A Comedy with Animals
Ernest Hemingway, Jane Kendall Mason, and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
February 1, 2001
Feb 1, 2001
23 Min read time
Ernest Hemingway would certainly feel competitive about December's auction of a single handwritten draft chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, at Christie's, for over $1.5 million. The handwritten draft manuscript of the short story many consider to be Hemingway's greatest work, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," went for a fraction of that at Christie's a few months before. Still, the "Macomber" manuscript fetched the highest price ever attained in a sale of an American short story, and one of the highest for any American literary manuscript. And while the provenance of this chapter of Joyce's notoriously intricate manuscript is straightforward and rather dull—Joyce sent it to an Irish American lawyer who gave him money when he was broke—the story of the "Macomber" manuscript is as twisted as Papa's style is plain.
Hemingway is remembered not only as one of America's most important writers, but as an archetype of a particular American genre of masculinity. A generation of feminist critics decried "Macomber," in particular, as Exhibit A of Hemingway's stereotypical view of manliness. Mrs. Macomber, likewise, was seen as a paradigm of Hemingway's disdainful view of women, particularly women dependent on rich husbands—spoiled, selfish, manipulative, poisonous in her sexuality. A new generation of critics has understood the story in a more positive light, as revealing Hemingway's prescient concern with gender politics. As Hemingway biographer Michael Reynolds put it in the Christie's catalogue, "This story was the center piece of the feminist attacks of the 1980s and has become equally central to second generation gender studies that are rehabilitating Hemingway's reputation."
Centered on a British white hunter paid to bring an American tourist couple on safari, the story recounts Mr. Macomber's cowardice on the hunt; Mrs. Macomber's (consequent?) seduction of the white hunter; Mr. Macomber's recovery of his courage, again on the hunt; and Mrs. Macomber's (consequent?) shooting her husband dead while aiming to protect him from an onrushing angry buffalo. The white hunter, Robert Wilson, believes that the shooting is not the accident it appears to be—that Mrs. Macomber consciously or unconsciously wants to kill her husband because, at the moment he "becomes a man" in bravery and/or capacity for violence, she knows she has lost her power over him. But, as Reynolds puts it, "readers have never been able to resolve her intentions," and among critics, the late Paul Wilson wrote, the issue has provoked "the most arousing and the longest" Hemingway controversy.
Wilson is a bully. He bullies Mrs. Macomber at the end of the story, and at the same time he bullies the reader to agree with him about her. But her will and desires still elude us. The story, nakedly, is about sexuality and power, and one's ultimate view of Hemingway likely depends on how closely identified one believes him to be with the views of the white hunter. If Wilson speaks for the author, Hemingway probably is the macho know-it-all we often imagine him to be—the one he seemed to relish self-dramatizing to his friends and biographers. But if there's any ironic distance between the author and Wilson, as between the author and the other characters, the story is murkier and more interesting—and Hemingway less of a fraternity boy and more of an artist.
• • •
Among Hemingway's stories I always preferred the sensitive, atmospheric, and slightly surreal "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." In truth, though, I never read "Macomber" with much objectivity. By the time I knew of Hemingway I also knew that Mrs. Macomber was modeled on my adopted father's adopted mother, whom we often visited on a Sunday and called "Grandmother Jane." (She had forbidden anyone to call her "Grandma.") I only first met Jane in 1979, since she had been estranged from her children for the decade or so before her fourth husband died. She was an invalid by then, disabled and confused by stroke, the probable legacy of years of heavy drinking. Tiny and withered by hard living as she appeared, she still wore shocking strawberry blond braids down to her waist.
In the late 1970s, she was living in Ridgewood, N.J., where she and her fourth husband, Arnold Gingrich—founder of Esquire and one of Hemingway's editors—had moved, Jane said, because "he [Arnold] liked to fish in the stream." On the floor of their living room were the head and skin of a lion that Jane had shot on safari in Africa. On the walls were paintings by the African American artist Horace Pippin, for whom she'd been an important patron, and Gabriel Castagno, whose work she had encouraged in Cuba. On her dresser, along with a picture of Gingrich, she had a picture of Dick Cooper, a dashing British army major who once owned a coffee plantation in Tanganyika. She'd been desperately in love with Cooper in the early 1930s, when she first knew Hemingway, and it was undoubtedly because of Cooper that she'd decided to go on safari in 1935. In childhood, my siblings and I had ridden a "rocking horse" made from a baby white zebra she'd shot in Africa after its mother had already been killed. She'd sent the dead foal off to England to be made into a toy for her two boys, who slept in beds with bedposts made from full-length African elephant tusks.
