Ernest Hemingway, the image of American machismo from the 1920s until his death in the early 1960s was not much for monogamy. Even with his fourth wife, in the post-World War II era, he still had a roving eye and well-greased zipper.
In 1948, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, visited Italy. In Venice they were visiting with the Ivancich family and Ernest’s roving eye landed on the family’s 18 year old daughter, Adriana. Yes, she was “legal,” as we’d say today. And, about to turn 50, Hemingway was ripe for a bright red sports car, a tummy tuck and a much younger Mrs.
Ernest and Adriana
Autumn in Venice tells the story of this odd relationship. Was it physical? Probably to some extent. “Papa” and the young woman he called “Daughter” had a hold on each other to be sure, but while it was fun and slightly intoxicating to have the attention of a great man at only 18, the relationship was more one-sided. For Hemingway, Adriana became an obsession. She was a “muse” in the classical sense of that–she invigorated and mentally (and, true to any mid-life crisis, physically) stimulated him. He got his groove back we’d say today and began writing again.
Ernest and wife Mary
But, wait! Wasn’t he married? YES. While Mary Hemingway, (nine years younger than her husband), like all of Hemingway’s wives, was devoted to him in ways most women wouldn’t be today, she did her best to ignore it all for as long as possible. Until she couldn’t any longer. [Sidebar: I was amazed to read Hemingway writing to his wife what brand/color # of hair dye he wanted her to use next and that, in spite of his young friend, he was anticipating the effect this color would have when debuted by her wearing only her new mink coat!]
With Hemingway writing again he naturally chose to write about, wait for it, a 50-something “Colonel” and his young lover who was a dead ringer for, you guessed it! Adriana. The book, Across the River and Into the Trees, owed it’s title to Stonewall Jackson, but the rest was pure romantic obsession on loving Papa’s part. This is when it all hit the fan. The press got involved–at least in Venice. Adriana, expected to make a great marriage by her aristocratic family, was now in danger of being labeled damaged goods. Hemingway pulled out all the stops to postpone the book’s publication in Italy and France to protect his “daughter,” Finally, Mary had enough of it all and put her dainty, wifely, foot down–amazingly, she’d even tolerated Adriana and her mother at the Hemingway’s Cuban home! She put up with it because Ernest was working steadily. But even near-saints snap on occasion. An ultimatium got her husband’s attention at last.
All good things must come to an end and eventually, Adriana married, but divorced, then married again and got it “right enough” to put Hemingway mostly away. As for Ernest, the obsession seemed to finally lessen a little. He wrote The Old Man of the Sea, (for which Adriana again designed the cover), won both Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes, and wrote Islands in the Stream, which was published a few years after his death. Then he and Mary were in a plane crash and the world thought they were dead. Remarkably, he was in a second plane crash the next day! We all know his tragic ending, but the good news is, that Mary stayed around and got to be the widowed Mrs. Hemingway and control a lot of things after his death. I supposed that’s “good news.” Poor Adriana took the same exit as Ernest though. Sad.
I thought it sad that all that was really available for depression and axiety was horrific electric shock treatment. I wonder if any of this would have happened if Hemingway had had access to modern anti-depressants. But, would they have robbed him of his creativity? His drinking was so out-of-control at various points in his life that he was clearly “self-medicating.”
Mary seems to have been wise enough to understand things he could control and things he could not. He was blessed to have a wife like that. She knew his talent, knew that his stability depended upon his work going well. She was patient, but her feelings were trampled upon time and time again–as were those of each Mrs. Hemingway in turn. But, great men have always gotten away with that and not only back in the day when a women’s best career choice was to be the wife of a very successful and talented man.
As for Adriana, she was a spoiled girl whose mother couldn’t really control her. And, in 1948, aristocratic young women were still married off to older men–albeit not those with a wife in tow. It is doubtful though that her family would have approved the match had Hemingway dumped Mary. But she married an older man the first time–and older man who took her to Africa even, so I wonder if she didn’t have regrets at that point. Sad.
Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and his Last Muse by Adrea Di Robilant