Review: ‘Hemingway’s Widow,’ by Timothy Christian
An observant biography about Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary, who gave up journalism for love.
By Wayne Catan, Special to the Star Tribune FEBRUARY 25, 2022 — 7:45AM
Timothy Christian. Photo by: KATHRYN DYKSTRA
After reading Ernest Hemingway’s Paris memoir, “A Moveable Feast” while in Paris, Timothy Christian followed it with several biographies of Hemingway and his wives. Most biographers, he noticed, dismissed fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway as “being the lowest born of the four wives … or for being a mere ‘caretaker wife.’ ”
But Christian did not believe this was the case, so he scoured through archives, attended Hemingway conferences and interviewed Hemingway scholars, eventually writing “Hemingway’s Widow,” a vivid portrayal of Mary Welsh Hemingway.
Mary was born in Walker, Minn., in 1908 and grew up in Bemidji, where she spent summers on her father’s paddleboat on Leech Lake. She then moved south to Chicago to attend Northwestern University and later secured a position with the Chicago Daily News. Mary desired more action, though, so she pressed newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook for a job at the London Daily Express. That is where she met her second husband, Noel Monks.
In London, she wrote about Hitler, Mussolini and the Blitz and befriended Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Pamela Churchill, the daughter-in-law of the British prime minister. In 1940, she started working at Time’s London office. In May 1944, she met Hemingway at the White Tower restaurant. He was in London covering the war for Collier’s: “He had broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and slim hips.”
At the time, Mary was married to Monks and Hemingway was married to journalist Martha Gellhorn. Initially, Mary was not impressed with Hemingway, but he wrote to her incessantly. His epistles worked, and in March of 1946 they were married in Cuba. Mary gave up her career to manage Hemingway’s affairs: “He looked upon Mary as his equal, listened to her ideas, and treated them with respect.” In fact, Mary recommended that Santiago should live in Hemingway’s short novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” and Christian agrees: “The [Pulitzer] was a testament to their successful partnership.”
Christian masterfully transports readers to Picasso’s studio in Paris and to the Ritz Bar where the couple drank with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Readers then experience a bullfight in Spain and an African safari. Christian also writes about an incident in Wyoming where Mary ruptured a fallopian tube, which she called “‘the greatest loss of [her] life, except the death of Ernest.”
Later in his life, Hemingway struggled emotionally. He was abusive, he believed his room and phone were tapped and he tried to walk into a plane’s propellers. On July 2, 1961, he shot himself in his Ketchum, Idaho, home. By this time, Mary’s nerves were frazzled and she was a habitual gin drinker.
Christian regales readers with stories from around the world, revealing the life of one of the most iconic literary couples. He also chronicles Mary’s illustrious journalism career and her meetings with world leaders such as Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, setting the record straight that Martha Gellhorn was not the only respected reporter whom Hemingway married.
Wayne Catan, who teaches a class about Ernest Hemingway at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, is a book critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Hemingway’s Widow: The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway
By: Timothy Christian.
Publisher: Pegasus Books, 464 pages, $29.95.