"Stand up," Grandmother Jane commanded me, "I'd like to see how tall you are." It was explained that I'd just had my thirteenth birthday, in July. "My husband Ernest's birthday was in July," Jane announced. "You've been married twice," my eleven-year-old brother Tony commented sagely, peering through his glasses.
"I've been married more times than I'd like to remember," Grandmother Jane replied, and indeed, this was the first time we'd heard her call any of her husbands by name, since for the most part they had been streamlined to "he." She had never married Hemingway, but Hemingway's promotion in memory proved to me—to my scandalized bookish teen delight—what biographers had already speculated, that Jane and Ernest Hemingway had once been lovers.
In the biographies, Jane was a minor character in Hemingway's life during the peak of his career. She was a celebrated beauty at the center of the flamboyant ex-pat scene in Havana, where Papa often went to fish for marlin while he was living in Key West. In later years, Hemingway referred to her disparagingly at the same time as he credited her for the inspiration for Mrs. Macomber in "The Short Happy Life." In "The Art of the Short Story," he wrote that Mrs. Macomber had been invented "complete with handles from the worst bitch I knew (then) and when I first knew her she'd been lovely. Not my dish, not my pigeon, not my cup of tea, but lovely for what she was, and I was her all of the above, which is whatever you make of it." To A. E. Hotchner, he commented "in detail about the real-life bitch who was the prototype of Margot Macomber, a woman whose sole virtue was an overeagerness to get laid, 'if that's a virtue in your book.'" Meanwhile, in her addled later years, Jane suggested to biographer Bernice Kert, author of "Hemingway's Women"—apparently the only biographer who bothered to speak with her directly while it was still possible—that she and Ernest might have married if they hadn't been married to other people at the time. According to Kert, Jane "replied haltingly to questions by the author that she had almost married Ernest. There were no arguments between them, only good-natured teasing." Yet, given Jane's tendency by then to talk about one "he" and then another without great distinctions, it's hard to know from Kert's account if Jane might have been talking about Ernest or Dick Cooper, whom she did consider marrying at the time.
Like anthropologists of yore, these biographers may have taken their subjects too seriously. All of them seemed to believe Hemingway's boasts suggesting that he and Jane had had a torrid affair—he liked to describe Jane climbing through the window of his room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel to see him, and what, he asked rhetorically, is a man supposed to do when a beautiful woman comes in "and he's lying there with a big stiff?" (In the 1970s and early 1980s, some intelligent critic has written, biographers generally wanted to believe that their subjects all led sex lives that were either merrily active or severely repressed.) Only Michael Reynolds, the late, gifted author of the definitive five-volume Hemingway biography, was skeptical, pointing out that Hemingway was fond of macho myth-making and that there was no reliable evidence the two had ever slept together at all. Reynolds did, however, establish a concrete link between Mrs. Macomber and Jane: the line in "The Short Happy Life" describing Mrs. Macomber as "an extremely handsome and well-kept woman" who endorsed "with photographs, a beauty product which she had never used," and a magazine clipping in Hemingway's files featuring Jane in an advertisement for Pond's Extract Cold Cream. Reynolds also suspected that Hemingway's letters to Jane might still exist among her papers—as many as two dozen of them, judging from Jane's side of the correspondence, housed with other Hemingway papers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Though nearly all of Hemingway's draft manuscripts had already been accounted for, also missing from the historical record was the full handwritten draft manuscript of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
• • •
It was only at the dawning of the 1999 centennial of Hemingway's birth that I finally opened some of Jane's old steamer trunks, stickered from her many voyages and stored away in a family basement. In the first of the trunks, under piles of mouldering Get Well cards, divorce papers, Christmas cards, liquor bills, and unopened bank statements, was a musty and disintegrating manila envelope on which Jane had gently scrawled, in pencil, "Hemingway." In it was the missing cache of affectionate letters and telegrams from Papa and a dozen more from other members of the Hemingway family. Over the course of Jane's many moves and marriages, these items, carefully bundled, had remained intact.
