“Enough of a Bad Gamble:” Correcting the misinformation on Hemingway’s Captain James Gamble

“Enough of a Bad Gamble:” Correcting the misinformation on Hemingway’s Captain James Gamble

Brenner, Gerry

DURING BOTH A HEMINGWAY SESSION AT THE 1998 Modern Language Association meeting in San Francisco and the 1999 Oak Park Hemingway Centennial Conference well-respected Hemingway scholars referred briefly to Hemingway Is World War I friend Captain Jim Gamble. The scholars repeated the canards that continue to cling like barnacles to Gamble: that he was part of the soap-making Procter and Gamble family of Cincinnati and that he was homosexually oriented. It’s well past time to scrape those canards from the Hemingway Biography.

The soap story first.

Blame-seekers might wish to point their fingers first at Carlos Baker, to whom Hemingway students and scholars are otherwise indebted for so much good information. Thirty years ago he first misidentified James Gamble. He referred to the captain whom Hemingway joined on a sixteen-day leave in Taormina, Sicily, as “a wealthy young man whose family ran the soap-manufacturing firm of Procter and Gamble” (43). Eight years later, in 1977, Scott Donaldson repeated the misidentification. He had learned from Hemingway’s friend Bill Horne that Gamble was Field Inspector of the American Red Cross Canteen Service for the northeastern Italian front and, thereby, Hemingway’s commanding officer at the time of his wounding on 8 July 1918. Nevertheless, he stated that Gamble, “a wealthy man in his mid-thirties…was related to the Gambles of Procter and Gamble” (16). Eight years after that, now 1985, yet another biographer perpetuated the soap-story: Jeffrey Meyers wrote that Gamble “was supposed to be the heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune” (39).

That same year Peter Griffin corrected some of the misidentification. He had not only learned that Gamble was thirty-six at the time he became acquainted with Hemingway but also that Gamble was a Yale graduate. Griffin, however, had been led to believe him a “Philadelphia blue-blood,” and, thereby, “a favorite of Main Line debutantes for years” who, “after a long affair with a wealthy divorcee,” had taken residence in Florence in 1914 (76). Despite Griffin’s getting some information wrong-Gamble’s grandfather was not a railroad president and Gamble was from Williamsport, not Philadelphia-his “relocation” of Gamble from the Cincinnati Gambles of Procter and Gamble to the Pennsylvania Gambles should have caused subsequent biographers to dig out the facts.

They didn’t.

in the first volume of his five-volume biography, The Young Hemingway (1986), Michael Reynolds, discussing Gamble’s offer to “pal around” with Hemingway for “a year in Italy, expenses paid,” wrote, “With the Proctor [sic] and Gamble soap money to spend, Jim was good company” (48). In 1987 Kenneth Lynn lathered the same line: “At the invitation of Red Cross Captain James Gamble, of the soap-rich Cincinnati Gambles, [Hemingway] also spent a week in Taormina” (89).

In 1988 Peter Griffin got another chance to steer scholars and biographers right. He told Denis Brian that Carlos Baker “mislabeled [Gamble] as one of the Gambles of Proctor [sic] and Gamble. But he wasn’t. He had nothing to do with that family. He was a member of the Voorhees family in Williamsburg [sic], Pennsylvania. They were very wealthy and his grandfather was a railroad president. Gamble was an artist and a Yale graduate. He lived in Florence, Italy, and was about twelve years older than Ernest. Gamble married one or more heiresses. He spoke fluent Italian” (26).

But Griffin’s facts were tangled. That’s understandable and forgivable, given that Brian’s text relied heavily on personal interviews during which scholars and biographers, talking off the cuff, are less precise than in their writing. Griffin had, however, provided enough correction so that when Henry Villard and James Nagel wrote of Gamble in 1989, they had his age and alma mater correct and had examined the American Red Cross records to learn of his responsibilities (210). By the time James Mellow discussed Gamble in his 1992 biography, he at least reported that at the time Hemingway met Gamble the latter was “a thirty-six-year-old Yale graduate” and was from Pennsylvania, although he still perpetuated the canard that Gamble was “a Main Line Philadelphian” and demoted him to being “an amateur painter” (59).

Research, correspondence, telephone conversations, and a two-day visit with Gamble’s closest living relative have enabled me to piece together the following biographical details.

