The author at work in Cuba

Ernest Hemingway Collection

Hemingway with Hadley Richardson

Ernest Hemingway Collection

Pauline Pfeiffer

Ernest Hemingway Collection

Martha Gellhorn

Ernest Hemingway Collection

Mary Welsh

Ernest Hemingway Collection

Ken Burns

Evan Barlow

Lynn Novick

Stephanie Berger
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 12, 2021
In The Mix

Letters and Lovers

A PBS docuseries about Ernest Hemingway brings the literary icon to life through his correspondence with his four wives.

Robert Rorke

Hemingway, the new documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, offers startling insights into the conflicted soul behind the man's man of American letters.

That perspective comes in part from the letters and diaries of his four wives: Hadley Richardson (1921–27), Pauline Pfeiffer (1927–40), Martha Gellhorn (1940–45) and Mary Welsh (1946–61).

"Being able to hear their own authentic voices and their conversations with him in their own words was a tremendous asset to telling the story," says producer-director Novick, a longtime collaborator with Burns on such projects as The Vietnam War and Prohibition.

She and her colleagues sifted through archival material to shape the trajectory of these unions, from first blush of love to jealousy, recrimination and finally resignation. (Burns is also a producer-director of Hemingway; Sarah Botstein also produced; Geoffrey C. Ward is the writer.)

The challenge was matching each wife with an actress who could inhabit her personality in a voiceover. Keri Russell takes on Richardson, whom Hemingway met at a party in 1920. She was 28; he was 21. "I want to pull your head down on my heart and cradle you there for hours," wrote Richardson, who called falling in love with him a "great explosion into life."

"First of all, she's a great writer," Russell says. "You really feel her. She just seemed so sturdy and true. It was such a real love and kind of saved both of them."

A year after they wed, Richardson moved to Paris so Hemingway — voiced by Jeff Daniels in the six-hour series — could work on his fiction while serving as a correspondent for The Toronto Star. She returned to the U.S. to give birth to Jack (aka Bumby) a year later. The couple ended up spending a fateful Christmas in Austria with Pauline Pfeiffer, a Vogue fashion reporter who befriended Hadley.

"She didn't go straight for my husband, but once she made up her mind that he was what she wanted, she was very aggressive," Richardson wrote. "He couldn't help himself."

"The betrayal Hadley must have felt was absolutely devastating," Russell says. "I cannot imagine the backbone and quality of person she must have been to step aside with such grace."

Russell's poignant reading of Hadley's letter of surrender reveals an uncommon maturity. "I took you originally for better or worse. And meant it," she wrote. "But in the case of you marrying someone else, I can stand by my vow only as an outside friend. Come to see Bumby as much as you want.... And take him out sometimes... so he will know that you are his real Papa."

Hemingway gave Richardson all his royalties from his first novel, 1926's The Sun Also Rises, and married Pfeiffer in Paris. They lived primarily in Key West, Florida, raising sons Patrick and Gregory as Hemingway worked on A Farewell to Arms, his first bestseller. Novick believes Pfeiffer sometimes gets short shrift as a homewrecker.

"In Ernest's mind, Pauline lured him away and he was sort of a victim," Novick says. "She was a catalyst for him leaving Hadley; there's no getting around that. We tried to present her as a human being. And she really loved him. That much is clear."

Patricia Clarkson reads Pfeiffer. "Whatever we put in front of her, whatever accent, whatever mood, whatever tone, she can do anything," Novick says. "She gave us both the mother, who is a central character in Hemingway's story, and Pauline. She gave Pauline vulnerability — some of the pain as they were unraveling."

Hemingway's best-known wife was trailblazing World War II journalist Martha Gellhorn, who pursued him at the Key West bar Sloppy Louie's. As she memorably said, "I can do very well without marriage. I'd rather sin respectably any day of the week. Ernest thinks, of course, that marriage saves you a lot of trouble.... I think sin is very clean. There are no strings attached to it."

Burns and Novick wanted Meryl Streep for Gellhorn. "We knew she would bring so much dimension and depth to that very complicated and fascinating character," Novick says.

After the coronavirus postponed Streep's recording sessions, she completed them at a studio in her son's home. "We sent her a video of Martha Gellhorn so she could hear her voice," Novick says. "We didn't want her to imitate it, but to know the general social class and her way of speaking.... She brought her to life in ways that we never could have imagined."

As Hemingway's fame burned brighter — he won the Nobel Prize in 1954 — his psychological problems mounted, exacerbated by nine concussions, alcoholism and a violent temper.

These burdens fell to Time-Life journalist Mary Welsh, whom he met in 1944. Bitter that Gellhorn had left him, he proposed to Welsh, who was married, before ferrying across the English Channel on D-Day. "I want to marry you now," he wrote, "and I hope to marry you sometime. Sometime you may want to marry me."

Welsh indulged his proclivities, cutting her hair short and dyeing it blonde because it excited him. He wanted her to call him "Catherine," the name of the heroine of The Sun Also Rises, and he called her "Pete."

"She really embraced that whole paradigm of male/female, the role- play," says Mary-Louise Parker, who reads the part of Mary Welsh. "She would say, 'I love feeling little. I love letting him feel big next to my little and having him be strong next to my weak.' It was almost like a pantomime."

Welsh took a sabbatical from her job to move with Hemingway to Cuba, where younger women caught his eye and things went sour. In a blistering breakup letter, Welsh matter-of-factly presented her grievances: "Your principal failure is primarily because of your accumulation of ego, your increasing lapses into overdrinking and you have not been the good man you said you wanted to be."

Parker reads the letter with lethal conviction, but Welsh stayed with Hemingway to the end. Why?

"I think it's incredibly attractive, talent," Parker says. "I'm always drawn to it. And sometimes I don't realize I'm drawn to the talent and not the person. That's sometimes true with writers because you can project so much onto what they write. Sometimes people can be more generous with their creativity than they are with themselves.... You start to have a relationship with the person's creativity."

After Hemingway's suicide in 1961, Welsh edited the manuscript of A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his Paris heyday with Richardson, and later set up the Hemingway library at the National Archives. Without her efforts, Novick says, there would be no documentary called Hemingway.

"I think Mary understood that she was going to be the guardian of his literary legacy," she says. "After he died, she had a lot of work to do to get [his] manuscripts out of Cuba. The Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, which is part of the National Archives, has all of his papers, letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks, photos, everything.

"She arranged for all of that to be housed there, where it would be taken care of properly and made accessible. She did some heroic things to make it possible for us to tell this story."

Hemingway debuted April 5–7 on PBS . For catchup viewing, go to or the PBS Video app; PBS station members can also go to PBS Passport.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2021

Browser Requirements
The sites look and perform best when using a modern browser.

We suggest you use the latest version of any of these browsers:


Visiting the site with Internet Explorer or other browsers may not provide the best viewing experience.

Close Window