Chapter 19: Key West – Final Years

“Mrs. Hemingway, what was it like when the defendant returned from Spain for the final time in 1938?”

“By that time, it was all over between us. I could feel it in myself and I could feel it in him. For years, we used to laugh and play, and plan our fun as we went along. Even though we wanted very different things from life, we left plenty of space between ourselves, and fashioned a life together. There was none of that now. It was like living with a crazy man.”

“Could you give the court a specific example of crazy behavior?”

“You want the story about the gun and the lock and the costume party?”

“Yes, I’m afraid we do.”

He’d seen this one coming, but still it made him wince.

“I had planned a costume party at the Havana Madrid nightclub to celebrate the opening of the highway from Miami. Ernest didn’t want to go, which was fine with me; he went fishing with Joe Russell. Charles and Lorine came over to pick me up, and they were there when Ernest came home early. He still didn’t want to go, which was still fine – but then when he wanted to go to his writing room, it was locked and he couldn’t find the key. He got enraged, and suddenly he was standing in the living room brandishing his pistol. I was petrified that he was going to hurt somebody.”

“Deliberately, you mean?”

“No, of course not deliberately, but what consolation would that have been? He didn’t shoot anybody, but he did fire a shot into the ceiling. He fired a pistol shot into the ceiling of the living room! And then he stormed off to his writing room and shot the lock off the door and disappeared inside.”

“How did you react?”

“Really it seemed best to get away. Lorine said it would be all right for me to send the children to her house, just to be safe, and we went on to the party. And, a while later, he showed up there, all calmed down and acting as if nothing unusual had happened. But before the night was over, he got involved in a fight, right on the dance floor. And I don’t mean he exchanged a couple of punches, I mean a brawl that resulted in broken furniture. It’s amazing, in retrospect, considering his temper and his wild impulses and the amount of drinking he did, that he never killed anyone. I was mortified, and left. But by that time, it hardly made any difference. As I said, I knew it was all over between us. I knew it and I didn’t want to know it.”

“When did you finally decide that there wasn’t any going back?”

He decided, really. In July, 1939, I left the boys in the house with Ada and went to Paris with a couple of friends. It was the first time I’d gone off by myself since we were married. I was trying to regain my balance. When I returned to New York, just about the time the war broke out in Europe, I learned that he and Martha had crossed over from Cuba to Key West, picked up his car and the boys, and had driven to St. Louis. He left Martha to visit her mother, and he drove the boys to Montana, to the L-Bar-T. I called him from New York and told him I wanted to fly out to join him. I was still hoping for one last miracle, I suppose.”

“He agreed?”

“Oh, what could he say? I don’t want you? That was a little too direct for Ernest. He agreed to meet me in Billings, but everything worked against me. I got a cold on the way, and within hours of my getting there, I was running a fever. It rained continuously, which meant that we couldn’t get away from each other, and he had to take care of me when his feelings for me were gone. It made him even more irritable than before. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took my being sick to be emotional blackmail.”

That struck him. “I never reasoned it out, Pauline, but you’re right, that was exactly how it felt.” Another sudden knowing: “And that’s why your crying over the buttons was the last straw!”

“The buttons, Mrs. Hemingway?”

“He’s right, it was the last straw for him, and now I can see why. He couldn’t stand living with the guilt, watching me suffer. Here was something that couldn’t be blamed on him, so he couldn’t defend himself by finding reasons why it was my fault.”

“Explain, please.”

“A few days after I got there, I finally felt well enough to unpack, but when I opened a suitcase and found that the wax buttons on one of my favorite dresses had melted into the fabric, I started to cry, and I couldn’t stop. It just seemed so symbolic. It felt like I was losing everything in my life that I valued. I couldn’t stop crying, and then when I did, I couldn’t get away from that feeling, and finally Ernest told Toby Bruce to drive me and the boys back to Key West, by way of my family home in Arkansas. And that was the end.”

“Defense, cross-examination?”

“Mrs. Hemingway, in this final phase of your marriage, did you think it was all about Martha Gellhorn?”

“Really the problem was that Ernest was no longer content with our marriage or our life, and he was terrible about accepting the responsibility for endings. But Catholics who were party to a civil divorce could not remarry, so breaking up the marriage was an absolutely monumental step for me, and I hesitated a long time. We found ourselves in a sort of death spiral. It did not happen all at once. It was prolonged. Prolonged and painful.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hemingway, no further questions.”

