Hemingway’s Widow by Timothy Christian

Hemingway’s Widow: The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway by Timothy Christian is published by Pegasus Books and distributed by Simon and Shuster.

All I can say in my defense is that I tried.

I first became interested in literature, meaning literary greats or classics, when I was a junior in high school (back in 1972-73). I started reading from lists of “must read books” and literary classics. When I heard the name of an author, I often then went to the library to find books by him or her.

I think my brother-in-law gave me a copy of A Farewell to Arms. I had previously gotten interested in World War I, and the book was a war story, right? A bit later, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I can’t remember what other Hemingway books followed those early years, but I have read and reread many of his books over the course of years.

Amazingly, our small school library had a copy of Carlos Baker’s definitive biography, Hemingway: A Life. I devoured this huge book and was both attracted to and repulsed by the swarthy, hard-drinking, rough living, perverse, compelling, gifted, and astounding man.

Through the years, I have read several other biographical accounts of his life. Most recently, I acquired books about all four of his wives (plus a copy of the Baker biography). The first, and best, wife was Hadley Richardson. Her story became well known because of a fictional (yet basically accurate) account titled The Paris Wife. Then I found a copy of Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow, which is about wife number 2, Pauline Pfieffer from Pigot, Arkansas. Getting that book compelled me to purchase a copy of Gelhorn, the 3rd wife. How could I then resist reading about the last wife? (At least Hemingway didn’t have the same options Henry VIII did with wives whose usefulness had expired.)

Hemingway’s Widow, unlike the other books, is newly published. It is, as far as I know, the most complete account of the life of Mary Welsh. Mary’s story itself is an amazing success story. She worked incredibly hard in the male-dominated, competitive world of journalism. She was attractive, spunky, and hard-wired to achieve success. As World War II started, she was able to get located in London. The downside was the nightly bombings, but the plus side was the plethora of stories to be written. And Mary used her sex and good looks to acquire quite a few reporting opportunities.

In the course of her work, she happened to meet a popular, successful, and attractive American writer named Hemingway. In the loose morality of the time (our modern mores are not as recent as we may think), both Hemingway and Welsh began seeing each other, despite both being married. Almost immediately, Hemingway proposed marriage.

Both Welsh’s second marriage and Hemingway’s third were coming unraveled, and wartime Europe was a time for easy hook-ups, as we say now. The actual marriage between Ernest and Mary didn’t happen until after the war was over, but they became a couple.

Marriage to Ernest Hemingway had lots of perks. He was famous. He was financially successful. He was gregarious, fun to be with, fun to drink with, fun to travel with, and more. Besides, he had a fabulous home in Cuba.

Mary would stay with Ernest for the rest of his life. She became a reader, critic, editor of sorts of his works. She labored to get along with his three sons. She adapted to and grew to love the idyllic life in Cuba. She enjoyed the wealth, popularity, and lifestyle of her famous husband.

But her story is anything but a romantic “happily ever after” tale. Hemingway’s drinking was a real problem. It threatened his health, judgment, and disposition. His womanizing was no surprise. He was, we might say, “basically or somewhat or mostly” faithful to wife number 4.

And the two fought. Throughout the book, at many points in her life, Mary made plans to leave Ernest. Her career had been sacrificed for his. He could be terribly abusive verbally. In social settings, he was often deplorable. His roving eye, his unquenchable thirst for liquor, his moodiness, and his treatment of friends and family all made this gifted writer into a monster of sorts.

But who could give up the luxury of a beachside home in Cuba, travels around the world, abundance of worldly goods, an array of rich and famous friends, and the opportunity to live with a Nobel Prize winning author? Besides, when Hemingway would realize that he had pushed too many buttons, he was marvelous in apologies, often lavishing Mary with all sorts of gifts.

A big event in their lives was their African safari. Not only did it contribute to one of his lesser noted novels, The Green Hills of Africa, but it was an incredible hunting experience. Ernest and Mary both delighted in eating lion, which no African would have touched. And lots of animals were killed during these ventures. Hemingway was not merely hunting, for he was writing accounts for magazines about the hunts and was making money. Unfortunately, the African safari ended with two crashes in air planes that caused both short and long term damage to Hemingway’s brain.

Ernest Hemingway achieved some of his greatest honor when he won the Nobel Prize in 1952 and when his short novel The Old Man and the Sea was published. It represented the man at his height. Across the River and Into the Trees, which was Hemingway’s novel prior to The Old Man, was a flop.

But the pinnacle years were short-lived. Hemingway increasingly suffered from a number of health problems, either caused or contributed to by excessive alcohol and numerous concussions. With the physical breakdown came mental derangement. He became more volatile, more moody, very paranoid, and unstable. In large part, Hemingway suffered from depression. He, his father before him, his mother, and his siblings, had all been in need of some serious intervention and family counseling.

Treatment for mental troubles was barbaric in some ways to our times. Electro-shock treatments were administered to Hemingway several times. He became increasingly suicidal, which then resulted in his self-inflicted death in Ketcham, Idaho in 1962.

However much the Ernest and Mary marriage was a roller coaster during their years together, Mary was a devoted widow, defender, promoter, and advocate for her husband after his death. For years, she zealously defended the idea that his death was an accident while cleaning his shotgun. For the rest of her life, she worked hard to see that his books (some of which were unpublished) were put or kept in print and his legacy kept intact. She was vicious toward unfavorable biographers and critics, and she wrote her own account of their lives together.

Let me add a Christian postscript: I don’t wish to be come across as the moralist Christian pointing out the sins and transgressions of Ernest and Mary Hemingway. I found my heart filled with love, pain, sadness, and hurt while I read of their lives. Hemingway was a terrible son to his own mother (in great contrast to his literary peer and sometime rival William Faulkner). Hemingway was a poor father to his sons (with some exceptions in his practices) and a terrible, unfaithful husband. Mary was complicit in his sins. Their lives had more excitement and adventures than I will ever live. But their lives left me feeling a great and deep hurt. We are not put here by God to live as they did. And yet, they were so beautiful in so many ways.