One afternoon in the late winter of 1961, while Hadley Richardson was vacationing at a ranch in Arizona with her second husband, she got a call from her first husband, Ernest Hemingway. Though the writer had spoken to Richardson rarely since their divorce in 1927, and seen her just once in 22 years, she remained his most enduring muse — the model for the alluring but wounded Hemingway heroine — and recently, he'd been thinking about her a lot. He was working on a memoir of their years together in Paris, and he asked her a few questions about details he couldn't recall. It was a warm conversation, filled with shared memories of their youthful union and delight in their grown son, Jack.Still, when Richardson hung up, she burst into tears. She heard something in his voice that profoundly disturbed her; she heard hollowness and defeat and despair. She knew the long decline that had begun when he left her for another woman so long ago had finally run its course, that he was moving closer to the moment when he would end his life.
A few months later—on July 2, 50 years ago Saturday — when Hemingway shot himself to death in the foyer of the Ketchum, Idaho, home he shared with his fourth wife, Mary, it was the culmination of decades of loss, of dying passion and diminished creativity — conditions he always associated with his betrayal of Richardson. "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her," he wrote unforgettably in "A Moveable Feast," his lyrical memoir of their marriage and the last thing he worked on before his death.
In a way, he did die. When he left Richardson for the wealthy Vogue editor, Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife, the boasting and cruelty that had always occupied corners of his personality began to take over. As the years passed, his drinking and physical problems increased, and — most dangerously for his mental health — his literary powers began to wane.
Of course, the seeds of his future suicide were there at the start of his career. As the person closest to Hemingway at the time, Richardson saw firsthand the depth of his anguish and his struggle to fight through it with work. She knew that his writing, which so captured the American imagination with its beauty and simplicity — the short, unadorned sentences, the sing-songy rhythms and elegylike repetitions that seemed to embody the power and romance of nature itself — was at its heart a defense against death.
In ardent letters, Hemingway poured out his pain to Richardson, so that even before their marriage she worried that he'd kill himself. "Not truly so low as to crave mortage (death) are you?" she wrote him on July 7, 1921. "The meanest thing I can say to you on that point is remember it would kill me to all intents and purposes … You gotta live — first for you and then for my happiness."
No one understood better than Richardson the dark forces that roiled Hemingway's psyche — similar forces tormented her. Before meeting Hemingway, she had lived at such a low level of emotional intensity that she often felt half alive. During bouts of severe depression, death seemed to her the perfect escape. "I know how it feels cause I have so very many times wanted to go and couldn't on account of the mess it'd leave some other people in," she told him.
When Richardson met Hemingway at an October party in Chicago in1920, he was 21 and she was a shy, 28-year-old spinster, who'd spent the previous eight years in a state of nervous collapse. Grief-stricken over the death of her eldest sister, who had died in a fire while pregnant with her third child, Richardson had dropped out of Bryn Mawr College and lived at home in St. Louis with her domineering mother, doing little but reading and practicing the piano, for which she had significant talent. Throughout this period, she flirted with suicide, which haunted her family, as it did Hemingway's. When she was 13, her father, an alcoholic failed businessman, shot himself to death, just as Hemingway's father would in 1928. Richardson and Hemingway also each had a brother who would commit suicide.
Even after falling in love with Hemingway—a "great explosion into life," as she called it — Richardson occasionally thought of ending her life. In the summer of 1921, oppressed by the stultifying Midwest heat, she wrote Hemingway about viewing a fierce rainstorm from the porch of her family house: "(I) watched the foliage whisked into wild shapes by the wind and smelled the drenched cool grasses and let the thunder claps terrify me and the lightning cut me blind and when I went out I didn't see how to go about anything I have to do and wished lazily the lightning might settle the whole shebang for me."
Richardson, though, was never truly suicidal. Once she married Hemingway and escaped her tortured past, she grew into her true nature, which was strong and healthy. Hemingway helped her find this sense of self, a solid identity which, in a sad irony, helped her survive his betrayal.
Their love transformed him too. Before he met her, Hemingway had been an insecure, restless young man, unable to focus his energies. With Richardson he discovered his artistic identity and developed the full range of his talents. Unlike Richardson, though, Hemingway could never fully escape his demons, and even at the height of fulfillment with her, even when his "juices," as he called his imaginative powers, were flowing forcefully, he had suicidal thoughts. In 1926, as the "The Sun Also Rises" "was going white hot," as Richardson put it, he wrote a meditation on suicide in the same black leather notebook where he recorded expenses and schedules: "When I feel low, I like to think about death and the various ways of dying. And I think about probably the best way, unless you could arrange to die some way while asleep, would be to go off a liner at night. That way there could be no doubt the thing going through and it does not seem a nasty death."As his marriage to Richardson was breaking up, his suicidal thoughts intensified, and he tried to beat them back with work and drink. He wrote Pauline Pfeiffer, then his mistress, "Last fall I said perfectly calmly and not bluffingly and during one of the good times that if this (his wavering between Richardson and Pfeiffer) wasn't cleared up by Christmas I would kill myself — because that would mean it wasn't going to clear up. Evidently all I can do is remove the sin out of your life and avoid the necessity of divorce — and compliment Hadley — by killing myself."
Leaving Richardson caused Hemingway a profound wound that would never heal, that he would reopen again and again with every divorce and ruptured relationship. As time went on, his idealization of Richardson grew. He dreamed of returning to the idyllic world of his first marriage, as he wrote in "A Moveable Feast," with "my wife and my son and his cat F. Puss, all of them happy and a fire in the fireplace." He wondered how he could have been so innocent. "Nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you." He and Richardson had felt lucky then, but like fools did not knock on wood, though "there was wood everywhere in that apartment."
And, yet, a note of optimism underpins Hemingway's mournful regret. The earth abideth; the world is made anew with every generation, as he acknowledges in the final paragraph of the book: "There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other."
Perhaps as he wrote those words, he imagined himself in a cafe in some heavenly City of Light, sharing a bottle of wine with Richardson, or fishing some crystalline trout stream in the sky, eternally returned to the time when his drive to life was more powerful than his drive to suicide, when his life matched the beauty and clarity of his art.