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The Paris Wife and Hemingway at the Ritz

On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the  2nd Armoured Division of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s  Fighting French. Every year since then, Parisians have gathered on this date to celebrate the restoration of their city’s freedom. Among the celebrated personalities who helped “liberate” Paris was Ernest Hemingway, at the head of his own rag-tag little army. He checked out the bar at the Ritz Hotel where he’d drank many a martini, visited his friend Sylvia Beach who’d had to give up her Shakespeare & Co. bookshop during the occupation, then returned to the Ritz to share a dinner with eight officers. They signed each other’s menus with the identical inscription: “We think we took Paris!”

So this is a good time to be reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Bond Street Books), a fictional rendering of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It is a story well-known to anyone who has read Hemingway biographies, yet it sympathetically explores the emotions and attitudes that Hadley and Ernest must have shared and felt, in a way that is possible only in a work of fiction.Nevertheless, The Paris Wife is faithful to the historical record.

Hadley Richardson was an earnest and adventurous midwestern girl when she met Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. He wooed her there and by love letters he sent her when she returned to her home in St. Louis. They married in September, 1921. Hemingway had made up his mind to go to Europe to pursue a writing life, intending to settle in Rome. Sherwood Anderson urged him to go to Paris instead, and gave him letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach.

The novelty of the bohemian life they found in Paris was entrancing to both Ernest and Hadley.The young wife adjusts slowly to the cafe life, the drinking and the trips that Ernest makes throughout Europe on assignments for the Toronto Star. When he is sent to cover a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, Hadley is sick in bed, and Ernest goes ahead. When she follows, a few nights later, she commits the sin of which Ernest will never really forgive her. She puts all his manuscripts in a valise and sets out for the train. Somehow, she loses the valise, either to a thief or to absent-mindedness. The reader shares her dismay when she discovers this, and the pain when she has to tell Ernest what has happened. He rushes back to Paris thinking Hadley could not possibly have done as she had said. The manuscripts are nowhere to be found.

When she became pregnant, Ernest decides the baby should be born in North America. The couple return to Toronto, but Ernest is soon distraught at the petty politics of the Star and the dullness of life in this proper Protestant city. “Toronto’s dead,” Paula McLain has Ernest telling Hadley. “We can’t stay here.”

The Paris Wife is a chronicle of adventure, love, and despair, an absorbing and illuminating story of two lives descending into an inevitable pit of defeat. One cannot read it without experiencing the taste and hearing the sounds of Paris life. Hemingway’s own memory of his Paris life, as in A Moveable Feast, is reflected unerringly in this novel, as incident on incident piles up, adding stress to the marriage.

One watches, fascinated, as Pauline Pfeiffer, who will become Ernest’s second wife, enters their lives. She is not merely tolerated but welcomed by Hadley, even after she realizes Hemingway has been sleeping with her. But it is the scenes in Spain, where Hemingway has gone to write his masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, that McLain depicts to most painfully register the dismay Hadley feels over what is happening.

The book is at its strongest in its final chapters, where Hadley realizes she can no longer be a dull but loyal wife, and that he will soon leave her, ready to begin not just another marriage but another epic work of literature. Scott Fitzgerald, who with Zelda is seldom absent from this book, is said to have concluded that Ernest needed a new wife for every big new book.

The Paris Wife is about a great writer, his moral lapses, his intensity and his determination to “write well and true,” as well as about the woman who shared the early years of his success. But most of all, it is about an age, one that perhaps never really existed beyond the pages of the books that Hemingway and his contemporaries would write, but one that continues to fascinate, and will have everlasting appeal.

I will be in Paris for this year’s Liberation Day ceremony. A martini at the Ritz, and a salute to The Paris Wife will be in order.

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