The Women Who Shaped Hemingway’s Life and Work

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L–R: Grace Hemingway, Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh

Ernest Hemingway has often been described as a “notorious man’s man” whose prose is rife with depictions of men engaged in bull fights, boxing, hunting and warfare. Though women also play key roles in his fiction, numerous scholars and literary critics (not to mention casual readers) have taken him to task for creating female characters who were, too often, stereotypes and projections rather than authentic, flesh and blood women. But the real women who influenced his writing – his wives, girlfriends, colleagues, family members and friends – were anything but stereotypes; they were complex, independent women who played an outsized role in shaping Hemingway’s life and work.

In her 1983 book The Hemingway Women, author Bernice Kert examined the lives of some of the most important women in Hemingway’s life. They include:

Grace Hemingway, Ernest’s mother, was born in Chicago in 1872. Her father worked in a wholesale cutlery business, and her mother encouraged Grace’s interest in music, arranging for her to take violin, piano and voice lessons. When Grace was a teenager, the family moved to Oak Park where she met Clarence “Ed” Hemingway. They struck up a friendship, and Ed, who was studying medicine, was interested in marriage. But Grace was not ready to give up on her musical career. She traveled to New York to study voice and audition at the Metropolitan Opera. But work never materialized and Grace returned to Oak Park to marry her boy next door, Ed. The couple had six children – Ernest was the second born. They spent summers in Michigan, and Grace, when not occupied with the children, spent time planning for a lavish 8-bedroom “dream” home. Years later, Ernest Hemingway would blame his mother’s reckless spending and selfishness for his father’s death. Suffering from financial troubles and physical decline, Ed shot himself with his father’s Smith & Wesson revolver at age 57. Kent argues that his father’s suicide set off in Hemingway a “continuing search for a villain . . . [and] he cast Grace in that role.”

Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, was born in St. Louis in 1891. Hadley was badly injured as a child after falling from a second-story window and afterward her mother became extremely protective. Like Hemingway, she lost her father to suicide. After high school she attended Bryn Mawr College, but dropped out after her mother convinced her that she was too delicate to be on her own. She spent the next decade taking care of her mother; after her death the now 30 year-old Hadley accepted an invitation from a friend to visit Chicago, where she met a 21 year-old aspiring writer named Ernest Hemingway. The two were married less than a year later. They moved to Paris and met members of the “Lost Generation” like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1923, Hadley, then six months pregnant, traveled with Ernest to Pamplona for his first visit to the Festival of San Fermin. Their son John was born later that fall. The couple returned to Pamplona the next summer, this time joined by a group of American and British ex-pats including journalist Pauline Pfeiffer; it was this trip that inspired his first novel The Sun Also Rises. By the time Hemingway started writing and revising the book, his marriage to Hadley was ending – she discovered he was having an affair with Pauline. They divorced in January, 1927; Hemingway granted her the royalties to The Sun Also Rises in the settlement. Hadley remained in Paris until 1934, where she met her second husband, journalist Paul Mowrer.

Pauline Pfeiffer Born in 1895 in Parkersburg, Iowa, Pauline Pfeiffer spent her childhood and adolescence in St. Louis and later Piggott, Arkansas where her father, a wealthy land owner, presided over 60,000 acres of farmland, as well as a cotton gin and bank. Pauline studied journalism at the University of Missouri and worked for newspapers in Cleveland and New York before landing a job at Vogue as the assistant to their Paris editor. On her first trip to Paris, accompanied by her sister Virginia, she met Ernest and Hadley Hemingway. She struck up a friendship with the couple and traveled with them to Pamplona as well as Schruns, Austria, where she and Ernest began an affair. According to biographer Bernice Kert, “In spite of his later disclaimers, [Ernest] was not the passive innocent, preyed upon by a scheming Pauline. He was sexually aroused by her and they were intellectually compatible, and that was a powerful combination. Hadley was his good and devoted wife, but Pauline was the strange, wonderful new girl (as he later described her) and he did nothing to cool his infatuation.” After a tumultuous period Ernest and Hadley separated and he and Pauline were married months later. When Pauline became pregnant with their first child, they moved back to the U.S., settling in Key West. Their son Patrick was born in 1928 as Hemingway was in the midst of writing his novel A Farewell to Arms. The character Catherine – in particular her difficult labor — was inspired in part by Pauline. Three years later she gave birth to their second child, Gregory. The couple remained together until 1940, three years after Hemingway began an affair with Martha Gellhorn, a journalist and author nine years his junior who he had met at Sloppy Joes, a bar Hemingway frequented in Key West.

Martha Gellhorn was already an accomplished author by the time she met Hemingway in December, 1936. Originally from St. Louis, Martha worked as a foreign correspondent in France before returning to the U.S. to research and write about the impact of the Great Depression on working people. Her findings were the basis of a well-received collection of short stories titled The Trouble I’ve Seen, published in 1936. After they struck up a friendship in Key West, Ernest and Martha traveled together to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and began their affair. During this time Hemingway wrote his first (and only) play, Fifth Column, about a secret agent named Philip Rawlings (whose habits and opinions closely resembled Ernest’s own) who had fallen in love with a beautiful American correspondent named Dorothy Bridges. While Ernest and Pauline didn’t formally separate until 1939, he and Martha lived together off and on from 1936 until they were married in 1940. That same year, Ernest purchased Finca Vigia, his estate near Havana, where the couple lived when they weren’t traveling to write about far flung conflicts. Martha covered the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day and was among the first journalists to report from Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated by Allied Troops. Resentful of Gellhorn’s long absences, Hemingway once wrote her from Cuba asking, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” By the end of the war Martha had had enough and ended the relationship—though not before Ernest had already begun a relationship with the women who would become his fourth and final wife. As Bernice Kert argues in The Hemingway Women, “Hemingway could never sustain a long-lived, wholly satisfying relationship with any one of his four wives. Married domesticity may have seemed to him the desirable culmination of romantic love, but sooner or later he became bored and restless, critical and bullying.”

Mary Welsh was born in 1908 to a working class family in Minnesota. She attended Northwestern University, majoring in journalism, where she supported herself through a series of part-time jobs. During the Depression she worked as a copy editor for trade publications, eventually landing a job as a reporter at the Chicago Daily News. Coincidentally her boss was Paul Mowrer, who just moved back to Chicago from Paris with his new wife Hadley, the former Mrs. Hemingway. In 1936 Mary traveled to London where she was hired by the London Daily Express and married an Australian journalist named Noel Monks. Not long after England declared war on Germany, Mary was hired as a correspondent for Time. She and her husband both took on assignments covering the war and the couple grew apart; by 1943 Mary found herself in the center of a group of American artists and intellectuals living in London – people like photographer Robert Capa and writers William Saroyan and Irwin Shaw. Shaw introduced Mary to Ernest Hemingway, who pursued her immediately, though they were both still married. On their third date he drunkenly declared, “I don’t know you Mary. But I want to marry you.” Two years later they married in Cuba. She soon discovered she was pregnant, but it was an ectopic pregnancy and she nearly died after her Fallopian tube ruptured in her sleep. Ernest’s quick intervention saved her life. According to Bernice Kert, after that “Mary’s appreciation for Ernest seemed to swell into an everlasting and unshakeable trust. Nothing he could do to her, either inadvertently or with premeditation, would destroy that gratitude.” After his suicide in 1961, Mary became his literary executor and was responsible for the publication of A Moveable Feast, Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden and other posthumous works. She died in 1986 at age 78; in her will, she stipulated that she be buried in Idaho next to Hemingway.