Rafia Zakaria | Longreads | July 2018 | 9 minutes (2,372 words)

It all began because of a comb. Sometime after four in a dark and cold Italian morning, a young woman accompanied a band of men to a duck shoot. After it was over and the frigid hunters sat by the fire, the eighteen-year old Adriana Ivancich, the only woman in the gathering, asked for a comb for her long black hair. Nearly all the men in the party ignored her and kept up their talking. Ernest Hemingway, however, was not ever one to let a lady go unattended. After rooting around in his pockets, he produced a comb, broke it in half and gave it to her. It was a very Hemingway gesture, chivalrous and theatric and meant very much to be memorable. (63)

It would be. The Hemingway that was at the duck shoot that frigid morning may have been a rotund and aging man who presided over slightly slacking but still eminent literary career, but he remained ever amenable to the charms of women. The duck shoot was not even the first time the two had met; that had happened the night before, when Hemingway, along with Adriana’s cousin Nanuk Franchetti, the host of the duck shoot, had picked her up by the side of road.

Andrea Di Robilant’s Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse is a chronicle of sorts of this last affair. Hemingway, then very much married to Mary Welsh Hemingway, who had ostensibly “stolen” him away from Martha Gellhorn, romanced Adriana right under his wife’s nose. The story of Adriana and Hemingway was initially interposed between Mary Hemingway’s “major shopping sprees” (87), “hours of sightseeing” and yet more shopping trips. It ended with Adriana and almost her entire family installed in the Hemingway’s home, fixtures at the caviar laden, booze filled evenings that oiled Hemingway’s daily grind.

The humiliations of her husband’s diverted attentions were captured on the page via what he wrote, and inflicted in person via what he said.

In subject and content, the affair with Adriana, and indeed with Venice itself, was rather predictable and even banal. Hemingway had always craved the euphoria of being in love and had chased it all his life without concern for the cost it imposed on existing relationships and, as it were, his wives. As he wrote in an early letter to his friend Bill while married to his first wife Hadley Richardson, “No matter how being in love comes out its sure worth it all while its all going on.” (HW 139) Inevitably a taste for passionate love came attached with a proclivity for the love triangle as his romantic entanglements ran parallel or overlapped. It began at the very beginning, when married to Hadley; Hemingway saw no problem in having Pauline Pfeiffer, who would eventually become wife number two, join them for their summer in Spain. Hadley remembered three of everything in those months: three swimsuits on the line, three breakfast trays and so on. Pauline, an early riser, wearing a robe over tomboy pajamas, would show up at the couple’s room early every morning and even crawled into bed with them. (HW54)

In Venice, following the autumn of 1947, it was Mary, the fourth wife’s turn, and the humiliations of her husband’s diverted attentions were captured on the page via what he wrote, and inflicted in person via what he said. Across the River and Into the Trees, the book that Hemingway worked on and that was ultimately released during these years, is, after all, a literary chronicle of the infatuation itself. Dedicated to Mary, it centers on an aging Colonel Richard Cantwell, who, at fifty, suffers a heart attack while at a duck shoot. During his recovery he becomes infatuated with a woman named Renata, modeled after Adriana. The scene and the setting and most of the characters are from real life; like the real Ernest and Adriana, the two rendezvous at Harry’s Bar and wander the streets of Venice. When memorable moments with Adriana were not enough material, he borrowed them from moments that belonged to Mary, “an absolutely perfect present” selected and purchased for the latter becoming in the book an offering to the former. (87)

That was hardly all of it. In a startling act of wifely accommodation (and humiliation), Mary, now cognizant that the nubile Adriana supplied some kind of generative creative energy, issued a formal invitation to both her husband’s beloved and her mother to the famous “Finca,” Hemingway’s home in Cuba. The scene is particularly illustrative of the degradations of being the near-discarded wife: A distressed Mary, nursing a broken ankle from a ski injury (152), has to sit across the table from the terse gray-haired Dora and tolerate intrusive questions about her marriage to Hemingway. The invitation delivered, poor Mary is then driven to the American hospital to have the cast on her ankle removed. Hemingway and Adriana leave separately to enjoy another rendezvous.

