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In The 1920s, Hemingway Spent Quarantine With His Wife And His Girlfriend — Both St. Louisans

Hemingway images
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Details of three images from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library show, from left, Hadley Richardson (at far left) with Pauline Pfieffer pre-quarantine; Ernest Hemingway with his and Richardson's son Bumby; and Hemingway in a 1923 passport picture.

Nearly a century ago, long before Ernest Hemingway married St. Louis native Martha Gelhorn, he found himself quarantined with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, who was also from St. Louis.

In the summer of 1926, as Hemingway and Richardson’s young son, Bumby, battled a highly contagious respiratory illness, doctors ordered them into isolation. And if you have to be quarantined, the location doesn’t seem so terrible at first glance: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s place on the French Riviera. But the mix of company could have been better in terms of keeping the household peace: In addition to the Hemingways and their nanny, the quarantined bunch also eventually included Ernest’s lover, Pauline Pfeiffer, who later became his second wife. 

And if you wondered whether Pfieffer was a St. Louis native — yes, Hemingway ultimately married three St. Louis women. Only two, thankfully, joined his quarantine.

Author Lesley Blume details the whole ordeal in her 2016 book “Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises.” And in the age of COVID-19, the story she tells about that literary but claustrophobic time is receiving fresh attention.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Blume talked with Sarah Fenske about this unconventional quarantine arrangement, describing the Hemingway household as “social-distancing pioneers” of sorts.

“Anybody who wanted to visit them, it was the same thing — you couldn’t walk up to the front door if you were bringing them groceries or something like that; you would have to leave it at the front gate,” Blume said. “When they did have visitors come, they would stand on the far side of the gate in the front yard and talk [at a] distance like we’re doing right now.”

As the author delved into the circumstances that led up to the quarantine, she spoke of Richardson as “the sweetest, kindest woman on the planet — literally did not have a mean bone in her body.” She and Hemingway lived in Paris at the time, and Richardson had at her disposal “a very modest trust fund” that was barely keeping the household afloat as Hemingway sought to reinvent himself as a “great, revolutionary modern writer” rather than a journalist.

“They were eating, at least,” Blume said. “But through a series of unfortunate events propelled actually by Mr. Hemingway himself, the trust fund was dissipated, and they were really left with no money whatsoever. And around that time is when Mr. Hemingway [met] a certain somebody who’s about to come into this story.”

Author Lesley Blume joined Thursday's "St. Louis on the Air."
Acclaimed author Lesley Blume joined Thursday's "St. Louis on the Air."

That somebody was, of course, Pfeiffer.

“Both Pauline and Hadley, they have certain things in common, basic things: They’re both women, they’re both from St. Louis. And they both ultimately lived to love Hemingway,” Blume noted. “But that’s where the similarities end.”

Pfeiffer was a career woman, working as an editor for Vogue in Paris, and presented an intimidating challenge to the Hemingways’ marriage.

“Hadley ... had bankrolled [the household] modestly in the beginning, but Pauline’s a proper heiress, also,” Blume said. “She comes from a pharmaceutical and a cosmetics family. … She is extremely well dressed, she is shrewd, she knows what she wants and how to get it.”

Originally, though, Pfeiffer was quite repelled by Hemingway. 

“She thought he was kind of a gruff He-Man and really was quite appalled by the poverty in which Hemingway and Hadley were living,” the author said. “But clearly something changed, because sooner or later she decided more than anything what she wanted in life was Hadley’s husband.”

Once the entire group of them wound up in quarantine together, it became quite the spectacle for their literary neighbors to watch play out.

“The Fitzgeralds who are still down there on the Riviera, and the Murphys [Gerald and Sara], they all know what’s going on, and they think that this is quite outrageous,” Blume said. “I mean, it’s the closest thing they get to spectator sport.

“So they’re bringing the Hemingways and Pauline supplies every day, whether it’s roses and wine or vegetables from their gardens. But they’re full of mischief about it, too. … And Zelda Fitzgerald would later say that it was great having a front row to the Hemingways’ domestic difficulties. So they would all stand on the far side of the fence and they would have these impromptu cocktail parties … and everybody would sort of watch this strange quarantine menage a trois with their jaws on the ground.”

The situation lasted for about three weeks before “the whole circus” moved to a nearby hotel for a bit more breathing space.

“Bumby and the nanny are [then] stashed in a little cottage on the hotel grounds, and now Pauline is really quite free to pursue her Hemingway campaign” full force, Blume said. “Hadley later said in her own memoir that everything after that point was done a trois, for three. So if she and Hemingway were going to go on a bike ride, there was Pauline, peddling alongside them. And so it was really truly the end of the end of the Hadley and Hemingway marriage.” 

For those St. Louisans wondering where Hemingway’s three St. Louis wives went to high school, Fenske pointed out that Hadley Richardson went to Mary Institute, Pauline Pfeiffer went to Visitation Academy, and Martha Gelhorn went to John Burroughs School.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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