New works delve deep into Hemingway myth and his St. Louis friends – St. Louis Post-Dispatch


New works delve deep into Hemingway myth and his St. Louis friends


Jane Henderson

“I wonder if the Cards will ever win a pennant?”

“Not in our lifetime,” Bill said.

“Gee, they’d go crazy,” Nick said.

That tidy conversation was published almost 100 years ago, just a year before the Cardinals would win their first pennant and foreshadowing by six decades Jack Buck’s famous “Go crazy, folks!”

Ernest Hemingway’s clear, concise prose in 1925 seems as modern as anything from a broadcast booth today and evokes a friend who was one of many from St. Louis. These many friends would not only make appearances in Hemingway’s fiction, they’d also marry and divorce him, bear his only children and finance his early writing years.

One wife “paved the way for him to be able to write and not think of anything else,” says Lynn Novick, co-director with Ken Burns of a documentary that begins Monday on PBS. Pauline Pfeiffer’s loving uncle even bought them a place in Key West and sent them on an expensive safari.

Another wife helped him leave the Midwest for Paris. And a third found and fixed up a home in Cuba. And when he was stagnant, she arranged for him to return to war reporting.

His marriages to three women from St. Louis, all “ambitious in their own way,” as Novick says, are part of the three-part “Hemingway” broadcast. And, with a recent book, it is the latest to touch on the tremendous web of connections the influential author had with this city — and the influence some of its people had on him. 

“Here are these wonderful families and these brilliant, strong women who really shaped the trajectory of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” says Andrew J. Theising, author of “Hemingway’s Saint Louis.” “I was interested really in the families and how they were able to accomplish things in the arts, in industry, in economic development and social movements.” 

Many think they already know enough about the guy whose Nobel Prize for literature is the least interesting part of a life of adventure, blood sports, pomposity, mental illness, alcoholism and love affairs. But his life was like an iceberg (as Hemingway said of his spare fiction), with fascinating aspects still submerged below the surface.

“We think he’s still really, really important,” Novick says. “His DNA are all over English literature.”

Old friends

Theising is more interested in history than fiction. A professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Theising’s book was inspired by a faculty exchange trip he took to Cuba in 2013. A project fell through, so, informed by a trip to see the Hemingway home near Havana, and with an interest in genealogy and all things St. Louis, Theising began tracking details of lesser-known facts.

His book is organized by research into five St. Louis connections and how they influenced the author: the Smiths, Richardsons, Pfeiffers, Gellhorns and A.E. Hotchner.

“Hemingway’s Saint Louis” is relatively short but brimming with details. Among them:

• Bill Smith, from the Cardinals conversation in the story “The Three-Day Blow,” met Hemingway in upper Michigan, where their families spent summers. Smith’s sister, Katy, would be a romantic interest for Ernest and later introduce him to a fellow Mary Institute grad. Not only Katy, but also Ernest lived with another Smith brother in Chicago. That brother, Kenley, introduced Hemingway to writer Sherwood Anderson.

The Smiths were among Hemingway’s oldest friends from Michigan, where they fished, hunted, drank and talked about literature. The family matriarch, an aunt who raised Katy and Bill after their mother died, had married well and inherited a fortune: Her charges were older and more sophisticated when they met the teenage Hemingway.

• Hadley Richardson cared for her ailing mother, a suffragist whose alcoholic husband eventually lost wealth originally from his own father’s Richardson Drug Co. Hadley’s father killed himself in 1905. Relatives helped out, and after her mother died, Hadley had a trust fund of $60,000. It provided her an annual income of about $38,000 in today’s money.

Her friend Katy Smith invited her to Chicago, where she met Ernest. They married in Michigan, and her income “funded their life in Paris,” Theising writes. There, they would meet Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, godmother to their son. Friends like Bill Smith would travel to Europe to go to bullfights with the couple in Spain. Hadley remembers that she and Ernest always seemed to have enough money to do things they wanted. He wrote short stories and “The Sun Also Rises,” dedicated to Hadley and their son, John (future father of actress Mariel Hemingway). He gave Hadley all future royalties from that novel.

• In 1925, another St. Louis woman met up with the couple in Paris. Pauline Pfeiffer, a graduate of Visitation Academy and the University of Missouri’s journalism school, had gotten a job with Vogue magazine. She and Hadley had mutual friends, and Pauline and her sister, Jinny, began socializing with the group. By the next year, Pauline and Ernest were having an affair, and in May 1927, Hemingway, then divorced, married Pauline.

Her family money came from the Pfeiffer Chemical Co. Later, Pauline’s father got out of the chemical business and invested in farmland in Arkansas; his brothers’ company grew and ended up in New York. One uncle is still remembered by Washington University’s Gustavus A. Pfeiffer Physics Library. That uncle is who paid for the Hemingways’ famous Key West home and sent them to Africa, the setting for so much of his future writing.

• Pauline, considered Hemingway’s best reader and editor, almost died giving birth to their first son, Patrick. The difficult birth may have influenced the fictional portrayal of Catherine’s fatal pregnancy in “A Farewell to Arms,” a novel the author dedicated to Gus Pfeiffer.

