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Hemingway's Widow

The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway

by (author) Timothy Christian

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2022
Editors, Journalists, Publishers, Women, Marriage, Women
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    Publish Date
    Jul 2022
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    Publish Date
    Jun 2022
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A stunning portrait of the complicated woman who was Ernest Hemingway’s fourth wife, exploring the tumultuous years of their marriage, and evoking her merry widowhood as she shapes Hemingway’s literary legacy.

Mary Welsh, a celebrated wartime journalist during the London Blitz and the liberation of Paris, meets Ernest Hemingway in May 1944. He becomes so infatuated with Mary that he asks her to marry him the third time they meet, even though they are married to other people. Eventually, she succumbs to Ernest’s campaign and, in the last days of the war, joins him at his estate in Cuba.

Through Mary’s eyes, we see Ernest Hemingway in a fresh light. Their turbulent marriage survives his cruelty and abuse, perhaps because of their sexual compatibility and her essential contribution to his writing. She reads and types his work each day and makes plot suggestions. She becomes crucial to his work and he depends upon her critical reading of his writing to know if he has it right.

We watch the Hemingways as they travel to the ski country of the Dolomites; commute to Harry’s Bar in Venice; attend bullfights in Pamplona and Madrid; go on safari in Kenya in the thick of the Mau Mau rebellion; and fish the blue waters of the gulf stream off Cuba in Ernest’s beloved boat Pilar. We see Ernest fall in love with a teenaged Italian countess and wonder at Mary’s tolerance of the affair.

We witness Ernest’s sad decline and Mary’s efforts to avoid the stigma of suicide by claiming his death was an accident. In the years following Ernest’s death, Mary devotes herself to his literary legacy, negotiating with Castro to reclaim Ernest’s manuscripts from Cuba and publishing one-third of his work posthumously. She supervises Carlos Baker’s biography of Ernest, sues A.E. Hotchner to try and prevent him from telling the story of Ernest’s mental decline, and spends years writing her memoir in her penthouse overlooking the New York skyline.

Her story is one of an opinionated woman who smokes Camels, drinks gin, swears like a man, sings like Edith Piaf, loves passionately, and experiments with gender fluidity in her extraordinary life with Ernest. This true story reads like a novel, and the reader will be hard pressed not to fall for Mary.

About the author

Timothy Christian graduated as a Commonwealth Scholar from King’s College, Cambridge. During a varied legal career, he served as a law professor and Dean at the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta and a visiting professor in Japan and Taiwan. Christian read A Moveable Feast in the cafes of Aix-en-Provence when he was a young man studying French. Realizing that no one had written deeply about Mary Welsh Hemingway, Christian began researching her story – and discovered a woman vital to Hemingway’s art. Christian is married to a lawyer and abstract artist, Kathryn Dykstra, and lives in a Mediterranean microclimate on Vancouver Island’s beautiful Saanich Inlet.


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Excerpt: Hemingway's Widow: The Life and Legacy of Mary Welsh Hemingway (by (author) Timothy Christian)


In August 1946, a famous writer and his wife, a former Time reporter, drove from Key West toward Sun Valley, Idaho. The backseat of their apple-green Lincoln convertible was packed with fishing gear and a couple of shotguns, a case of wine, and picnic hampers. Her portable typewriter was lodged between two large duffel bags stuffed with clothing, and there was no room left to sit. They planned to hunt in the hills and fish in the streams of the valleys of the Sawtooth Mountains. She was three months pregnant and wanted to be with her mother when the baby arrived.

The couple was in love and talked excitedly about their expected child. Though he had three sons from two previous marriages, he longed for a daughter. They agreed to name a girl Bridget after her grandmother and a boy Thomas after her father. She made snacks of rye bread, cheese, and sliced onion, and they drank red wine from a bota as they drove from Florida to Louisiana and then north and farther west. She sang songs to amuse him, imitating Edith Piaf with her low alto voice, and they talked about the changes in scenery and accents and local habits. They stayed at roadside motels and ate in diners, exploring America from the road.

When they reached Kansas the temperature rose sharply, and they put up the top to find relief from the sun’s searing rays. She sucked on chunks of ice but felt dizzy. “Maybe it’s my baby protesting the heat,” she thought. Two days later, having traveled through Nebraska, they reached a ramshackle motel in Casper, Wyoming. After a dinner of pork chops and mashed potatoes, they retired to their linoleum-floored room, and she fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of the sport of pig-sticking in India. She was riding a cantering horse, hunting for a pig to spear with her beribboned lance. Without warning, one of the other riders stabbed her in the stomach, and she fell from her horse and writhed shrieking on the ground.

She woke from the nightmare to a burning pain in her belly, and he went to find a doctor and ambulance. It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to arrive, but when it did a nurse gave her a painkilling shot and she lapsed into unconsciousness. When she woke ten hours later, she saw her husband milking a plasma tube into a vein in her arm. He smiled at her and said, “Welcome back, Kitten.”

