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« In Which Ernest Hemingway Is The Finest Quivering Sensitive of Our Time »

The Deep Waters of Ernest Hemingway


A more weird combination of quivering sensitiveness and preoccupation with violence never walked the earth.

- a friend of Ernest Hemingway's describing him at 20 years old

In his fiction Hemingway often wrote about women with remarkable understanding. He shared with Kipling a gift of varying his habitual masculine approach with unexpected and highly effective presentation of a female viewpoint. There have been all kind of speculations about a feminine, even a transvestite or transsexual streak in Hemingway, arising from his apparent obsession with hair, especially short hair in women, and attributed to the fact that his mother declined to dress him in boy's clothes and kept his hair uncut for an unusually long time.

What is clear, however, is that Hemingway found it difficult to form any kind of civilized relationship with a woman, at any rate for long, except one based on her complete subservience. The only female in his own family he liked was his younger sister Ursula, 'my lovely sister Ura' as he called her, because she adored him. He told a friend in 1950 that when he came back from the war in 1919, Ursula, then seventeen, 'always used to wait, sleeping, on the stairway of the third floor staircase to my room. She wanted to wake when I came in because she had been told it was bad for a man to drink alone. She would drink something light with me until I went to sleep and then she would sleep with me so I would not be lonely in the night. We always slept with the light on except she would sometimes turn it off if she saw I was asleep and stay awake and turn it on if she saw I was waking.'

This may have been an invention, reflecting Hemingway's idealized notion of how a woman should behave towards him; but, true or false, he was not going to find such submission in real, adult life.

As it happens, three out of his four wives were unusually servile by twentieth-century American standards, but that was not enough for him. He wanted variety, change, drama as well. His first wife, Hadley Richardson, was eight years older and quite well off; he lived off her money until his books began to sell in large quantities. She was an agreeable, accommodating woman, and attractive until she put on weight while pregnant with Hemingway's first child, Jack ('Bumby'), and failed to get it off afterwards. Hemingway had no scruples about fondling other women in her presence - as, for instance, the notorious Lady Twysden, born Dorothy Smurthwaite, who figures as Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, a Montparnasse flirt and the source of his row with Harold Loeb.

Hadley put up with this humiliation and later with Hemingway's affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, a sexy, slender girl, much richer than Hadley, whose father was one of the biggest landowners and grain-operators in Arkansas. Pauline fell heavily for Hemingway and in effect seduced him. The loving pair then persuaded Hadley to permit the setting up of a menage a trois - 'three breakfast trays', she wrote bitterly from Juan-les-Pins in 1926, 'three wet bathing suits on the line, three bicycles'.

When this did not content them, they pushed her out into a trial separation, then into a divorce. She accepted, writing to Hemingway: I took you for better, for worse (and meant it).' The settlement was generous on her part, and a delighted Hemingway wrote to her in fulsome terms : 'perhaps the luckiest thing Bumby will ever have is to have you as a mother . . . how I admire your straight thinking, your head, your heart and your very lovely hands and I pray God always that he will make up to you the very great hurt that I have done to you - who are the best and truest and loveliest person I have ever known.' There was a small element of sincerity in this letter in that Hemingway did think Hadley had behaved nobly. On this proposition he began, almost before he married Pauline, to erect a legend of Hadley's sanctity. Pauline, for her part, noted Hadley's unbusinesslike approach to the divorce and determined Hemingway would not be so lucky the next time.

ernest & pauline in key westShe used her money to make their life more ample, buying and embellishing a fine house in Key West, Florida, which introduced Hemingway to the deep-sea fishing he came to love. She gave him a son, Patrick, but when in 1931 she announced she was having another child (Gregory), the marriage went into decline. By now Hemingway had acquired his taste for Havana and there he took up with a strawberry blonde, Jane Mason, wife of the head of Pan-American Airways in Cuba,  fourteen years his junior. She was slim, pretty, hard-drinking, a first-class sportwoman who enjoyed hanging around with Hemingway's barroom chums, then driving sports cars at reckless speed.

She was in many ways an ideal Hemingway heroine, but she was also a depressive who could not handle her complicated life. She tried to commit suicide and succeeded in breaking her back, at which point Hemingway lost interest. In the meantime Pauline had taken desperate steps to win back her husband. Her father, she wrote to Hemingway, had just given her a vast sum of money - did he want some? 'Have no end of this filthy money . . . Just let me know and don't get another woman, your loving Pauline.'

She built him a swimming pool at Key West and wrote: 'I wish you were here sleeping in my bed and using my bathroom and drinking my whisky . . . Dear Papa please come home as soon as you can.' She went to a plastic surgeon: 'Am having large nose, imperfect lips, protruding ears and warts and moles all taken off before coming to Cuba'. She also dyed her dark hair gold-colour, which turned out disastrously.

