The Hemingway Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Women were necessary in Ernest Hemingway’s life, but not constantly. They had their uses for him—in bed, in the kitchen, as listeners, as comforters, as typists, as hunting and fishing companions, sometimes as money sources. For their services they were repaid in occasional kindness—particularly when they were away and he wanted them back. They were expected to be grateful for his affection or love, to cater to his vanity, to endure his jokes, to forget or ignore the occasions when he embarrassed or humiliated them either in private or before relatives and friends, and to forgive his indifference, his quarrels, his obnoxiousness (especially when he was drinking), and his verbal and mental cruelty.

The women who played their roles in the drama and the melodrama of Hemingway’s life are the subject of Bernice Kert’s excellent account, which covers nearly a century, from the birth of the writer’s mother in 1872 to his bloody suicide in 1961. The women had their entrances and their exits, many of them, in the sixty-two years (minus three months) of his adventure-filled, famous, violent, and finally pathetic life.

The five sections of Kert’s book are chronological but with many glances both forward and backward in time as one woman or another appears, disappears, or returns after an absence, sometimes of years. A sentence from Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937) warns the reader of much that will follow: “The better you treat a man and the more you show him you love him, the quicker he gets tired of you.” The words are from a novel, but the speaker might well be the author in a confessional mood.

Grace Hall Hemingway, the first woman in her son’s life, was the object of his scorn and contempt for most of his years. His favorite epithet for her was “that bitch,” and he saw her as a selfish wife who drove her husband to suicide. For many years after Ernest left home, she continued to write to him, offering advice and moral counsel. Though he set up a trust fund for her after the publication of A Farewell to Arms (1929), he paid her little attention except to answer her letters with anger, arguments, complaints, and perfunctory thanks for presents. When she died senile at seventy-nine, in 1951, he did not attend her funeral.

Agnes von Kurowsky entered Hemingway’s life as a result of his being seriously wounded in World War I, having volunteered for the ambulance service of the Red Cross in Italy. The nineteen-year-old American was brought to a hospital in Milan, where he quickly fell in love with Agnes, his nurse, and he expected to marry her following his recovery and his return to the United States. She led him to think that she would, but a later affair and her expected marriage to a young Italian officer disillusioned and embittered Hemingway when he learned the news by letter. Interference by the officer’s aristocratic mother caused the breaking off of the engagement, and Agnes returned to the United States not long after Hemingway did, but there was no renewal of their love affair. Hemingway later fictionalized the experience in “A Very Short Story” (1923) giving it a sordid ending. In A Farewell to Arms, he treated it at much greater length, transforming it into a romantic tragedy and making of the idealized Catherine Barkley a woman who physically resembles the Agnes he had loved, but whose life history, mannerisms, and name were drawn from other women he had known.

Hemingway married Hadley Richardson, the first of his four wives, after a courtship of a little less than a year which was carried on mainly through letters. Hadley’s inheritance of eight thousand dollars after the death of an uncle enabled the couple to move to Paris, from which Hemingway was to mail articles on sports and politics to the Toronto Daily Star, for which he was a reporter. The marriage was happy at first, with trips to Italy and Germany and with the excitement of living in a part of Paris where frequent contact was possible with men and women who provided intellectual and aesthetic stimulation as well as social companionship.

The birth in 1923 of John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway, nicknamed “Bumby,” limited the freedom of movement Hadley had known earlier, but she knew such freedom was necessary to her husband in his journalistic work. A disturbing element entered the marriage, however, through the development of Hemingway’s interest in two women in his Parisian circle of friends.

Lady Duff Twysden, twice married, with one divorce and another pending, was living with the latest in a stream of lovers. Hemingway was attracted to her, remarks Kert, by “her insouciance, her style, her unerring charm.” She was briefly in his life as a confiding friend though not as a lover. He gave her an enduring literary life as the promiscuous Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises (1926). Married in 1928 to a young American painter, Clinton King, Duff gave up her disordered life and lived quietly with her husband until her death from tuberculosis in 1938 at the age of forty-five.

The other woman who diverted Hemingway’s interest from his wife was Pauline Pfeiffer, who presented a much greater danger to the marriage than Duff ever did. Pauline, a journalist writing for the American magazine...

(The entire section is 2181 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

American Journal of Psychology. CXL, December, 1983, p. 1636.

Choice. XXI, November, 1983, p. 424.

Library Journal. CVIII, May 15, 1983, p. 1004.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 3, 1983, p. 2.

National Review. XXXV, August 19, 1983, p. 1027.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, July 17, 1983, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, May 6, 1983, p. 94.