“Your honor, the prosecution recalls the defendant.”


“You heard your second wife’s testimony, Mr. Hemingway. Were you, in fact, acting crazy sometimes?”

“It’s an interesting thing, sitting here, watching what happens inside me while I’m hearing all this. Back in the physical world, I would have been boiling. So why not now? Even when I’m being criticized for the wrong reasons, it doesn’t seem to get to me here. Why is that?”

“Don’t ask the question rhetorically, Mr. Hemingway. Here, when you want to know, ask.”

“I thought I just did.”

“You don’t really need to ask others. Just – ask.”

The defense attorney leaned over to him. (Or, at least, that’s one way to describe it. That’s what would have happened in 3D reality.) “One of the things that happens here is that as you acclimate yourself, gradually the training wheels come off. So, it’s going to look to you like the rules keep changing. Remember how at first we pretended to speak, because you assumed that speech was necessary? You have been receiving your answers from others because that’s how you expected it to work. But really, you don’t need somebody else to tell you the answers.”

“Then why are you having to tell me this?”

“Because you still think you don’t know. It’s easy. Do the same thing you learned to do to relive your past. Remember. Sink into the question. When the answer emerges, you’ll know, the same way you remembered what it was to be 18 years old and unwounded. So ask why your reaction to criticism is different here than when you were in the physical world.”

Well, okay, he knew how to do the sinking-into trick now. He let his mind center on his question, and dropped into it. The defense attorney – and the entire court – knew when he returned.

“You see, Mr. Hemingway, how easy it really is to get information?”

“Yeah, I do. I’m starting to feel like Robert Jordan, when he said `I was learning fast there, at the end.’ In some ways this isn’t any different from the way it worked in life, is it?”

The equivalent of a smile. “This is life, Mr. Hemingway, in somewhat different conditions. But yes, in material life, it works the same way, only you don’t always realize it. Before you return to the prosecutor’s question, what did you learn? Why do you react differently here than in life?”

“Because here I’m awake, and there sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t.”

“Close enough. Another way to say it is that while you were in the body, you could erect screens and filters to protect yourself from knowing things you didn’t want to know, and here you can’t. Here, you have no defense against the truth, because your consciousness extends to your entire being.”

“Yeah, I’m noticing.”

“Everybody here knows what you’re going through. The more open you become to learning how you really experienced life, the faster and less painful the process. I can assure you of that.”

“I sure hope so.”

“Thank you, counselor. Mr. Hemingway, to return to my question? In your last years living with Pauline, were you, in fact, sometimes acting crazy?”

“Hell, I wasn’t just acting crazy. I was crazy sometimes. I’ve got to agree with Pauline, it’s a miracle nobody got killed. I was drawn so tight! You know how, when a fish pulls the line tight enough, the water pops off the line? That was me.” He paused. “It’s complicated. There were a lot of strands to it.”

“Pick it apart, Mr. Hemingway. Nobody here is pressed for time.”

“Well, there was Marty. She was young, beautiful, and uninhibited, which was quite a bit different from Pauline. After Pauline’s second Caesarian, the doctors said she couldn’t risk becoming pregnant again, and she was Catholic enough not to use artificial birth control, so for years we had had to use coitus interruptus, which isn’t the best way to preserve intimacy. Plus, Marty was like me in some ways that Pauline wasn’t. She was a writer, and she knew what it was to be in a war, and she cared for the Republic. But I couldn’t have Marty and Pauline both, and if I went to live with Marty, I’d be giving up my home, and my Key West friends, and I’d lose my boys, too, before they became old enough to be interesting.

“But the decisive thing was that I needed home to be a place for me to refill my wells, not just a place to work. I needed peace and quiet, not an armed truce. We used to have people eat with us, because we liked to enjoy meals the way they do in Europe, or Cuba, sitting around the table for hours. You can’t do that when the two of you are so much at odds that it’s all you can do to keep up appearances. If you can’t relax, you can’t enjoy it, and if you don’t enjoy it, why do it?

“And I guess there was the guilt, too. People in Spain were hungry, and they were being bombed and shelled, and I was sitting safely in my big house, doing what? The new Spanish story that was emerging was a big one, I could feel that, like when you got a big fish on the line and you hadn’t had a look at him yet, but you could feel the drag. But how was I supposed to land it if I was living in chaos? You have to have a still place to write from, and I no longer had it! I was still writing – that was the last thing I was going to give up in life – but to write under those circumstances pulled me even tighter, and finally something had to give.”

“So you left.”

“Mr. Prosecutor, the Germans have an expression, `flug nach vorn,’ you know what it means? It’s like saying, the only way to retreat is to go straight ahead. That’s the situation I was in. I couldn’t stay where I was, Somehow Pauline’s crying over the damned buttons crystallized in me that I had to get out of the situation. I fled forward.”

“Understood. Does the defense have any questions?”

“No questions.”

“Your honor, the prosecution recalls Martha Gellhorn.”


“Miss Gellhorn, when you came home from Spain for the final time, what were your plans?”

“I wanted to be with Ernest, and I wanted to continue to write. Spain made me into a war correspondent, and clearly the world was going to need plenty of war correspondents.”

“Had you and the defendant come to an understanding by the end of 1938?”

“Let’s say that at some point it became inevitable that he was going to leave Pauline and take up with me. But, as I came to learn, bringing things to a conclusion was something he wouldn’t do if he could avoid it. Toward the end of the year, he all but moved over to Havana, living in the Sevilla-Biltmore, supposedly so he could get enough peace and quiet to keep writing. By then he was defining `peace and quiet’ as not just freedom from visitors but freedom from Pauline.”

“So you went to be with him. Were you intending to be with him permanently?”

“Oh, I don’t know. This was 1939, we could see that war was coming, it wasn’t a time to think about permanence. You were led by events. But I was there, and we liked being together, I was willing to see what would happen.”

“And you were responsible for his buying the Finca.”

“His room in the Sevilla-Biltmore was a dump, as bad as the Hotel Florida in Madrid, but he was so far into the book, I think he didn’t even notice. He didn’t have time and attention to spend looking for another place, but I couldn’t stand living like that, so I took it on myself to do the looking. That should have taught me something, too. Ernest was always happy to let someone else do the uninteresting things in life. But I found a big house on 15 acres with a great view, a few miles outside of Havana: Finca Vigia, which means lookout farm. It wasn’t in great shape, and he wasn’t much impressed by it when I took him out to see it, but I could see its possibilities. I arranged to rent it, and I spent my own money fixing it up, and in mid-May we moved in.”

“Best thing you ever did for me Marty, and I appreciated it.”

“You had a damn funny way of showing it, sometimes. Anyway, we settled in.”

“Miss Gellhorn, as I understand it, you and the defendant shared expenses.”

“Except for his booze bill, yes. If you want to keep your independence, you have to pay your own way. So Ernest kept working on his novel, and I continued on mine, my second novel, I don’t think I mentioned that. He and Paula kept edging closer to divorce, but they were keeping up appearances. He continued to get his mail at the Ambos Mundos for propriety’s sake, but he moved into the finca with me. Then in September he packed Pauline off to Key West and called me and asked me to fly to Billings to meet him.”

“Which you did.”

“Which I did, yes, and we drove to the Sun Valley Lodge. They were just getting started, and they were comping celebrities in return for them letting themselves be used to publicize the lodge.”

“In your experience, was that typical of the defendant, to let himself be used for publicity purposes?”

“He was working on his manuscript; it was coming along well, but he needed a good place to work. He wasn’t rich yet, and obviously he could no longer rely on Pauline’s family money. Free lodgings at Sun Valley helped, and it was a beautiful setting that provided wonderful hunting.”

“And then?”

“And then Charles Colebough of Collier’s asked me to go to Finland, because it looked Finland and Russia might go to war.”

“What was the defendant’s reaction to the idea?”

“Initially Ernest was quite supportive. He said I ought to be able to do it in a few weeks and then meet him in Cuba. He said the assignment would give me a nest egg, and then I could afford to write my short stories without having to resort to journalism to keep body and soul together. So of course as soon as I had things arranged, Ernest started going around telling everybody I was abandoning him. But that was Ernest. He got over it, after a while.”

“So you went.”

