All the Lessons Learned from Marrying Ernest Hemingway

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Between each of Hemingway’s four wives, whom he married over four decades, the author spent roughly seven and a half months single. I should probably say unwed rather than single – since he’d always lined up a mistress to take his wife’s place. In which case, the number of days he spent alone between wives was a big round zero.

How was it that macho Ernest Hemingway – game-hunter, explorer, writer, boxer, soldier, bullfighter – couldn’t spend a night on his own?

Perhaps it was the particular lure of each woman. In the biographies, Hadley, his first wife, is always characterised by her softness, warmth, energy and charm. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway gives us a lovely portrait of their life together in 1920s Paris: “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” Elegant simplicity indeed.

Hadley’s letters from the time show her enormous love for Ernest as well as her firm belief in his nascent writing talent: “I’m… so violently for you as a person and a writer and a lover I can’t put it down on paper,” she wrote to him. Her letters are so supportive that occasionally they head toward self-effacement; it is almost always Ernest’s needs and desires that are put ahead of her own.

Perhaps the lesson we might learn from Hadley is vigilance – and also the importance of backbone. Her biographers characterise her as strangely passive, as Pauline Pfeiffer (mistress no.1 and wife no.2) encroached upon the scene. Pauline wrote to Hadley: “I feel like he should be warned that I’m going to cling to him like a millstone and old moss and winter ivy.” Letters like these were not uncommon from Pauline – and they often sang with yearning, as well as that sense of entitlement. It should have given Hadley the creeps.

Instead, even while Hadley knew they were conducting their private affair, she invited Pauline Pfeiffer on holiday with them: “I told her she could stop by here if she wants – it would be a swell joke on tout le monde if you + Fife + I spent the summer at Juan-Les-Pins…” Swell joke indeed. No one was laughing that summer, a summer Zelda Fitzgerald described as “a carnival of impending disaster.” In A Moveable Feast, Ernest exonerates himself for the ménage-a-trois of Pauline, Hadley and him, writing: “To truly love two women at the same time, truly love them, is the most destructive and terrible thing that can happen to a man.” Worse for the women, I’d say.

Pauline and Ernest were married in 1927. She described the years spent with Ernest, and their two sons Patrick and Gregory, as ones of “unbelievable happiness”. But in following Ernest around the world, to the bullfights, to safaris in Africa, trying to keep him satisfied, she ignored her husband’s own advice from his novel To Have and Have Not: “The better you treat a man and the more you show you love him, the quicker he gets tired of you.” Lesson number two perhaps comes from Ernest not Pauline; but it’s too depressing to linger on too much.

Almost a decade on from their marriage in Paris, Ernest met Martha Gellhorn in a sleazy bar called Sloppy Joe’s in Key West in 1936. Their affair took place during the Spanish Civil War, where Ernest and Martha Gellhorn (mistress no.2 and wife no.3) had their affair with thrilling intimacy, eating dusty mule sausages with the International Brigade by day, and bedding down with each other in at night.

Appeasement got Hadley nowhere. Pauline Pfeiffer, too, chose to turn a blind eye to Ernest’s extramarital affairs, hoping that such a stratagem would starve the affair of its excitement. At the end of their marriage, Pauline wrote to Ernest “Our plans would be quite simple if our lives were not so complicated and you were, say, a brick layer instead of a woman layer and a writer.” Lesson three perhaps: don’t marry a writer. They divorced in 1940. Less than two weeks later, he married Martha.

Martha Gellhorn, war-reporter and novelist, did not have to put up with another mistress. She was very much Ernest’s equal as she carved out her own career both in fiction and war-reportage. When they married, a journalist described them as a “pairing of flint and steel”. Perhaps because her identity was so clearly defined before she married, there was no sense in which she was Ernest’s lackey or sidekick.

It was in his third marriage that Ernest found himself in the uncomfortable situation of the one who loved too much. As Martha longed to be at the Front during the Second World War, Ernest’s love for her only increased: “I am just gnawing sick dumb lonely for you,” one of his letters reads, “I love you like a caribou loves mud, like Mr Roosevelt loves his place in history, like the sea loves the beach and rolls on it all the time.” Martha, meanwhile, wrote how Cuba was drowning her “in flowers and martinis”. A lesson from Martha might be: never give up you career for a man.

While Martha was off at war, Ernest arrived in London in 1944, knowing in all likelihood that his wife was going to leave him – a first for Ernest. Lucky for Hemingway, a likely replacement appeared in Mary Welsh. A war-reporter, like Martha, and just as confident and funny, she was however, a little more malleable, a little more able to let Ernest’s moods swing without comment or opprobrium. Almost as soon as he met Mary Welsh in a restaurant in Charlotte Street in London, he said, “I don’t know you, Mary. But I want to marry you.” Ernest divorced Martha on the grounds of “desertion” in 1945.

Mary and Ernest remained married until his death, from 1946 to 1961, and he was married to her for the longest out of all of his wives. While his eye did stray, the most formidable mistress she had to contend with was booze itself. Hemingway’s alcoholism became so bad in the late 50s that if there was nothing left in the house he’d drink mouthwash.

It is difficult to think of many modern women putting up with Ernest’s escapades as many of these women did. Just as those animals he shot on safari have become rare beasts, so have the women who were willing to turn a blind eye to the mistresses, the booze, the carousing and the ill-treatment. The four Mrs. Hemingways perhaps don’t leave us lessons in love, but in how to avoid the love they ended up with: a volatile, and, at times, fickle love.

I once had a Hemingway-figure in my life. It provided its excitements, for a time, but too much heartbreak. I turned a blind-eye to his exploits, hoping that if I could just bear it out, not comment, he’d see my value next to hers. He didn’t. So the lessons my Mrs. Hemingways have left me with is: the bad guy soon gets boring. As Hadley said, having reclaimed herself in the summer of her divorce from Ernest, “I felt as free as air. Just like a million dollars.” That sounds a hell of a lot better to me.

Naomi Wood is the author of the novel Mrs. Hemingway, out now.