Naomi Wood’s fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s extraordinary marriages begins in southeastern France in the 1920s, where the young writer vacationed with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their son, Bumby. Hemingway’s legendary writing career had already won him a name in Paris, and his and Hadley’s storied days there included hobnobbing with artists, writers, ex-pats, and bohemian cognoscenti. They were poor, but full of ambition and love, and the brightest days seemed ahead of them.
But then there was a third party, the glamorous Vogue writer Pauline Pfeiffer (aka “Fife”). Back in Paris, Hadley had befriended Fife and her sister, but soon, Hadley found Fife joining her and Ernest in their apartment during cozy evenings, ingratiating herself to Ernest and helping him with his manuscripts. That summer, Hadley was forced to grapple with the truth: Ernest and Fife were having a passionate affair. More painfully, Hadley suspected that Fife was a better match for her dashing husband.
After Hadley granted Ernest a divorce, Fife and Ernest set up a home in Key West where they had two sons and Hemingway wrote notable works including A Farewell to Arms. As the years wore on, the increasingly negative critical reception of Ernest’s work and his ever-growing taste for alcohol soured the marriage. Enter Martha Gellhorn, a beautiful young reporter Hemingway met in a bar with whom he quickly became infatuated. As Fife desperately tried to hold on to her husband, he drifted closer to his bright, young protégé.
Ernest and Martha fell in love amidst the mayhem of the Spanish Civil War. Following the war they moved to Cuba. Domesticity would prove as much a battlefield as war, however, as Hemingway suffered from writer’s block and Martha wanted to pursue her career. Her work during World War II separated the couple often, and by 1944 Martha’s rejection was certain, leaving Hemingway to find himself a new paramour, Mary Welsh—yet another expatriate writer. And unlike Martha, Mary wanted to be Mrs. Hemingway.
As Hemingway’s fourth and final wife, Mary stood by her husband during his worst dry spell of all, as well as major health problems resulting from alcoholism, high blood pressure and the injuries sustained from two plane crashes. Ever the loyal devotee, Mary tried her best to protect his legacy when he died from a gunshot wound to the head in 1961, denying that it was suicide.
Told in four parts, Mrs. Hemingway gives each fascinating woman her due. Wood’s exquisitely written, emotionally gripping novel investigates the contrasts that distinguished Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary while laying bare the inevitable parallels of their common love for a brilliant, impossible man.
Born in England, Naomi Wood was raised in Hong Kong and studied at the University of Cambridge. Her first book, The Godless Boys, was published in 2011. While working towards her doctorate, she started her second novel, Mrs. Hemingway. She lives in London and teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths University.
1. Hemingway and Paris in the 1920s continues to be a source of fascination for readers. What drew you personally to this subject matter and what made you decide to go beyond it to the darker periods of Hemingway’s life?
I wanted to write this book as soon as I had read Hemingway’s love letters. Compared to his prose, his letters are positively squelchy with baby-talk and sweet nothings. In his letters he calls his wives ‘Kitty Kat’, ‘Small Friend’, and ‘Pickle’, while Ernest himself answered to the nickname ‘Little Wax Puppy’. These billet-doux were a revelation to me: I had only really known of Hemingway from the hyper-masculinized myth: the boxer, the bullfighter, the big-game hunter. These letters showed Hemingway as husband, and I was puzzled as to how this role fit into all of the others. Then, as I began to research, I wondered what his wives were like: what kind of man it was who made four exacting, clever, independent women turn a blind eye to his many faults and infidelities.
2. The title of this novel is ironic, as there is no single Mrs. Hemingway, and yet each of these women hoped they might be the last. What was it, do you think, that kept them (either individually or collectively) hanging on to this fantasy, despite the growing evidence of his inability to be faithful?
Talent is seductive, and Hemingway had talent in spades, of course. It must have felt incredibly exotic to be the muse of a man who everyone said was a great genius. And, then there was the major problem of their being in love with him. Leaving someone you love, even when you know they are acting despicably, must have been hard – monumentally hard. I think many of them felt, if that indiscretion could go away, or if that love affair could be ignored out of existence, their marriage might just be able to survive. And sometimes that meant accepting a marriage à trois. Mary Welsh said being loved by Hemingway was like being in a beam of light – and I imagine when that beam was turned off, it must have been a very heavy darkness indeed.
3. How does history, real or imagined, inspire your storytelling? Did this book change your writing process?
Writing within history’s parameters was challenging and rewarding. I knew that certain events had to happen in a certain order, but I was free to imagine the small scenarios that went into these characters falling into – and out of – love, while letting the rest of the dramatic plot be dictated by history. Getting to know the characters felt like a journey – a friendship; my shelves now groan with Hemingway books, memorabilia, and photographs. On the second part of that question, I think every book you write changes your writing process. With this one, I tried to keep a few of Hemingway’s lessons in my mind when I wrote: stopping in the middle of a scene, for example, so that you never have to start the next day “raw” in a new chapter. I also think my writing style has come on since the first book: it’s a cleaner prose – probably inspired by the maestro himself!
