In 1948, Ernest Hemingway, who was 49 at the time, traveled with his fourth wife to Venice, and there, at a duck shoot in the lagoon, he met Adriana Ivancich, a beautiful 18-year-old Venetian with whom Hemingway was smitten. He stated that he “felt as if lighting had struck” when he first saw her. The great American author was in Italy seeking inspiration for his next novel. It was almost 10 years since “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and he found encouragement in Adriana, the model for Renata in 1950’s “Across the River and into the Trees,” about a dying colonel and his muse.
Andrea di Robilant chronicles the Hemingway-Ivancich relationship in his new book “Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse.” His reporting is extremely accurate because he is close to the topic: di Robilant’s great uncle, Carlo di Robilant, was a part of Hemingway’s coterie in Venice in 1948. In fact, Hemingway wrote “The Faithfull Bull,” a fable, for Carlo’s daughter, Olghina, deeming Andrea’s sources credible.
The narrative focuses squarely on the relationship between Hemingway and the young Adriana. It was at a rainy-day duck hunt where Hemingway became familiar with the teen beauty. He witnessed her, with wet hair, asking whether anyone had a comb she could borrow. Hemingway “fished” one out of his pocket, broke it in half and watched her comb her hair by the fire.
In other sections of his book, di Robilant writes about Hemingway’s ski vacation to Cortina, where Adriana glided down the slopes with her friend Gio Tofani, meeting Hemingway at a café for lunch every day; to Paris, where Hemingway took Adriana, not his wife Mary, to the races at Auteuil; and to Cuba, where Adriana, her mother and brother visited the Hemingways at their home – the Finca Vigia. When Adriana was not near him, his mood dipped and he was nasty to Mary: His “cantankerousness was no doubt made more acute by his longing to be back in the easy company of Adriana,” di Robilant writes. And to assuage his pain when Adriana was not around, Hemingway wrote her fiver letters a week, irking Adriana’s mother.
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Because Hemingway had trouble writing at the time, di Robilant accurately writes about Hemingway’s projects from 1948-1952. These included, of course, “Across the River and into the Trees” – for which Adriana created the cover art – his Sea Book (released posthumously as “Islands in the Stream”), and 1952’s “Old Man and the Sea,” which he said he was writing for Adriana because she was near him. (Adriana also illustrated the cover of “Old Man and the Sea.”) To maximize sales for that book, Hemingway negotiated with Life magazine to print the novella in September 1952. The magazine printed 5 million copies, with Hemingway’s image on the cover. It sold out in two days.
The complicated relationship between Adriana Ivancich and Ernest Hemingway will never be fully understood, and neither will Hemingway’s suicide in Idaho on July 2, 1961. On March 24, 1983, Adriana’s husband “found his wife hanging from the thick lower branch of an olive tree,” adding more calamity and mystery to the life of Hemingway.
Andrea di Robilant’s well-written book reads like a novel, not a biography, and avid readers, of any genre, should secure a copy for their own journeys this summer.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.