In the film Papa Hemingway in Cuba, Adrian Sparks convincingly portrays Ernest Hemingway during a time when he is struggling to write about his first wife Hadley. His angst is fierce and everyone around him gets caught up in the turmoil, including a young newspaper reporter, played by Giovanni Ribisi. There is a particularly powerful scene in the swimming pool during which Ernest reveals Hadley was the one true love of his life, cautioning the reporter to not take commitment lightly.
As they say, hindsight is 20/20—a caveat that applies equally to Hemingway’s advice and the book he was desperate to write at the time. We now know it as A Movable Feast, Ernest’s memoir about his years in Paris as a starving young writer married to Hadley. In writings and interviews, both of them felt they were lucky during that time, though their connection wouldn’t hold in the end.
For the Love of Hemingway
We’re celebrating Valentine’s Day here on the & Company blog with a look at Hemingway and three significant relationships. Though his nostalgia for Hadley occupied his mind later in life, he had powerful relationships with each of these wives (and more than a few affairs). “‘We should live in this time now and have every minute of it,’” Ernest wrote in A Movable Feast, quoting Hadley. “‘We’re watching the water now as it hits this buttress. Look what we can see when we look up the river.’ We looked and there it all was: our river and our city and the island of our city. ‘We’re too lucky.’”
There are a number of references in the book to how good it felt to be a young couple making love during those lean years when a meal at one of Paris’ simple cafés was a splurge. One of their special haunts was Michaud’s, which no longer exists. He sets the scene after dinner there one evening, the winnings from a day at the race tracks giving them the money to treat themselves: “It was a wonderful meal at Michaud’s […] when we had finished and there was no question of hunger any more, the feeling that had been like hunger when we were on the bridge was still there when we caught the bus home. It was there when we came in the room and after we had gone to bed and made love in the dark, it was there.”
Nothing was simple in Paris, he wrote, “not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” You can feel the romantic mood he’s in as he remembers this, and I think the tone would have been markedly different were he not feeling sentimental about his life in general. “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other,” he goes on to say.
His regret oozes from the page when he is writing about his good fortune in finding Shakespeare and Company, the owner of which was always generously loaning him books he could never have afforded. Hadley remarked to him, “We’re lucky that you found the place.” Ernest responded, “We’re always lucky,” adding, “like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.”
Once Hadley had given birth to their son Jack, whose nickname was Bumby, they felt Paris was too difficult to manage so they retreated to the mountains of Austria where they spent time skiing for a good part of the year. “Hadley and I loved skiing and we loved Schruns,” he wrote. “We would go there about Thanksgiving time and stay until nearly Easter.”
He declared Schruns a good place to work. “I know because I did the most difficult job of rewriting I have ever done there in the winter of 1925 and 1926, when I had to take the first draft of The Sun Also Rises which I had written in one sprint of six weeks, and make it into a novel.” He reserves the falling apart of his relationship with Hadley for the last two pages of A Movable Feast, not mentioning his affair with his next wife Pauline by name but describing how he believes she moved in on the couple with the aim of coming between them from the start.
He’d vowed to himself to stop his indiscretion but after traveling to New York to meet with publishers, he plans a layover in Paris during which he and Pauline are intimate. “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
In her novel The Paris Wife, Paula McLain gave Hadley a voice that is as emotive as Ernest’s in his memoir. “After he left for the states, I saw him just twice more in my very long life, but I watched from a distance as he became, very quickly, the most important writer of his generation and also a kind of hero of his own making.”
In the narrative, Hadley describes a call she received from Ernest, out of the blue, in which he says he is working on a memoir. “‘You’re everywhere in the book,’ he said, and his voice dipped.” This memoir is the material he’s trying to get to in Papa Hemingway in Cuba, his home Finca Vigia the scene of the tumult. It’s not an easy movie to watch because he wasn’t an easy person to be around at the time but I am glad I watched it because docudramas like this, which are based upon true stories, take us closer to the bone of the truth than fictionalized accounts. Here’s the trailer so you can see if the tenor of it appeals to you:
“‘It’s been something, writing that time and living it all again,’” he tells Hadley in McLain’s novel. “‘Tell me, do you think we wanted too much from each other?’” Hadley responds that it’s possible but when Ernest digs deeper and asks if they might have loved each other too much, she answers, “‘Can you love someone too much?’ He was quiet for a moment and I could hear static coming through the line, a low crackle that seemed to stand for every sharp thing that had come between us. ‘No,’ he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. ‘That’s not it at all. I ruined it.’”
He also wrecked his relationship with his second wife Pauline. His last wife Mary stayed with him until the very end when he took his own life, though it was far from an easy relationship as Papa Hemingway in Cuba illustrates. One of the things that makes the movie feel so real is that it was filmed in the residence he and Mary called home in Cuba, which is now a museum. Within the crisp white walls, there is an ever-present reminder of his love of hunting, the trophies mounted on the walls staring resolutely into every room.
Given he romanced and won three very different women during very different times in his life, I decided we’d do something special for each couple to celebrate their love on this Valentine’s Day.
Decorating for the Hemingway’s
I’ve looked into the Currey & Company catalog to give each of these women and their man something I believe would have cheered them up during their days together. For Hadley and Ernest, it is lovely furnishings they would not have been able to afford during their time in Austria, pieces that I believe would have enhanced their lives aesthetically. For Pauline, I’m honoring her strength as a journalist and her cunning as a woman. And for Mary, it’s a nod to her great sense of style at home as well as her tenacity.
Hadley and Ernest in Austria
Hadley is curled up on the Tear Drop chair reading, a cup of hot tea steaming from the Boyles drinks table while the luminous Highlight wall sconce in a contemporary silver leaf finish takes the gloom out of the snowy afternoon. She smiles as she glances over at the Exley wall ornament shaped like luminous antlers, a gift from Ernest whose love of the hunt would grow ever stronger with time.
Ernest enters, fresh off the slopes, dropping his hat and gloves on the Arboria console table as he heads for the Sullivan chair, switching on the Baptiste table lamp as he plops into the seat with a drink.
Pauline and Ernest in Paris
Pauline wafts in from a hard day in the trenches at Vogue Paris and tosses the letters she’s picked up from the post office on the Nolan desk. Her feet are killing her after a long day in heels so she perches on the Agora bench to remove them before switching on the Highlight wall sconce in a bronzed gold finish and going in search of Ernest.
He’s in his study—seated at the Belden desk, leaning forward in the Monroe chair. The Cornwall wall sconce illuminates the manuscript pages he is editing, his typewriter slid to the back of the desktop as he slashes the paper with his pen.
Mary and Ernest in Cuba
Mary strolls in from a swim, a mottled copy of Vanity Fair landing on the Ellen coffee table as she collapses into the Merevale chair. The glow from the Carling pendant makes her tanned skin gleam in the afternoon light.
Ernest has fallen asleep in the Devonshire chair, the empty martini glass on the Simo accent table catching Mary’s eye as she reaches to switch on the Fairwater pendant. Ernest stirs and asks if she had a good swim.
Did you enjoy our little Currey & Company make-believe? It certainly was a fun exercise for me. Thanks for stopping by to read and for suspending belief long enough to enjoy the ruse by having these historical figures interact with our furniture and lighting!
Saxon Henry also blogs as The Modern Salonnière.