Fifth Column." From there a fractious friendship evolved, an on-and-off connection between Hemingway and "El Lobo" (Wolff's nom de guerre) that often erupted in harsh words but lasted until the writer's death in 1961.

Wolff and other war veterans criticized Hemingway's novel about the war, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which was later made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. "Here was a guy who among all the correspondents knew more about what the hell was going on there," Wolff says. "We expected him to write the definitive book on Spain, not a goddamn Hollywood production. So there was keen disappointment on my part. I called him a tourist in Spain and he called me a tool of the Communist Party and a lot of other bad things in an exchange of letters. Then we made up. But he called me every name under the sun. He cursed me out. What got him was that I called him a tourist."

Wolff was a former art student immersed in the labor politics of the day; Hemingway was one of the most celebrated authors of the time, whose books had brought him fame, wealth and a succession of beautiful women. It was maybe the women that Wolff admired more than anything else.

"I knew Martha Gellhorn a hell of a lot better than I knew him," Wolff says of Hemingway's wife at the time. "She had nothing good to say about him."

Gellhorn later confided to Wolff her husband's frequent affairs. "She was trying to get a divorce from him," he says. "She was pissed off. He dragged her around like a wet rag."

Wolff is not sure Hemingway would have wanted him at this month's gathering in Illinois. In one of their last exchanges Hemingway called from Cuba to ask Wolff for a letter confirming that Hemingway had loaned $400 to a veterans group headed by Wolff. Wolff says Hemingway wanted to use the donation as a tax deduction; Wolff, the battle-hardened anti-capitalist, refused. Hemingway, unaccustomed to being denied, was incensed.

But Hemingway continued to address the younger man as "Commandante," perhaps aware that his own writing about war and courage were as far removed from true heroism as Wolff's life was disconnected from tax dodges and Caribbean estates.

"One of the last letters I had from him was from the Mayo Clinic," Wolff says. "He said, 'You were my friend, we're friends no longer.' About two or three weeks later a letter came from Cuba and he said he didn't mean it."

Hemingway apologized and told Wolff that he understood that his criticism of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" had been ordered by the Communist Party. "Which was bullshit," Wolff says. "It was all my own idea."

At least part of Wolff's criticism of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was spurred by his affection for Dolores Ibarruri Gomez, the woman known as "La Pasionaria" who acted as organizer, spokeswoman and maternal symbol for the Republican armies. Hemingway's unflattering portrait of her angered many veterans of the war.

"I was pissed off, frankly," says Wolff, his voice reaching a field commander's pitch. "This was the main thing that really got me. Why'd he single out her, who we all adored, who said it's better to die on your feet than live on your knees?

"There was one thing that always bothered me about these correspondents, which reveals how immature I was at the time," he adds, his voice softening. "I resented the fact that they could come and go as they pleased. Go up to Paris when the booze ran out, when the cigarettes ran out. And we were stuck there fighting. But guys like Hemingway and [New York Times correspondent] Herb Matthews and others did a marvelous job in defense of the Republican cause."

Wolff has done a fair amount of public speaking over the years. He's accepted token fees but his adventures have not made him a rich man. He lives modestly, working on a manuscript about his experiences before the Spanish Civil War and his remembrance of service in World War II, in the OSS under "Wild Bill" Donovan.

One of the events at the week-long celebration in Illinois that Wolff has been asked to attend, titled "I Knew Papa," promises to be a nostalgia fest of the sentimental sort that Wolff says he would just as soon skip. Among the memorabilia resurfacing for the Hemingway birthday celebration is a Robert Capa photo of the Nobel Prize-winning author with Wolff at the Ebro River front.

"When I heard he killed himself, I wasn't surprised at all," Wolff says. "He'd done everything, he'd written everything. And the last things he wrote were such crap that even he must have known it. I couldn't read it. As far as I'm concerned the last great thing he wrote was 'The Old Man and the Sea.'

"He grew away from everything before he died. You know, Gary Cooper and John Wayne he hung out with, killing lions and stuff like that. I don't know. I felt sorry for the guy. When you examine his whole life, the high point was Spain."

By Jon B. Rhine

Jon B. Rhine is a writer living in San Francisco. He has written for Time, Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

MORE FROM Jon B. Rhine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------