4. While writing Mrs. Hemingway, did you feel that your prose was influenced by Hemingway’s writing style?
I decided straight off that this book was not going to be an exercise in ventriloquism. I am a huge fan of his work, but it would have been deathly if it had ended up as cod-Hemingway! I decided to stay faithful to my own style of writing (probably flowerier than the lean stylist would have liked) but I also tried to bear in mind Hemingway’s aesthetics. I tried to make each word count. I cut out what didn’t need to be there. I doffed my cap to the master by using certain words he loved: words like good, cool and fresh. But it was the work, interviews and memoirs of Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary that probably formed a bigger influence on Mrs. Hemingway, since it was their voices that I was trying to bring to the page.
5. There are four separate points of view in Mrs. Hemingway. How did you find your way through the individual perspectives while tying together a single narrative?
I did this by giving myself an enormous headache! At some points, I did wonder whether it was an exercise in insanity to write one book in four voices. Perhaps the first thing I did was to create a distinct voice for each of them. Then I tried to look at the sweet-spots: when wife three overlapped with mistress two… or wife four then became friends with ex-wife two… In the archives, I looked at letters sent between “the graduates of Hemingway University” (Mary Welsh’s term). In the biographies, I looked at any moments, however small, where they came face to face with one another. In my story, these moments were amplified, so that we have memories viewed from different angles – Mary and Martha’s first meeting in London, for example. Sharing all of these memories made all of the women inextricably bound to each other – whether they liked that or not.
6. On a personal level, Hemingway was certainly a flawed character—some might say abusive. How did you feel about him over the course of writing this book, and where did you stand by the time you finished it?
I started off thinking he was pretty detestable to his wives. That hasn’t changed. I think in some situations, he acted appallingly. However, I don’t think these women would have stuck around if he had been simply monstrous all of the time. Why would they have? What I wanted to show was a balance, because that’s what life with mercurial Hemingway must have been like: exquisite when he was nice, vile when he was nasty.
But over the course of writing this novel, my opinion of Ernest – the man – not the writer – has changed. I don’t think there has to be “team Ernest” or “team Mrs. Hemingway” – over the course of writing about three divorces and a death, I developed a lot of sympathy for Ernest himself. By the mid fifties, he was so busted up; so unhappy. He could be exceptionally horrid to others, but most intensely to himself. Norman Mailer wrote that Hemingway “carried a weight of anxiety within him… which would have suffocated any man smaller than him.” Reading about the depression and paranoia that accompanied his suicide moved me, and I think a good deal of human compassion makes you understand his behavior while refusing to excuse it.
7. Though the documentation of Hemingway’s life is fairly thorough, you had to take certain liberties in bringing these people to the page. How, as an author, do you decide where to diverge from the “official” story?
Early on, I decided that what I wanted to give in this account was an experiential – if not always empirical – account of each Mrs. Hemingway. The needs of four narratives did distort the empirical truth, but I always believed I was giving a just idea of the experience. The first section, for example, is set within a day. In reality, the decision for Hadley and Ernest to break up took months over that dangerous summer. If it was a full-length book just about Ernest and Hadley, I might have shown it slower, in gradations, but I had to fit their story into the quartet. If I’d truly followed every locale Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway ever summered in, the reader would have gotten travel-sick and the tale would have been everywhere.
What mattered, in the end, was to get the right balance between the facts and the fiction. Readers hungry for the historical account behind this novel should definitely read Bernice Kert’s addictive The Hemingway Women – there’s so much in there that I couldn’t fit into the novel, and much more time spent with his mother, his sisters, his mistresses, and near-mistresses.
8. Towards the end of the book, we come to see Hemingway in his darker years, and the romantic notions we might have had about him are stripped away. What makes Mary so well equipped to deal with him in this stage? Could you imagine one of his earlier wives in her place?
I think Mary was very patient but also very thankful for the life Hemingway gave her. She also celebrated, rather than resented, giving up her career. And I think she loved him very deeply. In the archives I found a little post-it note in a box of papers which says “1974: I will never cease missing him”. That long-lasting love she felt for him must have made the difficult times in some small part endurable. She was strong; she stood up to him, but picked her battles. I think that’s why her marriage was perhaps the longest; she was, perhaps, the canniest.
Martha, I suppose, would be the one I could not imagine looking after Ernest in his “wintering years”. Wouldn’t she have hated his neediness and weakness? In her own advanced years, she hated that about herself. Hadley and Fife? I’m not sure. Perhaps. They were much better at putting him first and making him comfortable. But it’s almost impossible for me to imagine that the carousel of wives and mistresses didn’t turn each decade…
9. Of Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary, which perspective was most compelling for you to assume and why?
This is a difficult question! Writing Fife’s perspective felt important: because I wanted to claw her back from her role as predatory ‘husband-snatcher’ in A Moveable Feast. She was badly behaved – but she also got the most rotten deal. She fell in love with someone she really shouldn’t have, married him, got dumped, never remarried and then died young. She also never got to tell her side of the story. I felt compelled to show her as a real person who had her own sorrows, joys and regrets – who ended up much worse off than Hadley. I also enjoyed writing Mary’s perspective, because it’s through Mary’s love and grief that our sympathy returns to Ernest. But I found them all truly compelling. Writing about each woman was a pleasure and a privilege.
10. What are you working on now?
After feeling like the fifth mistress of Ernest Hemingway I’m taking a short break, and working on short-stories. They’re fun little projects: not based on facts, not based on real people; I feel as if I’m luxuriating in my imagination again. I’m gearing up to write the next novel – probably historical. Now I’m just picking between ideas!