Although he has been dead since 1961, Ernest Hemingway remains a person of interest among students of American literature. As with any other celebrity, he was as famous for his private life as his professional life. Even in his day, his traditionally male pursuits (hunting, fishing, drinking, boxing) made him suspect in some circles. If the concept of toxic masculinity existed back then, rest assured it would have been applied to him.
Indeed, at times he often seems like a caricature of a macho man. There is an amusing story about writer Max Eastman, who described Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s nonfiction work about bullfighting, as having “false hair on the chest.” The next time Eastman met Hemingway, the latter bared his shirt to reveal his hairy chest, then ripped open Eastman’s shirt to reveal a hairless chest. The two men then proceeded to brawl in their editor’s office. A pissing contest would have been much less taxing.
A number of literary critics, not all of them feminists, have examined Hemingway’s relationships with women. There is plenty of material, as he was married four times. As his son Gregory put it, “I was the third and youngest son, the product of one of my father’s emotional catastrophes. That is, one of his four marriages.”
The primary emotional catastrophe for Hemingway was his relationship with his mother. We tend to assume that maternal love and unconditional love are all but synonymous. Whatever you call it, Ernest Hemingway didn’t get it from his mother. At least, he didn’t think so.
Hemingway’s mother was something of a diva, literally and figuratively. She was a talented enough contralto to be offered a contract from the Metropolitan Opera and was involved in artistic pursuits all her life. Nevertheless, she found time to bear six children. So there are compelling reasons why Hemingway did not get his mother’s undivided attention.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, a cloistered suburb (residents preferred to call it a village) of Chicago, Hemingway was the only boy in the family till brother Leicester (also a writer, also a suicide) arrived in 1915 when mom was 42 years old. Hemingway’s literary talents emerged early and were encouraged by his parents.
Typically, when a family has an overbearing mother, a weak father is the complement. That was not the case with Hemingway’s family. His father, a physician, was no pushover. Stern as Dr. Hemingway was, his son loved and admired him. By introducing his son to the joys of the great outdoors, his contribution to Hemingway’s development was immeasurable. In his own way, Dr. Hemingway was as judgmental as his wife and exercised his paternal authority on numerous occasions.
For example, after laying down the reasonable law that a hunter should not shoot any animal he did not intend to eat, Dr. Hemingway discovered his son had shot and killed a porcupine. Consequently, Ernest Hemingway is one of a select few who utilized porcupine meat as source of protein, as his father insisted that he cook and eat the porcupine he had shot. The message took hold. In the years to come, whenever Hemingway pulled in a trophy-worthy marlin, he would share the meat with the locals.
When World War I came along, Hemingway’s eyesight kept him out of the Army but he wouldn’t let it end there. “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting into it,” he wrote in a letter.
So he entered the fray as an ambulance driver. This occupation was surprisingly popular with aspiring writers (Dashiell Hammett, John Dos Passos, and E.E. Cummings all logged time as drivers). The occupation was not as dangerous as combat but it wasn’t without peril, as Hemingway discovered when his legs were riddled with shrapnel (estimates vary but even the most conservative estimate is more than 200 pieces), requiring a lengthy stay at a Red Cross hospital in Milan.
His nurse was an American girl named Agnes von Kurowsky. She was seven years older than Hemingway – in other words far more mature than girls his own age but still young enough to have sexual market value. It is not hard to imagine how a young man immobilized in a hospital might develop a crush on his caretaker if she was the least bit attractive and attentive. In this quasi-maternal role, she might have awakened his male mother need, perhaps convincing him he’d missed out on something fundamental in his youth.
If this situation sounds familiar, it’s probably because it inspired Hemingway to write A Farewell to Arms, which may still be on required reading lists, though in some enlightened institutions it may have been displaced by GLBTQ fiction.
What was puppy love or infatuation for Hemingway was something altogether different for his nurse. Her biological clock was ticking, even if that phrase wasn’t in use back then. Consequently, she was fond of him in a motherly or elder sister sort of way, but probably never seriously considered him as a life partner. He was hardly in a position to embark on married life. So after he returned to the United States, she wrote him a Dear John letter.
Following rejection from his beloved, Hemingway found his emotional wounds as debilitating as his physical wounds, and he entered a prolonged period of depression, only to receive a stinging letter from his mother accusing him of being a bum and a slacker. Apparently, her love was conditional, and it was based on his making something of himself.
Eventually, Hemingway got over his rejection. This was probably facilitated by the attention he received from other females. According to his son Gregory, he had “an attraction for women you wouldn’t believe unless you saw it.” They knew a budding alpha male when they saw one.
Inevitably, young Hemingway fell in love again – but once again, the old male mother need arose. At age 22, he married Hadley Richardson, who was eight years older.
