Scott Donaldson, one of the nation’s pre-eminent biographers and author of “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald,” “By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway,” “John Cheever: A Biography,” and “The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway” – as well as numerous other books about literary icons – released “The Paris Husband: How it Really Was Between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway” this summer. In his new oeuvre, Donaldson chronicles a crucial time in Hemingway’s life: 1920-1927.
First, Donaldson takes the reader to 1920 Chicago, where Hemingway – licking his wounds from nurse Agnes von Kurowsky’s rejection (suffered during The Great War) – meets Hadley Richardson of St. Louis at his friend’s apartment. At the time, Hemingway was 21; Hadley was 28. The duo had a lot in common, including the fact that they both had overbearing mothers, and both paterfamilias committed suicide. Donaldson reportage skills accurately capture the courting process, leading to the couple’s wedding in Horton Bay, Michigan. The twosome, Donaldson points out, were extremely compatible: she liked to ski, she was lucky at the racetrack and she even enjoyed a good boxing match … just like her husband.
Donaldson then takes the reader to Paris, where Ernest and Hadley, with the help of Sherwood Anderson, meet Gertrude Stein, who coached him “to give up journalism if he wanted to succeed as a writer,” and Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, a meeting spot for Left Bank literati including James Joyce, Andre Gide, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. Readers enjoy nights out at the cafés that line Boulevard Montparnasse, and trips to the racetrack and prizefights.
In the early 1920s, Hemingway, as a fledgling author, took a job reporting for the Toronto Star to support his family. In one dispatch Hemingway interviewed fascist leader Benito Mussolini at the Conference at Lausanne, writing that Mussolini was “the biggest bluff in Europe” because at a press conference he caught the despot reading a “French-English dictionary – held upside down.”
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Donaldson’s expertise provides the reader with detailed accounts of his first published works: “Three Stories and Ten Poems,” featuring the controversial “Up in Michigan” and the tragic “My Old Man,” and how his friend Harold Loeb (Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises”) secured a contract for Hemingway’s masterful collection. The book also features a section about how Hemingway, in an arcane manner, wiggled his way out of his first publishing contract, landing with F. Scott Fitzgerald at Scribner’s with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins.
All the while, he and Hadley continue to drink and socialize in Paris, but it was the famous “stolen valise” incident at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris from which the couple never recovered. Donaldson separates fact from fiction in the oft-written-about incident, finally setting the record straight for Hemingway readers and scholars. Although the couple stayed together after the debacle, traveling to Pamplona for the Fiesta of San Fermin three times, Donaldson believes the tear in their marriage caused by the incident could never be sewn back properly. And in walked Vogue editor Pauline Pfeiffer, “bright and clever, well-read and stylish,” who became friends with the Hemingways. Donaldson writes about the dynamic relationship among the three, culminating with a historic event that readers learn about when they finish this new book.
Hemmingway cherished Hadley throughout his life, writing in “A Moveable Feast”: “I was happy and without any remorse and I never worked better nor was I happier and I loved the girl truly.” He displays his feelings for her again in the 1970 posthumously released novel “Islands in the Stream,” in which the protagonist Thomas Hudson lives alone after two divorces. Hudson is often sad thinking about “his first wife and the only woman he ever really loved.” Hemingway dedicated “The Sun Also Rises” to Hadley and their son John Nicanor, and their love is present throughout Scott Donaldson’s keen study of a love affair so powerful that it is talked about 100 years later, deeming “The Paris Husband” a treasure.
Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.