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There’s bad luck, and then there’s what happened to Ernest Hemingway and his wife while traveling in East Africa in 1954.
Although some of the details have become muddled from successive retellings, what appears to have occurred is that in January 1954, the famed American writer and his fourth wife, journalist Mary Welsh, were in a Cessna on a sightseeing tour, destined for Uganda's beautiful and inaccessible Murchison Falls. Their plane crashed after the pilot swerved to avoid a flock of birds and instead struck a utility pole, leaving Hemingway with a shoulder injury and Welsh with two broken ribs. The pilot, Hemingway, and Welsh camped along the Nile, where they were picked up in the morning by a passing tourist boat.
In a matter of hours, they boarded another plane, planning to seek medical care in Entebbe, but it crashed soon after takeoff and caught fire on the airstrip. Although the pilot and Welsh were able to escape through a window, Hemingway was too large to fit and ended up using his head to force the plane’s door open. Unsurprisingly, he was left with numerous injuries, including burns, a concussion, a skull fracture, crushed vertebrae, and ruptured internal organs. Eventually, they reached Entebbe by car. Hemingway would spend several months recuperating in Venice, where he had the bizarre experience of reading his own obituary; several newspapers had reported that Hemingway and Welsh had died.
Although Hemingway appeared jovial and upbeat when interviewed by reporters in Entebbe, the head injuries from the second crash, coupled with the many concussions he had suffered earlier in his life, took a massive toll on the writer’s health.
For whom the bell tolls:
- In his 2017 biography Hemingway’s Brain, psychiatrist Andrew Farah suggests that Hemingway suffered from post-concussive diseases that affected his memory and cognition, caused him constant headaches, and worsened his issues with alcohol. The writer took his own life in 1961 while at home in Ketchum, Idaho.
- 1954 was an undeniably momentous year for Ernest Hemingway. After surviving the two plane crashes in January, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, though he did not travel to Sweden to receive his award due to pain from his injuries.
- A four-page handwritten letter that Hemingway wrote in Venice to his lawyer, Alfred Rice, detailing his injuries from the crashes sold at auction in 2023 for $237,055. Despite the seriousness of what had occurred and the pain he would deal with for the rest of his life, Hemingway told Rice that “everything (is) fine here.”