In the opening pages of Ernest Hemingway’s groundbreaking work The Sun Also Rises, the main character is found sipping expensive brandy in the Parisian Café de Versailles. “I know a girl in Strasbourg who can show us the town,” he tells his drinking companions. “She been there two years and knows everything there is to know about the town. She’s a swell girl.”
What few readers down the years have known was that the girl of whom they were speaking was Crystal Ross, a Texan who accompanied Hemingway and other writers on an early trip to Pamplona, where most of the novel is set.
Crystal Ross sometime in the 1920s. In the middle of that decade, she became acquainted with writers John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway
Born in 1900 in Lockhart, near Austin, the daughter of a country doctor with a big library, Ross graduated from the University of Texas in 1919. She obtained a master’s degree in English at Columbia University in New York City and decided to pursue a doctorate in comparative literature at the university in Strasbourg, France. Few women at the time were so daring to travel overseas on their own to pursue a degree.
Upon completion of her degree she returned to Texas, took up a teaching post at Southern Methodist University, became a prominent social matron in Dallas, active in theater circles, and even wrote occasional articles for this newspaper.
During her time in France in the mid-1920s, she became acquainted with Hemingway and inspired the anonymous cameo appearance in his famous novel. Before embarking for Europe, Ross had been introduced to John Dos Passos, then a well-known and successful novelist. He was captivated by the prepossessing woman, who favored a cloche hat pulled down over her flapper hairdo.
In 1924, taking a break from her work on a thesis comparing the writers O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant, Ross caught up with Dos Passos in Paris, where she accepted his proposal of marriage. Soon after he brought his fiancée to meet Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, at La Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway and Dos Passos were close friends and Dos Passos was working assiduously to help launch Hemingway’s writing career. At the time, the 25-year-old writer was struggling to make ends meet. He was paying the bills by working as a stringer for a Canadian newspaper and drawing monthly remittances from his wife’s trust fund.
Crystal Ross when she was in France in the 1920s. While in Paris, she accepted a marriage proposal from John Dos Passos.
Ross found Hemingway to be hulking and handsome, but she was also struck by his manner of dress, from his canvas shoes to his Basque beret. “This fashion of dress is not an affectation,” Ross decided. “It is a naturalism.”
The group talked about Spain. Pamplona was the place to go, Hemingway said. On Gertrude Stein’s advice he had taken Hadley to the northern Spanish city the year before. With Dos Passos and Ross now convinced to come on the journey, Hemingway expanded his search for traveling companions and enlisted six others.
Dos Passos and Ross left first, taking the train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southern France. The small town, five miles north of the Spanish border, was the usual starting point for pilgrims walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago. Early the next morning, the pair set off on foot up to the Roncevaux Pass that crosses the Pyrenees into Spain.
Dos Passos, a veteran of many hikes across Spain, delighted in the ascent but blithely gave no consideration to Ross, who couldn’t maintain his pace, especially having made the rookie mistake of wearing new shoes. At last an amiable farmer came to her rescue and provided a donkey to carry her the remaining portion of the 18-mile hike to Burguete, across the border in Spain, where she recovered resting by a stream. (In the summer of 2016 my wife and I made the arduous climb up the pass and I grew very sympathetic to Ross’ plight.)
Crystal Ross with an unidentified group (probably in the Pyrenees) in the 1920s. In 1924, she, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, hiked through the rugged country to Pamplona, Spain.
Ernest and Hadley Hemingway showed up in Burguete the next day, and the four of them set off together for Pamplona. The entire group reached Pamplona in time for the Feria del Toro, a bullfighting event held each July as part of the city’s annual festival honoring its patron Saint Fermín.
An undated photo of author John Dos Passos.
The week was filled with bullfighting during the day and heavy drinking by night. While Hemingway wished Hadley had not come, Dos Passos found that Ross’ company preserved his sanity. “Between us,” he said, “we built ourselves a sort of private box from which we looked out at all these goings-on, in them but not of them.”
The bullfighting at an end, at least for that year in Pamplona, the group broke up. Ross grabbed a Paris-bound train. Dos Passos left Pamplona by foot with three companions for a 270-mile hike to Andorra before returning to New York and work on his manuscripts.
In 1925, Hemingway mounted another trip to Spain. Dos Passos was in the United States and Ross was on her way back to the U.S. So a different group gathered in Pamplona. But the intoxicating and adventurous spirit of the previous Pamplona trip was absent. “The Garden of Eden wasn’t the same,” said one of only two friends to make both trips. “Something had gone out of Pamplona.” The companions became mired in sexual intrigue, roiled with jealousy, and almost resorted to fisticuffs, all fueled by drunkenness.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
Not only was the gathering different from that of the previous summer, Hemingway the affable guide of 1924 seemed ill-tempered in 1925. Absent of the calming influence of Dos Passos and Ross, the group frequently triggered angry outbursts from Hemingway.
Ross was then miles away on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic, having completed her studies in France. Her father and brother came to New York City from Texas to meet her ship. She and Dos Passos managed to get together for some meals and even took in a play, escaping her father, who disapproved of her choice of suitor. But he needn’t have worried. Ross made it clear to Dos Passos that she was breaking off their engagement. She was going back to Texas to teach at Southern Methodist University. She loved Dos Passos but could not imagine a life as the wife of a novelist — she had her own ambitions.
Two years later Dos Passos came to Dallas and caught up with Ross. She was preparing an article for The Dallas Morning News that recounted their time with Hemingway in 1924 and reviewed The Sun Also Rises. The novel was a thinly veiled account of the 1925 Pamplona gathering, a roman à clef. By this time it was in its sixth printing.
Crystal Ross’ book review of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises appeared in The Dallas Morning News Jan. 16, 1927
“To say it quickly,” Ross wrote in her 1927 Dallas Morning News article, “Ernest Hemingway’s style is remarkable and exciting, and his book valuable; it is not so valuable as his style.” The story of lost Americans and Brits, drifting and drinking in Paris and Pamplona — in which she appears as the “girl in Strasbourg” — was not the point of the work, she perceptively told readers. “The things he writes about seem scarcely worth the care of his artistic energy. But what of it? The thing is perfectly done.”
American writers John Dos Passos (left), Theodore Dreiser and Samuel Ornitz in New York City on Nov. 12, 1931. (The Associated Press)
The suitor who had replaced Dos Passos’ place was Harvard-educated lawyer Lewis Meriwether Dabney Jr., the son of a prominent Dallas attorney. They married in 1927 after a wedding breakfast at the governor’s mansion. In 1936, the Dabneys left Dallas and moved to Washington, D.C., where Lewis had accepted employment in the federal government. Their two Dallas-born sons were raised in a home filled with books and tales of their mother’s literary adventures with two of the century’s most accomplished authors. The sons both grew to become noted literature professors.
There was no bitterness between Ross and Dos Passos after their failed romance. After his 1927 visit to Dallas, they parted as friends and remained in touch to the end of his life.
James McGrath Morris is the author of The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, which was recently released by Da Capo Press.