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'The Paris Wife' Dives Into Hemingway's First Big Love

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'The Paris Wife' Dives Into Hemingway's First Big Love

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'The Paris Wife' Dives Into Hemingway's First Big Love

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

You think of Ernest Hemingway, you think of that brilliant writer with a larger-than-life macho personality. He's less familiar to us as a young man in love.

In the '20s, Hemingway shared his life as a poor, unknown writer in Paris with a pretty but unglamorous Midwesterner named Hadley Richardson. As NPR's Lynn Neary tells us, their story has been fictionalized in a new novel, "The Paris Wife."

LYNN NEARY: Hadley Richardson appears here and there in Hemingway's book about his Paris years, "A Moveable Feast." These glimpses of Hemingway's first wife caught the eye of writer Paula McLain. They made her curious about this woman that Hemingway seemed to idealize in the memoir he wrote toward the end of his life.

Ms. PAULA MCLAIN (Author): And this one line really stood out to me when I was re-reading it. And it's, you know: I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) I loved her, and I loved no one else, and we had a lovely, magic time while we were alone. I worked well, and we made great trips, and I thought we were invulnerable again.

NEARY: McLain says she didn't want to write another biography about Richardson. She wanted to go deeper, to imagine what Richardson's life in Paris was like, what she was thinking as she moved through the circle of artists and intellectuals the young couple met there.

McLain was also keenly aware that Hemingway himself had written of those years in "A Moveable Feast," and she didn't want to feel she was competing with him.

Ms. McLAIN: I think the way that I - it occurred to me at the time, and perhaps I was fooling myself, was that I was in conversation with that book. And that I was inserting my version of Hadley into that time and talking about their places and their experiences from her point of view and giving her an opportunity to kind of step into the light for a moment, you know, out of the fringes of literary history.

NEARY: Richardson was 28 when a friend introduced her to Hemingway. She was a gifted musician but had spent most of her 20s taking care of her sick mother. The handsome, charming Hemingway opened up a whole new world for her. When he told her he wanted to move to Paris so he could write full-time, McLain says she was eager to go.

Ms. McLAIN: How romantic, right? She wanted to be part of it. She was ready. I mean, she often said that when she hooked her star to Ernest's that she exploded into life.

And yet, I think there was some playing catch-up that needed to be done. Think about how intimidating it must have been to be in these salons, you know, to be at the foot of Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound, these incredibly opinionated tastemakers.

NEARY: Richardson wasn't always taken seriously by these greats; she was just the wife. Still, the Hemingways were seen as something of a golden couple, a fresh, unspoiled contrast to the more sophisticated and perhaps more cynical people who surrounded them. Paris was theirs for the taking.

Ms. McLAIN: (Reading) We called Paris the great good place then, and it was. We invented it, after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and rum St. James. We made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation, and we dared anyone to say it wasn't ours. Together, we made everything, and then we busted it apart again.

NEARY: Things began to unravel. Richardson lost a briefcase that contained four years of Hemingway's work. McLain says Hemingway never really forgave her for that. It was symbolic of how different they were.

Hemingway was single-minded about his writing. Richardson was the homemaker and mother, taking care of their child, who they nicknamed Bumby.

Finally, Hemingway began having an affair with one of Richardson's friends, a glamorous young journalist named Pauline Pfeiffer.

Ms. McLAIN: During the time she was pursuing Ernest and never losing her position, never sort of losing this sort of - this pretense that she was Hadley's best friend at the same time, she was sending letters to them both. And the letters to Ernest were, you know, as one might imagine, letters to a lover. And the letters to Hadley were sort of eerily asking for approval.

NEARY: The marriage fell apart after a disastrous summer when the three of them vacationed together on the Riviera in the company of the wealthy and popular Sara and Gerald Murphy, who loved to entertain talented artists and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Many years later, Richardson, who by then had been happily remarried for many years, told an interviewer how glad she was when the marriage finally ended.

(Soundbite of vintage audio)

Ms. HADLEY RICHARDSON: It was the greatest relief. I didn't expect it would be, but it was because Ernest was a terrific responsibility. And when he was not happy, when he was leading a double life and everything, it was just awfully hard.

NEARY: But Richardson also told the interviewer she still cared for Hemingway and thought he was a great man. For his part, McLain says, Hemingway seemed to regret what happened to their marriage.

Ms. McLAIN: And I think he did believe that he ruined something good. Things were so simple and pure and clear to him then, and he lost sight of himself or lost sight of sort of what he once thought was so admirable and good.

NEARY: Hemingway was married four times. Pauline Pfeiffer was his second wife. But he seemed to have had a great affection for Richardson until the end of his life. Neither of them ever seemed to forget what it was like to be young and in love in Paris.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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