Hemingway in Love His Own Story, A Memoir by A.E. Hotchner – Book Revisited

AE Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway pose for a photo in Seattle.
AE Hotchner and Ernest Hemingway
cerca: 1966 Photograph: AP

The mention of Ernest Hemingway’s name for most people today, may bring to mind a novel they may have read in high school, beyond that, they may be familiar with some trivia tidbits about his life which could be worthy of their own category on the game show Jeopardy. But during his life time, his name was omnipresent and synonymous with great writing.

Hemingway in Love His Own Story, published in 2015, was a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite sometime having read much about his life including Hemingway’s own memoir A Moveable Feast. But reading Hotchner’s memoir, while interesting and adding a few more pieces to the puzzle which is Hemingway’s life, does not adequately leave the reader with a better understanding of Hemingway’s complex relationships with the women in his life. Knowing what had been written on the subject of his wives and female friends, I looked forward for a further explanation – why did he really leave the women he believed he was in love with? The fourth and final marriage he exited by suicide. To be clear, the suicide was not because he was unhappy with that final marriage, but from all accounts it was from a deep depression, possibly a hereditary disposition since his father had also committed suicide years before.

While his stories and novels are regarded as among the best in literature, accounts of his life can leave one thinking he was not exactly the most sensitive man when it came to his treatment of others, especially his first three wives. His sensitive writing however, characterized by succinct and powerful sentences, seems now to have been in juxtaposition with his alpha male persona. A drinker, a big game hunter and fisherman, and a womanizer – or it could be said a lover of many women, four of which he married. How does one reconcile the way he lived to the way he wrote? Does Hotchner’s memoir provide any further clarity on the relationships with his wives?

The second question posed is more easily answered with a simple, no. While the memoir does provided some further detail on how his life experiences were woven into his writings, much of what was covered about his love life, was already known, with the exception of details regarding his third marriage to Martha Gellhorn, an acclaimed writer and war correspondent in her own right. Of the four wives, she stood out not only as a peer to him, but showed great courage and determination in covering WWII events, having the distinction of being the only woman on the beaches of Normandy on D Day, and being one of the reporters reporting from Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. To this day, the deeper reasons for that failed marriage are not clear. It could, however be the obvious – the competitiveness between the two was too intense, and/or, his desire for a traditional, be-at-home-when-I-get-there, wife. Based on the timing of Hemingway’s death, Hotchner probably never had the chance to ask about Gellhorn, since Hemingway took his own life shortly after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Hotchner saw him for the last time two weeks prior, in the hospital, before his release. All the same, it would have been interesting to read Hemingway’s own explanation on that particular relationship and what he thought led to the divorce from Gellhorn, the one wife who seemed to share so much in common with him.

The first question with regards to reconciling his sensitive writing to the insensitive, self-destructive life he lived, may also be simply answered: those to facets of his life are not reconcilable. In reading Hotchner’s memoir of Hemingway, the hope was to find some clarification that the writer, admired by many, had justifiable reasons for exhibiting behaviour that alienated many friends and the women he loved. It did however, explain how some details of his own life experiences were woven into his writings, such as in the The Snows of Kilimanjaro where many similarities can be drawn between Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline; and in Ten Little Indians where he recalls, as a young boy, being present as his father, who was a doctor, performed a caesarian section to deliver the baby of an indigenous woman. The stories are drawn from his real life experiences which he masterfully describes. That is the unique sensitivity he brings to his writing.

The insensitivity in his behaviour can be seen on many occasions. One particular referenced in the memoir involves the release of his first novel The Sun Also Rises, where he presents copies to his friends and they turn on him saying they recognize it was them being depicted in the novel under different names, and in a not so flattering manner. His friends feeling betrayed, turn on him. Because he fails to see why they should be offend, he fires back with insults effectively ending the friendships.

One other passage in the memoir describes how he was insensitive to what his first wife Hadley was going through when she was “sharing” him with the woman who later would become his second wife. Hadley finally announces she was going to leave him after months of this arrangement. He recalls that period with this quote:

“I thought Hadley and I had been getting along all right, she was putting up with my seeing Pauline, but I found out I was deluding myself.”

And later he states:

“I wasn’t prepared for this. I loved her and now she was defending her dignity and I couldn’t be the one to take it away from her.”

He didn’t see it coming. Dignity. Some would say the dignity was taken away when he expected Hadley to accept Pauline as his other lover while still living together as husband and wife. And after the marriage with Pauline was over he acknowledged:

“Pauline was just a mistake, that’s all.”

But this is all personal and as much as we want to avoid judging how one leads their life, a memoir entitled Hemingway in Love His Own Story, cannot be read without some opinions, positive or negative, being formed.

Being sensitive in life and writing with sensitivity are not always reconcilable or comparable. The former is living as one would not expect from an alpha male such as Ernest Hemingway. The later is being able to express how life is lived in relatable, sensitive stories in tune to the reader’s own sensitivities.

