LONDON (Reuters) - For a writer who explored the world of men without women, Ernest Hemingway certainly liked to have women around him.
The Nobel Prize-winning author had four wives in all with barely a day between each changeover, as well as friendships with Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich.
Now a fictionalised account of the marriages, inspired by his letters, examines what it might have been like to be the wives.
“We think of him as a womaniser, we don’t think of him as a husband. That’s a role that’s subservient to the big-game hunter, the deep-sea fisherman, the war correspondent,” said Naomi Wood, whose novel “Mrs Hemingway” has just been published.
“I wanted to investigate what was going on there, why he needed all these women in his life. His life is clogged with women though he’s such a man’s man,” the 30-year-old British writer told Reuters in an interview.
The four shared good times and bad with him in Paris, Key West, Cuba and Spain, suffered his philandering, moods and drinking, and loyally supported him until someone new caught his fancy.
The novel is divided into four parts dealing with each in turn. There’s the kind and homely Hadley Richardson who shared his impoverished early days in Paris, then Pauline “Fife” Pfeiffer, the rich, vivacious society girl who ousted Hadley just as his fame was taking off.
Martha Gellhorn, the feisty, driven war correspondent, followed, to be replaced by Mary Welsh, who lived with him in Cuba for his last 16 years and who was to find his dead body in their home in Ketchum, Idaho, after he killed himself with a shotgun in 1961.
“This is about four women as well as the flame burning brightly in the middle of it. But I‘m not a biographer and I wanted to have space to imagine,” Wood said.
Her novel is an addition to a number of works in recent years that testify to the enduring fascination with the literary heavyweight more than 50 years after his death.
He was depicted in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris” and in a U.S. television drama on his time with Gellhorn.
Paul Hendrickson’s biography “Hemingway’s Boat” looked at his life from the peak of his fame to his tragic decline. There was even a stage adaptation of his breakthrough novel “The Sun Also Rises” in London’s West End last year.
Wood’s interest in Hemingway began as a schoolgirl in Hong Kong when she read in one afternoon “The Old Man and the Sea”, his tale of a Cuban fisherman’s battle with a giant marlin.
”I remember feeling that life seemed slightly different after that, leaving me with the question of what kind of man wrote this and what kind of pressure was he under himself?
“Then I started reading his letters and it struck me that the letters to the wives were of a completely different tenor to the others. They show the parts of him that cared and the part that was warm, undeniable philanderer that he was, as he moved from mistress to wife and mistress to wife. There’s a generosity of spirit.”
Each part begins as the relationship is deteriorating and the interloper is moving in. The good times are recalled in flashbacks, with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald making cameos.
Despite the bitterness, recriminations and sadness, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the four women. And although Hemingway himself often appears selfish and even foolish, his charm, magnetism and vulnerability also come through.
“Some women have said to me, ‘I don’t want to read a book about Hemingway, he was such a monster’. But there must have been times that were marvellous. If he had been vile all the time, these four clever women wouldn’t have stuck around.”
Of all the wives, Wood said she felt most sympathy for Pauline, who has often got short shrift from scholars.
”History treats her as ‘the Devil in Dior’ figure, the flapper come to steal Hemingway away from his farm wife. But she got the worst deal. She was summarily dumped by Hemingway.
“She gave him the money that paid for the safari trips, the house in Key West, the duck hunting in Wyoming, the bullfights in Spain. She never moved on, she never remarried, and she dies prematurely and never gets to tell her story.”
It was, she said, something of a riposte to “A Moveable Feast”, Hemingway’s memoir of the early days in which he eulogises Hadley but is rather hard on Pauline.
Gellhorn, revered by a new generation of female foreign correspondents, comes over as the least endearing of the wives.
“She’s somewhat humourless. She always wants to be somewhere else and to shout out loud about injustice. That makes her a pioneering correspondent but probably a pain to live with,” Wood said.
Wood, who teaches creative writing at London’s Goldsmiths college, travelled to various spots on the Hemingway map to research the novel and also put in many hours at the British Library. As result, the novel is packed with detail, down to the Miro picture hanging on the wall of the Paris apartment.
Still, she said, she still had not quite solved the mystery of Hemingway’s dependence on women.
”He said that after he finishes writing, he feels a wretched loneliness and emptiness. I think that’s what the women helped to dissolve. They helped to bring comfort to the perils of writing.
“But why did he have to marry everyone? Why couldn’t he just have had girlfriends?”
Editing by Michael Roddy and Jeremy Gaunt