It is undoubted that Di Robilant’s book is a chronicle of the writer at sunset. Desperation lurks in many of the diversions Hemingway selects, discards and craves. Duck-shooting and cards, horse races and booze-filled evenings, hanging out with gondoliers and hanging out with the glitterati occur and recur in a perpetual, repeating cycle. Success has made him indulgent and even cruel. And as in love, so in lucre; it is not only women Hemingway pits against each other, but also publishers. Autumn in Venice even begins with a skirmish between Hemingway’s Italian publishers. The richer of the two, Mondadori, courts him with invitations to his villa and lavish cash payments, while the other, Einaudi, eagerly matches them. Scribner, his American publisher, is set up to figure out an arrangement with Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has agreed to serialize Across the River and Into the Trees. The clamor of people arguing over who can claim him seems to have become a staple of the steady flow of affirmation that Hemingway craved so much.

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All of these characters, the women, the publishers, the hangers-on, the simply interesting, provide the clamor that seems to sustain Hemingway, fonts of affirmation on demand available for his fragile writer’s ego. Together, the Mondadoris and the Di Robilants (a long deceased relative of the author), the no longer actually royal Princess Aspasia and scores of others are amassed into a court of sorts, leaving Hemingway himself as a Henry the VIII of the modern literary age. If the analogy is grandiose, so is the subject; finishing up Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway claims to be wrestling with Shakespeare himself, even handily beating him. “He was sitting at the head of one of those long patriarchal tables he liked so much to preside over. He saw me and immediately came toward me and immediately gave me such a big hug that I felt my bones cracking” (38), recounted Frances Pivano, his Italian translator, of their first meeting. Like the monarch who sent wife after wife to the executioner’s block, Hemingway never liked someone; he either loved or hated them.

Hemingway is one of Claire Dederer’s monstrous men, inoculated by the agreed-upon grand scale of his literary worth from suffering in the slightest for his treatment of the women he professed to love.

The punishing, smothering, if affectionate, pressure to respond in kind, to listen to the long rambling speeches, to partake of drink after drink after drink, embeds the events recounted in Autumn in Venice with a palpable sense of hedonistic desperation. There is the desperation of Mary Hemingway, infertile and old compared to the lithe and athletic Adriana, crying alone over her inability to become a mother, coloring her hair and buying mink coats to attract a husband who seems no longer to see her. There is the desperation of Adriana herself, not quite certain about what to make of her older suitor and yet unable to give up the world of fame and glamour to which she has gained attention. There is the desperation of publishers and editors, who struggle to get a hold of the star Hemingway’s latest work, even while they doubt its literary worth. Ultimately, of course, there is the desperation of Hemingway, for the attentions of a girl more than three decades younger, whom he cannot wed but whom he nevertheless professes to love.

The last is the worst, the aging Hemingway’s egoistical mixing of paternal love and romantic love and even sexual love for Adriana producing something stunted and even vaguely incestuous. His self-branding as “Papa” provided a permission of sorts for his pawing infatuations of girls like Adriana. They could be waved away as the harmless indulgences of an old man, acceptably enamored with the bloom of youth. And yet there is something depraved about a man, however old, addressing a young girl as “daughter” (146) even as he makes love to her in the back of a gondola, away from prying eyes. Complete secrecy is never possible, of course, and when he cannot avail of it, he lies. When gossip columnist Lorena Parsons declares the Hemingway marriage over and that Hemingway had fallen for a young Venetian countess (that last detail was wrong), he vehemently denies it all to Mary and everyone else. (187)

There are, in any story involving one man, in this case a literary great long feted and celebrated for his genius, multiple women with which to side. If one eludes the trap of picking wife or mistress, there is still the task of distilling critique from moral censure. It is the latter that is the hardest, particularly when the norm is to set the genius of the man apart from his cruelties. Such indeed has been the dominant mode of a literary culture that has fallen on the side of keeping, as the author Claire Dederer recently put it, “monstrous men” safely ensconced on the Mount Olympus of literary heroes.

