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Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage – An Interview with Ruth Hawkins

Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage – An Interview with Ruth Hawkins

Today I am posting an interview with Ruth Hawkins, author of the book Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage.  

Ruth dedicated over 10 years of her life to interviewing, researching, and collecting material to write this biography, which focuses on the years between 1927 through 1940.  This is the first biography written about Pauline and gives us a sense of who she was besides “the other woman”.  Ruth’s portrait is honest but generous; the book highlights how many difficult choices Pauline had to make as the wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Read more to learn about Pauline’s life and the making of this book!

AB: Congratulations on your beautiful book Ruth.  It is well written and thoroughly researched. What inspired you to take on the project of writing a biography of Pauline?

RH: It was never my intention to write a book!  My interest was in restoring and opening the Pfeiffer home and barn studio in Piggott as a museum and educational center on behalf of Arkansas State University.  But in the process of doing the research for the restoration, it became clear to me that there was a lot of misinformation out there about Pauline.  And very little written about the Pfeiffers or their contributions to Hemingway.  The more I talked to relatives and friends who knew Pauline and the Pfeiffers — and the more letters I read between Pauline, Ernest and the Pfeiffers — the more I realized someone had to write this all down.

I also was gently prodded by Michael Reynolds, who visited our restoration project in Piggott early in 1999, before we were even open.  He encouraged me to pursue a book focusing on the Pfeiffers because he thought he had only scratched the surface of the family’s relationship with Hemingway.

AB: What was your favorite aspect of your research?  Were there things you learned about Pauline that surprised you?

RH: I dearly loved piecing together all the letters from various sources.  When I was growing up, I loved jigsaw puzzles, and this was very similar, except that with a jigsaw puzzle, you know the total number of pieces, and they are all somewhere on the table.  With this book, there is no telling how many missing pieces are still out there—people have contacted me continuously since the book came out offering new information.

I guess I was probably most surprised not to find much out there actually written by Pauline.  Even though she was one of the early graduates of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, Pauline chose not to pursue her writing career.  Instead, she apparently focused solely on Ernest’s writing.  Aside from a few poems and her prolific letter-writing, there is not much with her name on it.  It is difficult to know even the extent of what she wrote for Vogue, since articles in that magazine typically did not carry bylines.

AB: Did you get a sense of Pauline’s personality – or perhaps a better word would be, temperament? Was she a shy person, a cheerful person, a melancholy person?  Who was Pauline, independent of Hemingway?

RH: The thing about Pauline that most people are unaware of is that she was funny – she had a great sense of humor.  All of her friends pointed that out, but her humor was really hard to convey in the book, and I’m not sure it came across at all –except maybe in some of her clever quips in letters.  I love some of the letters between Ernest and Pauline after they were divorced and occasionally fighting over various issues with their sons—especially the one where she responds to one of his tirades by saying she is writing to relieve his mind some more, since she had so much luck the last time.  Then she cuts a bunch of the sentences out of her letter and includes them in the envelope, just to make him piece them together.

Pauline Pfeiffer

Her stepson, Jack Hemingway, pointed out that Pauline was a great storyteller.  He particularly recalled an ongoing story she told about a little boy who lived in the lighthouse across the street from the Key West home.  Each day, when they passed the lighthouse, Pauline would add a bit more to the story.

Apparently, Pauline was a much freer, looser, less inhibited person when Hemingway wasn’t around for her to cater to.  Her friend Jay McEvoy recalled an incident in New York, for example, when the bullfighter Sidney Franklin brought her some dresses to try on from his brother’s dress factory nearby.  McEvoy says she was dancing and prancing around and acting silly in each of the outfits, but the minute Ernest walked in, she became very quiet and subdued, as if he would find her behavior unbecoming.

AB: The book took you several years to write. Did your perspective of Pauline change during that time?  How did you feel about her as you worked through the events and facts of her life?

When I started my research, I was pursuing the likelihood that Pauline actually wrote some of the short stories attributed to Ernest.  I had been led to believe this by family members, who thought it odd that Hemingway’s simple journalistic style was the same style that Pauline had developed in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

But I didn’t find any evidence of this – not that Ernest would leave any evidence lying around!  It would have been great to find her hand-writing and editing marks on some of his early manuscripts, but that would have been too easy!  I imagine that Ernest discarded numerous drafts of many of his works before he ever arrived at the ones he saved as “first drafts.”

