Ernest Hemingway once spent several weeks in self-isolation with his sick toddler, his wife, nanny, and his mistress. So yes, you too can survive this quarantine, America.
HistoryNet recently spoke with journalist and author Lesley M.M. Blume on that odd episode in history and her book, Everyone Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises.
We are currently in unprecedented times, and Hemingway’s self-imposed isolation in the summer of 1926 provides some much-needed levity. Who were the characters involved in the love triangle?
Hemingway and Hadley had turned up in Paris a few years earlier at this point. Hadley is the epitome of an adoring wife. Her whole life is to be of service to Ernest Hemingway.
It’s important to note that Hemingway always felt that he was destined for something great. He was uniquely determined and talented and, at this time, on the verge of breakthrough with his novel, The Sun Also Rises. He’s about to become a mega-literary celebrity, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. So here he is with Hadley, who is, from one point of view, a “starter” wife. She’s gotten him through those early years on a modest trust fund, but now Hemingway is about to become world famous and his circle is suddenly very glamorous. Hadley is looking out of place.
While the couple is in Paris, they meet Pauline Pfeiffer. At first, Pauline thinks Hemingway is a total boor, but then she comes around to his animalistic charm. She decides that she’s a better fit for him than Hadley. She’s this slender pixie of a Vogue editor; she’s an heiress; and she’s not just more glamorous, but she’s also, it’s important to note, a journalist. Pauline and Hemingway are connecting on a level that he can’t with Hadley, so he begins a relationship with Pauline while he’s still married. It develops into a really peculiar, complicated, and probably agonizing love triangle.
What forced the family to go into quarantine, and how did Hadley’s “swell joke”, as she writes, lead to all three of them living together?
Back in Paris, Hemingway and Hadley have a confrontation because she has figured out that Pauline is making a play for her man. In fact, Pauline tips her hat to Hadley by essentially saying, “you need to know that we’re competitors now.”
Hadley confronts Hemingway and they have a big fight over it, but they decide they are going to stay in the marriage. Hemingway goes off to Spain to watch the bullfights, and originally Hadley is going to come with him, but their toddler son Jack, nicknamed Bumby, has a cough and they are worried that Spain is going to be too dank and damp for him.
Hadley is invited to go down to the now very famous villa of Sarah and Gerald Murphy, Villa America. The Murphys have three children of their own, and when all four of the kids are playing down on the beach, the Murphys see Bumby hacking his brains out. They’re understandably concerned, so they summon their doctor, and it turns out Bumby has whooping cough – a highly contagious condition. At that time, all you can really do is isolate, so Hadley and Bumby are kicked out of paradise, as it were. Luckily for them, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are summering nearby and allow the two to stay in a modest two-bedroom house that the they had rented near the coast.
Bumby’s nanny comes down from Paris, and then lo and behold, who else comes down from Paris? Pauline. There are a lot of different narratives as to why she came down, so it’s still kind of hard to parse exactly why she came. Hadley says in one biography that she had sent some kind of a note to Pauline, so Pauline came down. There’s another source that says Hemingway may have slyly written to Pauline asking her to go and look after them, which seems really strange to send your mistress to look after your wife. Whatever the case is, Pauline basically offers herself up as a nurse because she has already had whooping cough so she is immune to it.
There’s a lot of speculation as to her motives – maybe she just really wants to see Hemingway and knew he was going to go there. In any case, it’s a way to get her claws into him further, which actually proves to be the case. So, Hadley suddenly finds herself with her husband’s mistress in a two-bedroom house with the nanny, her kid, and then Hemingway turns up. They’re all living there in quarantine.
I don’t know about you, but I’m quarantined at home with a husband who I like, and a kid who’s not sick, and I’m still going crazy right now. I can’t even imagine how this must have shaken out. But Hemingway is the penultimate compartmentalizer. He actually later says that the “setting was a magnificent place to write.” So not only is he surviving in the quarantine, he’s thriving creatively.
There’s a fake F. Scott Fitzgerald letter swirling around the internet in which he supposedly writes that Hemingway is a flu denier who doesn’t wash his hands. The letter also humorously adds that Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, have stocked up on enough alcohol set to last a month. While the letter is a parody, do you think they all needed a stiff drink in order to survive the quarantine?
Yes, they did drink their way through the quarantine. Hadley has unwanted company in the form of her husband’s mistress and would sometimes take a walk into town to get a shot of whiskey. She should have been self-isolating, but I guess it was her way of preserving her sanity.
The Fitzgeralds and the Murphys are in their in their villas nearby, while the Hemingways are in this crazy situation shoveled into this little house. I wouldn’t even call it a ménage à trois, I don’t know what you would call it! The Murphys and Fitzgeralds are sending them supplies, but they’re also going over there every day for drinks because they’re kind of fascinated. Zelda Fitzgerald calls it their “domestic difficulties.” Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald love gossip and they have a front row seat to this crazy setup.
Hemingway himself is a very unique character. How fun was it to research and dig into archives for your book Everybody Behaves Badly?
Complete deliciousness, but also totally stressful because Hemingway is a really beloved and well documented figure. I was following in the footsteps of really powerful male scholars, biographers, and journalists. Let’s just say the Hemingway community can be really, really tough.
On one hand, here I am spending my time documenting Hemingway, who is just heavenly source material, but at the same time sweating bullets because I felt that upon the release of the book, I was coming out to something of a firing squad. I was really lucky though, because I got more or less total support from the Hemingway community. It’s been really awesome, but it did push me to be almost pathological with the research.
Hemingway and company are quarantined for several weeks and Hadley and Hemingway split shortly after. How pervasive is Pauline’s presence?
It is a campaign, an astonishing campaign on her part. To say that she is ubiquitous is an understatement. My jaw was on the ground the entire time reading all the accounts of her behavior during this period of time. They are really sequestered in the house for a few weeks, and then afterwards they move to a local hotel and Bumby and the nanny are still in a separate house. Pauline’s “role” as a nurse is over. The nanny is there, the situation is under control, but Pauline doesn’t leave. She actually checks into the hotel.
Hadley tells her first biographer that from that point on, everything is done “a trois.” They are never alone. Pauline is always with them. If they want to go on a bike ride, there’s Pauline on the third bike. It got to the point where one day the Hemingways have a breakfast tray sent up to them in their room and who follows the person in bringing the tray but Pauline? She then crawls into the bed and shares their breakfast.
Even after Pauline leaves to go back up to Paris, they can’t get away from her. Hadley can’t, anyway, as letters come in a daily stream. There’s this one letter where she writes along the lines of, “I’m going to get everything I want.” And she does get what she wants. Hadley and Hemingway decide to split shortly after that and Hemingway marries Pauline.
I like to end on a somewhat humorous note. If Hemingway had to self-isolate again, which of his four wives do you think he would choose to quarantine with?
Oh, my God. [Laughs] Well, definitely not Martha Gellhorn. She was a total spitfire. I feel like he would have needed a new girl. He had a real thing for female journalists, which is kind of fascinating because as soon as they married him, he expected them to be in a role of subservience. Imagine being in quarantine with that?
But if he had a gun to his head and somebody said choose among your four wives, I kind of want to say maybe Hadley because she was just so totally subservient. You want the person who’s going to cause you the least amount of agitation possible. Hadley would have eaten her own shoe before she’d see him go hungry, so that’s my totally speculative, irresponsible take on the question.