Hemingway in Love: His Own Story, by A. E. Hotchner (St. Martin’s Press, 172 pp., $19.99)
In Ernest Hemingway’s best stories, love is lost, love is taken away, or love is squandered. A. E. Hotchner sets out to illustrate that what is true of the creations was true for their creator: Hemingway lost his first wife and “one true love” by dint of self-centered carelessness. He allowed himself to be “stolen away” from Hadley Richardson by the designing Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife. Three decades later, he unburdened himself to Hotchner in a series of conversations that comprise this book.
The author of memoir/reminiscences of Doris Day, Sophia Loren, and Paul Newman, Hotchner has made a career writing about his friendships with famous people. He met Hemingway in Havana, where Cosmopolitan sent him in 1948 to commission an article from Papa on the future of literature. Hemingway took a liking to Hotchner, and their relationship—part friendly, part professional—endured until Hemingway’s death in 1961. Notorious for falling out with perceived competitors and the literary friends of his Paris years, Hemingway retained Hotchner in his inner circle, enabling the memoirist to produce Papa Hemingway in 1966 (revised in 1983, it remains the author’s best-known book) and several subsequent Hemingway-related works, of which Hemingway in Love is the latest.
Prior to producing his celebrity bios, Hotchner also worked in television, where he took on the small-screen adaptations of four Hemingway stories. Hemingway saw this venture almost exclusively as a moneymaker, having lost hope that Hollywood could adapt his work effectively for the big screen. The TV scripts pleased the network executives so much that they offered Hemingway and Hotchner—“H&H Enterprises,” as they called themselves—a second season’s run, provided that they rewrite the author’s most famous works with happy endings. Nothing doing, of course. But Hotchner had proved capable, companionable, and bright, qualities that made him welcome for return trips to Hemingway’s homes in Cuba and Key West and excursions on the Pilar, the boat bought by Pfeiffer’s uncle.
Hemingway in Love is an extended record of Hemingway’s regrets at divorcing Richardson and marrying Pfeiffer. Less than a month away from suicide, Hemingway asks: “How does a young man know when he falls in love for the very first time . . . that it will be the only true love of his life?” Such a question lends plausibility to Hotchner’s declaration that he didn’t include this material in Papa Hemingway because he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of Mary, Hemingway’s fourth wife, who herself published a memoir in 1976. But Mary died nearly 30 years ago; current trends seem to account for this book’s appearance. Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife became a 2012 bestseller; Naomi Woods’s 2014 Mrs. Hemingway: A Novel was a New York Times editor’s choice. Not far in the background is Gioia Diliberto’s 2011 Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife, and on the farther horizon is the mother of all such books, Bernice Kert’s encyclopedic The Hemingway Women, published in 1983.
Can Hemingway in Love compete for serious readers in this crowded field? Not really. Moments of humor pop up, and several well-told tales emerge, giving the book some value as light entertainment or as an introduction to Hemingway. And Hotchner’s chronicle of the author’s decline inspires both terror and pity. But the book contains almost nothing new. Its themes have been treated in the main biographies and woven into the recent books on Hemingway’s wives. Much material is repeated from Hemingway’s Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, and knowledgeable readers will also note details and passages that echo Hemingway’s fiction.
Some of the book’s finer moments find Hemingway recounting the sound advice given to him by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, Hemingway admits, was right about Pfeiffer’s machinations to steal him away from Richardson. Then again, he is using Fitzgerald to bolster his own version of the breakup: it was Pfeiffer’s fault, not his. Hemingway in Love replaces the venomous putdowns of Fitzgerald that appear in A Moveable Feast with warmer memories. Hotchner comes to the aid of his old friend, who had instructed his publishers not to include the attacks on Fitzgerald in his memoir—and, for that matter, to go easier on Pfeiffer. They ignored him, and A Moveable Feast was published posthumously.
Hemingway’s penchant for tall tales is evident in one of the book’s few revelations. Lonely and despairing during his famous 100-day separation from both Richardson and Pfeiffer, Hemingway spins a fisherman’s story of a night spent at the apartment of “the ebony goddess,” Josephine Baker. He notices her making eyes at him. After a scuffle, he steals her from a British army sergeant with whom she had been dancing at a “classy nightclub,” wearing nothing but her birthday suit and a fur coat in mid-summer. She takes him to her apartment, where they spend the night examining the state of their souls. Hotchner notes aloud that this anecdote closely parallels an incident in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” except that the woman in that story was not Josephine Baker—to which Hemingway replies that he never used real names in his stories. Josephine Baker’s soul, he said, was a private matter.
Hotchner’s apparent acceptance of this tall tale at face value typifies his lack of skepticism, a quality that might have added heft to his book. Hotchner lays out a simple story of Hemingway suffering for love and never recovering from his loss of Richardson. The old man still spinning tales would seem to be the real story here.
One thinks of the 19-year-old Hemingway, set to depart New York for the Great War, hoaxing his family and friends back in Oak Park that he’d carried on an affair with the film star Mae Marsh and that they were engaged to be married. Young man, old man—the yarn-spinning has come full circle. The young man wanted to create a life of dash and glamor; the old man wants a version of his youthful self that was spoiled only by his own carelessness and Pfeiffer’s cunning. The young man prefigured the old man, who was only alive to himself so long as he could tell stories.
Hotchner seems blind to this. His judgments are few and exclusively laudatory, putting the writer in the position of sympathetic recording device—and the recording itself must be viewed skeptically. The stories Hemingway remembered aloud to Hotchner in the 1950s were already 30 years old. Another 50 years went by before Hotchner wrote his book. Allow for the copious consumption of alcohol during their tȇte-à-tȇtes, factor in Hemingway’s ill health—both physical and mental—and the reader has a right to doubt the record.
Hotchner fails to recognize the subjective and changing status of memory. Memory is not an unvarnished snapshot of the past; the mind has worked on (and altered) the remembered past in the interval. The declining, failing, and dying Hemingway was being truthful when he told Hotchner that Richardson was the love of his life, but, as for all of us, his reminiscences and what he called “the true gen” don’t always align with one another.