Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Canadian biographer and former law professor Timothy Christian’s meticulous archival research, interviews with people who knew Ernest Hemingway’s widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, and quotes from her memoir How It Was paint an honest portrait and fresh analysis of her complex life.
While the bulk of the book speaks to her relationship with her famous husband, the initial five chapters, the most insightful, are devoted solely to her. They prove an enchanting read about the petite blonde’s bold spirit and are filled with delightful passages of singing Irish ballads with her father onboard The Northland to deliver timber from the Minnesota woods and later listening to Chopin and Hamlet, as her father inspires her writing.
Mary succeeds as a journalist writing for Time Magazine during The London Blitz. Though still married to Australian journalist, Noel Monks, she juggles relationships with General Bob McClure and handsome American novelist, Ian Shaw, author of The Young Lions. Enter Hemingway who pursues her relentlessly. She has her doubts. She finds his self-absorption unattractive, but he is exciting and adventurous. Although Shaw was her first choice, she agrees to marry Hemingway. This decision changes her life dramatically for good and ill.
Through countless examples, Christian describes their volatile, co-dependent pairing. The drama increases as they move to La Finca Vigia in Cuba. Hemingway insists she give up her career and become his emotional anchor, supporting his creative power. His charisma dominates their social life as her personality melts away. Her Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate husband becomes a narcissistic drunkard and a cruel bully. Much of the book exposes their back-and-forth relationship. Many times she contemplates leaving, yet she stays out of love and for their lifestyle.
Christian creates sympathy for her. In her Madison Avenue penthouse apartment, she recreates La Finca Vigia with the paintings The Guitar Player by Juan Gris, Joan Miro’s The Farm, taxidermy of leopard, lion and gazelle, and a zebra carpet in the living room and Waldo Peirce’s 1929 portrait of thirty-one-year-old Ernest hung over her bed. She lives surrounded by mementos of her seventeen years with him. After Hemingway’s death, the book skews off course into a series of separate essays as Mary tenaciously protects his legacy.
Hemingway’s Widow – The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway is published in Canada by Dundurn.