Stephanie's Reviews > Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife

Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto
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's review
Apr 02, 2012

really liked it

“Paris without End,” is a new literary nonfiction biography of Hadley Richardson, the iconic first wife of beloved 20th century American author Ernest Hemingway. It was written by Gioia Diliberto, veteran author/journalist, who points out in her preface to the 2011 edition that once there was hardly a woman considered worthy of a biography, at all. And then, even when the lives of some outstanding women began to be studied, nobody thought, for a long time, of looking at the wives of outstanding men. Despite that familiar old adage, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman.’ It is only now being recognized that some wives were indeed instrumental in their husbands’ successes; and it’s Diliberto’s thesis, based upon Hemingway’s copious writings, that Hadley Hemingway was one. Still, there’s no question but that Hadley would not reward study were she not Hemingway’s first, template-setting wife. And there’s no question but that this book will most interest Ernest Hemingway fans. After all, although Hadley can be credited with inspiring her husband’s writings, and creating an environment in which he could work, she never published a line.

The period after World War I, never mind that the generation that lived through that war chose to call itself the Lost Generation, was full of new developments. Suffragism — the fight for women’s rights—was in the air, as was prohibition. Flappers emerged: women cut their hair and their skirts, took up smoke and drink, and danced on the tables of their favorite speakeasies. Paris was the world center of creativity. In the art world, greatly famous painters were there: the Spanish Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro; Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall. In the literary world, there were almost too many stars to count: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, James and Nora Joyce, Sarah and Gerald Murphy, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Ford Madox Ford, and whoever: at one time Ford had a ménage a trois with his common law wife and the great 20th century female author Jean Rhys. And then there was Sylvia Beach and her book store, Shakespeare & Co. In fact, there were so many artistic and literary notables there that they kept Owen Wilson, the Woody Allen stand-in in PARIS AT MIDNIGHT quite busy.

Like so many others in the period, Hadley and Ernest expatriated themselves to Paris. And Hadley and Hem were certainly a golden couple while they were happy and poor, living on Hadley’s trust funds, and in the home she made for them, exploring Europe, and playing with their little boy, known as Bumby, when he arrived. Everyone seemed to expect that Hem was bound for literary glory. Of course, there were some problems. In an act that may have foreshadowed the future, and was heavily influential at the time, Hadley lost all copies of her husband’s first novel. And then there was the disastrous summer with the Murphys on the French Riviera. Bumby got whooping cough, had to be quarantined, and so was poor Hadley. Meanwhile, Ernest was creating a ménage a trois with another St. Louis native—Hadley was a St. Louis girl herself --Pauline Pfeiffer, editor at Paris Vogue, a woman whose name has gone down in villainy for breaking up the marriage. (Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn, a noted journalist at the time, was also a St. Louis native: it must have been something in the water of the Mississippi.)

The author gives us an interesting look at all these women:” Among expatriates in literary circles, there was a prejudice against women who were merely ‘wives’—a term … that ‘applied not just to legal spouses, but to all women who attached themselves to a dominant partner.’ Many of the ‘wives’ like Stella Bowen [who lived with T.S. Eliot] and Ada MacLeish, a singer, had careers of their own. Those who didn’t have talent and ambition nevertheless often adopted the trappings of artistic freedom, the most destructive of which…’was the freedom to explore erotic and emotional relationships outside marriage.’” Hadley was a devoted mother and wife, “a conventional woman surrounded by hedonists, who…’flaunted their promiscuity and joked about their abortions and venereal disease.’”

At any rate, the Hemingways had a passionate, affectionate marriage. Hadley was always faithful to her husband, and those who knew the couple thought Hemingway was always faithful to her, until Pauline came into the picture. And, in the posthumously published A MOVEABLE FEAST, Hemingway said, “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” The Chicago-based Diliberto frequently mentions the solid Midwestern values of Hadley and Hem. But Hadley was from St. Louis, and Hem from Chicago. Wouldn’t these be considered major urban metro areas?

The author did a great deal of research to produce this work, Scores of interviews with those who knew the prime actors, she says, including the couple’s son Jack, formerly known as Bumby, in his home in Ketchum, Idaho, Hemingway’s last home. And Hadley’s nieces Dodie Hess and Fonchen Lord; her nephew Richard Usher. Furthermore, the writer found many hours of tapes made of conversations between Hadley and her friend, musician/writer Alice Sokoloff, who published the first, timid biography of Hadley, while she was still alive. Finally, the author had first look at more than 1,000 letters written by Hadley to Hem during their intense courtship: the famous man held on to them all his life. Although sometimes the extensive quotes from these materials are repetitive, and hold up, rather than advance, the narrative. Diliberto is the author of the biographies A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams and Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier, and the historical novels I Am Madame X and The Collection. I liked this book much better than Paula Mc Lain’s recent fictional THE PARIS WIFE, which was apparently inspired by it: it gives us a much deeper, more detailed picture of the woman at the center of one of the great literary storms of the 20th century. Worth reading, perhaps even for those not Hemingway fans.

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