But her trip to Cuba did not work, Hemingway called his boat after her but he would not take her out in it. He had issued a warning in To Have and Have Not: 'The better you treat a man and the more you show him you love him, the quicker he gets tired of you.' He meant it. Moreover, being a man who felt guilt but who responded by shifting it onto other people, he now held her responsible for breaking up his first marriage and therefore felt she deserved anything that was coming to her.

martha gellhornWhat came was Martha Gellhorn, a passionately keen reporter and writer, Bryn Mawr educated (like Hadley) and, as with most of Hemingway's women, from a secure, upper-middle-class Midwest background. She was tall, with spectacular long legs, a blue-eyed blonde, nearly ten years his junior. Hemingway first met her in Sloppy Joe's Bar, Key West, in December 1936, and the next year invited her to join him in Spain. She did so, and the experience was an eye-opener, not least because he greeted her with a lie : 'I knew you'd get here, Daughter, because I fixed it up so you could' - this was quite untrue, as she was aware. He also insisted on locking her room from the outside, 'so that no man could bother her'.

His own room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, she discovered, was in a disgusting mess: 'Ernest,' she wrote later, 'was extremely dirty . . . one of the most unfastidious men I have ever known.' Hemingway had inherited from his father a fondness for onion sandwiches, and in Spain delighted in making them from the powerful local variety, munching them with periodic swigs from his silver hip-flask of whisky, a memorable combination. Martha was inclined to be squeamish and it is unlikely she was ever in love with him physically. She always refused to have a child by him, and later adopted one (There's no need to have a child when you can buy one. That's what I did').

She married Hemingway primarily because he was a famous writer, something she was passionately keen to become herself: she hoped his literary charisma would rub off on her. But Pauline fought bitterly to keep her husband, and when she felt she was losing remembered Hadley's easy settlement and insisted on a tough one, which delayed the divorce.

By the time it was through Hemingway was already inclined to blame Martha for breaking up his marriage; friends testify to their blazing public rows at an early stage. Martha was easily the cleverest and most determined of his wives, and there was never any chance of the marriage lasting. For one thing, she objected strongly to his drinking and the brutality it engendered. When, at the end of 1942, she insisted on driving the car home because he had been drinking at a party, and they had an argument on the way, he slapped her with the back of his hand. She slowed down his much-prized Lincoln, drove it straight into a tree then left him in it.

Then there was the dirt: she objected strongly to the pack of fierce tomcats he kept in Cuba, which smelled fearfully and were allowed to march all over the dining table. While he was away in 1943 she had them castrated, and thereafter he would mutter fiercely: 'She cut my cats.' She corrected his French pronunciation, challenged his expertise on French wines, ridiculed his Crook Factory and hinted broadly that he ought to be closer to the fighting in Europe. He finally decided to go, cunningly arranging an assignment with Collier's, which had been employing her and now, to her fury, dropped her. She followed him to London nonetheless and found him, in 1944, living in his customary squalor at the Dorchester, empty whisky bottles rolling about under his bed.

From then on it was downhill all the way. Back in Cuba, he would wake her in the middle of the night when he came to bed after drinking : 'He woke me when I was trying to sleep to bully, snarl, mock - my crime really was to have been at war when he had not, but that was not how he put it. I was supposedly insane, I only wanted excitement and danger, I had no responsibility to anyone, I was selfish beyond belief. It never stopped and believe me it was fierce and ugly.'

He threatened: 'Going to get me somebody who wants to stick around with me and let me be the writer of the family.' He wrote an obscene poem, 'To Martha Gellhorn's Vagina', which he compared to the wrinkled neck of an old hot-water bottle, and which he read to any woman he could get into bed with him. He became, she complained, 'progressively more insane each year'. She was leading 'a slave's life with a brute for a slaveowner', and she walked out.

His son Gregory commented: 'He just tortured Marty, and when he had finally destroyed all her love for him and she had left him, he claimed she had deserted him.' They broke up at the end of 1944, and under Cuban law, since she had deserted, Hemingway kept all her property there. He said his marriage to her was 'the greatest mistake of my life' and in a long letter to Berenson, he listed her vices, accused her of adultery ('a rabbit'), said she had never seen a man die but had nonetheless made more money out of writing about atrocities than any woman since Harriet Beecher Stowe - all untrue.

Hemingway's fourth and final marriage endured to his death mainly because his protagonist this time, Mary Welsh, was determined to hang on whatever happened. She came from a different class to the earlier wives, a logger's daughter from Minnesota. She can have had no illusions about the man she was marrying, since right at the start of their relationship, at the Paris Ritz in February 1945, he got drunk, came across a photo of her Australian journalist husband, Noel Monks, hurled it down the lavatory, fired at it with his sub-machine-gun, smashed the entire apparatus and flooded the room.

Paul Johnson is the world's greatest living historian and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This excerpt is taken from his book Intellectuals which you can purchase here.

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Reader Comments (7)

dating ernest hemingway sounds like a delite

February 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterMolly

the man just loved a hot bang

February 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterAlex

Eat a dick Ernie.

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZoe

ooh i'm paul johnson. beware leftist intellectuals. their genius is negated by their human foibles. ooh.

March 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersteve

well written, and blatantly biased. it is like you formed a hypothesis and sought out the perfect material to prove it correct. if i knew nothing about his life, i'd probably have stopped after the first paragraph, but having researched him plenty, your misinformation was fascinating!

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