Hemingway is one of these monstrous men, inoculated by the agreed-upon grand scale of his literary worth from suffering in the slightest for his treatment of the women he professed to love. Even Di Robilant, who, by virtue of having been allotted Hemingway’s most desperate decade, ends up chronicler of some of the man’s most vicious moments, attempts to apply emollients. When Mary receives the news of her infertility, he describes Hemingway as having “reacted valiantly,” simply because he offered her consolations despite being truly “saddened.” The slightest expression of compassion, of putting the feelings of another before his own, is, in a man of literary genius, an act of valor. In keeping with this tenor of awed hero-worship, Hemingway’s repeated patterns of punishing women whose attentions wander, even for legitimate reasons, is rarely recounted. Hadley Richardson was shelved away when her attentions toward him (and her trust fund) became inadequate after the birth of their son.

In her account of the Pfeiffer-Hemingway marriage, Ruth Hawkins notes that the once-mistress, now-wife Pauline knew that to “satisfy Ernest she had to forego her own needs and desires.” (110) When she makes the mistake of getting sick, Ernest happily abandons her and sets off on a trip without her. In a postmortem of the marriage, Hemingway owns up to none of this, blaming the meddling of Clara Dunn, one of the few strong-minded women whom he had ever encountered, for the breakdown of the relationship. In a later book, his feelings about the woman tumble out of the mouth of his characters, one of whom declares, “I hate Clara Dunn.” Wives who refused him sex were also derided, the Catholic Pauline’s refusal to have more frequent sex cited as the reason for his turning to Martha. “You were not beaten by Miss Martha,” he wrote. “You were beaten by coitus interruptus imposed by the Church. Burn a candle for me.” (258 Hawkins)

It was Martha Gellhorn’s independent departure to cover World War II that preceded the end of that relationship. Hemingway could not bear a woman who wanted to be somewhere he was not, to be someone other than his wife. Mary Welsh Hemingway, who happily ditched her own journalistic career in London, along with family and friends, was just the answer. She, too, would be scolded for denying him sex: “It is the most disappointing thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life,” he thundered one night, “the way that you have behaved in this bed under the circumstances of having just finished a book of which all proceeds were to go to you.” (125)

It was Mary who would find him dead on the morning of July 2, 1961. Even in that moment she tried to preserve the legend of the man, insisting in news reports that the incident had been an accident and that he had been merely cleaning the shotgun when it discharged. Adriana, predictably, was by then long gone, the ailments of his last years likely leaving little room for the once passionate infatuation. The tragedy of his end, along with the legend of his life, effectively covered up his horrors and hubris. Genius, it is ordinarily assumed, is erected on the tortured soul, one that is absolved hence from its tortures of others.

Undoubtedly, those sitting out the #MeToo moment would insist as much, demand that the men who lived in a pre-feminist past need not be subjected to an accounting today. The great man’s love and his life are things apart, it is posited, and must not be mixed and mingled. The uncovering of Hemingway’s misogyny and the manipulations that are pinned to it is, per their logic, an impermissible act of literary evaluation. And yet, without doing just that, we maintain the pretense that literary heroism, the modes and mannerisms of literary masculinity past, are in no way relevant to those of the present. One after another, the #MeToo Movement counts down the bad literary men of now, sometimes banishing them, sometimes believing their excuses, but always imagining them as unaffected by the misogyny of literary men of the past.

Literary misogyny lives on in the genealogy of characters and plots and dialogue and denouement. It also lives on in the adulation of untouched heroes, men like Hemingway with storied lives filled with maligned women. As long as they, the bad men of the literary past, are not held to account, the ones alive today can have hope, can believe that their artistic genius will absolve them now as it did those others then, everything continuing, excusing, rationalizing, and hiding their sins, just like it always has.


Also cited in this essay:
1. The Hemingway Women by Bernice Kert (HW in the text)
2. Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeifer Marriage by Ruth Hawkins (Hawkins)

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Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (2015) and Veil (2017). She is a columnist at Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper and writes the “Alienated” column for The Baffler.

Editor: Dana Snitzky