Nobel Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, journalist, and adventurer Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. His sparse, understated writing style influenced generations of later writers.
Scott Donaldson is one of America’s leading literary biographers who authored eight books about 20th-century American writers, including Ernest Hemingway. He is the author of The Paris Husband: How It Really Was Between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, published in 2018 by Simply Charly.
Simply Charly: Your new book, The Paris Husband: How It Really Was Between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, recounts Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson. What prompted you to cover this oft-told tale?
Scott Donaldson: As you say, that marriage has formed the subject of at least two biographies: Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway by Alice Hunt Sokoloff (1973), and Hadley, later updated as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife (1992, 2011), by Gioia Diliberto. And, of course, it provided the background material for Paula McLain’s bestselling 2011 novel, The Paris Wife. These are important and useful books that tell the story well, at times brilliantly. But they all tell it from Hadley’s point of view, at times omitting to present a full account of what was going on in Ernest’s life and career during the crucially important years from 1920 to 1927, when he was struggling to establish himself as a young American writer living overseas. That’s the focus of The Paris Husband—that, and how he felt about his marriage falling apart as he was achieving success professionally.
SC: The pivotal event that marked the beginning of the end of that first marriage involved Hadley’s losing most of Ernest’s early work on her way from Paris to Lausanne in December 1922. That was when a thief stole a valise that contained poems, stories, sketches, and part of a novel from her train compartment at the Gare de Lyon. What happened and what exactly?
SD: This is a complicated story, with most of the complications resulting from outright inventions and falsities that Hemingway wrote about the lost valise and its contents. For example, with but one exception all Hemingway biographers have accepted Ernest’s claim that upon getting the bad news he immediately returned to Paris to see if any of his writing could be tracked down. This is untrue, and I’ve tried to set the record straight.
SC: Hemingway is not to be trusted as delivering the facts about his life, then?
SD: Well, no, and he repeatedly warned against regarding his written material, both fact and fiction, as gospel truth. His preface to A Moveable Feast, his memoir of the Paris years, explicitly tells readers to expect reordering or changes in what actually happened. It was not a simple matter of converting his own experience into stories or novels. He wrote some stories absolutely as they happened, invented others entirely, and no one, he maintained, could tell the difference.
SC: Hemingway’s first novel and arguably one of his best was The Sun Also Rises, written during his marriage to Hadley. How essential was she to the writing of this great work?
SD: No one believed more devotedly in Ernest’s ability and talent than Hadley, and her unstinting personal support, as well as financial aid from her trust fund, were indispensable to the amazing production of fiction he achieved during 1924-26, including The Sun Also Rises. When he ended the marriage in order to marry Pauline Pfeiffer, he dedicated the novel to Hadley and their son Bumby, signing over all royalties to Hadley. It was, he thought, the least he could do.
SC: How and why did the marriage end?
SD: Given the circumstances and family dynamics involved, it was almost inevitable. Ernest’s three closest siblings were all sisters—Marcelline, a year older and famously “twinned” with him by their mother, and then Ursula and Sunny, three and five years younger, respectively. The younger sisters admired him as bigger, bolder, and more assertive, and he coveted that kind of adoration all his life. Then too, Ernest felt that his mother, who chastised him for his pursuit of “gullable” young girls, played a domineering role in the family that ultimately led to his father’s suicide. Hadley came from a similarly dysfunctional family in St. Louis (her father also killed himself) and was almost eight years older than the 21-year-old Hemingway when they were married. She became both wife and sporting companion to Ernest, and also functioned to comfort and mother him, while fully aware that he required the admiration—and even the love—of others.
SC: Did Hadley understand that there would always be rivals when she decided to marry this handsome, charismatic young man?
SD: Yes. When she first met Ernest, Hadley knew that he had been seeing Katy Smith, and he made a point of letting her know about the other girls from northern Michigan he’d been courting. And not all of the rivals were women. Bill Smith, Katy’s brother, lobbied against the Ernest-Hadley marriage, and Jim Gamble, the Red Cross captain who bonded with Ernest after his wounding in WWI, nearly persuaded him to come to Rome for six months at the beginning of 1921, and so delay his wedding to Hadley.
SC: How important was Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse who cared for Hemingway in Milan as he recuperated from the wounds inflicted by an Austrian trench mortar?
SD: She was crucial. Tall, engaging, flirtatious, seven years older, and far more experienced than her patient, she and Ernest agreed to be married. He returned to his home in Oak Park after the war ended expecting her to follow. But she fell in love with an Italian officer and sent Ernest a devastating “Dear John” letter in March 1919. Arguably, the wound left by the jilting lasted longer than the hundreds of shell fragments removed from his legs.
SC: While researching your book, did you uncover any revealing or interesting facts about Hemingway? And what sources did you find most useful?
SD: The best new material comes from letters—those of Ernest and Hadley before they were married, and unavailable to previous biographers, and those to Ernest from the famous journalist and muckraker Lincoln Steffens—as well as from unpublished notes, drafts, sketches, and stories among the Hemingway papers at the John F. Kennedy library. It was Steffens, an early supporter of Hemingway’s work, to whom Ernest confided his still-passionate feelings about Agnes in December 1922, information I derived from an interview with Steffens’ widow in London fifty years later.
SC: Hemingway went to Paris as a foreign correspondent, with a contract to write features for the Toronto newspapers. How did that work out for him, and for Hadley?
