Love and Ruin

LoveandRuin “We’d come all the way through the mine-filled Channel and now were sitting below the high yellow-green cliffs of Normandy surrounded by more ships than I had ever seen in my life or even knew existed. Thousands upon thousands of them made up the armada, massive destroyers and transport vessels and battleships. Small snub-nosed boats and cement barges and Ducks carried troops to the beaches, which were alive with pure chaos. Once they made the beach, there were two hundred yards or more of open ground to survive and then the cliffs. Overhead, the sky was a thick gray veil strung through with thousands of planes.”

There had never been anything like it, nor would there ever be.”  – Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain

I didn’t know that Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, was the only reporter with the Allied troops when they landed at Normandy on D-Day, and the only woman among 160,000 soldiers. At a time when female journalists were not permitted on the battlefield, Martha stowed away on a hospital ship the night before the landing. Ernest Hemingway and other male reporters tried their utmost to gain access to the battlefield that day; where they failed, Gellhorn succeeded magnificently. Her story has been beautifully re-created by Paula McLain in Love and Ruin.

I’m not typically a fan of fictionalized versions of real people’s lives, but I trust McLain because I’ve enjoyed her other novels: Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham, and The Paris Wife, which depicts Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley.

I’d assumed that by the time he met his third wife, Ernest Hemingway was well on his way to burning out, but that is not the case. Hemingway was at his peak and the most famous living writer in the world when he and Martha Gellhorn began a passionate love affair while he was married to his second wife, Pauline.

Martha Gellhorn was a ravishing beauty; she and Hemingway had a powerful mutual attraction. Martha had just published her first novel, and Hemingway mentored Martha to a degree unusual for male writers of his day. He encouraged her to dodge bullets, bombs, and mines with him as they covered the Spanish Civil War, Martha’s first immersion as a war correspondent. Hemingway has said that Gellhorn inspired him to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, which he dedicated to her. For a handful of years, Hemingway and Gellhorn enjoyed an extraordinary literary collaboration.

“….I loaded into a cement ambulance barge with a handful of doctors and medics, crashing through the surf around floating mines lit up by a flashing strobe. Soon I would know we’d landed on the American sector of Omaha Beach, but for the moment there was only horror and chaos. We bumped through severed limbs and the bloated forms of the drowned. Artillery fire shattered the air in every directions. Planes roared over us, so close my skull vibrated, but there wasn’t even time to wonder whose side they were on.”

I found Paula McLain’s depiction of Hemingway in Love and Ruin to be somewhat thin. For me, her rendering of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in The Paris Wife was far more emotionally compelling than that of Hemingway and Gellhorn, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Love and Ruin.

I think what interested Paula McLain (and me, too) is Martha’s larger-than-life risk-taking, how it matched Hemingway’s, and how their love for each other fueled their work. Ultimately, their relationship didn’t – and probably couldn’t – last, given Martha’s independent spirit and Hemingway’s sexism – he was a male of his time. Hemingway betrayed Martha terribly, in more ways than one, when she would not stay home by his side and have a child.

Near the beach, we flung ourselves out into the icy water and waded to shore. The surf came to my waist and tugged at my clothes. I stumbled, feeling chilled to my core, but I couldn’t be dragged down. I had to hold up my end of the stretcher and stay between the white-taped lines that marked the places that had been cleared of mines.

We picked up everyone, anyone, even Germans, and assembled them all on the beach for triage. They were young and scared and cold and hurt, and it didn’t really matter how they’d been wounded, or who they were before this precise moment of need. Every last one of them made me feel gutted, and there were hours of this. Blood-soaked bandages, flares sailing like red silk over the beach with a pop, tanks, and bodies. Men and more men. Men with boys’ faces. Boys spilling their lives into the tide….

It was the strangest and longest night of my life. Later I would learn that there were a hundred thousand men on that beach and only one woman, me. I was also the first journalist, male or female, to make it there and report back.”

After Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn continued to have a full, rich life. She wrote prolifically into her eighties, publishing novels, nonfiction, essays, and plays, and covered every major war during the second half of the twentieth century, including Viet Nam. Gellhorn, photojournalist Dickie Chapelle, and a handful of other brave women blazed a trail for the many more great female war correspondents to come.