James Gamble (1882-1958) held the rank of captain, was the Field Inspector of the American Red Cross canteen service for the northeastern Italian front, and was, according to Hemingway’s 18 August 1918 letter to his parents,”a great pal of mine” at the time of his wounding by trench mortar on 8 July 1918 (SL 14). Both Gamble’s grandfather, a prominent and well-respected Pennsylvania state legislator and judge from Williamsport, and his father, also a Williamsport lawyer, were named James Gamble as well. His mother, Mary White, came from a family which had acquired its wealth, as so many in Williamsport had, from the timber industry. Widowed when tuberculosis ended her husband’s life in 1886, Gamble’s mother took her three children to Dresden, Germany, where his two talented elder sisters received musical training and Gamble was placed in a boarding school. After the family returned to Williamsport, Gamble attended Lawrenceville, a New Jersey prep school. During 1903, his first year at Yale, the older of his sisters, Isabel, died, followed by his mother in 1906, the year he graduated. Artistically gifted, Gamble studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art for a couple of years before traveling in Europe and eventually taking up residence in Florence, Italy, where he was devoting himself to painting when World War I broke out. He joined the American Red Cross when the United States declared war in 1917.

During Hemingway’s convalescence, Gamble, who had accompanied him on the two-day train trip from the field station in Fornaci to Milan (SL 108), made frequent visits. By the end of the war he’d found Hemingway so companionable that he paid his young compatriot’s expenses for a sixteen-day, late-December 1918 vacation in Taormina, Sicily, and offered to underwrite the cost of Hemingway’s prolonging his stay for a year in Europe, first wintering in Madeira, off the coast of Morocco. At Agnes von Kurowsky’s urging, however, Hemingway rejected the offer, confident that his return home would speed up what he believed was their wedding plans (Reynolds, Hemingway’s First War 204).

Gamble returned to Philadelphia in 1919 and continued painting. He invited Hemingway to join him for a summer vacation in 192o at the family’s Pennsylvania summer home at Eagles Mere, north of Philadelphia, but Hemingway couldn’t manage it. In January 1921 Gamble offered to pay his way back to Italy for a Roman holiday, but Hemingway, strongly tempted, felt too committed to his relationship to Hadley to accept, pain him though it did to turn his wealthy friend down (SL 45).

Gamble returned to Italy, traveled in Europe, and continued to paint for several years before he was brought to the altar in Paris in 1926 by Philadelphian Jessie Biddle DaCosta, whom I presume would have been one of those “Main Line debutantes.’ They presently returned to the United States and lived in Villanova where, between summering in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and wintering in Nassau, Bahamas, he continued to paint impressionistic landscapes and portraits of Pennsylvanian socialites, as well as screens, murals, and frescoes, several of them decorating his family summer home and the Elkins Park home of his sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Harlow C. Voorhees.

The family finances evaporated in the crash of 1929, and Gamble and his wife, childless, divorced soon after. After the death of his brother-in-law in 1933, he took up permanent residence for the remainder of his life with his sister, first in Elkins Park with her and her two children,Theodore and Mary Isabel. Painting and European vacations to a cousin’s villa on the Isle of Capri and to Bucharest as a friend of the U.S. Ambassador to Romania came to a halt with World War II. Until felled by a heart attack late in the war, Gamble worked diligently as a draftsman for a war-related business in a Philadelphia suburb. A recurrence of tuberculosis, the curse of the Gamble family, sent him to a sanatorium in Allenwood, Pennsylvania for three years of institutional treatment. During his last decade he lived with his sister on Panama Street in Philadelphia. He died 29 December 1958.

His niece, Mary Isabel Voorhees Hickok, remembers Gamble with great fondness. He was handsome, charming, cosmopolitan, well-read, and versed in the arts, as well as gifted with a wonderful imagination. An excellent bridge player and golfer, he loved music and took pleasure in delighting his many friends and family with occasional verses and whimsical paintings. For Independence Day celebrations, she remembers, he ingeniously designed floats which routinely won first place, even though an afternoon breeze would often topple his entry into the lake. He was a member of St. Anthony’s Club and highly regarded by his fellow painters.

The charge of Gamble’s homosexuality requires a not-so-simple enquiry.

Gamble’s friendship with Hemingway looks suspicious: a two-week vacation in Taormina, Sicily, at Gamble’s expense, just before Hemingway shipped back home; an offer to cover Hemingway’s expenses if he’d stay over with him in Europe; invitations to vacation at the family’s summer home at Eagles Mere and, in 1921, in Italy for a Roman holiday. Add to this pattern of male friendship Agnes von Kurowsky’s remarks to Mary Hemingway that Hemingway “was very fascinating to older men. They all found him very interesting” (Kert 63). Include Hemingway’s claim that he’d been hit on by a Marsala-bearing, elderly Britisher: In an August 1918 letter to his mother, Hemingway identifies the fifty-year-old “man with beautiful manners and a great name” who “behaved perfectly” as “a Mr. Englefield, a brother to one of the Lords of the Admiralty” (Villard and Nagel 179). In a later letter to Charles Poore in 1953, Hemingway derides the same Englishman, who “got wet about wanting to see my wounds dressed…. I explained to him that I was not that way” (Donaldson 188; Mellow 70; Hemingway atAuction 170). Finally, factor in, as Jeffrey Meyers does, that “revealing passage in Death in the Afternoon” in which Hemingway allegedly expresses his “disillusion with a homosexual friend” (40): “The friend, who was a little older, he had met only recently, but theyhad become great friends and he had accepted his friend’s invitation to come abroad as his guest. His friend had plenty of money and he had none and their friendship had been a fine and beautiful one until tonight. Now everything in the world was ruined for him” (DIA 18o).