The closest I got to anyone other than family suggesting that Pauline did some of his writing was the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who heard Bra Saunders tell the story of a shipwreck that she recognized, almost verbatim, as what became Hemingway’s short story, “After the Storm.”  Bishop surmised that Pauline probably wrote it down as Saunders told it and gave it to Ernest, who then put his name on it.  My belief now is that she was a great editor –which even Hemingway had to admit after he divorced her – but that she did not do any of his actual writing.

I loved trying to get inside Pauline’s head because I identified with her so much.  We both grew up in St. Louis, we both went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, we even both lived on the same little four-block street, Rosemary Lane, while in the School of Journalism.  I am also Catholic, live in Arkansas, and married a writer –though Pauline’s husband became famous as a writer, and mine became an accountant!

AB: You make the point that Pauline died before Ernest, “leaving the slanted picture he painted as a lasting legacy”.  How might Pauline have conveyed her life with Hemingway if she could tell her story?

Well, I would hope that my book comes close to conveying the story that she would have told.  I think that she definitely would have focused on the fact that she loved him until the day she died.  She truly enjoyed being Mrs. Ernest Hemingway and took a great deal of satisfaction from the idea that she had helped him become one of America’s greatest writers.  She probably would have played down the fact, though, that her children paid some of the price of her dedication to her husband’s needs.  Back in her day, people of means often left their children with nurses for extended periods, so I don’t think she saw that as being too much out of the ordinary.

AB: You collaborated with Jack, Patrick and Gregory Hemingway for the book. Can you summarize their perspectives on Pauline?

RH: I found it interesting that Jack had the most positive comments about Pauline, yet she was his stepmother.  He apparently enjoyed having two mothers, and commented in his own book that he thought this was the norm.  He was among those who talked about what a great storyteller she was and what a great sense of humor she had.  I don’t think he ever felt treated differently than her biological sons.  Patrick did not express much about his feelings toward his mother, but was great about steering me to various sources that he felt could provide insights into the relationship between his father and his mother.  I spent the most time with Gregory, who really disliked talking about either parent.  Instead he preferred to concentrate on how much he respected his Pfeiffer grandparents.  During the grand opening of our Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in 1999, Gregory told me that the best thing his mother had ever done for him was to hire a good nurse.

The Hemingway barn-studio as it looks today

AB: There are several times in the book when you discuss Pauline’s skill as an editor. Can you give some specific examples of her contribution to Hemingway’s work?

RH: It’s hard to pinpoint specific examples because Hemingway certainly did not like to give credit to anyone who helped him along the way, including his wife.  So he would not have kept evidence of that around.  But it is clear in their letters back and forth when he is away for long periods, such as the 100 days separation before they were actually married, that he was sending manuscripts to her to critique.  There are references in various letters as to what she thought about different manuscripts.  She comments in one letter that she will probably be a Svengali after they are married “for I’m so darn crazy for you to write swell.” (Dec. 15, 1926, JFK)  I think the most telling indication of her editing abilities, however, is the fact that even after they separated, Hemingway lamented to Maxwell Perkins that he regretted that Pauline was not around to read his manuscript because she had the best judgment of all.

AB: Is there a central theme in the body of work Hemingway wrote during his years with Pauline?

RH: The years that Hemingway spent with Pauline were his most productive as a writer, and his writing seemed to really run the gamut as he experimented with various fiction and non-fiction techniques – everything from novels, to collections of short stories, to the definitive book on bull-fighting, to the personal account of the Africa safari.  I suppose if there is any central theme, it would be Ernest exploring the stories he knew and experimenting with the most effective framework for telling each of those stories.

Pauline’s high school graduating class at the Academy of the Visitation. She is on the left. She went to an all-girls’ school.

AB: You make the point that rather than the shrewd “man-hunting” female she is often portrayed as; Pauline was actually naive and inexperienced.  Can you talk about that?

RH: Pauline was 30 years old when she met Ernest, yet there is no evidence that there was ever a man in her life, other than her cousin Matthew Herold, to whom she was engaged when she met Ernest.  She had grown up attending a Catholic girls’ school, then went on to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where she concentrated on her studies and graduated in three years with essentially no social life according to her classmates.  And then she wound up working in New York under the watchful eyes of her two uncles, Henry and Gus Pfeiffer.  For all her worldliness, including being a college graduate, living in New York, and then going to Paris, she had no real experience with men, and her ambitions seemed to be to make her mark at Vogue, and then return to the states for her wedding to her cousin.  I’m convinced that when Hemingway started flattering her, the way he did with a lot of other women, she did not have the experience to deal appropriately with his attentions and wound up falling in love.

