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“Love, Remorse, Contrition”: The Perils of Pauline by Kirk Curnutt

“Love, Remorse, Contrition”: The Perils of Pauline by Kirk Curnutt


Dear Readers - 

Have I told you how much I appreciate you lately?  In the last couple of weeks I’ve had such nice emails and encouraging comments from readers.  Each time this happens, I am freshly surprised and inspired by your feedback. There are so many things about the Hemingway Project to be thankful for – new friends, interesting travel, posts and interviews to finish, books to read, and hearing from people who read this blog and take the time to write.  It means more than you can imagine –

I am also grateful to get the chance to interview and interact with the incredible people who have written books, directed movies, run with bulls, or live rich and original lives somehow connected to, or inspired by, Hemingway.  What a privilege for me (and you) get a glimpse of their creative lives.

I am also thankful for my family for listening to me endlessly talk about these subjects – but especially my husband, for his enthusiasm for all things related to Ernest and I.  

And last but not least, I am thankful for Kirk Curnutt’s involvement with the Hemingway Project and for his insightful and thorough book reviews.  I am happy to see that his playful sense of humor has finally seeped through in the review posted below.

Next week we will hear from Hadley!  Enjoy — Allie

 Hawkins, Ruth A. Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage. Little Rock: University of Arkansas Press, 2012. ISBN-10: 1557289743. Hardback: $34.95.

Pity the poor spouses who don’t outlive the writer in the house—they never get the last word.  Oscar Chopin was hardly the aloof husband of The Awakening, but since he died in 1882 leaving his wife, Kate, $12,000 in debt, few readers have felt sympathetic enough to bother distinguishing him from Léonce Pontellier. Had Vivienne Haigh-Wood lasted longer than T. S. Eliot, she might not have gone down in history as “the bag of ferrets” Virginia Woolf described her as. And before Judith Freeman humanized her in The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (2008), Pearl Eugenie “Cissy” Hurlburt Pascal was considered a flighty theatrical Victorian who duped her hardboiled husband into believing (at least for a while) that she wasn’t old enough to be his mother.

As Hemingway aficionados know, second wife Pauline Pfeiffer (1895-1951) is the one member of the marital quartet who predeceased Don Ernesto. Not coincidentally, she floats in the ocean of Hemingwayana as an abstract figure, 7/8s of her as hidden as her husband’s famous iceberg symbol of submerged meaning. For a quarter century after EH’s suicide final wife Mary Welsh was the gatekeeper; she had her say in How It Was (1976). Third wife Martha Gellhorn burnished her feminist mythos by going ballistic on anybody who mentioned Hem in her presence, insistent she wouldn’t become a footnote in somebody else’s biography. When she had her say in Travels with Myself and Another (1979), she was as unsparing of Hemingway’s foibles as Gertrude Stein had been forty years earlier, even dubbing him “U. C.” for “Unwilling Companion,” thereby rendering him the bad traveler in her life.

As for Hadley Richardson—well, what can be said about the original Mrs. Hemingway that hasn’t been said about Mary, Mother of Christ, Dante’s Beatrice, and Saints Perpetua and Felicity? It’s difficult to think of a literary wife this side of Zelda Fitzgerald more romanticized than “Hash”/“Binney”/“Bones”/“Poo”/“Wicky”/“Wicky Poo,” a fact all the more remarkable given that “Tiny” was as unprepossessing as the Z. was flamboyant. Last fall I played a prank on my mother—a huge fan of Paula McLain’s bestselling fictional treatment of Hadley—by telling her the novel was actually the first of a quartet, with the second installment to be called The Next Paris Wife. Mom was indignant that Pauline could be considered a heroine. The look I got when I couldn’t keep a straight face suggested I’d scribbled a mustache on the Mona Lisa. I realized how sacred that first marriage is for many readers. For pardon I said three Ave Hadlias and recited the petition of all devout Hemingway scholars: Totus tuus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt. Accipio te in mea omnia. Praebe mihi cor tuum, Hadlia.

Ruth A. Hawkins’s much-anticipated biography of the most neglected of the wives doesn’t insist that Pauline was actually his most compatible mate. (Let’s face it: that honor probably belongs to Mary, as depressing as those final years are). In fact, the book is deceptively understated in the ways it challenges existing perceptions. Perhaps the most obvious corrective is a distortion that lingers in the popular mind even if a majority of Hemingway aficionados haven’t believed it since at least Michael S. Reynolds’s The Paris Years (1989): Pauline didn’t “steal” Ernest from Hadley as A Moveable Feast would have us believe. In part because of the posthumous memoir—as self-serving as it is self-excoriating—Pauline has always borne the scarlet A far more guiltily than Gellhorn ever did. Here, for example, is Bernice Kert in The Hemingway Women (1984), dramatizing the conniving with which the then-Vogue contributor set out to seduce the emerging writer during the infamous winter ski season of 1925-26:

