WLD Ernest and Mrs. Hemingway-1694010862389
Hemingway with his wife Mary on Verandah of lake Victoria Hotel, Entebbe, January 30, 1954 after their rescue. Image Credit: AP file

Washington: The story leaped from the creased pages of the hotel stationery it was written on: a plane crash that left the author racked with third-degree burns and internal bleeding. It was written by Ernest Hemingway, and it hinted at a dramatic escape that would have been at home in any of the novelist’s war stories.

Hemingway was, in fact, describing a brush with death he experienced himself: an improbable sequence of two successive plane crashes that he survived in January 1954 while on a safari in East Africa.

The famed writer was temporarily stranded in the Ugandan forest and feared dead. Biographers later speculated that the injuries he sustained contributed to Hemingway’s erratic behavior in his final years and his death by suicide.

Interest in the dramatic episode of Hemingway’s life resurfaced last week when a Los Angeles auction house sold a four-page letter Hemingway wrote to his lawyer in 1954 as he recovered from the crashes.

The letter, which Hemingway signed “Ernie” and scribbled while his right arm still cramped from the burns, has now sold for $237,055, Nate D. Sanders Auctions has announced.

Hemingway, whose iconic works were informed by his gruelling, firsthand experiences of conflict as a Red Cross ambulance driver and a war correspondent, was no stranger to crisis. But he faced his greatest jeopardy on a hapless sightseeing trip. Hemingway had hired a small Cessna plane in 1954 for a sightseeing tour on a trip with his last wife, Mary Welsh, author Andrew Farah wrote in the 2017 book “Hemingway’s Brain.”

The couple had arranged to fly over the Murchison Falls in Uganda, according to Farah’s book. But as the plane dove to avoid a flock of birds near the falls, it struck a telegraph wire. The plane crashed, stranding Hemingway, Welsh and their pilot on the shore of the Nile River, where they spent the night.

The second crash

Welsh broke two ribs in the crash and Hemingway sprained his shoulder, Farah wrote, but they were able to flag down a passing boat the next morning and find passage to a nearby town. There, Hemingway and Welsh boarded a second plane to leave Uganda - and, incredibly, suffered their second crash. Shortly after the plane took off from a rocky field, it fell back to Earth and burst into flames.

Welsh and the plane’s other passengers escaped through a window, but Hemingway, too large to join them, was trapped inside the flaming fuselage, according to Farah. He eventually escaped by battering open a jammed door with his head. Hemingway suffered two fractured disks, burns across his head, face and arms, and a fractured skull, Farah wrote.

Hemingway’s letter, which the auction house said was written in April 1954 from a Venice hotel, appeared to show the writer in good spirits as he recovered from his injuries. He spent much of the correspondence to his lawyer discussing personal business, including payments to a collection agency regarding a purchase of hunting rifles.

But Hemingway also described his injuries in grisly detail. He apologized for not writing sooner - “I am weak from so much internal bleeding,” he said - and said he struggled to write or type due to injuries to his right arm, which was “burned to the bone 3rd degree and it would cramp up on me.”

“Mary had a big shock and her memory not too hot yet and it will take quite a time to sort things out,” he added.

Farah wrote in “Hemingway’s Brain” that the injuries the writer suffered in the two plane crashes added to a long list of physical traumas he’d endured, including from a mortar round in World War I and antitank gunfire in World War II, and played a key role in the depression and erratic behavior that marked his final years before he died by suicide in 1961.

But at the time, Hemingway was apparently amused when he emerged from his ill-fated safari to find newspapers prematurely declaring his death, according to a PBS documentary about the writer’s life. In the auctioned letter, Hemingway discussed his injuries and the money he owed to his creditors with a dry humor.

“I am more valuable to them alive than dead,” Hemingway wrote, “And at present am trying [to] stay alive.”