Writing their truths
Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest’s fourth wife, proved his intellectual and emotional equal
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In October 1954, Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In July 1961, he died by suicide. With him for both momentous events was his fourth wife, Mary.
In Hemingway’s Widow, a new, well-researched biography, Canadian professor Timothy Christian delves into the life of Mary Welsh, making a case for her being the most important of Hemingway’s wives, and likely the most intriguing.
Mary was born in Walker, Minn., in 1908. When she was still in school in Bemidji, she became interested in journalism and went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where she met and married a young man named Larry Cook in 1930. Because of the Great Depression, she dropped out of Northwestern and went to work for the Chicago Daily News in 1932. By then, she and Larry had split up.
A few years later, she’d moved to London, England, befriended newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook, married foreign correspondent Noel Monks and become Time magazine’s first female foreign correspondent. As the Second World War raged, with Noel always away, she turned into a “liberated woman,” becoming a lover of American generals and author Irwin Shaw. Ernest Hemingway suddenly popped into her life and was soon expressing his desire to marry her — even though he was temporarily impotent from a car accident.
As war waned, Ernest went to his place in Cuba and invited Mary there. She went, but dreaded losing her independence. This was a turning point; she’d be giving up her profession and living where nothing was hers. But she divorced Noel and, on March 14, 1946, she married Hemingway. Soon, they were taking trips together, and Ernest was bragging to friends about his active and inventive sex life.
Before long, other women befriended him, and Mary questioned whether she should stay with him, even as she became more comfortable with Cuba and his estate, the Finca Vigia. But after his short novel The Old Man and the Sea appeared in September 1952 in Life magazine — “the first time the magazine had ever published the entire text of a book, and it sold over five and a half million copies within forty-eight hours,” Christian writes — Mary deserved credit for suggesting a major change to the ending. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and Ernest knew that “the prize was a testament to their successful partnership.”
Author Christian goes on to say: “Mary was not simply the manager of Ernest’s house, or a chef and hostess for his guests, or the typist of his manuscripts. They had an intellectual affinity, and Ernest sought her judgment about whether he’d got it right.”
Mary and Ernest traveled a lot — to Italy, France, Spain, parts of Africa. It was in Africa in 1954 that they had two airplane accidents in which both were injured. Ernest’s son Patrick believed that the crashes changed his father completely, and negatively affected his father’s relationship with Mary.
Cuba underwent a political change; though the Hemingways liked Fidel Castro, the hostility of the U.S. to Cuba caused Ernest and Mary to establish a retreat in Ketchum, Idaho. But Ernest was neither happy nor healthy — he was depressed and paranoid — and he went to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. When he was released, doctors claimed he had recovered, but Mary thought otherwise. Back in Ketchum, he shot himself in the early morning of July 2, 1961.
For a few years afterward, Mary made the case that the shooting was an accident, but she eventually conceded it was deliberate.
Christian skims over the final 25 years of Mary’s life. One tidbit that will intrigue Manitobans: In 1970, Mary went duck hunting near Lake Manitoba and wrote about it in an article that raised her concerns about conservation. A major highlight of her later years was the 1976 publishing of her memoir, How It Was. Content with the fact that neither she nor Ernest was a university graduate, Mary enjoyed making fun of professors who analyzed her book. She died in 1986 at age 78 in New York.
Christian concludes that “Ernest believed Mary was essential to his creative work, and she thought the sacrifice of her career was a valuable contribution to the artistic achievements of her husband.”
Dave Williamson is the Winnipeg author of six novels, most recently Visiting Fellow.