“The Paris Husband: How It Really Was Between Ernest & Hadley Hemingway”
Author: Scott Donaldson
Publisher: Simply Charlie
Ernest Hemingway lived in Italy, in France, in Key West and in Cuba, was a prodigious drinker, loved hunting birds and big game, went to WWI as an ambulance driver and The Spanish Civil War and WWII as a correspondent. As a young man, he loved fishing for trout and later, in the Gulf, for marlin. It was undeniably an exciting life.
Along the way, Hemingway had four wives. This is not Henry VIII territory, but still aroused a lot of negative attention.
There are numerous studies of Ernest’s life and many books about his wives.
People naturally asked “What was it like to be married to Ernest?” The implication here is “was it awful?”
In 1976, Mary Hemingway, wife number 4 and Hemingway’s widow, answered the question at length in her autobiography “The Way It Was.”
Pauline Phifer, wife number 2, “stole” Hemingway from his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Pauline became Hadley’s best friend, infiltrated their household, pursued and seduced Ernest.
Hadley was unable to stop her.
Granted, Ernest was complicit, not exactly a victim.
Martha Gellhorn “stole” Ernest from Pauline, after a chance meeting in Key West, where she was vacationing with her mother and brother.
She then left him alone later when she went off to cover the war in Europe.
Martha needs no sympathy and Pauline generally gets little sympathy: those who live by the sword, die by the sword.
The wife who arouses the most interest and sympathy is Hadley, even more since the publication of “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain.
That fictional account set in motion a whole subgenre of books focusing on the hitherto ignored wives and companions of famous men.
Now biographer Scott Donaldson has responded with a factual account of the relationship between Ernest and Hadley, evoking both McLain with his title “The Paris Husband” and Mary in his subtitle “How it Really Was Between Ernest & Hadley Hemingway.”
Many reporters and biographers, one suspects wishing for tales of bitterness and betrayal, asked Hadley directly about her marriage and divorce. She replied steadily that “she had no regrets whatsoever, not for their magical years as husband and wife, not even for the divorce.” She said “Ernest and I never fell out of love with each another, but we couldn’t live together.”
After the divorce, Hadley moved on, married journalist Paul Mowrer and they lived happily for decades.
Hadley had been a shy girl, raised in St. Louis in a constraining family, educated in a convent, not sexy or beautiful, unsure of herself. Then she and Ernest lived in Paris, vacationed in Austria and Italy, came to known the most glamorous artists of their day, and had a beautiful son together.
Ernest, who was the guilty spouse, was the one torn up with remorse, guilt, regret.
He knew all his life that Hadley was “the most admirable woman who ever came into his life and he deeply regretted his disloyalty to her.”
Why then did he leave her? What in his make-up, besides a character flaw, caused his infidelity? Donaldson explores possible reasons why, not excuses, but reasonable psychological explanations for what many deemed inexcusable behavior.
To begin with, Hemingway was movie-star handsome and loved being admired and pursued by women, preferably more than one at a time.
In Milan, moreover, in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he had fallen thoroughly in love with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky and felt them to be engaged. She jilted him, broke his heart.
Did he vow never again to give himself completely?
In 1922 in Paris, when the valise of all his writings was stolen from Hadley in the Gare de Lyon, when she left the valise unattended while she went to buy a sandwich, was Ernest ever able to forgive her, or more subtly, did this give him an excuse, a rationalization for infidelity?
Hemingway, like most of us I guess, tended to blame others for his mistakes. In “A Moveable Feast” he blamed his rich friends, like the Murphys, who he claimed, encouraged his bad behavior. But in an unpublished passage he admits “How could they know it was wrong?”: “they had never known all the circumstances.” “It was not their fault.”
Ernest knew, it was HIS fault.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.