In a passage that would come to haunt Max later, he likened writing that derived pleasure from such senseless bloodshed—writing like Hemingway’s, in other words—to the “wearing of false hair on the chest.” To Papa Hemingway’s supporters this was blasphemy. “I don’t know when I have written anything that I have heard more about from various sources than that article,” sighed Max. Not bothering to read Max’s review carefully, Hemingway’s defenders engaged in the kind of public posturing and muscle flexing that ironically confirmed Max’s concerns.
Which led 3 years later to this:
On August 17, 1937, Max was visiting his editor Maxwell Perkins’ office, discussing a new edition of Enjoyment of Poetry, when Hemingway sauntered in. He was not in a particularly generous mood: his marriage with Pauline Pfeiffer was on the rocks, and he was about to return to Spain, where the civil war he had been covering had reinforced his contempt for literary refinement. Opening his shirt, he encouraged Max to assess the authenticity of his chest hair, while he mocked Max’s chest, which was, remarked Perkins, as “bare as a bald man’s head.” Then everything went haywire. Seeing the well-fed, white-clad, good-looking Max, tanned from tennis and hours spent napping on the beach, Hemingway erupted. The way Max remembered it, Hemingway was crude and aggressive. “What did you say I was sexually impotent for?” he snarled. Conveniently, a copy of Art and the Life of Action was sitting on Perkins’ desk. Max attempted to point out a passage—a positive one, we might imagine—that he thought would clarify that he had never wanted to trash Hemingway. But Hemingway, muttering and swearing, zeroed in on a different passage, and a particularly good one it was, too: “Some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity.” This was Max at his best, the use of the plural “evidences” giving the line a rhythmic lilt: “évi / dénces of / réd-blooded/ máscu / línity.” An altercation ensued, during which Max, as both parties agreed, got “socked” on the nose with his own book. Everything was happening very fast after that. Max charged at Hemingway. Books and other stuff from Perkins’ desk went flying to the ground. Convinced that the much younger Hemingway was going to kill his friend, Perkins rushed in to help. By the time he had reached the two men they were both on the floor. Max was on top, although Perkins felt this was by accident only. But Max would later tell everyone who cared to listen that he had been the winner. Recognizing the disadvantage imposed on him by age and lack of physical fitness (“I would have kissed the carpet in a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway”), he claimed he had used a wrestling move to throw Hemingway on his back over Max Perkins’ desk. Hemingway assured the Times no such thing had taken place, that Max instead had taken his slap “like a woman.” He went on to challenge Max to meet him in a locked room and read to him his review in there, with “all legal rights waived”—the Hemingway equivalent to challenging his adversary to a duel. There is one detail, however, that does make Max’s account credible: he did know how to wrestle.