“Write one true sentence.” He would say that was his goal when writing and the words were not flowing easily. But, as writing could sometimes be a struggle, so could life and love. Was the struggle to find that one true love successful? Of the four women he married, was that one true love among them?

Advertisement

Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst With Introduction by Daniel Itzkovitz – Book Revisited

Fannie Hurst - Wikipedia
Eleanor Roosevelt with Fannie Hurst 1962

Imitation of Life was originally published in 1933, but the first time I became aware of it was during the holiday break, when I happened to catch the 1934 movie adaptation. Fannie Hurst (October 18, 1889 – February 23, 1968) was a very popular and prolific writer during her lifetime, producing many novels and short stories. Despite poor reviews from the critics, her works were widely read, appealing especially to women, and the two movie versions of Imitation of Life, 1934 and 1959 versions, were both inducted into the National Film Registry lists. Fannie Hurst led a very interesting life, which all on its own, could be the subject of another article; but here, Imitation of Life is the focus and why the movie peaked my interest in this almost forgotten novel.

The copy of the book I read is a 2004 publication with the introduction by Daniel Itzkovitz of Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. This detailed and well written introduction of the novel, provides insight into the social implications at the time regarding racial identity and women’s issues. It also addresses the movie adaptions of the novel. and some of the more interesting aspects of Hurst’s personal life. It is an introduction that must be read to get a true appreciation of the basis of some of the attitudes and prejudices, during the early to mid-twentieth century, which permeate through the story.

It is precisely because of how those issues were covered in the movie, that led me to read the novel. While the movie does deviate from the novel in many ways, (probably to be more acceptable for the movie-going audience at the time), the premise however, remained the same which is based on the question posed in the third chapter: “What happens to girls thrown on their own resources?” Remembering that the general societal norm for girls at the time was that they would grow up and be taken care of by their husbands, or, if they had to go into the workforce, they should take jobs such as stenographers, nannies or teachers. In addition, racial issues and especially racial identity is another major theme addressed in both media forms, wading in, and not too cautiously, into the continuous difficult subject of being black in America.

The novel presents the main protagonist, Bea, as the young widowed mother of a blonde, blue-eyed daughter named Jessie. With the sudden death of her husband, she is now forced to find work to support her daughter and aging father. She decides to take on her deceased husband’s work as a maple syrup salesman, using his business cards which have “B. Pullman” as the representative. Since her clientele assumes she is a man, she is able to successfully continue and expand the business. With much of her time now spent working outside her home, she finds herself in need of a housekeeper and caregiver. As fate would have it, she meets Delilah looking for work, who is also a single mother. Delilah, a heavy-set black woman has a light-skinned daughter named Peola from her interracial marriage, is hired by Bea. Peola is a troubled child and struggles with her identity as she grows to hate her black ties. This coming together of two single mothers with similar needs but from different social stratas and circumstances, sets the stage for a story which often becomes a very graphic description of the different treatment given by society to women, and especially to black women, and how the author reinforces this by her portrayals of the women including the two daughters Jessie and Peola.

As the story progresses, Bea’s business grows to unimaginable success with diners opening across the country and with the face of Delilah as the symbol of good homemade hotcakes and home comfort. In the meantime, both girls continue to grow as friends, but at one point during a childish argument, Jessie calls Peola the vile “n” name unleashing further Peola’s rebellion at her background and her desire to be white. While Bea tells Jessie she was cruel and should apologize, Delilah believes Jessie should not apologize and Peola has to get use to this treatment and accept her background and who she is.

When the girls are grown, Jessie goes off to finishing school in Switzerland and Peola goes to Seattle where she meets and falls in love with a white boy who wants to marry her and take her to Bolivia where he will work as an engineer. He is unaware of her background knowing only that she is an orphan and to ensure he never discovers the truth through any children they might have, Peola “sterilizes” herself.

After not seeing her mother in years, Peola returns only to tell her mother that she never wants to see her again and that if she loves her, she has to give her up by letting her “pass” as white, meaning that even if there was a chance meeting in the future, she should not acknowledge her daughter and Peola would not acknowledge her mother. Delilah is heartbroken but finally agrees.

Bea reaches a point where she has had enough of success and now wants to sell her empire. She realizes she has worked so hard and gave up her own personal happiness for this success, making this discovery after falling in love with her accountant and confidant Frank, who is eight years younger than her. Their plans to marry almost go forward, except she catches Frank and Jessie together, and realizes something was going on between them. Before she has a chance to question Frank about the incident, Jessie announces that she and Frank are in love.

The novel implies, unlike today, women cannot have it all. To be successful in work, a woman had to sacrifice home life and family. Also, it is assumed, that women do not want careers, especially once they find love and can marry. This not only is the case for Bea, but another successful female friend of hers Virginia Eden, who leaves her beauty business empire to be a wife.

