How Hemingway became a major shareholder in a venerable Italian publishing house.
Ernest Hemingway had a rough time with his Italian publisher, Einaudi, the venerable Turin-based house that still prints a good portion of his titles today. The issue, as is so often the case, was money: Einaudi, Hemingway complained, were communists looking for any excuse to withhold his overdue royalties. After 1947, he’d grown so exasperated that he refused to publish another book with them. So it’s all the more startling to discover that in the spring of 1955, he quietly agreed to convert a large part of his growing credit with the house into company stock, becoming a major shareholder overnight. Hemingway was usually very prudent with his money—and the chronically mismanaged Einaudi was hardly a safe investment. But having a stake in the publication of his own books, he hoped, would make it easier to get his hands on his growing pile of Italian cash.
As an author, Hemingway had gotten a late start in Italy. During the twenties and thirties, when the Anglophone world consecrated him as one of its brightest talents, he was persona non grata in the country. His blacklisting started as early as 1923, when Hemingway, still a young reporter for the Toronto Star, described Mussolini as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” In 1927, he wrote a few sardonic sketches on Fascist Italy for the New Republic. But it was the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, with its antimilitarism and its powerful description of the rout of the Italian Army after Caporetto, that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Mussolini regime—a reputation further sealed by his support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Thus Hemingway’s books were banned in Fascist Italy even as the works of other American writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, were brought into translation with success and acclaim. But as soon as Mussolini fell, in 1943, publishers scrambled to buy up the translation rights to his novels. The first Italian edition of The Sun Also Rises was published by a little-known company, Jandi Sapi, in the early summer of 1944, only weeks after General Mark Clark’s troops liberated Rome. A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Have and Have Not came out in quick succession with different houses the following year, immediately after the liberation of Northern Italy. The translations were hurried and the first editions sloppy; it was unclear which house owned which rights, if it owned any at all.
To sort things out, Hemingway gave his agents the go-ahead to sign several deals with Einaudi, a young, left-leaning literary house with a strong list of American authors. By early 1947, they’d secured the rights to The Sun Also Rises, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories, Green Hills of Africa, Death in the Afternoon, and To Have and Have Not, thus emerging triumphant in the postwar battle for Hemingway. But his two biggest titles, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, still eluded them.
Arnoldo Mondadori, who’d built his eponymous publishing house during Mussolini’s years, claimed those two books based on contracts signed in Switzerland during the war. In the spring of 1945, he wrote an unctuous letter to Hemingway, begging him in rudimentary English for the privilege of becoming his “sole publisher” in Italy. “I intended to diffuse your name, almost unknown to the Italian public, as largely as possible, because I know the moral and cultural advantage our readers would have had by coming in touch with your poetic world,” he wrote. He would’ve written sooner, he added, but he was prevented by “draconian fascist prohibitions.” Mondadori had been a card-carrying member of the Fascist Party.
Understandably, Hemingway didn’t want his work disseminated by a former Fascist—at least not in the spring of 1945, when most of Italy was still in ruins. He left Mondadori’s letter unanswered. Even so, a series of court rulings awarded Mondadori the rights for Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The line was now drawn: Einaudi and Mondadori were rivals as the world plunged into the Cold War.
Three years later, in September 1948, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, sailed to Europe. They’d planned to land at Cannes and cruise Provence, but a series of mechanical mishaps forced the ship to dock in Genoa. Hemingway hadn’t set foot in Italy in more than twenty years, and memories of his time as a volunteer at the front in 1918 came crowding back. He drove Mary to Stresa, on Lake Maggiore, where he’d spent time recuperating from his war wounds.
Stresa happened to be a mere half hour away from Meina, the small lakeshore town where Mondadori owned his family villa. The publisher, who was rebuilding his company after the war, was delighted to learn that Hemingway was in the vicinity and invited him for lunch. Much had changed in the years since he’d first attempted to woo the writer; the misgivings Hemingway had shown then had faded in new political climate. Now Mondadori, politically aligned with the West, was more attractive to Hemingway than Einaudi, increasingly bound to the Communist Party. Hemingway gladly accepted the invitation.