Given that journalists are being called “enemies of the American people,” and many reporters are deeply concerned about the threats of violence they receive daily, I think it’s timely and fortunate that Paula McLain has celebrated Martha Gellhorn in her latest novel.

“The Women Who Covered Viet Nam”  is an excellent article written by war correspondent Elizabeth Becker, a good, short read if you’d like to know more about women reporters of that era. For a riveting story about a contemporary war correspondent who lost her life, read “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair. Town & Country recently featured an article about Martha Gellhorn written by Paula McLain, with great historical photos.  Goodreads has a list of memoirs by women journalists.

Here, Paula McLain talks about Love and Ruin at Mentor Public Library, a suburb of Cleveland (my hometown!) where McLain currently lives:



Here, she talks about poetry and inspiration:



Have you read Love and Ruin, or any of McLain’s other novels? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Circling the Sun

A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”  Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun book cover

If you want one last, lush, escapist summer read, consider Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the life of Beryl Markham,  the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Born in England and raised in Kenya, Markham was a larger-than-life adventuress and socialite – a renowned horse trainer, an accomplished bush pilot, perpetually in the spotlight of gossip and scandal.

Especially if you’re a woman of a certain age, you might remember the romantic Out of Africa, a 1985 movie based on the memoir by Dutch writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who for some years ran a coffee plantation near Nairobi. Karen, played by Meryl Streep, had a long-term affair with charismatic safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford.) Denys had the power to make women of the day swoon, but was adamantly against commitment and marriage. Karen and Beryl became friends, and Beryl went on to have a secret, short-lived affair with Denys.

Though Beryl married three times and had other lovers – allegedly one of them Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester –  many believe that Denys Hatton was the true love of her life. Author Paula McLain is adept at writing about affairs of the heart – she did a masterful job in depicting Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage in The Paris Wife – and she depicts Beryl’s affair with Denys in a sympathetic light, while plumbing the depths of the friendship between Beryl and Karen, who were in many respects kindred spirits even though they loved the same man.

I enjoy Cleveland-based author Paula McLain’s writing. She was drawn to Beryl Markham’s story when she learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned her at the age of four, only to reappear again when Beryl was twenty – which is exactly what happened to Paula McLain. She calls it a “shared emotional genealogy.” McLain writes with particular authenticity and empathy as she explores the lifelong effects, both good and bad, of maternal abandonment.

Despite Beryl’s remarkable feat of aviation, there isn’t a whole lot about flying in this novel. McLain instead focuses on the first half of Beryl’s life – her remarkable childhood in Kenya as she grew up next door to and on an intimate basis with the Kipsigis tribes, and her years spent learning and perfecting her horse training skills. McLain portrays Beryl’s love of Kenya in lyrical prose that will cast a spell over you if you love exotic lands and nature still relatively unspoiled by the ravages of civilization.

I think that one of Paula McLain’s strengths is her depiction of remarkable women who have not received the attention they deserve. As I read, I chafed at the difficult lot of women in Beryl Markham’s time. In the 1930s, many women still survived by making a good marriage. In both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun there is a distinct feminist subtext.

West With the Night book coverI’m now inclined to read Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, which didn’t initially receive the acclaim that Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, did, though it sold well when it was later republished. Some believe that Beryl’s third husband, a journalist, wrote the memoir, though I almost hesitate to write about what could be a sexist rumor. Maybe it doesn’t matter – Beryl Markham lived a remarkable life that many a man and woman envy. Ernest Hemingway had this to say about West With the Night:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

In Circling the Sun, Beryl says this about her lover, Denys:

“More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

The publisher kindly provided an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of Circling the Sun.

Hemingway and The Paris Wife

I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.    Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast

The Paris Wife book coverI was prepared not to like The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first of four marriages, to Hadley Richardson, written from Hadley’s point of view. Generally, I don’t like novelized versions of real people’s lives. The author has to work doubly hard for me to wholeheartedly enter her fictional world, because I can’t forget we’re seeing actual events filtered through her idiosyncratic speculations, which could be way off base.

