Scott Fitzgerald once described Hemingway as having the quality of a stick that’s been hardened in a fire. Of course, if left in the fire too long, the stick will crumble. The last four years of Hemingway’s life were certainly his least content and his most stressful, and easily the most difficult for Mary as well. He was crumbling. But there was still the international travel, the writing, the quasi-employees hanging on, and very little peace of mind. And all the while the restless mind still propelled the body, sometimes purposefully, sometimes in anxious circles.
In 1956 he was off to Spain, crossing on the Ile de France again and drinking far too much. When friends brought their concerns to Mary, she responded, “What can I do? He didn’t marry a policeman. It’s better if I let him alone.” She knew instinctively (or at least by this point in their marriage) that exorcising a devil was much more difficult than living with one. Nagging or not, he did what he chose—why stir up more trouble? In order to survive as the last Mrs. Hemingway, she accepted her role as the quiet enabler—and the more Ernest incapacitated himself, the more he needed her. The flask he was carrying, full of “splendidly aged Calvados,” was engraved “From Mary with Love.”
Not long after arriving in Spain, Ernest paid a visit to a writer he had always admired—the Basque novelist Pío Baroja y Nessi. He owned seven of Baroja’s novels and believed the 1954 Nobel Prize had been awarded to the wrong man. He told him as much when he visited his deathbed: “I am convinced that you deserve the Nobel Prize much more than many writers who won it—myself first of all, for I am more or less just another of your disciples.” Hemingway brought the dying man a bottle of Scotch, as well as some socks and a sweater, both made of cashmere. He also gave him an inscribed copy of The Sun Also Rises. When Baroja died, three weeks later, Hemingway followed the funeral procession through the flower-lined streets—it was October 30, and the flower sellers were readying for All Souls Day.