Monday, April 16, 2012

Hadly Richardson, and the joy of simplicity

Hadley Richardson with Ernest and Bumby

I just finished The Paris Wife, a novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, told from her point of view.   For a long time, Hemingway has had all the attention, with his novels on all the required-reading lists, but his first wife (of four), who supported him when he was but a lowly reporter for the Toronto Star, is finally getting some celebrity of her own.

I wasn't sure I was going to like the book when I first started.  I had no idea what a novelist could do with a story about a famous writer's first marriage, especially when he had three subsequent ones.  But since Hemingway divorced Hadley just as he was becoming famous (The Sun Also Rises was written as their marriage was falling apart in 1925), leaving her for someone much flashier and suitable for his own rising star, the book is more of a story about love, and love falling apart.  Hadley loved Ernest before he was the huge figure he became, before he was famous, before he shot himself in the head.  She lived quietly until 1979, finding peaceful happy love with a journalist after her stormy divorce.

Hadley moved to Paris to support Ernest, put her own goals on hold so that he could write.  She loved the piano, but stopped playing when they couldn't afford to rent one for her (even though Ernest rented his own office where he could write, of course).  The one time she put her foot down was to insist that their son be born in Canada, where the hospitals were better, and she would feel safer.  Some of Ernest's glittering friends thought that Hadley had no personality.  Some even encouraged the divorce, thinking he needed more of a gorgeous, chic, Gibson Girl to match him.

But Hadley is far from a weak obedient wife.  She tolerated his affairs, and tried to give his bizarre bigamy idea a try (we think the 60's invented Free Love, but they had nothing on Paris in the 20's), but finally she decided that she had to stay true to herself, and she divorced him, leaving behind the celebrity and the fame.  She was the strongest one of their group, the only one who had the nerve to stand up to Ernest.  And in some respects, she spoke the truth when she said that she got the best Ernest Hemingway there was.  Because she knew him before he was the Ernest Hemingway we know now, because she loved him before there was any fame or money to love, she got the true Ernest Hemingway, one that none of the later wives were able to see.

In a rare interview in the late 70's, Hadley was asked whether she ever thought about going back to Paris and rekindling the relationships she had with celebrities when she was Mrs. Hemingway.  She answered, "No, I think I wanted something real."  When you look at the crowd she could have gone back to - the Fitzgeralds, for example, you can see why she chose a quiet life with her journalist-husband (to whom she was married for almost 40 years).

Hadley was also featured in a new song by Mary Chapin Carpenter called, appropriately, Mrs. Hemingway.  It's a melancholy little waltz about the move to Paris, and the happy times she had with Ernest.  Reading about her has inspired me to check out the biography's of her, and reread Hemingway from the period he was married to her.  She was such an influence on him, and it seems so unfair to simply refer to her as Hemingway's First Wife.  Maybe with this bit of fame she's seeing, people will know her name for who she was, and not just who she married.

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