The letters inspired me to write an account of the relationship for Vanity Fair, which described Jane's passionate friendship with Ernest and his second wife, Pauline; her flamboyant lifestyle in Cuba; her drinking, dancing, deep-sea fishing, and off-road car racing with Hemingway; and the way that Papa's erotic fascination with her—possibly consummated only once—found its way into his work. There were no explicit love letters (as I'd naturally hoped, given a commission from a big glossy magazine). But the correspondence did seem to make clear that both Jane and Ernest had rewritten history when telling biographers about their relationship. Jane's interest in Hemingway appeared more friendly and literary than romantic or sexual, while Hemingway seemed quite infatuated. The surrounding circumstances of Jane's life suggest that she was too flighty by nature—and too preoccupied with Dick Cooper, with her own domestic unhappiness, and with her own inconstant artistic ambitions—to respond in a sustained way to Hemingway's crush. Hemingway's real disillusionment with Jane (hell having no fury like a man passed over for others) seemed to come with his realization in early 1937 that Jane not only might have had some sort of a tumble with his sister-in-law, Jinny Pfeiffer, but was certainly sleeping with his editor, Arnold Gingrich.
There was still another steamer trunk, hidden beneath a trunk of Jane's silk satin ball gowns and safari clothes, that in my haste and excitement over the letters I'd neglected to open. After the Vanity Fair piece was published, and I returned to more mundane chore of cleaning out Jane's things, the trunk of clothes finally got wrested away and I opened the one beneath. There, on top of Jane's large collection of 78s, was a stack of the distinctive long, folded printer's proofs I recognized as "long galleys" (still common when I entered publishing, by now obsolete). The first was a set of the glossary and appendices to Death in the Afternoon, with a cover note from Ernest bestowing them on "Mrs. Mason, you non-alcoholic stimulant." Beneath that, there was a complete set of inscribed proofs for Green Hills of Africa as well as a set of Winner Take Nothing, a title Hemingway linked, in one of his letters, to Jane's jump from her Havana balcony in the spring of 1933. And finally, beneath the stack of galleys was a wilted manila folder enclosing a set of very thin, brittle, cheap brown pages the color of grocery bags, spotted and rust-colored or waterstained around the edges, and covered with Hemingway's characteristic slanting scrawl: the long-missing, 101-page, handwritten first draft of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
There was also a full, handwritten draft of another major story, "The Light of the World"; a working draft, half-typed, half-handwritten, titled "Marlin Fishing in Cuba," of Hemingway's first essay for Esquire, which also provided material for the beginning of his novel To Have and Have Not (in which one character, Helène Bradley, so closely resembled Jane that large chunks of description were excised for legal reasons); and a story written by Jane, edited by Hemingway. (Papa helpfully expanded her title to "A High Wind-less Night in Jamaica" and modified her "in England she was the type who always terrified me, and to whom I am generally rather rude" to "in England one would not have felt sorry for her but simply classed her as a bitch without implying any condemnation." The New Yorker turned it down, commenting that it seemed to have been written too much "under the influence" of Hemingway and Maugham.)
Jane was not merely a "model" for Mrs. Macomber in the way that she was a model for Pond's Extract Cold Cream—Hemingway's eye was both more sympathetic and more ambivalent than any camera's or copywriter's. Nor was she the only "model" in the story. Despite Ernest's later assertions that the white hunter was based on his friends Philip Percival and Baron Bror von Blixen "and what I know about my own good and bad and worse qualities," "The Short Happy Life" is, from at least one perspective, Hemingway's wry commentary on the love triangle of Jane, her husband Grant Mason (with whom Hemingway drank convivially but of whom he didn't think much), and Dick Cooper (the white hunter in Africa with whom Jane was in love). In the handwritten draft, Hemingway described Mr. Macomber as looking like Grant and knowing about various things that Grant knew, including "about the Union Club, about working in a bank, he'd dropped that," which described Grant so accurately that Hemingway may have cut them from later drafts in order to avoid being too obvious. Later, he wrote that the Macomber story was "about a woman I was mixed up with one time who had a husband who was a coward.... But I invented the story in Africa instead of where it happened."
