Born on October 23rd, 1904, Evan Biddle Shipman was the middle child of Ellen McGowan Biddle Shipman, a landscape architect, and Louis Evan Shipman, a successful playwright, editor, and essayist. Shipman grew up in the small, quiet town of Plainfield in Sullivan County, New Hampshire. Growing up in a rural atmosphere, Shipman was surrounded by vast swaths of land, teeming with animals, especially horses. This kindled his interest in horses, which his fans would, later on, consider “The greatest writer of thoroughbred racing this continent has ever produced.” He was born into a wealthy family as both of his parents were renowned professionals in their careers. This allowed him to pursue his early equestrian interests, which would develop into one of his greatest passions later on, along with writing prose.
After graduating from Oak Park-River Forest High School in June 1917, Shipman became a reporter months later. He also enrolled in Groton School, Massachusetts, and Sailsbury, Connecticut schools, but finished at neither. At Groton, he was noted as an “omnivorous reader.” However, the New England county fair horse racing scene was too tempting for Shipman and he headed for a new chapter of his life in Europe, where he graduated from the University of Louvain in Belgium and earned his Graduate Degree at The Sorbonne in France.
After university, Shipman went back to America, this time settling in 19 Beckman Place, New York City. However, Shipman headed back to Paris from New York in 1924 to reunite with his father. He had a strong relationship with his father, but a strained one with his mother, so it was important for him to stay connected with his father. His father, Louis, was in Paris with him and they often traveled together between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Shipman had a passion for writing, in part, this can be credited to his father, a renowned playwright.
Writing poems was always a passion for Shipman since it came to him naturally, so he always jumped at the opportunity of getting his work published. In Paris, he was on the hunt for an American named Gotham Munson. Munson was an editor for a small magazine and Shipman hoped he could share his poetry with Munson. However, when he arrived at Munson’s address, he was greeted by Ernest Hemingway instead. Munson had moved back to America and Hemingway now lived on the second floor above the sawmill at 113 Rue Notre Dame des Champs (address from a letter to Hemingway from Shipman, 29 October 1949). The two hit off instantaneously and their personalities automatically clicked. They then proceeded to spend hours talking openly. This accidental encounter paved the way for a formative friendship with one of the greatest American novelists of all time.
Hemingway then introduced Shipman to Gertrude Stein, who introduced him to Andre Masson, a penniless young painter with promise. Hemingway, Shipman, and Masson became close friends and formed a close circle of expatriate Americans in Paris during the 1920s. Stein called them “a lost generation.” In Paris, Shipman was allowed free thought and liberal actions, where in America he could not. Often, in salons where art and literature were spread, alcohol was on the menu. It stimulated creativity and communication among many artists, similar to the Demimondes in Montmartre, France in the mid-19 century. This led to Shipman’s heavy drinking habits, often accompanied by fellow friends, usually Hemingway.
During this time, Shipman was also dedicated to his writing, publishing poetry in a variety of magazines, including Transition, Scribner’s, The Republic and the Nation, and later in The New Yorker and Esquire. His prose mainly reflected his passion for horse racing and in 1935, Scribner published his novel Free For All, which was about the horse harness sport. His first novel was praised by critics but unfortunately sold poorly. Shipman was an expert on harness breeding and frequently drove horses in workouts. His daily schedule usually included attending a thoroughbred track in the afternoon and a trotting track at night.
When Shipman returned to the states, he married Elizabeth Gerwig of Pittsburgh. However, the marriage did not last long as the couple drank heavily. The final straw was Elizabeth’s emotional issues, which led to her confinement in a mental hospital. Shipman wrote a poem “Mazeppa,” most likely attributed to Gerwig, where he illustrates women as flowers, whose sweet voices turn to the harsh and shrill complaining of strumpets.
