Lecture preview: 'Paris Wife' author reveals Hemingway's first spouse

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When Ernest Hemingway used a rifle to commit suicide in 1961, the manuscript for "A Moveable Feast" was still in his typewriter.

That book, published after his death, shows the writer's struggle to establish his reputation while living and writing in Paris during the 1920s. One of its themes is Hemingway's remorse over how he treated his first wife, Hadley Richardson, whom he left in 1926.

"I think later he had a great deal of regret for the way he jettisoned her," said Paula McLain, author of "The Paris Wife," a novel about the couple's six years in the romantic City of Light.

Ms. McLain speaks tonight at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall at the Ten Literary Evenings series presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

Paula McLain

Where: Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Tickets: $15; $10 for students with ID; reserved seats $25-$35. 412-622-8866 or www.pittsburghlectures.org.

By 1926, Hemingway had risen from a newspaper war correspondent to a short story writer to the author of "The Sun Also Rises," an acclaimed novel published in 1925.

During his Paris years, Hemingway felt anchored in his marriage to Richardson and leaned on her dependable support, Ms. McLain said.

He rewarded his wife's loyalty by conducting an affair with her good friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, a fashion writer for Vanity Fair magazine, who became Hemingway's second wife.

In the 2009 restored version of "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway wrote, "... Hadley, who had no possible blame, ever, came well out of it finally and married a much finer man than I ever was or could hope to be ...."

At a Boston archive, Ms. McLain read the letters Hemingway and Richardson wrote to one another while he lived in Chicago and she was at her family's home in St. Louis.

"They fell in love through these letters," Ms. Mclain said, adding, "I didn't have permission to use her actual words. I'm not a biographer. I'm not a scholar."

Ms. McLain dove into the correspondence after reading biographies of Richardson.

"The few excerpted letters of Hadley's that I found were so striking to me in their effervescence, candor, warmth and intelligence," she said.

Dialogue in "The Paris Wife" is inspired by Ms. McLain's research but ultimately comes from her imagination.

"I really had to make it up. That's the tricky bit. I needed to make her come alive. So I really just took her turns of phrase, the essence of the things she would say."

Initially, Hemingway disdained writers who hung around Paris cafes, preferring to "write one true sentence at a time," Ms. McLain said.

After fame arrived, "He's the guy front and center in the cafes, listening with a piqued ear to anyone who tells him he's a genius. ... He starts to believe the hype about himself. It's so dangerous to be seduced."

For a while, Hemingway deluded himself into thinking he could emulate the lifestyles of poet Ezra Pound and novelist Ford Madox Ford. Pound fathered a child with his lover; Ford was married but carried on an affair with fellow writer Jean Rhys.

"Hemingway was seduced by Pauline Pfeiffer and seduced her. He wanted it all. He had no intention of leaving Hadley," Ms. McLain said.

Ultimately, Richardson found strength in her traditional Midwestern values of family, loyalty and monogamy even though Hemingway's companions found them rather bourgeois.

"People have disdain for these values in Paris. A lot of women find her passive and dowdy. I think she is revolutionary in that world because she held on to those values," Ms. McLain said.

Letters Hemingway wrote to his family from Paris show that he saw himself and Richardson as artists. She was a talented pianist.

"He thought she was fantastic. Anyone who heard her play piano thought she had the goods. She didn't have the confidence, and she didn't have the ego. She didn't have the stomach for it," Ms. McLain said.

Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. His passion for hunting wild game in Africa, deep sea fishing and chronicling bull fights in Spain fueled his reputation as a swashbuckling man's man.

But, Ms. McLain said, "At bottom, he was a pile of goo and insecurity. When he let somebody in, he kind of hated them for being in. He couldn't risk vulnerability."

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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