Between 19, he seemed to spend months posing beside up-ended fish trophies, the self-burnished image of the muscular man of action, handsome, tanned, drinking with the sailors in Sloppy Joe's bar.
He went to Spain during the civil war, not to fight, like George Orwell, but because he was commissioned to report on it for the North American Newspaper Alliance – and because his new love, Martha Gellhorn, was going there.
After the war he retired with his fourth wife to Cuba, where he fished for marlins and wrote The Old Man and the Sea, won the Nobel Prize, was lionised wherever he went – but was killed in an unfortunate firearm accident. In the years after his death, however, the jigsaw pieces of a counter-life gradually began to emerge. Hemingway was only 18 when he signed up for the First World War – but it was as a non-combatant.
When he was concussed in a car accident that followed a drunken party with Robert Capa the photographer, Martha Gellhorn – who'd travelled to England in a ship packed with high explosives – visited him in hospital and laughed at his footling mock-heroics.
As though stung into action, he headed for the war, joining the invasion fleet to Normandy and, later, General Patton's armoured divisions.
The idealised life of Ernest Hemingway, the one the writer himself wanted the world to buy, was simple: he was the perfect man, the perfect synthesis of brain and brawn.
Driven by a thirst for adventure, he was a swashbuckling, hard-drinking pugilist who loved being in the thick of the action, whether in the front line of battle or within charging distance of a water buffalo.
The story was splashed on the front page of all American newspapers. Successive biographers – AE Hochtner, Carlos Baker, KS Lynn, AJ Monnier, Anthony Burgess – have chewed over the available facts, his restless travelling, his many amours, the peaks and troughs of his writing career.
It took Mary Welsh Hemingway several months to admit that her husband's death was suicide; and it's taken nearly 50 years to piece together the reasons why this giant personality, this rumbustious man of action, this bullfighter, deep-sea fisherman, great white hunter, war hero, gunslinger and four-times-married, all-round tough guy, whom every red-blooded American male hero-worshipped, should do himself in. But eventually it took a psychiatrist from Houston, Texas, to hold up all the evidence to the light and announce his disturbing conclusions.Though his dalliance with Sister Agnew von Kurovsky was unconsummated, he fell in love with European culture and manners, swanned about in an Italian cloak, drank wine and affected a clipped delivery borrowed from a British officer, Eric Dorman-Smith.In Paris, where he enjoyed a temporary idyll with his first wife Hadley and their baby John (or "Bumby"), Hemingway started to make his name as a writer – but also to display dangerous mood swings, irascibility, spite and a compulsion to turn against those who helped him.Unable to participate directly in killing bulls, Hemingway decamped to Mombasa where he could legitimately blaze away at lions and kudu.Not content with land-based mayhem, he bought a 38-foot cruiser called the Pilar to fish, in Key West and Havana, for marlin and other aquatic creatures twice the size of himself.He looked the part of a hunky warrior, but he was a lucky dilettante, who could have left Spain any time he liked.