I read The Paris Wife back-to-back with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (which I read years ago) because I thought it would be interesting to see portrayed, in The Paris Wife, the “real” people who were models for Hemingway’s characters in The Sun Also Rises. (I hope you can follow this.) These two books I read while spending a few days in Key West with my family and visiting Hemingway’s former home, now a museum.

I found The Sun Also Rises just as tedious as when I read it as a baffled teenager. Aimless, self-absorbed people endlessly drinking in European bars and cafes, and then they go to a bullfight. I half-wished Hemingway would kill off the insufferable former war-time nurse, Lady Brett Ashley, but I knew better. I had to laugh when a note left by a previous reader fluttered out from between the pages of my library book: “Brett is a low-class whore.”

But this time, I tried to understand who these people were: the post World War I Lost Generation, stunned and alienated after the bloodiest war in history, surrounded by stratospheric, dissipated wealth alongside abject poverty. Despite my initial reservations, The Paris Wife was a good read and helped me see Hemingway and his first novel in a new light. Hemingway (and Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter ego in The Sun Also Rises) almost certainly had what we’d call today post-traumatic stress disorder. I hadn’t realized Hemingway was only 18 (about my son’s age) when he served as an ambulance driver in the war, saw horrific battles, and was seriously wounded. He then fell in love with a nurse a few years older than he (Catherine was her incarnation in A Farewell to Arms) who called off their marriage after she fell in love with an Italian officer.

This was Hemingway’s state of mind at 21 when he met Hadley, who was 28. I don’t mean to suggest his early adult experiences explain everything about Hemingway, because personalities and destinies are more complex than that. But Paula McLain is an excellent storyteller, and I trust her when she portrays a couple who were so right for each other at the time in their lives when they met, and then so wrong for each other a few years later, when both needed to move on.

(By the way, Paula lives in Cleveland, my hometown, and she wrote much of this book in a Starbucks there. Paula has also written a memoir about growing up in foster homes, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses, which I look forward to reading.)

Here are some of my thoughts and impressions:

  • The Paris Wife didn’t fare well with many critics, but it is a bestseller. I think the more of a literary scholar and purist you are, the pickier you’ll be about how accurately McLain portrays motivations and personalities, how authentically and gracefully she finesses the dialog, and other matters. What I loved about her book was how richly she recreated the unconventional life led by an artistic, adventure-loving couple living in strange, unsettling times.
  • I appreciate the dynamic of the Hemingway-Hadley relationship McLain depicts. How the strong, self-effacing (and some would say stodgy and boring) Hadley appreciated, nurtured, and was subservient to the great artistic personality. But it wasn’t all one way. As Hadley wrote much later, Hemingway entered her life like an explosion and liberated her from what could have been a circumscribed, unrealized life. For a time, there was deep, genuine love between the two, and even though the marriage broke up, the trajectory of Hadley’s life was forever altered.
  • Marriages that end the way the first Hemingway marriage did are never pretty, but I think the ending of this marriage was especially nasty and torturous for Hadley. Pauline Pfeiffer, Vogue writer and wife #2, literally made my skin crawl. At the end of his life, Hemingway wrote an apology to Hadley, which he included in A Moveable Feast, a memoir in which he lovingly recalls his early years with Hadley. There has been more than one edition of A Moveable Feast, and I find it amusing that the edition published by one of the descendents of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer children removed the apology.
The Hemingway home, Key West
Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home

After Hemingway married Pauline, they moved to Key West. Visiting their former Spanish colonial home, I loved the wraparound balcony on the second floor and the tall, shuttered windows that let in the sea breezes, but there was an air of sadness and neglect about the place.

After his marriage to Pauline ended, Hemingway moved to Cuba, where he married journalist Martha Gellhorn. That marriage ended, too, and he spent his last years married to Mary Welsh in Idaho.

When my husband and son went snorkeling off the coast of Key West, their guide pointed out four posts several miles out. At one time, Hemingway’s “stilt” house, or fishing shack, sat atop these posts, where he’d spend days in solitude, writing. The writing life, Hemingway once wrote, is a lonely life.

Butterfly on blossom

Key West sunset
Key West sunset

If you’ve read The Paris Wife and want to comment, or if you have thoughts about Ernest Hemingway, please add them to the comments below.