Imitation of Life portrays Delilah, as a stereotype of that time – the subservient “mammy” who was just happy to serve others, with no aspirations of her own, to accept her lot in life and try to teach her daughter to accept it as well. Peola tells her mother and Bea that they cannot possibly know how it is to look white and be black. That it would be better if she looked black as well, so passing as white would never be a question or an option. The difficult conversations between Delilah and Peola on being black were few in literature at that point, and the treatment by society towards them was demonstrated in one particular instance that stands out plainly. It occurs when one day after a sudden rainstorm, Delilha goes to Peola’s school to bring her a raincoat and galoshes. No one at the school, until that day, knew Peola was black. Distraught and sick from her mother revealing her secret to her classmates, she faints and a doctor is called in to see her. Thinking Peola is a white child, he see she is in need of rest away from school for a period of time. He strongly recommends she should not return to school and to receive her instruction at home. He then learns Peola is the daughter of the black woman he just sent out to get a bowl of hot water, after which he says, it was his mistake and to keep her in bed for the night and send her to school in the morning.

Finding a story from another time period such as Imitations of Life, can be an eye opener to what things were like back then, and it can also be an eye opener to how bad it was for certain classes of people and their everyday struggles to deal with life and the hand they were dealt. And while understanding that fictional novels are not history books with actual dates and events, we know they do reflect popular norms of the time periods they are written in. Societal values at the time of this novel can be evaluated to determine progress or lack there of, and also bring people to the realization of how much there is still left to do. And finally, when told well, a novel from the past that deals with serious issues, can bring insight and a deeper awareness to the same issues today – to know where they are coming from – that may otherwise, only be understood through media soundbites and the sensational aspects that appeal to the masses.

Our Night at the Opera

Let me begin by saying I’m going to share this story with you, but it is a bit embarrassing.

Back in February of 2011, my husband and I decided to do something from our shared bucket list for our 40th anniversary. Being both lovers of opera, we decided to visit Milan and see an opera at its renowned opera house, Teatro Della La Scala. We were both excited for this trip so as soon as tickets went on sale, I searched online and found two, second row orchestra seats for Pucini’s Tosca. I knew DaVinci’s Last Supper was also in Milan, so I booked a viewing of that as well. From there, we would take a train to Switzerland in what I referred to as the Hemmingway-Farewell to Arms-route: starting in Milan, then a few days in the resort town of Stresa, and finally, on to Lausanne for a few more days. (As I’m writing this, I realize that trip covered my greatest passions: music, art, and literature.) We booked a direct fight, Toronto to Milan, and had really nice accommodations waiting for us when we arrived there.

We settled in and everything was wonderful, just as we imagined it would be. The day after we arrived, we went to see the Last Supper at the convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. It was a short showing -maybe 15 minutes – in a temperature-controlled room where groups of only a few people were allowed to enter at one time. The guide explained details about the mural and we found it was all very interesting. (By the way, opposite the Last Supper is another beautiful mural Crucifixion by renaissance painter Giovanni Donato.) After that, we did some more sight seeing and later had some fabulous food at a local restaurant.

The next day we had our night at the opera. The morning we spent doing more touring and eating, and later we returned to the hotel to prepare for the evening.

Again, everything was grand when we arrived at La Scala. There was a light drizzle but it did not dampen our excitement as we walked into the opulent, historic opera house. The foyer was of an ivory cream colour and gold gilded trimmings, and it had large statues of famous Italian composers displayed here and there. The ushers wore, I believe, 19th century cloaks to set the feel of the time period the opera was supposed to have taken place in. We took our seats in the theater decorated with lavish, red velvet drapery framed in more gold gilded cornices and moldings. The orchestra was so close, the stage was so close, that we felt like we were a part of the presentation.

There was a few minutes before the opera was to start, so my husband stepped out to the restroom and I flipped through the program while I waited. I was holding my glasses in one hand, absentmindedly playing with them between my fingers. (I had reached that certain age when I always had to take them off for reading, but I was not quite ready to accept bifocals.) In any case, I needed them desperately for distance, being very nearsighted and blind as a bat without them.

Wouldn’t you know it? The glasses slipped out of my hand, and I couldn’t see where they landed on the floor!

I panicked and thought to myself, after all the planning and expense to finally be here, there was no way I was going to see a blurry Tosca! I looked and looked around. Not seeing them, I figured they must have fallen under my seat somewhere and I worried my husband might step on them when he got back. I really needed those glasses to see! So, I got down on all fours – in my fancy dress – and felt around under my seat and the seats in front and to the sides of me. Finally, I let out a sigh of relief, as I felt them under the seat to the left of mine and pulled them out triumphantly from under there. As I got up, I noticed people smiling and chuckling, in particular, an elegantly dress couple seated just behind me, smiling – closer to laughing. I smiled back and just slightly held out my glasses to indicate why I had been on the floor. I’m sure at that moment the colour of my face must have blended in with the colour of the red velvet drapery. I slumped in my seat trying to be as inconspicuous and small as possible. My husband returned and I told him what had happened. He thought it was amusing. I thought it was mortifying. Mercifully, the lights went down, the orchestra played, and I drifted away to 19th century Rome, and the tragic story of Mario Cavaradossi and Floria Tosca.