While writing my novel Mrs. Hemingway, I sometimes felt like Ernest's fifth mistress. I spent so much time with each wife (and erstwhile mistress) that I felt as close to him as they were. Getting to know these four intrepid women -- Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary -- meant I also wondered how he managed to seduce them.
To me, Hemingway's appeal as a lover, then a husband, must have been evident quickly. First, there was his way with words. All four women were great admirers of his style: his "craft of omission" and its lovely leanness. "I'm all for it and so violently for you as a person and a writer and a lover I can't put it down on paper," Hadley wrote. Martha Gellhorn (war-correspondent and wife no.3) described his collected works as "pretty hot stuff" to none other than wife no.2, Pauline Pfeiffer. Natural talent easily attracts.
His writerly talent was also a tool of seduction. While his fiction is tough and taciturn, his letters are often syrupy with sentiment. To Martha he wrote: "I love you like a caribou loves mud, like Mr Roosevelt loves his place in history, like the sea loves the beach and rolls on it all the time." And to Mary, Martha's replacement: "I miss you as though they had cut my heart out with one of those things you take the cores out of apples." His letters to his wives -- they are burnished with warmth.
Secondly, the biographies are a catalogue of world adventure: bullfighting with Hadley in Pamplona in the 1920s; safaris in Africa with Pauline in the '30s; honey-mooning with Martha in wartime China in the '40s; and marlin fishing in the Caribbean with Mary in the '50s. A life of great adventure and excitement? Each woman could be assured of it.
Finally, Ernest was, of course, delectable. Fit as a butcher's son, he had dark, intense eyes and a big, hobnailed smile. (Whether things were as hot in the bedroom is unclear. His marriage to Pauline was rather lacking because of coitus interruptus. Martha said sex with Hemingway was like taking vitamins - you just had to get it over with. But if his gender-swapping novel The Garden of Eden is anything to go by, Ernest's inner life was something a little more erotic than vitamins.)
What we do know is that Hemingway's carousel of wives and mistresses turned each decade. I once calculated that the author was unwed for seven and a half months between marriages, though he was actually single for zero days between Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary. And so the question I'm still asking myself is not so much how Hemingway seduced so many women, but why he felt the need for so many wives. Pauline expressed the same sentiment when she wrote: "Our plans would be quite simple if our lives were not so complicated and you were, say, a brick layer instead of a woman layer and a writer."
But were he only a brick-layer, she may not have married him.