Sarah Murphy and Pauline Hemingway in Key West

AB: Key West seems like an unlikely place for Pauline to live. How did she feel about Key West?  Her life with Hemingway seems poignantly far from her start at a young woman in Paris.  How did she integrate quail hunting and safaris in Africa with her love of fashion, cities, and culture?  Did she have friends of her own there?

RH: I think Pauline loved her life in Paris, but she would have settled anywhere that Hemingway chose, including Key West.  By the time they divorced, she was pretty well entrenched in Key West and had good friends there, including Lorine Thompson and Marjorie Stevens, both of whom became her business partners.  By then there were a lot of other people spending time in Key West, including the poet Elizabeth Bishop who became very close friends with Pauline.

The evidence is pretty clear that Pauline was not an outdoors person and hated quail hunting, safaris and such, but because that was what Ernest wanted, Pauline endured it as a way to be with Ernest.

Living room of Gus Pfeiffer’s apartment in New York. Note that he has portrait of Hemingway in his living room!

AB: When Ernest and Pauline married, it was in some ways a more serious commitment than his marriage to Hadley. They bought a home and began to be part of a permanent community. It was also the first time Ernest really experienced involvement in an extended family since he had cut himself off from his own.  Can you talk about Pauline’s Uncle Gus and Pauline’s mother’s role in Ernest’s life?

RH: The support that Pauline’s Uncle Gus gave to Ernest Hemingway is nothing less than phenomenal in my judgment.  Having no surviving children of his own, he doted on his nieces and nephews.  He was especially close to Pauline since he and his wife were sharing a duplex-style house with Pauline and her parents when their only son died before achieving his first birthday.  He accepted Ernest immediately when Pauline married him, but I think he really grew to respect him as a writer and enjoyed being able to make it possible for him to devote his time to writing.  As a partner with another brother in the Warner-Hudnut enterprises, with plants around the world, he had no problem with paying for their Paris apartment, their cars, their Key West home, their African safari, and all sorts of other financial support.  Gus also loved being a part of Hemingway’s research—such as when he learned that Hemingway wanted to do a book on bullfighting.  Gus sent a message to his plant manager in Spain, telling him to round up everything that was ever written on bullfighting, send it to Ernest, and send him the bill.  Gus even agreed to finance efforts by Hemingway and Sidney Franklin to build a bullfight ring in Cuba, which went awry when Cuban legislators demanded payoffs.

Gus Pfeiffer

As for Mary Pfeiffer, she seemed to be pretty close to a saint, and most people in Piggott would agree.  When you read the letters between Mary Pfeiffer and Ernest Hemingway, you see an entirely different Hemingway—he is very deferential toward his mother-in-law.  If people read nothing else in my book, I think they should read the letter written by Mary Pfeiffer to Ernest and Pauline on their wedding day and the letter that she wrote to Ernest about his divorce from Pauline.  Such wisdom and grace!  Being a devout Catholic, it was not easy for her to come to terms with the fact that her daughter was part of breaking up a marriage, yet she managed to work through it and accept the marriage and embrace and support Ernest as her son.  And she certainly had a bit more tact than Ernest’s own mother when it came to his writing.  Rather than accusing him of writing filth as Grace did, Mary’s gentle comment was “I like the way you write but don’t always care for your subjects.” (Sept. 27, 1927, JFK)

AB: You books suggests that there may have been a deeper relationship between Pauline’s sister Virginia and Ernest.  Did you know this going into the book, or did this come to light through your research?

RH: One of the first stories that I heard when I started interviewing Pfeiffer friends in Piggott was that Virginia had an affair with Hemingway and that she told friends that she could have been the second Mrs. Ernest Hemingway instead of Pauline.  The story apparently grew out of her underlying belief that Hemingway was intent on Uncle Gus’ money, and both Pfeiffer women had a trust fund from Uncle Gus.  Unfortunately, Virginia never allowed herself to be interviewed about Ernest, so the true depth of their relationship is hard to pin down.  I do believe that the short story, “The Sea Change,” is not a made-up story at all, but is based on Ernest’s experience with Virginia.

AB: You also ponder the possibility that Pauline may have had an abortion before her marriage to Ernest. Can you talk about that?

