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Quarantining With The Wife And Mistress: A Hemingway Story05:59
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Author Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer are shown as they arrived in New York aboard the liner Paris, April 3, 1934. They are returning after a three-month vacation in eastern Africa hunting lions. (AP Photo)
Author Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer are shown as they arrived in New York aboard the liner Paris, April 3, 1934. They are returning after a three-month vacation in eastern Africa hunting lions. (AP Photo)

If your family members are starting to get on your nerves while cooped up in quarantine, just be grateful you’re not Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Hemingway.

In the summer of 1926, Hadley Hemingway’s 3-year-old son Jack, who they called Bumby, developed whooping cough. She found herself in quarantine with Bumby, Bumby's nanny, her husband and her husband's mistress, Pauline Pfieffer.

All of them were quarantined in a two-bedroom cottage on the French Riviera for weeks. Bumby would eventually recover, but the Hemingway marriage did not, says author Lesley Blume, who wrote about the predicament in Town & Country magazine.

Ernest Hemingway met Pfieffer, an editor at Vogue, after the family moved to Paris so he could become a famous writer, she says. Hadley Hemingway caught wind of the affair right before she found out her son was sick.

“She really didn't quite know how to deal with it at first. Should she laugh it off and hope that it blew over? Or should she probably start to come to terms with the fact that Hemingway was going to choose Pauline over her?” Blume says. “And I think that she was just getting used to the fact that Pauline was a real threat to the marriage when this strange interlude happened.”

While Hadley Hemingway took Bumby down to the French Riviera to visit friends, Ernest Hemingway went to watch a bullfight. Bumby is soon diagnosed with whooping cough, so F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald offered the family their cottage to quarantine.

Then, her husband's mistress showed up.

Blume says historical records are unclear as to why Pfieffer went down there. Some say she went to help Hadley Hemingway because she had whooping cough as a child.

“She was immune, and we all know how precious immunity is now from our own experiences,” Blume says. “Other historical sources say that Hemingway asked her to go down to help relieve Hadley because Hadley was going bananas.”

Ernest Hemingway thought this arrangement was just grand, Blume says. But Hadley Hemingway was “at the end of her tether.”

“She would take isolated walks into town once in a while,” she says. “She would get a shot of whiskey someplace to steel herself to go back.”

And the Fitzgeralds became “pioneer social distancers,” she says. They went over to the cottage to check on the Hemingways but also to witness this unusual arrangement.

“They're standing behind a fence on the driveway or on the front road while the Hemingway ménage à trois is on the front porch,” Blume says. “And on one hand, the Fitzgeralds were full of mischief always. They're there to keep the Hemingways and Pauline company, but they're also there to see what's going on.”

Blume says what makes this story “so fascinating and strange” is that the players aren’t behaving in the way one would expect.

“Hadley's own acceptance of the arrangement or trying to put a good face on it also seems unfathomable, but maybe the most relatable reaction of the three,” she says. “Somebody who's just trying to grapple with the situation and feel her way to the right path through it.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on May 4, 2020.

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