At first all went well. Hemingway’s parents approved of the match, thinking marriage would give their son a direction in life. The young couple enjoyed living in Paris and Hadley bore him a son. Apparently, Hemingway’s male mother needs were being met by his wife, an unassuming woman who had led a quiet, sheltered life before marrying Hemingway.
But as the years passed, he apparently had a change of heart. Hadley might have been a nice enough girl, but she was not the ideal mate for an ambitious young man. He transferred his affections to their friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was only four years older than he was. So he was making progress.
Unlike Hadley, Pauline Pfeiffer was a career woman, an editor at Vogue; more importantly, she was an heiress. Hemingway was in the process of writing The Sun Also Rises, his first successful novel, when they met, so her money likely turned in handy.
Hemingway married Pfeiffer in 1927, but he could not rationalize what he had done and suffered guilt about the breakup of his first marriage for the rest of his life. Even so, his increasingly successful career and his second wife’s money made for a comfortable life in Key West during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, Hemingway’s rift with his mother grew wide, as she had let him know that she disapproved of The Sun Also Rises, the Lost Generation tale of aimlessness and mindless pleasure-seeking:
The critics seem to be full of praise for your style and ability to draw word pictures but the decent ones always regret that you should use such great gifts in perpetuating the lives and habits of so degraded a strata of humanity …. It is a doubtful honor to produce one of the filthiest books of the year …. What is the matter? Have you ceased to be interested in nobility, honor and fineness in life? …. Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than “damn” and “bitch”—Every page fills me with a sick loathing.
In later years, Hemingway would explain that he was a son of a bitch because his mother was “an all-American bitch.” It certainly didn’t help when she blamed her son for Dr. Hemingway’s suicide in 1928.
She probably wasn’t that crazy about her son’s divorce either, but he was just getting started. After all, he was still maturing and his needs were changing over time. By 1936 he was a celebrated writer when he met journalist Martha Gellhorn in Key West. They were re-acquainted during the Spanish Civil War, when both were correspondents.
Hemingway’s male mother need had apparently been met by his previous wives, or perhaps he just grew out of it, as Gellhorn was, to put it simply, a hottie – and she was nine years younger than Hemingway. Perhaps by this time he felt it was time to move on to a trophy wife, or whatever they called such a woman back then. Since Martha was young, attractive, intelligent and educated, she would certainly look good on his arm as his literary star rose and he pushed on into darkest middle age.
From here on, his nickname “Papa” became particularly appropriate, as he became something of a father figure to Gellhorn. They married in 1940 and moved to Cuba. He regretted that he never had any daughters so perhaps Gellhorn filled that need. One can imagine how favorably an ambitious young female writer might respond to a father figure/literary celebrity.
Hemingway’s advice did help her professionally; indeed, she became one of the best known World War II correspondents and the Hemingways qualified as a power couple. Of course, that meant Martha wasn’t always available for traditional wifely duties. Though his own celebrity status was hardly in danger, Papa was jealous of the success of his “daughter.” Perhaps that was inevitable, as he was always measuring his success in relation to other writers.
The result? Exit wife number three, enter wife number four, Mary Welch. It appeared, however, that Hemingway had at least settled on a type, as wife number four was also a war correspondent, the same age as wife number three, and she willingly dyed her hair to match the color of her predecessor. Welch was no slouch in the serial marriage department herself, as Hemingway was her third spouse.
Don’t know if Papa loved mambo while he lived in Cuba, but presumably he loved Welch, whom he married when he was 46 years old. She served as his wife in Cuba when he was working on The Old Man and the Sea, and remained with him for the rest of his life.
The Old Man and the Sea was certainly an all-world novel, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and clinching the Nobel Prize for Hemingway the following year. This fable was clean, uplifting, and noble. His mother would have been proud. Unfortunately, she died on June 21, 1951 while he was still working on the book.
Even though Hemingway had outgrown his male mother need, he never reconciled with his mother. He did not attend her funeral, though he certainly had the money to fly from Havana to Chicago for the services.
One wonders why Hemingway chose the serial polygamy route. As his second wife Pauline observed, “I don’t mind Ernest falling in love but why does he always have to marry the girl when he does?” One would think that at some point it would have occurred to him that keeping a mistress or a series of mistresses would make more sense. Doubtless, mom would not have approved his taking that route, however.
In the last year of Hemingway’s life, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released. Given Hemingway’s suicidal depression at that time, he likely never saw the movie. So he never heard Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) declare that “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” Surely, Hemingway would have disagreed.
Of course, Norman Bates’s dictum is rather ironic after we discover that he is his mother. Given Hemingway’s egotism and artistic temperament, perhaps the same could be said of him.