You think “social distancing” is hard? Hemingway was quarantined with his wife, son, and mistress. Think about that.


Hemingway, Bumbie, and Wife #1

Lesley Blume‘s Town & Country article begins with a head fake, one that I didn’t even know was making the rounds: “Last week, a letter supposedly written by F. Scott Fitzgerald—quarantined due to the Spanish Flu in 1920—made the social media rounds. In it, Fitzgerald states that he and Zelda had fully stocked their bar, and called Hemingway a flu “denier” who refused to wash his hands. This letter went viral.”

“The only problem? It was not written by Fitzgerald; its true author is Nick Farriella, who had written it as a parody for McSweeney’s earlier this month. (The story now carries a heavy-handed warning at the top: i.e., this is a joke.) However, for those of you who crave an actual Lost Generation quarantine story, you’re in luck. Please allow me to entertain you with the true story of how Ernest Hemingway was once quarantined not only with his wife and sick toddler, but also his mistress. He actually took quite nicely to it.”

Well, why wouldn’t he? At least in the beginning. The middle and ending were a different story. It didn’t end well.

The occasion was the summer of 1926, when Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, their three-year-old son Jack (a.k.a. “Bumby”) were in Paris. It was a breakthrough season for Hemingway, and he was acquiring the trappings of success – including a mistress, a Vogue editor named Pauline Pfeiffer.

“When Hadley had, just weeks earlier, learned of the affair and confronted Hemingway about it, he had grown furious and told her that she was the true offender. He raged that everything would have been just fine if she hadn’t dragged the situation into the open.

“The couple decided to carry on, but it became clear that Hemingway had no intention of giving up Pauline; nor did his mistress intend to bow out. Rather, she made herself omnipresent. It was just going to take Hadley a while to get used to her new normal.”

But the new normal quickly became out of whack on the Antibes, where “Bumby” came down with whooping cough, then a dangerous and deadly disease, and highly contagious.

“Hadley wrote Hemingway and told him that she’d invited Pfeiffer ‘to stop off here if she wants,’ adding that it would be a ‘swell joke on tout le monde if you and Fife and I spent the summer [together]’ on the Riviera. She appeared to be making light of the tricky romantic situation. In any case, Pfeiffer moved into the house.”

Hemingway and Wife #2

“Soon Hemingway joined them, setting the stage for what must have been one of the odder and more claustrophobic households in literary history. The idea of sharing a two-bedroom house with his mistress, an angry wife, a contagious, sick toddler, and a hovering nanny might have brought a lesser man to his knees, but Hemingway later described the setting as ‘a splendid place to write.’” The story continues:

Pfeiffer remained ubiquitous—“everything was done à trois,” Hadley later recalled. Even now that they were all out of strict quarantine, Pfeiffer even crawled into the Hemingways’ bed in the morning to share their breakfast. Hadley also later recalled that Pauline insisted on giving her a diving lesson that almost killed her.

After Pfeiffer went back to Paris, she peppered the Hemingways with letters, including one that brazenly stated, “I am going to get everything I want.”

Not surprisingly, the Hemingway marriage did not last the summer. They had survived whooping cough and quarantine, but the onslaught of Miss Pauline Pfeiffer proved fatal.

Read the rest here. Hemingway’s second marriage to Pfeiffer didn’t last either. But that’s another story.


One Response to “You think “social distancing” is hard? Hemingway was quarantined with his wife, son, and mistress. Think about that.”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Ha. Sounds like a new definition of hell.

    At least Emile Zola had the courtesy during his exile in England to time his wife’s and his mistress’ visits at different times.