The Perils of Being a Hemingway Wife

To understand the great novelist we should look to the complicated relationships he had with his four wives argues a new book. Nico Hines on fresh revelations about the bad behavior, gushing love notes, and high drama of America’s literary king.

Getty, Wikimedia Commons

Across three divorces, several continents, and countless martinis, Ernest Hemingway was never without a woman during his 40-year writing career. For a man whose violent tempers and big game hunting built a towering cult of masculinity, Hemingway was never far from the comfort of a wife, or a mistress, or both.

After more than half a century in the shadow of a literary titan, his four wives have been propelled into the foreground by a new book that examines the Mrs. Hemingways. Naomi Wood has uncovered a fresh perspective on the author after three years scouring the archives in Boston, Washington, and London for love letters, broken promises and faded photographs that might explain the waxing and waning of four great loves.

“Enough ink has been spilled on his angle,” Wood said. “There’s such a lot that has been written on Hemingway; the life; the man; the work. It was much more interesting to take it from the wives’ perspective.” One of her most extraordinary discoveries was a letter sent from Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, to her husband in May 1926. In it, she suggests they invite his mistress to spend the summer with them and their young son on the Côte d’Azur, in the South of France. “It would be a swell joke on tout-le-monde if you & Fife & I spent the summer at Juan-les-Pins,” she wrote. She didn’t need to ask him twice.

That letter was a revelation for Wood. “It was a real moment for me; I wanted to write this story because I’m fascinated by a character who would do that,” she said. “It was a completely head-turning experience: loving wife invites rapacious mistress on holiday with her and her husband. Why?”

The book, Mrs. Hemingway, opens in the midst of that hellish vacation on the French Riviera:

Everything, now, is done à trois. Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evening. There are always three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits, three sets of cards left folded on the table when the game, abruptly and without explanation, ends.

There follows a gripping fictionalized account of Hemingway’s life as seen, as experienced, by four women whose intertwined lives orbited the Nobel prize-winning novelist. The gradual replacement of Hadley by her successor, and former best friend, began in roaring ‘20s Paris where they all lived. Pauline Pfeiffer, known as Fife, would come to be seen as the “devil in Dior,” who destroyed the purity of Hemingway’s first marriage, not least by the author himself, who painted a damning picture of his second wife in his late-era work A Moveable Feast.

Yet the same fate awaited Fife a decade later. Hemingway’s next mistress, a young writer called Martha Gellhorn, stayed with them for a couple of weeks in Key West. Afterwards Gellhorn wrote to “Pauline cutie” to express her gratitude: “You are a fine girl and it was good of you not to mind my becoming a fixture, like a kudu head, in your home,” she wrote.

There is no record of a letter in response and Wood’s imagines what might have been going through Fife’s head.

She had never enjoyed the sight of a kudu head again: those spiraling antlers reminding her of Miss Martha Gellhorn: writer, war correspondent, husband snatcher.

If only it might be Martha’s head that could be displayed on a spike.

With Hemingway and Gellhorn both in Europe to cover the Spanish Civil War, Fife was left stewing in Florida, fully aware of Hemingway’s appetite for new love.

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“I think it was important to show that she wasn’t in a state of adolescent crush the whole time, she was aware that he was being a shit,” said Wood. “I don’t want to dress up my enterprise but it felt quite important to kind of give her a riposte after A Moveable Feast, to make Fife more sympathetic because she’s been so maligned in so many accounts. She was the one I have the most sympathy for.”

In a maudlin letter from Fife to Hemingway, she wrote “the heart of another is a dark forest,” a phrase Gellhorn stole as the title for a collection of her short stories. The letters between Hemingway and his wives intrigued Wood from the start. “He’s got such a different epistolary style to his fiction, his fiction has this tough taciturnity, it’s very masculine, and then the letters are just delicious. Complete nonsense and baby-talk and loving and incredibly caring and sentimental and full of little epithets like ‘little wax kitten’, and ‘small mountain’ and ‘picklepot’. It was so interesting to show him as a husband rather than a big game hunter or a deep sea fisherman,” she said.

Wood calculated that Hemingway was unwed for just 7 and a half months in 40 years. “He was single for zero days. Not a day went by that he didn't have the succor of wifely comradeship even if they were his mistress,” she said.

Hemingway’s duality was a constant threat to all of his relationships. “When he was charming he was lovely but when he was drunk he was vile,” Wood said. “There were two modes of being with him, I think it was seduction on the one hand and bewilderment on the other.”

Gellhorn, who became Hemingway’s third wife in 1940, soon discovered both sides of the paradox. Wood said: “I was trying to show those two different sides of the picture. You had to show how they fell in love with him, how he seduced them, in order to put into relief when it went wrong because it must have felt very right at some point. Because of his very peculiar, mercurial volatility he would say to Martha ‘I love you, rabbit’ and then hours later say: ‘They’ll be reading my stuff long after the worms have finished with you.’”

The relationship with Hemingway’s final wife, Mary Welsh, started just before Gellhorn decided to ditch him. Once again, the new wife had been lined up in advance. Mary would suffer the final years with Hemingway as his moods spiraled and eventually he shot himself.

Another of Wood’s startling finds amongst the archives was a handwritten note from Mary, among the Mary Welsh papers at Yale University, which has not previously been published.

You are drunk When you are drunk you are a bore I love you very much And now is the time to stop.

Below her plea were the letters EH, where she had apparently encouraged him to sign up in a failed attempt to end his alcoholism.

After spending so much time with the intimate letters and notes that chronicled Hemingway’s closest relationships, Wood’s view of Hemingway has changed. “I feel more sympathetic to him. There was a kind of feminist disowning of Hemingway, because of a casual misogyny or because sometimes his characters come off as flat, rather fantastical, ideas of what he thought a woman should be,” she said. “I was aware of that and as I progressed and as I finished the research and you learn about the depression, the black-ass moods, ‘the horrors,’ as he called it, the electroshock therapy, that wasn’t working, the paranoia about the FBI following him, blood pressure, failing eyesight, overweight, alcoholism, he puts a shot gun in his mouth and kills himself. It’s almost like King Lear complex that he commits all these sins but in the end is a huge victim. Perhaps he is a bigger victim than all the wives.”

Mrs. Hemingway is published by Picador in the U.K.