She had … begun to rationalize that she would be better for him than Hadley. She was much more stimulating, had a special feeling for his work, and might make his life easier so far as finances were concerned. As she departed for Schruns, [Pauline] knew that she would go to any lengths to become his wife. (170-71)

By contrast, Hawkins depicts her subject as romantically and sexually naïve:

Pauline felt something happening that she did not anticipate at the outset of the trip and could not seem to help. She fell in love with Ernest, and her lack of experience with men gave her few defenses for fighting her growing feelings. (46-47)

In fact, Pauline’s innocence is a persistent theme throughout the biography, as Hawkins’s introduction makes clear: rather than a “shrewd man-hunting female,” she was “inexperienced with men” and “became enamored of Ernest beyond all ability to judge or care about right and wrong” (x).

At times the thesis risks skewing emotional complexity to maintain reader sympathy. Discussing the strikingly passive-aggressive letters Pauline sent Hadley while she and Ernest enjoyed unsupervised time in Paris before and after his early 1926 trip to New York to sign with Scribner’s, Hawkins suggests her subject was “assuag[ing] her guilt” (49). Well, maybe. But it’s equally likely Pauline’s naiveté made her enamored not just with a married man but with the intoxicating power that comes from being the other woman. Taunting one’s opponent in a romantic triangle is also usually solid evidence of an inability “to judge or care about right and wrong.”

There is also a curious shift in point of view that occurs as Hawkins explores the emotionally entangled trio that Ernest, Hadley, and Pauline became in the spring and summer of 1926, a triangle captured by the famous photo of them captured at that year’s fiesta in Pamplona. Rather than examine whatever anatomical equivalent of cojones it takes for a mistress to write her lover’s wife, “I am going to get a bicycle and ride in the bois. I am going to get a saddle too. I am going to get everything I want” (52), Hawkins shifts to the perspective of the wronged party: “Hadley recalled that the summer consisted of three bathing suits on the line, three breakfast trays, and three of everything.…” (54). I don’t at all intend criticism by pointing this out; to me it’s fascinating evidence of how Hadley-centric even retellings of the quasi-ménage à trois Hemingway attempted to orchestrate invariably tend. We naturally side with the victims of adultery instead of the committers, and these narrative quirks reveal how hard it is to come to grips with Pauline’s “disregard for Hadley,” as Kert politely calls it (181).

Speaking of narrative sympathy, there is more of it here for Hemingway than one might expect in a book devoted to a woman to whom he was an irrefutable jerk (especially post-divorce). Still, on one point Hawkins doesn’t mince words: a major part of Ernest’s attraction to Pauline was the Pfeiffer family money. This has always been a painful point for scholars to admit, male scholars in particular, but it is undeniable. In this regard, one of Hawkins’s major accomplishments is to give us a fuller portrait of his in-laws and their largesse than we’ve previously enjoyed. Father Paul is portrayed as “a quiet, easygoing, unassuming man who would never show up as a bigger-than-life hero in any Hemingway novel” but who was, nonetheless, “an honest man who treated everyone with dignity and respect” (91). Then there’s Uncle Gus, aka the Man with the Checkbook who purchased 907 Whitehead Street for the couple and sent them to safari in Africa to the tune of $500,000 in today’s dollars. If that generosity has often bewildered Hemingway fans—I’m lucky if my in-laws get my first name right—Hawkins makes it clear that Gustavus Adolphus Pfeiffer practiced the morality of compensation as much as Ernest preached it. At one point the savvy pharmaceutical entrepreneur gently rebukes Hemingway for not passing along payment on a $100 loan that Uncle G. had floated Baron von Blixen (172). Gus made sure Ernest and Pauline didn’t lack for luxury, but he also didn’t throw good money at sticky hands. He did what most men conscientious about debts do: he made sure his nephew-in-law didn’t welsh on his accounts.

But the figure who really leaps out in the narrative, even more than Pauline, is sister Virginia or “Jinny.” Typically, she appears in Hemingway biographies to sprinkle a little Sapphic pixie dust in Ernest’s eyes in the same period he was infatuated with the future Brett Ashley, Duff Twysden. Yet as Hawkins depicts her, Jinny is herself worthy of a book, a progressive, caustic figure who dabbled in filmmaking and philanthropy. In the 1920s and 1930s her attachment to Hemingway could be unsettling. Unbelievable Happiness cites a nasty passage from Dawn Powell’s diary depicting Jinny as “bitterly envious of her sister’s position as wife of a world-recognized writer.” As Powell gossips to herself, the younger sister believed fervently “in a bond between herself and the husband—I shouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally gave her reason to believe this” (191). Later, Virginia Pfeiffer would be the most outspoken member of her family in insisting Ernest exploited its financial generosity.