RH: The idea that Pauline may have had an abortion early in her relationship with Hemingway came as a surprise to me.  I had a typist transcribing all of the correspondence between Ernest, Pauline, and the various Pfeiffers so that I would have a searchable database.  As soon as she finished the section on the 100 days separation, she came to me and said, “When did Pauline have this abortion they keep referring to?”  She just assumed it to be common knowledge.  When I read the letters all together, I began to think that maybe there really was something to all the collective references to surgical operations, abortion analogies, getting healthy again, etc.  As I conducted my research, there seemed to be many other references to support this—Pauline’s sudden mood change during the trip with Hadley and Virginia through the Loire Valley (possibly when she learned she was pregnant), Hadley’s comments about Pauline looking so forlorn at Cap d’Antibes (possibly right after the abortion), and Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” which deals with abortion and was presented to Pauline on their honeymoon.

AB: There are times when your book is difficult to read, especially toward the end when the marriage is unraveling and the family goes through years of suffering.  During their thirteen-year marriage, Ernest goes from an unknown writer to a somewhat cynical  “legendary literary figure”.  Pauline goes from an independent “modern woman” to a dependent, almost empty existence.  What happened?

RH: That’s an interesting observation and something that I have tried to figure out.  Though Pauline was a smart woman, I believe that she was really blinded by her feelings for Ernest.  There has to be something more, though.  For all of the signs she showed early on of being an independent “modern woman,” it appears that she lacked personal ambition.  That seemed to be true of her siblings as well.  Her brother Karl was content to come back to Piggott and help their father run the farming and land company operations, while Virginia had trouble staying in one place for very long, ultimately winding up in Hollywood and participating in all sorts of ventures.  I would imagine that if Paul and Mary Pfeiffer had any regrets, it would be that their children did not achieve their full potentials.

AB: I’ve read that Pauline kept a diary in Africa.  Did she also keep a diary at home?

RH: She did not keep a diary per se, but she was a prolific letter writer, including letters almost daily to Ernest when he was away for long periods, and then later to her sons when they were away at school after she was divorced from Ernest.  She manages to chronicle most everything going on in her life, from what she is doing on the house, to what is happening with family and friends, to trying to work out the logistics of their complicated lifestyles.  The Africa diary is pretty much a chronicle of where they were and who killed what each day, without a lot of reflection on her part.  I assume she was probably keeping it as a log to assist Ernest in writing Green Hills of Africa.

The African safari exhibit in the barn-studio

AB: Could you talk about the Hemingway-Pfeiffer museum in Arkansas? When did it open?  Were you able to furnish it with original items? What is your favorite object in the museum?

RH: Arkansas State University opened the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott in July 1999, in conjunction with Hemingway’s 100th birthday.  Gregory Hemingway spoke at the dedication, but Patrick was promoting True At First Light at the time and was unable to be there.  We acquired the Pfeiffer home and the barn studio behind the home –where Hemingway did his writing—from the family who purchased it in 1950 after Mary Pfeiffer died (Pauline’s mother).  They purchased it from the Pfeiffers with all the furnishings still intact, down to the artwork on the walls, so they still had most of these items when we bought it.    Probably about 80 percent of the furnishings are the same as when Hemingway was a frequent visitor there.  In addition to tours for the general public, we have adult writers’ retreats, after school creative writing programs for junior high age students, professional development workshops for teachers, and other special events. (The website can be found at:  www.hemingway.astate.edu)

Probably my favorite object in the museum is a book titled Alpine Skiing that Hemingway apparently carried away from the Hotel Taube in Schruns the winter of 1925 when he and Hadley and Pauline were there together—which is probably when the affair began, at least in terms of Pauline really falling for Ernest.  Ernest’s signature is in the book, as if it is his personal copy, yet it has Hotel Taube stamped all over it.

AB: There is renewed interest in Ernest’s inquiry into Catholicism. Where did his interest start and how did he regard Pauline’s Catholicism?

RH: Well, he clearly embraced Catholicism when it suited him.  And he seemed more than willing for his sons to be raised in the Catholic church and to attend church services himself.  Ultimately, though, I think he showed his true feelings when he blamed the breakup of his marriage to Pauline on the church, claiming that the church’s stance against birth control, which led to Pauline’s insistence on practicing coitus interruptus, was what led him to Martha.

Ruth Hawkins

AB: Do you have a new project?  Is there anything else you would like to add?

RH: I’m currently totally wrapped up in restoring Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas.  I’m not sure what Johnny Cash thought of Ernest Hemingway as a writer, if he even read him, but maybe I’ll stumble across that in my research!

AB: Thank you Ruth!