Ernest Hemingway, LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt once stated, “was the most difficult man I ever photographed.” Coming from someone who (as we’ve pointed out elsewhere on LIFE.com) made portraits of emperors, scientists, testy athletes, egomaniac actors, insecure actresses and once, famously, a glaring, homunculus-like Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, that bald assertion about Hemingway is striking, indeed.
Here, LIFE.com features one of Eisenstaedt’s photos from a famous, disastrous 1952 photo shoot in Cuba—a picture that, in light of Eisenstaedt’s memories, carries with it a hint of genuine menace.
In a 1992 interview published in John Loengard’s LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Eisenstaedt recalls that, when he went to Cuba in ’52 to photograph “Papa,” the writer was drunk “from morning till evening.”
The myth that has grown around Hemingway, and that Hemingway himself assiduously nurtured—that of the tough, hard-driving, hard-drinking, larger-than-life figure who hunts big game on the savannah, cheers toreadors, covers wars and always, always writes—endures because, deep down, that’s what so many of us want to believe the lives of our literary lions really looked like.
Far fewer of us, meanwhile, recall that a life lived on that scale, and at that pace, often peters out into a series of small, sordid scenes. When Hemingway killed himself in July 1961, blowing out his brains with, it is said, his favorite shotgun at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, he was a shadow of the man who reinvented American literature four decades before and who embodied a new American archetype—the macho novelist-adventurer—for most of his working life. He was 61 years old.