Jinny’s devotion to family is especially well-rendered in the biography’s final portion. Pauline died at her sister’s Los Angeles home on October 1, 1951, after a heated phone call with Ernest after their younger son was arrested under circumstances that would not be fully understood for forty years. The cause of death was pheochromocytoma, an adrenal gland tumor that causes blood pressure to soar due to extraordinary secretions of adrenaline. Jinny not only handled Pauline’s shockingly sudden passing with poise but let Hemingway know his culpability for the stress that set off the attack. As an interesting side note, Virginia and her partner, Laura Achera (who only passed a short five years ago), established a felicitous version of the “three of everything” relationship Ernest, Hadley, and Pauline had enacted in 1926. Laura married the writer Aldous Huxley in 1956, and along with Jinny’s two adopted children “the five lived almost as one big family” (277) before Huxley’s 1963 death. In fact—and this is outside Hawkins’s scope—Laura Huxley raised Jinny’s granddaughter, Karen Pfeiffer (b. 1974, one year after Jinny’s death).  Karen has posted a moving memorial to Laura on YouTube that I highly recommend.

Finally, the other commendable achievement of Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow is to depict more fully than before the importance of Piggott, Arkansas, to Pauline’s story. Piggott is, safe to say, the one Hemingway-associated site in the world to which Ernest fans do not flock en masse, and that is unfortunate. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Educational Center is an impressive outreach facility. Located at 1021 West Cherry Street in the home to which Paul and Mary Pfeiffer moved from St. Louis after Pauline’s 1913 high-school graduation, it is where Hemingway stayed during the couple’s many visits to Piggott in the late 1920s and 1930s. (The site is maintained by Arkansas State University; Hawkins directs the center out of her Jonesboro office). Piggott is also where Hemingway met his indispensible factotum Otto (Toby) Bruce, who relocated to Key West to work for E&P. Adding further local color, the ups and downs of Paul Pfeiffer’s tenant farming operation in Arkansas provide a dramatic subplot in the narrative. Having spent the better part of a year trying to understand the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of 1933 and 1938 and their effect on farming history, I was fascinated by Hawkins’s treatment of the Depression’s long-term consequences on rural communities such as Piggott.

One can find some minor grumbling in professional and amateur reviews on that the biography hews too closely to a strict chronological account, foregoing a psychological portrait of its compelling cast in favor of dates and events. That kvetching strikes me as unfounded. As the great EH critic Lisa Tyler noted in her recent Hemingway Review assessment of the bio, in style Hawkins’s approach resembles Carlos Baker’s in Hemingway: A Life Story (1969). Personally, I find that method far more satisfying, especially for a reliable research/reference tool, than the glib speculating Kenneth Lynn indulged in his 1985 Hem bio, or, for that matter, the constant self-dramatization for which Charles Ardai takes Freeman’s aforementioned Chandler bio to task. Unbelievable Happiness may not evoke the times and settings as vividly Michael Reynolds did, but the flipside of that is that the book doesn’t distort and disfigure its subjects as Stephen Koch’s agenda-driven The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles (2005) tends to. Thumbing back to Hawkins’s notes, one discovers just how much the original research has gone into the book, which is why it was fifteen years in the making. Interviews with Pfeiffer family friends Ayleene Spence and Kenneth Wells—as well as with Pauline’s sister-in-law, Matilda—add immeasurably to the sense of detail and the tonal balance.

In the end, the picture of Pauline that emerges isn’t radically new, but it is fuller and more rounded than what we’ve previously enjoyed. Hawkins lets her subject stand before us in all her contradictions. Pauline was a college graduate and working journalist who abandoned her career for a man who in turn abandoned her for a college attendee and working journalist. She was also an aloof mother who nevertheless remained dependent upon her own parents and elders for her entire life. But that is Pauline’s role in the Hemingway life as opposed to the Hemingway art. As Hawkins notes, “Though much has been written about Hemingway’s storied literary career, little evidence of Pauline’s connection to it remains” (281). No notes, no manuscript drafts, only fleeting glimpses of her influence as a muse that can’t be categorized as resentful. (Green Hills of Africa being the major one). “It could be a good book,” Hemingway wrote, pondering writing the complete story of his partnership with Pauline as he was then doing with his and Hadley’s marriage in Feast. “It tells many things that no one knows or can ever know” (281). Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow is a major step toward understanding just what he might have been talking about.

By Kirk Curnutt

Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University Montgomery. A member of the board of directors of the Hemingway Foundation and Society, he is the author of Coffee with Hemingway (2007), an imagined dialogue with the maestro with a preface by John Updike, and the co-editor of Key West Hemingway, a collection of essays on Hemingway’s Mile Zero years.
He is also the author of two novels, Dixie Noir and Breathing Out the Ghost and a book of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. His website is kirkcurnutt.