This “incriminating” pattern has deep flaws. Among the more flagrant may be that scholars never bothered to learn that Gamble had married, leading many to infer that he must have been gay. Even Griffin, who interviewed Gamble’s nephew, learned little more than that Gamble had affairs of the heart with “Main Line debutantes:’ presumably had “a long affair with a wealthy divorcee,” and “married one or more heiresses,” a statement whose imprecision confesses uncertainty (Along with Youth 76; True Gen 26). The suspicion that Gamble would not or could not bring his heterosexual relationships to a matrimonial conclusion seems to have led biographers and scholars to infer that Gamble’s sexual orientation was the barrier. And while some may wish to interpret Gamble’s Paris marriage as companionate, a social strategy to mask his homosexuality or bisexuality or both, the burden is on them to document a fact rather than a collective conjecture.

Worse still is Meyers’s flagrant imputation that the passage from Death in the Afternoon mentioned above refers exclusively to Gamble and that Hemingway’s disillusionment with Gamble’s overtures or attempts had “ruined” everything. To lead readers to his potentially libelous conclusion about Gamble, Meyers manipulated three sentences of a fictitious story (titled “There’s One in Every Town” in drafts of Death in the Afternoon) which Hemingway tells his interlocutor, the Old Lady. The story is about a witless newspaperman’s experience of being an auditory witness to the presumed and brutal conversion of a straight into a gay. Nothing in the story or its manuscript precursors links the seducing homosexual to Gamble.

Finally, the fact that Hemingway attracted older men of homosexual orientation is hardly sufficient as a basis for equating Gamble with them. After all, Hemingway attracted all kinds of people of all ages. That’s one consequence of being charismatic and, later, of being a celebrity. As for Agnes’s notion that a year with Gamble would have been ruinous, which some scholars take to mean would have “corrupted” him, her fear was that “he’d never be anything but a bum if he sponged off someone else” (Kert 63), not that he would become homosexual or bisexual. And” Hemingway’s claims about being hit on during his Milan convalescence by”aMr. Englefield, a brother to one of the Lords of the Admiralty,” lack corroboration: such “autobiographical facts” from a notorious raconteur deserve a cocked eyebrow rather than uncritical repetition. As Griffin declares in the interview Brian reports, the letters between Hemingway and Gamble disclose nothing to indicate that Gamble was homosexual: “The letters I’ve seen between the two of them do not indicate that in any way. They indicate a very warm intimate, male friendship” (26). Having read the same letters, I agree.

It’s clear to me that the dearest relationship of Jim Gamble’s life was the one he had with his older sister, whose homes during marriage and widowhood were always home to him as well. While it might be too much to say.that they doted on each other, her daughter, who lived with both of them during the 193os and half of the 1940s, never observed or detected anything that might be characterized as curious, unconventional, or “inappropriate” sexual behavior either by her uncle or her mother.

In a word, until some sleuth or scholar unearths factual evidence proving beyond doubt that Gamble was gay, biographers and scholars should stop perpetrating and perpetuating this canard. As for the Procters and Gambles of Cincinnati, they shouldn’t have to field any more inquiries about a kinsman’s relationship with Hemingway.


Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner’s, 1969.

Brian, Denis. The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him. New York: Grove, 1988.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. and C.E. Frazer Clark, Jr., comps. Hemingway at Auction 1930-1973 Detroit: Gale, 1973.

Donaldson, Scott. By Force of Will. New York: Viking, 1977.

Griffin, Peter. Hemingway, The Early Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Hemingway, Ernest. Death in theAfternoon. New York: Scribner’s, 1932.

. Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters, 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner’s, 1981.

Hickok, Mary Isabel Voorhees. Personal interviews. 25 and 26 May 1999. “James Gamble.” Obituary. Philadelphia Inquirer. 30 December 1958:12. Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983. Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Mellow, James R. Hemingway.-A Life without Consequences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. NewYork: Harper and Row, 1985.

Reynolds, Michael S. Hemingway’s First War. The Making of A Farewell to Arms. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.

The Young Hemingway. New York– Blackwell, 1986.

Villard, Henry Serrano and James Nagel. Hemingway in Love and War. The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, Her Letters, and Correspondence of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1989.


University of Montana

THE HEMINGWAY REVIEW, VOL. 20, NO. 1, FALL 2000. Copyright 2000 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Published by the University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho.

Copyright The Hemingway Review Fall 2000

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