Hemingway and all those wives


Frankly, I get all the wives confused because I have a blinding obsession with Wife #3 that has made it tough to focus on all the others.  Martha Gellhorn, the third wife, was played by Nicole Kidman in this month’s HBO movie Hemingway and Gellhorn and offers a glimpse of why she’s such a compelling figure.

A friend told me about Martha ten years ago and we agreed she’d make a great film heroine.  So, we optioned a book by Angeleno Bernice Kert – The Hemingway Women — and worked with a screenwriter on a story about the her tempestuous relationship with Hemingway. (Although Martha famously hated being remembered merely for this period of her life, we thought it would get her story made). We eventually got enough “no’s” to abandon the film dream — it was very clear that telling a story that made Hemingway look less than perfect was not something Hollywood directors wanted to do. The story of his love for Martha exposes both his greatest strengths, and his most base weaknesses… and no one wanted to knock Papa Hemingway off his throne.

Martha seems to have sprung right out of the pages of his novels – a full-bodied heroine that could accompany him to the front, understand the machismo and romanticism of the life of the ex-pat reporter (including drinking him under the table and being an exciting lover).  And yet, his Achilles heel was that he needed to be cared for by a traditional woman. Someone who tended to his needs, submitted to his whims and didn’t call him on his drinking and debauchery. Martha was not that woman, and hence their marriage was short-lived.

The movie recently produced for HBO starred Nicole Kidman as Martha and Clive Owen as Hemingway – dream casting, especially with what would seem to be the ultimate director for the material — Phillip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). The movie looks good and, not surprisingly since it was based on true events, followed exactly the plotting that the film we imagined. I loved seeing it produced so elegantly, with such high caliber actors playing my beloved characters, and yet – at the end of the day, it was hard for Philip Kaufman to portray the weaknesses that were so integral to Hemingway’s character. For all the glorious love-making and adventuring, he failed to really show us why Earnest turned on Martha so rabidly, taking her credentials with Colliers and using his celebrity to mercilessly beat her at the game she’d learned to play as well as he – writing about war.

(And why-oh-why did Kaufman feel compelled to show us Martha and Ernest as old people – him committing suicide and her still taking assignments to write about the downtrodden of war at a remarkably advanced age; isn’t that what those punchy end-credit tags are designed to do!?)

If you want to read Martha’s work, try “The Face of War”, first.  Her contribution to literature was to write about the victims of war, humanizing the news that had previously been about politics and nations and not bodies and those left behind. It is a trend that continues to the present. For more on Hemingway and his wives, try the recent book club fave “The Paris Wife” (about Ernest’s first wife, Hadley. Extra credit for reading that this summer alongside Hem’s wonderful “A Moveable Feast” about their early days in Paris.