She learned from the doctor and nurses that her husband had saved her life. One of her fallopian tubes had burst and the resulting hemorrhage filled her abdomen with blood, “like she was gut shot,” with no place for the blood to go. Before he could operate, the surgeon had to inject plasma and blood to restore her fluid levels. When he tried to insert the intravenous needle her veins collapsed, and he could not inject the lifesaving liquid. It was hopeless. The surgeon said, “Sorry,” and took off his gloves. He told the man to say goodbye.

Instead, the husband took over. He told an assistant to cut an incision in her forearm so he could grab a vein. The cut was made, and the man pushed his finger and thumb into the slit in her flesh and managed after several tries to pinch a vein and pull it to the surface. He inserted the intravenous needle directly into the vein and squeezed on the sack of fluid, coaxing it into her. After one pack she seemed to recover slightly, and he ordered the surgeon to operate at once. The man alternated plasma with pints of blood and fed them into his wife’s arm. The surgeon opened her belly and sutured the ruptured fallopian tube. Over the next few hours she hovered between life and death. When she came to, she saw her husband looking at her tenderly.

He had refused to give up on her. She owed him her life, and he admired her courage—she kept going after pit bulls would’ve quit. He had never seen a stronger will to live, and the bond they formed that day was more robust than any wedding vow. As her father later remarked, they had discovered genuine friendship, “the best thing, the most lasting thing in one’s life.” She was distressed to have lost the baby, but she loved her husband for saving her, and she hoped to become pregnant again.

This could be a Hemingway short story, but it isn’t. Mary and Ernest forged an unbreakable friendship in the face of certain death. Ernest saved her life, and she thanked the fates he was with her in her time of danger. She forgave every misdeed and cruel act of the past and felt renewed faith in his love for her. Mary was beholden to Ernest and could never desert him. And Ernest felt responsible for her very being.

Editorial Reviews

An extremely well-researched and lucid biography that reads like a novel

Florida Times-Union

Bravo to Tim Christian for creating a portrait of my friend Mary Hemingway that at last shows her for the complex person she was. This is a story that needed to be told and we are fortunate that Tim Christian has told it so frankly, so sympathetically, and so compellingly.

Susan Buckley, author of Eating with Peter

Living with Hemingway could be downright treacherous, as Mary Welsh would learn even before becoming the great writer’s fourth and last wife. In this fast-paced, drama-packed, and full-bodied biography, Christian has given us the absolute true gen of a woman who sacrificed her own identity while navigating a partnership forged by careless love and deep darkness.

Steve Paul, author of Hemingway at Eighteen

Drawing on extensive research, Christian paints a portrait of a married couple who, whatever their difficulties, ultimately found in each other a rare thing: intimate understanding. With his background as a law professor, including at the University of Alberta, Christian carefully presents his evidence, especially in a compelling analysis of how Mary handled her role as the preserver of Ernest’s legacy.

Literary Review of Canada

Sixty years after Hemingway’s death, Christian sets the record straight regarding Mary Hemingway’s complex relationship with Hemingway and his art during and after his final years. Often stereotyped as accepting a sometimes abusive relationship, Mary comes powerfully to life in this intricately nuanced and mesmerizing biographical tour de force. Honest, unafraid and compelling, Christian finally gives us the true gen.

Linda Patterson Miller, head of the Editorial Board, The Hemingway Letters Project

Mary Welsh is a fascinating subject for a biography...well-written.

The Spectator (UK)

This compelling book transported me back to Hemingway’s world, except this time his fourth and last wife Mary was guiding the way. Hemingway aficionados will enjoy the journey. Hemingway scholars will appreciate the detail, including some new revelations, and the fresh analysis of her life and legacy. Bottom line: an important book that fills a long-standing gap and is a pleasure to read.

Nick Reynolds, author of Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961

Christian does an admirable job of painting a vivid picture of Welsh in the early years of her life.

The Times Literary Supplement

Christian regales readers with stories from around the world, revealing the life of one of the most iconic literary couples.

Minnesota Star Tribune

A fair-minded and comprehensive biography of a complex, flawed and heroic figure.

Vancouver Sun

An enchanting read… filled with delightful passages

Ottawa Review of Books

Illuminating…a stunning achievement. This is the Hemingway book we’ve all been waiting for so long.

H.R. Stoneback, renowned Hemingway scholar

Timothy Christian has spent years researching Mary’s life across continents and every archive, including troves of information that no one else has tapped. To this task, he brought a sympathetic attachment to the woman behind the Hemingway myth. He has turned up truly fresh and significant information about Mary herself and her life before Ernest, about the courtship and sexual predilections of the couple, and about Ernest’s suicide. While to some extent this story will compromise the myth of the great macho man that was important to Hemingway — a myth that Mary helped craft and maintain — it will ultimately provide a fuller understanding of an American icon and the lives he touched. Refreshingly, Christian does not view Mary as a victim, despite Ernest’s callous and violent treatment of the talented journalist who spent her prime years with the aging and difficult master. Christian gives us Mary, a tiny and fearless dynamo, a woman of skill and heart, calculation and vulnerability, who knew exactly what she was getting into when she married Ernest — and played her hands as best as she could, even as her choices narrowed.

Carol Sklenicka, author of Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life and Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer