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Snapshots of Mary Welsh Hemingway
By Kenneth Koyen
Photo by Morris Warman
The legendary Ernest Hemingway.
Mary Welsh Hemingway
By Kenneth Koyen
The first time I met Mary Welsh was during "The Phony War." It was the spring of 1940. Eight months before Germany had invaded Poland. Great Britain and France had declared war on the Reich. Because there had been no battles, it was being called "The Phony War." The French called it "Une Drôle de Guerre." I was in Paris on the editorial staff of The Paris Herald, an American daily owned by the New York Herald Tribune.
Although I had taken French language classes in college, I was far from fluent. I decided to better myself. As my work at the paper began in the afternoon, my mornings were free. I enrolled in a French language class for foreigners given by the Alliance Francaise. It was held in the Sorbonne. I found about 20 people in the class. Most of them were Poles who had fled the German invasion of their country. They appeared to have the means to re-establish their lives in a new venue.
One woman did not appear to be part of the Polish group. She was not. She was American. We introduced ourselves. She said that she was Mary Welsh and that she was a correspondent for the London Daily Express at the paper’s Paris bureau. She was rather stocky at about 5 feet 2 inches. She had brown hair, blue eyes, sharp features and a self-assured manner.
I learned later that she was 32, the daughter of a Minnesota lumberman. She had gone to Northwestern University. She had attended journalism classes there and participated in other activities. Notably, marriage to another student. He was Lawrence Miller Cook, a drama student from Ohio. Their wedded life was brief. "Without hard feelings" they soon "separated formally."
She landed a job at The Chicago Daily News writing womens’ page stories. On a holiday trip to Europe she went to London. There she personally besieged Lord Beaverbrook for a job. The British press owner was not immune to young women. He finally placed her on his London Daily Express. With the coming of the war she had been assigned to Paris.
As our French classes went on we merely nodded at each other. We did not chitchat. We gave our attention to our instructor, an attractive young French woman who spoke English as well as she spoke French. I cannot certify that our French improved markedly. But I do know that the classes ended abruptly on May 10. Then the German Army launched its assault against the Allies. "The Phony War" was over and the world learned a new term, "Blitzkrieg."
With the fall of France and the occupation of Paris by the German Army, we American and British nationals fled the country. I to New York to join the staff of the New York Herald Tribune. Mary Welsh back to London and the Blitz by the German bombers. Then came Pearl Harbor, and I was soon in the Army of the United States. In 1944 came D-Day and the liberation of France by American and British troops. A first lieutenant in the Armored Force, I had an opportunity to visit Paris for a few days in mid-September as my tank division was refitting.
I looked up a friend, Will Lang. He was running the re-established bureau of TIME and LIFE magazines. He welcomed me and invited me to join him at lunch. "I’m having lunch with Hemingway," he said. "Would you like to come along?" I accepted with alacrity. We walked to the Hotel Scribe, a favorite of the journalists. In the dining room we found Hemingway at a table. Seated next to him, to my astonishment, was my former classmate, Mary Welsh.
I was introduced. I said, "Hello," to Mary and reminded her that we had met as fellow students. She briefly acknowledged the fact. I got the impression that she did not wish to discuss any relationship with other men, no matter how innocuous, in front of Hemingway. During the luncheon, Hemingway commanded the conversation, I listened eagerly for a memorable quote that I could retell. There were none. Their talk was about story coverage, past and future. Mary had left the Daily Express. She and Hemingway were each writing for TIME and LIFE. Although my outfit, the Fourth Armored, led Patton’s drive across France, I was not asked about it, and I did not offer any information.
As the talk continued I learned that Hemingway was grandly billeted at the Hotel Ritz. It also became evident that Mary was sharing his quarters. Mary’s maiden and writing byline name was, of course, Mary Welsh. But her correct, legal, name was Mrs. Noel Monks. She had married Monks, an Australian journalist, not long after she first arrived in London. At the time of our luncheon Monks was in northern France with the Royal Air Force.
Mary had met Hemingway in France. She had not encountered him earlier in London. However, there she had met his third and current wife at a cocktail party. She was Martha Gellhorn Hemingway. Gelhorn was a writer, a journalist and the first notable woman war correspondent. Hemingway had married her in 1940. At the time of our luncheon Gellhorn was in London.
As the war continued Mary busily filed her stories to TIME. But not long after our luncheon she attracted far more attention from what she said than from what she wrote. She accused Andy Rooney and two other correspondents of plagiarism. Rooney was then a staff writer and war correspondent for the Army’s newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Rooney, who had met Mary several times, was astounded.
The charge that he stole a story and words from her copy still rankles Rooney. Today he says, "It’s just not anything I would have done." The longtime, irascible sage of television adds, "This was one of my earliest claims to fame."
In 1945, a year after Hemingway and Welsh began their lives together, Gelhorn divorced Hemingway. Mary managed to divorce Monks in 1945, seven years after their marriage. After the war Hemingway and Mary continued their adventurous celebrity existence together. They traveled widely. He wrote his novels to popular and critical acclaim and honors. They lived in his house in Cuba and in Key West, Florida. Finally, their home was in Ketchum, Idaho. After Mary’s divorce from Monks she and Hemingway had married in a civil ceremony in Cuba in 1946. Their marriages then totaled seven -- four for him, three for her.
Before their marriage a woman friend of Mary’s, who had had an earlier affair with Hemingway, spoke to Mary. The friend warned that Hemingway could be "beastly." According to The New York Times, he had once described Mary as "a useless, smirking war correspondent," and "a scavenger." He once threw wine in her face in front of friends. He once smashed her typewriter. The Times later described her wedded existence as a "bruised life."
They remained together even as matters became more difficult for Mary. Hemingway began to decline mentally. He suffered from delusions. He had a considerable fortune, but he feared needlessly that his banker was mishandling it. Hemingway thought that the U.S. Government had agents, including the FBI, shadowing him about non-existent tax fraud.
Because of these and other episodes, Hemingway was examined and treated by physicians and psychiatrists. He was taken to institutions, including the Mayo Clinic, and received a series of drastic electro-shock treatments. Against Mary’s wishes he was released from the Mayo Clinic and returned home to Ketchum.
Early on the morning of July 2, 1961, Hemingway rose from his bed. He put a bathrobe over his pajamas and walked out of his room and down the stairs. In the foyer was his gun-rack. He took out his favorite, a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun. He placed one shell in the chamber and closed the breech, cocking the gun. He put the muzzle to his head, held the barrel in place with one hand and with the other hand pushed the trigger. He was 61.
The sound woke Mary. She left her bedroom and raced down the stairs to find the body. She reported to the police and press that Hemingway had shot himself accidentally while he was cleaning his gun. She wrote later that she did not know why she said that.
A.E. Hotchner, a writer and a frequent companion of Hemingway, wrote that he could not fault Mary for covering up. Hotchner thought that Mary was unprepared to accept what had happened and unable to explain it. "What difference does it make?" he asked. Her instinctive reaction was understandable. Suicide might tarnish the image of the powerful writer, the fearless adventurer.
Hemingway had once offered Dorothy Parker, the wit and writer, a better word than "Courage." It was, he said, "Guts." He defined "Guts" as "Grace under pressure." But there was no "Grace" in suicide. It could be seen as surrender and a final act of defeat. The police and the coroner ruled that Hemingway’s death was suicide.
Mary passed the following years writing her autobiography, "How It Was." It was published in 1976. It might well have been subtitled, "The Importance of Being Ernest’s Wife." Overlong at 537 pages, it stressed passages of affection and love. On a lower key, the difficulties, including those of the last years. The "it" in the book’s title referred, of course, to life with Hemingway. Without Hemingway the book could not have been written. If it had, it would not have been published.
Mary moved to New York, where she lived in an apartment on 65th Street. In the early 1980s I went to a Manhattan cocktail party. There was Mary. Time had not been kind to her. Her face was lined. Her hair was no longer brown, she was thin. She did not appear to be well. I did not approach her. If she saw or remembered me, she gave no sign. I did not expect that she would. Our meetings had been brief encounters at stations of her life.
In her last few years she became an invalid and seldom left her Manhattan apartment. After a prolonged illness she died in St. Luke’s Hospital on November 26, 1986. She was 78. I wondered at the time how she had evaluated her celebrity life with Hemingway. Was it worth all the indignities, all the turmoil and stress? She gave her answer in her will. She stipulated that she should be buried in Ketchum, next to Hemingway. It was an affirmation of the marriage and a final declaration of possession.