Fifty Shades of Hemingway
Few figures in twentieth century American letters loom as large as Ernest Hemingway. Even though it has been a few years since any comprehensive biography has been published, incarnations of Hemingway continue to flourish within popular culture. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that he was a fascinating personality whose literary legacy endures. His life was one where the lines between literature and experience were blurred. Bull-fighting, boxing, big game hunting and war were the stage for many of his stories and novels and these were adventures that Hemingway sought out himself. A Farewell to Arms was based on his time volunteering for the American Red Cross in Italy during World War I, where he was injured and hospitalized. For Whom the Bell Tolls fictionalizes his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Nick Adams in the stories of In Our Time and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises would both seem to be mere alter egos for the writer himself.
Surely Papa became a celebrity in his own lifetime, and he continues to be a subject of much fascination. Perhaps as much has been written about Hemingway as was written by him. For a discussion of the making of Hemingway as a literary star, you may want to check out Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (1997). A number of his stories were made into films. Perhaps the best known of these is The Killers, starring Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. If you are looking for a documentary about Hemingway and his relationship to one of the silver screen's greatest legends, last year's Cooper and Hemingway: True Gen chronicles the friendship between Hem and Gary Cooper. Looking for something heavier? Running From Crazy (2014), in which granddaughter Mariel explores her family's history of suicide and mental illness, might be a good choice.
A number of fictional portrayals of Hem can be found in recent films as well. A charming if slightly goofy version of the young Hemingway played by Corey Stoll can be found in the breezy Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris (2011). Clive Owen offers a more realistic portrayal in the film Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), which focuses on the romance between the the writer and Martha Gellhorn, the journalist and the third of his four wives. No one knew better than Gellhorn how Hemingway treated writing as a competitive sport. For more on their romance, betrayal and the Spanish Civil War, you may want to read Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War (2014), or to hear Gellhorn's side of the story, The Collected Letters: of Martha Gellhorn (2006).
The artist and writer John Dos Passos once noted that Hemingway was the only man that he knew who truly hated his mother. Perhaps it is not so surprising that his love life was turbulent and continues to inspire curiosity and feminist critiques. If you haven't already, Paula McClain's novel, The Paris Wife (2011), is an entertaining look at how Paris in the 1920s may have appeared to Hem's first wife, Hadley Richardson. In the same vein and even more ambitious, last year's, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood, which attempts to recreate all four wives. To learn more about the real Hadley, you might try Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife (2011) by Gioia Diliberto. Perhaps the least is known about Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, for whom he left Hadley, but if you would like to learn more, Ruth A. Hawkins' Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway Pfeiffer Marriage (2012) takes a look at the woman with whom Hemingway spent his most productive years as a writer. Mary Welsh, the last wife was also a writer and wrote her own memoir, How It Was, (1976) which is currently out of print.
What does one make of this proliferation of Hemingways, a writer whose literary philosophy could be summed up as "less is more?" Papa may have liked to think that he would have the last word in looking back at his life and determining what it all meant when he began to write his memoir of the early years with Hadley in Paris, A Moveable Feast. He wrote it in the last decade of his life, in the wake of so many lost friendships and failed marriages. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and especially Pauline, his second wife, were not cast in a very favorable light. One might compare this Hemingway with the one that appears in the short history, The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar Mazzeo (2014). Here Papa is one of many journalists trying to be the first to reach Paris and the Ritz in particular after it has been freed from the Germans at the end of WWII, and you can't help but feel it was his own glorious past that Hem was trying to recapture. One can't blame him—there is something so intoxicating about those early days in Paris in the 1920s that they continue to haunt our collective imagination.
If you would like something meatier, Michael Reynolds's 5-volume biography might be just the thing to help you sort out fact from fiction. Beginning with The Young Hemingway (1986) and concluding with Hemingway: The Final Years (1999), Reynolds's study is well written and exhaustive. When you have finished delving into everything Hemingway, you may begin to think you know and understand him. Or, at least, as much as anyone can ever know anyone from words and images.