Mondadori, a stocky, energetic sixty-year-old with a big nose, goggle eyes, and wide-framed spectacles, gave Hemingway a backslapping welcome at the villa where Thomas Mann, Sinclair Lewis, and many others had been feted before the war. For the occasion, he summoned his two sons and two daughters, and their respective families. After drinks and a long lunch during which wine flowed generously, Hemingway succumbed to the warm embrace of the Mondadoris. He was pleased to learn that the Italian editions of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls had already generated royalties in excess of a million lire (sixteen hundred dollars). Mondadori gave him 400,000 lire in cash drawn from his royalties—roughly $650, which in 1948 was enough to live very well in Italy for many more weeks.
When Hemingway got back to Stresa, still basking in the afterglow of the pleasant day in Meina, he found Giulio Einaudi, the thirty-six-year-old founder and owner of the publishing house, waiting for him in the hotel lobby. Einaudi couldn’t have been more different in manner and pedigree from the swashbuckling Mondadori. He came from a wealthy landowning family; his father, Luigi Einaudi, was the newly elected President of the Republic. Brilliant, moody, slightly devious in his financial dealings with his authors, Einaudi presided over a company that had gained enormous influence and reputation in a little over a decade.
He’d brought along two of his talented young editors: Natalia Ginzburg, the stern thirty-two-year-old widow of Leone Ginzburg, a founder of Einaudi who’d been tortured to death by the Fascists; and the twenty-four-year-old Italo Calvino, who’d just published The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a brilliant debut novel about the resistance movement in the mountains of Liguria. Calvino, like many of his peers, grew up reading smuggled foreign editions of Hemingway’s novels and looked upon Hemingway as a god. But now attitudes were changing in literary circles, especially on the left, and Calvino, who had joined the Communist Party, had begun to take a more critical view.
Still, the meeting at Stresa was no time to critique Hemingway’s novels. Giulio Einaudi was hoping to part the writer from his much-rumored new novel; it would give him the upper hand in his war with Mondadori. But Hemingway had no new novel, and he’d just promised his next book to Mondadori. Anyway, when was Einaudi going pay him his royalties? The publisher brought up the problem of restrictive currency laws. But when Hemingway told him Mondadori had just given him 400,000 lire in cash, Einaudi reluctantly produced a check for 500,000 lire. Ms. Ginzburg left Stresa disgusted with Hemingway’s venality—even though the money was rightfully his.
Hemingway remained in Mondadori’s camp for the rest of his life, but Einaudi’s five titles continued to produce huge earnings. By the end of 1954, arrears had reached a staggering 9,394,244 lire and continued to grow at an increasing pace. Given his company’s dire finances, it was hard to imagine how Einaudi could ever honor the debt, even if he wanted to.
In 1955, the Board of Directors approved a capital injection of eighty million lire to save the firm. Ever the schemer, Giulio Einaudi suggested that Hemingway underwrite part of that sum using his credit with the company. The proposal was so far from anything Hemingway had ever done that it seemed doomed from the start; Einaudi only meant it as a gesture of goodwill, something to buy him a little time. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Hemingway agreed. Indeed, he offered to buy a whopping five million lire worth of stock. Most of the capital increase had already been underwritten, and there weren’t enough shares remaining to cover such a large sum. In the end, Einaudi management scraped together 3,200,000 lire in stock, and the certificate of ownership was duly deposited in Hemingway’s name at his bank, the Venice branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, in June 1956.
Hemingway hired an accountant to set up a payment plan with Einaudi, ensuring that he’d receive the rest of his accumulated royalties in monthly installments of 300,000 lire. In the end, he leveraged his position as shareholder well enough to claim a good portion of the money Einaudi owed him. But the shares turned out to be a poor investment: the company struggled financially, even as its literary reputation continued to grow. By 1958, Hemingway concluded his stock was worthless. He never sold his shares, and they languished at his bank in Venice until his death in 1961.
In the mideighties, after years of financial hardship, Einaudi was finally placed in receivership. But the prestige of the house was still such that in 1994 it found a buyer—none other than its old nemesis, Mondadori. At last, Hemingway had a sole publisher in Italy: both Mondadori and Einaudi were owned by Silvio Berlusconi.
Andrea di Robilant is a journalist and author based in Rome. His new book, about Hemingway in Italy, will be published in 2018 by Knopf.