Books: The life of Mary Welsh Hemingway, a life of joy, then of domestic anguish

The biography of Ernest Hemingway’s last wife of 15 years reveals a woman whose glittering career was ultimately overwhelmed by her overbearing and erratic husband

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Hemingway’s widow

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Timothy Christian | Dundurn Press (Toronto, 2022)

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$42.95 | 506pp.


Mary Welsh had already come a long way from the woods of northern Minnesota when she met Ernest Hemingway in wartime London. The fierce, petite blonde war correspondent had already made history as the first woman to file war stories for Time magazine from London. She was, according to Walter Graebner, its editor, “without doubt the most capable female journalist in London.”

Welsh was having a good war. She classified important stories and developed a rich network of sources. Some of these sources continued to associate with her on the bustling social scene under Hitler’s air attacks. Although she married Australian journalist Noel Monks in 1938, Welsh led a full and diverse social life under the bombs. Her lovers included high-ranking military officers and young literary lions like Irwin Shaw.

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According to Timothy Christian, the Victoria-based author of this skillfully written and deeply researched biography, Welsh described wartime London as a “Garden of Eden” for single women. “There was a serpent hanging from every tree and street lamp, offering tempting gifts and companionship, which could repel loneliness and warm affection, even temporary.” So when she met Ernest in 1944 at a party in London, Mary was living as a liberated woman and a successful professional.

Hemingway’s third marriage was in ruins and he soon declared that he wanted to marry Welsh. It took some time to get rid of the previous marriages, but they became lovers soon enough and married in Cuba in 1946.

Despite his impressive career achievements and hard-won autonomy, Welsh acceded to Hemingway’s patriarchal expectations. She gave up her own career and became the only woman on the support staff of famous author “Papa Hemingway”.

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Christian’s account of their life together reveals what this surrender cost Welsh. He recounts cases of physical and emotional violence, and his recurring temptation to flee. However, despite the many insults and injuries, Mary Welsh was still with Hemingway when he took his own life.

For the first few years after Ernest’s death in 1961, his widow tried to protect the Hemingway brand by claiming his death was an accident. She also extended the brand by publishing unpublished manuscripts and in 1976 published an autobiography, How it Was.

Hemingway’s widow is an unbiased and comprehensive biography of a complex, flawed and heroic figure. Along the way, he offers fascinating insight into the publishing industry, psychiatry, alcoholism, and marriage in the 20th century.

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Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your comments and story tips at tos65@telus.net

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