The Paris Wife: You marry the man, not the myth

Hemingway and Hadley in Paris – “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her:” JFK Presidential Library and Museum – Ernest Hemingway Collection

On July 2, 1961, author Ernest Hemingway took his favorite shotgun, shoved the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Thus ended the life of one of the most iconic and mythologized authors of the twentieth century. His father had also shot himself, as had one of his brothers. Years later, his granddaughter Margot Hemingway would also take her own life.

Was it something in their genetic makeup?

Hemingway was always larger than life, and the real man behind the mask was not quite the macho figure that he cut for the press. Had his life been irrevocably set on its eventual course by the horrific wounds he suffered as an ambulance driver in Italy during the first world war? Or was he, rather, the spoiled son of a wealthy Oak Park, Illinois doctor and his domineering wife? A boy who grew into a man who wanted it all and to whom nobody could say “No.”

What was it like to be married to this man, who changed writing forever and forged a myth that is once again beginning to captivate us in the twenty-first century?

Some of the answers can be found in a very fine novel by Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Ballantine Books, 2011), a novel of historical fiction narrated by Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson.

I am just now getting around to reading this novel, largely because I am suspicious of so-called biographical works of fiction. Many I find contrived and not worth the time. However, Paula McClain is a woman steeped in Hemingway lore, a woman who has written and lectured on the man for a number of years. Her inspiration for this novel is Hemingway’s own A Moveable Feast, a collection of memoirs about his early years in Paris during his first marriage to Hadley, the mother of his first son John, or Jack (father of Mariel and Margot).

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Then why did he leave her? He and Hadley experienced poverty together, loved each other, and he was a tender and loving spouse and father. It was Hadley who saw him through his years as a war correspondent and struggling writer of special interest pieces for the Kansas City Star which barely paid the bills. It was Hadley who traveled with him to Spain, saw the running of the bulls, and watched as his inspiration led to his first famous novel, The Sun Also Rises.

They were among those young people who were caught up in the “lost generation,” a generation fueled by alcohol, newfound freedom for women, and a feeling of dejection following the war that would end all wars. Free loving couples and women who thought nothing about chasing down another man’s husband were the sexual hallmark of the age, and it was just such a woman who would result in the end of their marriage.

Through it all, Hadley is seen as the stable influence in Hemingway’s life, his North Star in a sky filled with literary luminaries like John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of others whose names will thrill English majors around the world. Art was their life’s blood, and their art demanded sacrifice. Ernie’s wife and son would become the sacrificial lambs on the altar of his career. Something he would later regret.

In the end, the man could not sustain the myth. Shortly before his suicide he spoke with her (she had for some time been happily remarried), and his mind was filled with memories of times past that he now seemed to cling to in order to overcome his despondency. Apparently, it didn’t give him enough to hold on to. Halfway around the world from Paris, two-score years after he left Hadley for Pauline, and after his books told the story of a generation, the tough guy, the great white hunter and hard-drinking, two-fisted man of many women, reached for a gun. And he remembered the first woman–possibly the only woman–he ever really loved.

That’s the way McLain tells it. And, who knows? Maybe she got it right.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

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