Then I discovered Fife and his fourth wife, Mary, had spent many a ‘girls reunion’ with each other in Key West and Cuba in the 1950s. Why wouldn’t they have? Mary joked that they were all ‘graduates of the Hemingway University’.
I was swiftly realising that though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were often enemies, they were also, quite often, friends. I thought about what a good novel this would make: full of heartbreak, love affairs, a maddeningly seductive central character, a carousel of wives and mistresses that turned each decade, and, of course, too many people drinking far too many cocktails…
In writing this novel I read as much about the Mrs Hemingways as I could: Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary. I read their accounts from memoirs. I heard their voices in interviews, watched their manner in films. I got elbow-deep in their love-letters to Ernest, as well as to their letters to one another.
Researching this book took three years but was a pure pleasure. Most of it was done in the British Library, but I also visited Hemingway’s homes across the globe. My accountant laughed at me when I showed him my receipts: Paris, Antibes, Key West, Havana. What a chore! But going to all of those places was also a spine-tingling experience. I marveled that these people really did tread these floorboards, really did whisper those sweet-nothings, really did throw that plate at the other’s head – and not always with the intention of missing. And sometimes, in the midst of love-letters and torn-up photographs, I felt like the fifth mistress.
While I wrote Mrs Hemingway I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be in love with Nesto, and to be loved by him. Mary’s phrase was ‘in the beam’ – and her phrase is so apt. When you look at photographs of Ernest Hemingway, it’s his eyes that shine out at you, as if a lamp has been turned on in a room. Being in love with him must have been like being in the beam of that light. And, when this light was turned off, how heavy a darkness it must have been.
Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer, Paris, 1927.
Ernest Hemingway’s passport photograph, taken in 1923.