To escape his marital problems, Shipman returned to Paris in 1937 at Hemingway’s request. Shipman volunteered to help Hemingway by delivering three ambulances through France into Spain for the Republican Forces fighting Franco. After successfully delivering the ambulances, Shipman returned to France, where he agreed to lead American volunteers for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade back to Spain. Convinced by Hemingway and in a time of conflict after his failed marriage, Shipman agreed to contribute to something bigger than himself.
Through a period of heavy restriction on entry into Spain, Shipman had to lead his men through the precipitous Pyrenees Mountains, where many met their downfall. In an attempt to cross the dangerous, rocky terrain of the mountains at night, the group led by Shipman was discovered and arrested by French border guards. They were immediately jailed for six weeks at Toulouse. However, this didn’t stop Shipman and he quickly returned to Spain after his stint in jail.
In May 1937, Shipman arrived in Spain to fight with the Loyalists side in the Spanish Civil War and served in XV Brigade, Washington Battalion, and Lincoln-Washington Battalion until July 18th, 1937. Shipman enlisted as an infantryman and showed immense courage on the battlefield. He still kept in touch with his good friend Hemingway, who described him as “pale, ragged, limping and profoundly cheerful,” even after several months of battling. Shipman often visited Hemingway during his free time, visiting him at his home in Cuba.
Shipman fought courageously during the Battle of Jarama and Battle of Brunete. However, on July 17th, 1937, while fighting at the Brunete, Shipman was hit in both thighs by machine-gun bullets from a strafing plane. Despite the injuries, Shipman claims he never felt a thing during the incident since he was unconscious. However, due to Shipman’s injuries from the aerial bombardment, he was sent to recover in Madrid, where he spent 4-5 days convalescing, but then transferred to Murcia in August 1937, where he stayed until January 15th, 1938. The injury would stay with Shipman forever as he carried shrapnel fragments in his leg for the rest of his life.
After sustaining this injury, Shipman couldn’t return to the battlefield immediately, so he contributed in other ways. He worked as an interpreter for the Quartermasters and as a Hospital Commissar and in mid-January. He was also sent to Madrid, where he wrote video scripts for the Voice of Spain. In Spring 1938, he was sent to Barcelona as editor of the Volunteer of Liberty, and later in May, Shipman was discharged and repatriated back to America. The journey back was difficult as Shipman was arrested once again by the French Guarde Mobile for an illegal border crossing into France. Due to Shipman’s likable nature, the French officers bought Shipman cognac and tobacco out of their own money and didn’t handcuff him as usual. Eventually, Shipman avoided the charges by leaving France for America.
After participating in the Spanish Civil War and contributing greatly to the Republican side, Shipman returned to America on June 21st, 1938, where he immediately hustled his way back to writing. He became a columnist for New York’s Morning Telegraph, a renowned newspaper covering professional sports. However, Shipman’s calling sent him on a different path, when he then enlisted in World War II, where he was a correspondent. He was also sergeant major of the Sixteenth Armored Division’s Sixteenth Regiment and was with the 787th Tank Battalion.
After World War II, Shipman became more invested in his writing and was highly regarded as a horse-racing columnist and writer. Due to his keen observation and technical knowledge of horseracing, he was extremely important in the horseracing industry. He was later made a featured columnist of the Morning Telegraph, free to write whatever he wanted.
By the time Shipman was 50, he was considered “a fine ruin of a man,” but this didn’t prevent him from continuing his passion in the horse racing tracks. To this day, there is a horse race named after Shipman called the Evan Shipman Handicap (NYB).
Shipman’s health eventually deteriorated and he died of cancer in 1957 in New York Hospital. He was then buried in his family cemetery in Plainfield, New Hampshire. Though Shipman died at 53, the impact the Spanish Civil War had on him was life-changing and one that he never forgot. Writing to his friend Hemingway, who he managed to stay tight with even through a long-distance relationship, he described himself as “in a bad state in many ways, both discouraged and confounded,” before the war but by the time he journeyed home, though, he was a different man. “After such a long time, I feel a real eagerness for work. Again I have confidence in myself.”
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