Letter to Maxwell Perkins


7 September, 1935

Dear Max:

     I was glad to have your letter and would have answered sooner except for the hurricane which came the same night I received it.  We got only the outside edge.  It was due for midnight and I went to bed at ten to get a couple of hours sleep if possible having made everything as safe as possible with the boat.  Went with the barometer on a chair by the bed and a flashlight to use when the lights should go.  At midnight the barometer had fallen to 29.50 and the wind was coming very high and in gusts of great strength tearing down trees, branches etc.  Car drowned out and got down to boat afoot and st0od by until  5 a.m. when the wind shifting into the west we knew the storm had crossed to the north and was going away.  All the next day the winds were too high to get out and there was no communication with the keys.  Telephone, cable and telegraph all down, too rough for boats to leave.  The next day we got across [to Lower Matecumbe Key] and found things in a terrible shape.  Imagine you have read it in the papers but nothing could give an idea of the destruction.  Between 700 and 1000 dead.  Many, today, still unburied.  The foliage absolutely stripped as though by fire for forty miles and the land looking like the abandoned bed of a river.  Not a building of any sort standing.  Over thirty miles of railway washed and blown away.  We were the first in to Camp Five of the veterans who were working on the highway construction.  Out of 187 only 8 survived.  Saw more dead than I’d seen in one place since the lower Piave in June of 1918.

     The veterans in those camps were practically murdered.  The Florida East Coast had a train ready for nearly twenty four hours to take them off the Keys.  The people in charge are said to have wired Washington for orders.  Washington wired Miami Weather Bureau which is said to have replied there was no danger and it would be a useless expense.  The train did not start until the storm started.  It never got within thirty miles of the two lower camps.  The people in charge of the veterans and the weather bureau can split the responsibility between them.

     What I know and can swear to is this; that while the storm was at its height on Matecumbe and most of the people already dead the Miami bureau sent a warning of winds of gale strength on the keys from Key Largo to Key West and of hurricane intensity in the Florida straights [straits] below Key West.  They lost the storm completely and did not use the most rudimentary good sense in figuring its progress.

     Long Key fishing camp is completely destroyed and so are all the settlements on Matecumbe both upper and lower.  There is over thirty miles of the R.R. completely gone and there will probably never be another train in to Key West.  Highway is not as badly damaged as the R.R. but would take six months to repair.  The R.R. may make a bluff that they will rebuild in order to sell the govt their right of way for the highway.  Anyway Key West will be isolated for at least six months except for boat service and plane from Miami.

     The Marine Corps plane that is flying some of the 1st class mail just brought two sets of page proof gong up to page 130.  Do you want me tosend this back before the other comes?

     To get back to your letter.

     But first I wish I could have had with me the bloody poop that has been having his publishers put out publicity matter that he has been staying in Miami because he needs a hurricane in the book he is writing and that it looked as though he wasn’t going to have one and him so disappointed.

     Max, you can’t imagine it, two women, naked, tossed up into trees by the water, swollen and stinking, their breasts as big as balloons, flies between their legs.  Then, by figuring, you locate where it is and recognize them as the two very nice girls who ran a sandwich place and filling-station three miles from the ferry.  We located sixty-nine bodies where no one had been able to get in.  Indian Key absolutely swept clean, not a blade of grass, and over the high center of it were scattered live conchs that came in with the sea, craw fish, and dead morays.  The whole bottom of the sea blew over it.  I would like to have had that little literary bastard that wanted his hurricane along to rub his nose in some of it.  Harry Hopkins and Roosevelt who sent those poor bonus march guys down there to get rid of the got rid of them all right.  Now they say they should all be buried in Arlington and no bodies to be burned or buried on the spot which meant trying to carry stuff that came apart blown so tight that they burst when you lifted them, rotten, running, putrid, decomposed, absolutely impossible to embalm, carry them out six, eight miles to a boat, on the boat for ten to twenty more to put them into boxes and the whole thing stinking to make you vomit-enroute to Arlington.  Most of the protests against burning or burying came from the Miami undertakers that get 100 dollars apiece per veteran.  Plain pine boxes called coffins at $50 apiece.  They could have been quicklimed right in where they are found, identification made from their pay disks and papers and crosses put up.  Later dig up the bones and ship them.

     Joe Lowe the original of the Rummy in that story of mine "One Trip Across" was drowned at the Ferry Slip.

     Had just finished a damned good long story and was on another when this started with the warning on saturday night.  They had all day Sunday and all day monday to get those vets out and never did it.  If they had taken half the precautions with them that we took with our boat not a one would have been lost.

     Feel too lousy now to write.  Out rained on, sleeping on the deck of the run boat, nothing to drink through all that business so ought to remember it, but damned if I want it for my novel.  We made five trips with provisions for survivors to different places and nothing but dead men to eat the grub…

Ernest Hemingway


There are fourteen American veterans of World War I alive today.  The oldest is 115.  Given the hardships that they faced overseas and when they came home, it is a miracle there are any still living. 

It strikes me, a year after Katrina, and particularly on this Veteran’s Day, how little things have changed since Hemingway’s time.





3 Responses to “Letter to Maxwell Perkins”

  1. Exador Says:

    I heard that story on npr. Interesting, that the one guy they mentioned that had (severe) post-traumatic stress, was the guy that was on the "clean up the bodies after the battle" detail. It’s always associated with combat, but I guess seeing that much gore takes its toll.Cliff Clavin moment: It’s rarely mentioned that Japan was also involved in WW1, against the Germans.

  2. sgazzetti Says:

    Nice V.D. work. Have you read "By-Line Hemingway", I wonder? I also wonder if I have asked you this about 50,000 times.

  3. Sarcastro Says:


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