“I went. It took nearly three weeks in a Dutch freighter – a neutral vessel, you know — to get to Belgium by way of England and a heavily mined sea. Then a flight to Helsinki, and within hours after my arrival, late in November, the Russians started dropping bombs. It didn’t take long. By Christmas Eve I was in Sweden, writing my articles for Colliers, and then I was marking time in Lisbon, waiting for the weather to improve enough for the Yankee Clipper to take me back to America. By the time I got home, Ernest had packed up his things from Key West and he was in Cuba for good.”

“Questions from the defense?”

“Miss Gellhorn, you said the defendant `got over’ the fact that you were going to Finland. What was he like after he got over it?”

“These were still early days between us. He was sweet, actually. He praised me to my face and behind my back, saying how brave I was. And when I was in Finland he sent me cables saying how proud of me he was, which made me miss him terribly.”

“And when you returned to him, in Cuba?”

“He was very glad to have me back, and he wanted me to never leave him again. At the moment, that’s what I wanted too. I did have offers to cover the war, but I turned them down. I was tired, and  I was happy just to be with him, and to be with his friends from Spain who partied with him at the Finca every Sunday. And of course I was waiting for A Stricken Field, my novel, to come out in March.”

“Had the defendant helped you write it?”

“He was plenty busy with For Whom the Bell Tolls! Where he helped me most was with the legal aspects of the publishing contract. He had Max Perkins send him a copy of the most stringent Scribner’s contract so he could compare and negotiate with my publishers, and he was able to get the terms improved considerably.”

“Thank you, Miss Gellhorn. No further questions at this time.”

“Your honor, the prosecution recalls the defendant to the stand.”


“Mr. Hemingway, all during the time your second marriage was disintegrating, no matter where you were, you kept writing For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

“Seventeen months, all told.”

“Yes. Seventeen months. During that time, would you say you were living more in your mind than in the external physical world?”

“Let’s not forget, I’m the guy who had to deal with Pauline and Marty and Max and everybody. In December of ’39, when I went down to Key West I found that she had discharged all the house servants and taken herself and the kids to New York, and it was up to me to pack my manuscripts and my clothes and gear. Some of it I stored at Sloppy Joe’s, and the rest of it I packed in the big Buick, and then I put it in the car and took the ferry to Havana. You think that got done by remote control?”

“My question really is, did you sometimes find your inner world overwhelming the outer world? Clearly, seventeen months devoted to visualizing and writing one story is an intense prolonged effort. It seems reasonable to ask if you found it harder to concentrate on the outer world during that period.”

“You ever try catching marlin while you’re thinking about something else? When I finished working for the day, I turned it all off. I had to, or I couldn’t work the next day. That’s one way I used drinking, to retune the radio in my mind.”

“I see. While we’re on the subject, let’s finish with For Whom the Bell Tolls. You wrote it with unwavering foreknowledge of defeat.”

“Everybody who read the book in 1940 knew the Republic’s fate. It didn’t die in the dark. Spain was betrayed by everybody: by its own army, by England, by France by the United States, by the Soviet Union in a different way. It was betrayed by just about everybody except Mexico and the International Brigade. So where was the opportunity for a happy ending? It wasn’t that kind of story. I wasn’t out to make people feel good. I was telling the truth, as best I could.”

“Did you not experience some internal conflict about including some things? The massacres by the people, for instance?”

“I wasn’t writing propaganda. I wrote it as true as I could write. This was an elegy, and I wasn’t going to spoil it by writing things that time would reveal as false, or by leaving out anything that ought to be in it. I’ll tell you what surprised me, though. Very few people seemed to realize that the book less about Spain than about an idealistic American who loved Spain.

“Robert Jordan was modeled on Robert Merriman, who got killed over there. He was a product of an America the Spaniards could never be brought to understand, living in a sort of no-man’s-land of his own, living among people who called him ingles even after he corrected them. He spoke their language, and could think inside their heads, but he wasn’t one of them. He was tied to untrustworthy allies because they were fighting the same enemies. By the time the book came out, that was America’s situation, too, and people were beginning to realize it. That’s what the book was really about.”

“Yes. It was a remarkable achievement. And Spain led indirectly to your trip to Chine in 1941, which had equally major consequences for you. Let’s look at that experience. The prosecution recalls Martha Gellhorn.”


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