The second son, Gregory, led to vicious arguments after his parents’ own divorce. Pauline was living in San Francisco in 1951 and Gregory, on drugs and in drag, was arrested. Ernest would blame Pauline for Gregory’s actions and a few hours after a loud fight by phone, Pauline went to the hospital with blood pressure issues. She died in surgery. Gregory later blamed his father. (Gregory, who would become a doctor, also attempted a failed gender reassignment surgery.)

Seduction and tragedy

Through the years, Hemingway’s relationships would only become more turbulent. As Pauline waited for him with dinner guests in Key West, Ernest stayed in his favorite bar gregariously talking with a family from St. Louis he’d just met: Edna, Martha and Alfred Gellhorn.

Martha, a 28-year-old journalist, admired Hemingway. As Pauline had herself, Martha became closer to the man while he was still married, staying with the couple in their home.

When Hemingway went to cover the civil war in Spain in 1937, Gellhorn followed and their affair began. He dedicated his novel about that war, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” to his next bride.

Gellhorn and Hemingway would lived together in Cuba until they married in 1940 on a trip to Wyoming.

Each of these three wives have been the subjects of their own biographies, with Gellhorn the only one, though, whose career rivaled Hemingway’s. For Novick, she “is a great writer and had a huge heart.”

“I’m most drawn to (her) because she holds her own.” In the documentary, actress Meryl Streep voices the words of Martha; Keri Russell is the voice of Hadley; Patricia Clarkson is the voice of Pauline.

During years of the Nazis’ assault on Europe, Hemingway seemed less interested in leaving Cuba. He spent much of his time drinking and fishing, with some amateur efforts to look for German boats off the coast.

Novick notes that after Gellhorn could no longer resist reporting on World War II, her husband “couldn’t really hold it together” without her. The author “seemed to need a woman with him to take care of him and make him feel important.”

In 1944, Gellhorn returned to Cuba and enlisted writer Roald Dahl, who was working at the British Embassy in Washington, to persuade Hemingway to take a writing assignment in Europe.

Gellhorn famously outperformed him at D-Day by actually going ashore and transporting wounded from Normandy Beach. Hemingway had watched the previous day’s assault from a ship. 

Even before that, though, Hemingway seemed to have lost interest in Gellhorn, pursuing a married war correspondent he met in London. There, he’d also been badly injured in a vehicle accident at night. Martha rushed to the hospital only to find him drinking and entertaining fans with stories. She laughed at his bandaged head, and he never forgave her, writing bitterly about her later.

In an essay for the Michigan Quarterly Review, biographer Jeffrey Meyers once characterized some of Hemingway’s vicious insults:

“Despite his crude talk in speech and letters, Hemingway was sensitive and vulnerable. He had a corresponding impulse to retaliate for slights, to hit out against family, wives, friends and literary rivals. This defensive urge provoked his comic and grotesque put-downs. Enraged at his older sister, Marcelline, for criticizing his divorce from his first wife, Hadley, he compared his sister to a coffin and called her ‘a bitch complete with handles.’”

Many targeted friends and family members did not find his insults comic, and by the time Hemingway sought to marry for the fourth time, journalist Mary Welsh was right to be wary of his drinking and angry outbursts. Mary, his only wife not from St. Louis, was born in Minnesota, continuing Ernest’s history of choosing Midwesterners like him.

After they married, Mary threatened to leave several times, reconciling after he wooed her or threatened to hurt himself.

The documentary highlights the bedroom role-playing Hemingway would do, calling Mary male nicknames as she called him feminine ones. Novick says this “supermasculine” guy was privately exploring what “we would call now gender fluidity.”

In his later years, the documentary shows him looking decades older than he was. In one photo, Hemingway appears passed out in filthy clothes.

He had spoken about depression even when young, and through the years suffered shrapnel injuries, survived two plane crashes and sustained numerous concussions. Knowledge of those and of his drinking still don’t prepare viewers for the chilling NBC interview in 1954 included in the documentary. The author agreed to a rare recorded piece on the condition he could read from cue cards to answer questions. 

When he stiffly does, saying even “period” and “comma,” the new Nobel winner appears to suffer from dementia, possibly brain damage from the concussions.

After he killed himself in his Idaho home on July 2, 1961, Mary Hemingway told reporters he had an accident while cleaning his gun. Friends knew that was untrue, and another native St. Louisan stepped in.

Friend and writer A.E. Hotchner, who had first met Hemingway in Cuba in 1948, visited him just weeks before his death, at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. Hotchner would publish a memoir in 1966 disclosing Hemingway’s mental illness and the real cause of death.

Theising writes that Hotchner knew Hemingway was suicidal. The older author had memory loss from shock treatments and feared he could never write again.

The “King of the Hill” author remembered Hemingway saying: “Hotch, if I can’t exist on my own terms, then existence is impossible.”

Hotchner’s “Papa Hemingway” was the first major work on the writer after his death, heralding decades more of interest in the man and the myth.


Related to this story