Is there anything important that hasn’t already been written about Ernest Hemingway’s life? A. E. Hotchner thinks so. At ninety-five, he’s decided it’s high time to fulfill his “fiduciary obligation to Ernest” by releasing material that was scrubbed – by lawyers and his own scruples — from Papa Hemingway, his fond memoir published in 1966, five years after his dear friend’s suicide. Hemingway in Love: His Own Story lays bare Hemingway’s “intimate revelations” about one of the most painful periods of his life, when he was torn up by “the harrowing experience of being in love with two women simultaneously.”
These regrets and reminiscences center on Hemingway’s enduring love for his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and his abiding remorse for having succumbed to the seductions of Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife. They were confided to Hotchner during the last years of Hemingway’s life, when, battered by two plane crashes in Africa in 1954 and repeated rounds of electroshock therapy for his suicidal depression, he feared he might not get around to writing about them himself. Hotchner withheld them from Papa Hemingway in part out of consideration for his friendship with Hemingway’s fourth wife and widow, Mary.
As Hemingway demonstrated in his second novel, A Farewell to Arms — written shortly after his divorce from Hadley and dedicated to Pauline — few things are more poignant than love cut short, whether by death or bad choices. Hotchner’s new addendum of a book is a lesson in the choices we rue, the clarity of hindsight, and the power of nostalgia. But most of all, Hemingway’s late-life confessions reveal a yearning for lost youth.
This is juicy material for book groups on several counts. Beyond questions about lifelong regrets and how nostalgia colors our memories, it offers a rich complement to A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s depiction of his Paris years with Hadley, and to Paula McLain’s fictionalized take on the relationship in her popular novel, The Paris Wife.
It also ties in nicely with Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars, an exhibit currently at the Morgan Library in New York. Among the letters and heavily edited manuscript pages on display is a romantic missive written during World War II to Mary Welsh, the woman who would soon become his last wife (a relationship which followed quickly on the heels of his disastrous short third marriage, to journalist Martha Gellhorn). Hemingway’s letter includes this gushing declaration: “I love you more than I have ever loved anything in the world or the world.” He concludes swooningly. “I love you too much to write more about it. It is a thing to do in bed, not on paper.”
This certainly provides an interesting counterpoint to Hotchner’s assertion that Hadley was “the only true love of his life,” never mind the oft-quoted line from A Moveable Feast in which Hemingway, describing his reunion with Hadley in Schruns, Austria — after a detour of several days with Pauline in Paris on his return from business in New York — wrote: “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Tender stuff, all right. But Hemingway’s regrets weren’t enough to make him renounce Pauline — even in response to Hadley’s no-nonsense ultimatum and repeated warnings from his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald that he was “being set up by a femme fatale.”
As in Papa Hemingway, Hotchner paints a vivid if unapologetically biased portrait of his swashbuckling partner in “adventures and misadventures.” He confesses, “I am by no means a dispassionate participant in the telling of Ernest’s story.” But although admiring, Hemingway in Love is no hagiography: Papa the male chauvinist comes through in his unabashed tales of how he escaped the tedium of Pauline’s family and the “squalation” of his newborn son by running off to fish and philander.
In an introduction to the 2004 edition of Papa Hemingway, Hotchner wrote, “Part of the mystique about Ernest stems from the manner in which he blurred the demarcation between fiction and fact. Fiction is a magnification of reality, he once observed, and when he told a story (and a splendid storyteller he was), it was hard to know whether it was fantasy laced with fact, fact seasoned with fiction, or pure fantasy.” Clearly, this presents a significant challenge to biographers and memoirists.
Hotchner’s response, then and now, is to avoid judging or questioning the veracity of his friend’s statements. In the preface to his new book, he writes that the memories Hemingway shared “are set forth as relayed to me, with no attempt on my part to correct or alter anything in his recall of people and even of the distant past; although in some instances Ernest may have romanticized or exaggerated or misplaced some things, I regarded these incidental blemishes as part and parcel of who he was.”
In other words, reader beware. Don’t expect Hotchner to question the timing of a conversation said to have taken place with Fitzgerald in Paris around the time the novelist was dying in Hollywood, or to flag the irony of Hemingway ordering bottle after bottle of wine in Venice’s grand Gritti Palace Hotel while railing about the rich as “a goddamn blight like the fungus that kills tomatoes.”
In relaying Hemingway’s everlasting regrets about “the self-inflicted pain of letting the only true love of his life slip away,” Pauline Pfeiffer comes across as a rich predator “who coveted Ernest and befriended Hadley as a means of infiltrating their lives and breaking up their marriage.” Mary, Hemingway’s literary executor, may have edited A Moveable Feast to downplay his love for his earlier wives, but the 2009 Restored Edition also has its biases. Edited and introduced by Hemingway’s offspring with Pauline — their grandson, Sean Hemingway, and son, Patrick – it skews toward the author’s irresistible attraction to Pauline and how happy he was with her.
To be sure, Hemingway accepts some responsibility for having “zigged when he should have zagged.” When Hadley gives him his walking papers, he tells Hotchner years later, “I had contrived this moment, but I felt like the victim.” Some fifteen years after his second marriage ended in 1940 and just a few years after Pauline’s death in 1951, he confides to Hotchner that Pauline “persisted herself into a narcotic, and though I hate to admit it, I became as attached to her as I was to Hadley.” It probably didn’t hurt that he could do no wrong in her eyes. “She had gone through hell to get me and she treated me like a prize from a box of Cracker Jack.”
Sex was, of course, part of it. In one of several intimate conversations with Fitzgerald that Hemingway recalls for Hotchner, he compares the two women in bed, contrasting Hadley’s sweet submissiveness with Pauline’s explosive demonstrativeness: “Me in charge of Hadley and Pauline in charge of me.” To which Fitzgerald purportedly replied, “the important thing is that you should be in charge of you.”
Much of Hemingway’s candid lament to Hotchner is unlikely to garner female sympathy: “I’ll tell you when I threw in the towel on Pauline . . . when she announced she was going to have another baby. The first one had made me bughouse and a second one, howling and spewing, would finish me off. And it nearly did.” He recalls admitting to Fitzgerald shortly before his second divorce, “I made a mistake with Pauline, that’s all. A goddamn fatal mistake. The troops retreated when they should have advanced . . . Her money corrupted both of us.” Like several of his reported conversations with Fitzgerald, this one strains credulity, not just for its questionable timing but its pat tone.
Hemingway in Love begins and ends with Hotchner’s last visit to the much-diminished husk of the man he calls his “deepest friend.” At sixty-one, Hemingway, in a locked room at St. Mary’s psychiatric hospital in Rochester, Minnesota — which he was convinced was bugged — felt wrecked and empty, in part from the brutal electroshock therapy he was undergoing for severe depression and what was thought to be paranoia. (Fifty years later, his FBI file, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that Hemingway had indeed been under surveillance since the 1940s.)
While Hemingway was off having tests, Hotchner read the manuscript of his sketch about losing Hadley, “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” (finally published in the restored edition of A Moveable Feast). His comment to his down-and-out compadre captures the warmth of their connection: “No man has ever loved a woman more or written about that love so tenderly. I only wish that one day I would meet a woman I would love that much.”
Hemingway, Hotchner reminds us, was released from the hospital two weeks later and succeeded in taking his own life a week after that. Fifty-four years later, it’s clear from this book that Hotchner still feels the loss. As for the rest of us, the drama of Hemingway’s wayward heart may be less personal, but — remarkably — it still retains some fascination.