SD: It was a dream job for the young American, learning on the run while covering international meetings in Genoa and Constantinople and Lausanne alongside veteran newsmen like Steffens and the brilliant William Bolitho Ryall. But it did not pay very well, and Hemingway arranged on the side to contribute material to the International News Service under an assumed name, clearly an example of double dipping and a violation of his contract. Hadley strongly disapproved of this behavior, and it resulted in a painful marital argument. Hemingway gave up journalism to write fiction at the end of 1923, heeding advice from Gertrude Stein that he needed to abandon newspaper writing to advance his career.
SC: In what way did established figures like these shape Hemingway’s career?
SD: Collectively they helped provide him with the education he needed. Ernest’s formal schooling ended at Oak Park and River Forest High school, but he was a fast learner, guided in his understanding of politics and power by newsmen, and of writing and the publishing world by writers like Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
SC: And there must have been others too, among the many expatriates drawn to Paris in the 1920s, who had a tremendous effect on Ernest and Hadley.
SD: Certainly, and among them sophisticated women of the world who proved dangerous to the Hemingway’s marriage. I’m thinking of Duff Twysden, the expatriated Brit and serial adulteress who served as the model for Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. Ernest was seriously attracted to her and relied on her for inside instruction on the conduct of extramarital affairs. Then Pauline Pfeiffer came into the picture, befriending Hadley while carrying on an affair with Ernest that, in the end, led to his divorce and their marriage. Pauline, like Hadley and Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, had close connections to St. Louis, where she went to school. But she could hardly have been more different from Hadley; Pauline was a professional writer for Vogue in Paris, stylish where Hadley was somewhat dowdy, quick of wit where Hadley was not, petite to Hadley’s more ample figure. She was also much better off financially, as the daughter of a cotton-framing landowner and niece of her doting Uncle Gus, who ran a flourishing cosmetics business.
SC: How is it possible, a century later, to detail the Pauline-Ernest love affair and his subsequent divorce?
SD: Hemingway wrote about it in unpublished story fragments, and—most notably—in A Moveable Feast. Letters between the lovers, between husband and wife, and from Ernest to others further document the story.
SC: How accurate is the Moveable Feast account?
SD: It’s hard to say, for sure, but there is no entirely reliable information in either of the two versions of that memoir. Nearing the end of his life, Hemingway was unable to finish A Moveable Feast, and what we have are books edited and revised by his widow Mary (1964) and by his grandson Sean Hemingway (2009). In both of these books, Ernest portrays himself as a victim of “the rich,” including the American expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy and Pauline herself, who “uses the oldest trick there is” by becoming Hadley’s “temporary best friend” and then “unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly [setting] out to marry [her] husband.” In this passage, reprinted in both printed versions of his memoir, Ernest effectively absolves himself of any blame for the divorce. Yet in his correspondence at the time, he excoriates himself as a “son of a bitch” entirely responsible for the breakup. And in passages omitted by both Mary and Sean, he acknowledges his own guilt, expresses remorse for his actions, and presents a much fairer and more sympathetic view both of the Murphys and of Pauline. It was his “fault of character” that led more than once to deception, lying, and adultery, hence making sure that his second marriage also “turned out badly.” Moreover, in another passage left out of A Moveable Feast as published, he wrote that after Hadley married newspaperman Paul Mowrer, “I was happy and without any remorse and I never worked better and I loved the girl [his wife Pauline] truly and she loved me truly and well and we had as good a life together for many years as Paris had been.” Undoubtedly, Hemingway’s reputation has suffered from the editing decisions of his widow and grandson, for in the deleted sections he transforms himself from an unpersuasive melodramatic victim to a complex human being capable of understanding both himself and others.
SC: Many believe that Hadley was Ernest’s greatest love. As he declares in A Moveable Feast, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” What is your verdict?
SD: I think that Hadley was the love of Ernest’s life and that he played the same role in hers. He never lost touch with her and repeatedly wrote for her sympathy and support when in personal distress. For her part, Hadley refused to criticize him, not even for leaving her for a richer woman. Hadn’t he treated her shabbily? Hemingway’s first biographer, Carlos Baker, asked her. No, she answered. “It came to an end, that’s all.” Nor would she condemn Pauline for stealing her husband. As Hadley saw it, Pauline was “madly in love” with Ernest and couldn’t help herself. Toward the end, Ernest suffered from alcoholism, depression, and paranoia, and found it almost impossible to complete any piece of writing he started: he kept adding more and more material while striving for the truth of fictionalized fact. There’s this tender and troubled reminiscence in his African Journal, drastically cut and posthumously published by Sports Illustrated in 1971. One night Ernest lay asleep and dreaming.
The wife I had loved first and best and who was the mother
of my oldest son was with me and we were sleeping close together
to keep warm and because that is the best way to sleep if both
people love each other and it is a cold night… when I woke I
wondered about how many true loves to which you were faithful,
until you were unfaithful, a man could have….
Six months before his suicide, Ernest called Hadley to see if she could help him remember details about their Paris years, for his memory, once a “rat-trap,” was now failing. Hadley helped as best she could, but knew that Ernest was no longer the man she never stopped loving. She hung up and burst into tears. They’d never fallen out of love, she told her niece years later. They simply couldn’t live together.