• • •
The story suggests that Hemingway saw both Jane and Grant as American types. The American-ness of the Masons must have stood out to Hemingway's eye in the context of Havana, in the way that Americans abroad are often uncomfortably aware of the embarrassing habits of other Americans. In the Macomber story, the couple's foreignness in Africa is a repeated riff: "How is one to know about an American?" Wilson thinks about Macomber, "with his American face that would stay adolescent until it became middle-aged." Wilson sees Mrs. Macomber as "simply enameled in that American female cruelty" and is "grateful that he had gone through his education on American women before because this was a very attractive one." Later Wilson echoes his own view of Macomber as one of "the great American boy-men" whose "figures stay boyish when they're forty." By contrast, the white hunter appears to be at one with his environment, as Hemingway must have wished to be, sharing the language of the Macombers but not their aura of weakness and privilege.
Perhaps there is some connection between Jane's supposed climbing over the transom of Hemingway's hotel room window, and Mrs. Macomber's slipping away to the white hunter's tent. Regardless, Jane's apparent sexual unhappiness with her husband and her infatuation with Cooper played on Hemingway's imagination. He began the story not after his own African safari in 1933, but soon after Jane's safari with Cooper in 1935. Jane too attempted to write about the experience, in a play about spoiled Americans on safari that was never published or produced. She likely sent it to Hemingway, possibly around the same time he was getting started on "Macomber."
Jane was quintessentially feminine in the most conventional terms. In the excised portions of his portrait of Jane as Helène Bradley, Hemingway described her as "tall blonde, lovely, her perfect features … her shining copper-colored hair drawn back like some early Madonna … [a] swishing promise to any man." Yet at the same time as admirers described her as a paragon of womanhood, she was in rebellion against feminine expectations, eager to prove herself as good with a shotgun or a fishing rod or a bottle of booze as any man, as brave and as reckless. As if imprisoned in her own delicate beauty, she described herself in letters to the Hemingways as fed up with "the beauty racket" and "tied down to a predatory feminine carcass."
Ernest was clearly both attracted and disturbed by this turbulent femininity. Despite the omniscient point of view he uses in the Macomber story, he sticks closest to the perspective of the white hunter—always in cool control. Yet the white hunter as Hemingway conceived him would never have sent Jane this story, teasing her, making fun of her predicaments, needling her, seeking her approval. In the course of writing the story and then sending it to Jane, one might argue, Hemingway manages to shift the emotional triangle: with Grant/Mr. Macomber safely out of the picture at the end of the story, the action "off-camera" is between the white hunter, Jane, and Hemingway. In that triangle, Ernest makes himself the sensitive guy.
The handwritten draft of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" suggests that Hemingway struggled with it very little. Yet he did seemed to labor in his descriptions of Jane, crossing out words, rephrasing sentences, adding interstitial lines. His first attempt at her introduction was squeezed between other lines, and ran up the side of the page. "She was one of those [the] handsome predatory [cut] American women who look a composite photograph of all the endorsers of all the advertized products. fashionably endorsed products." Eventually he crossed it all out and added a fresh, inserted page, in which the final description is written in bold, confident hand, with no second thoughts or modifications.
Still missing is the letter Ernest probably wrote to Jane from Africa, when he was there on safari with his wife, Pauline in 1933 and Jane was in Doctor's Hospital in New York. Jane had enlisted Dick Cooper to help the Hemingways with their trip—the journey that would give Ernest the setting not only for "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" but also his other great story of the period, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Pauline wrote to Jane from Tanganyika that she and Ernest were "constantly" wishing Jane were there, and that they had gotten to know "your friend Dick Cooper's friend [Bror] von Blixen." Pauline enclosed photographs of herself and Ernest posed with dead big game, and ended by saying that "Ernest says he wants to write to you and as this is the pen he intends to use maybe I'd better stop using it." Yet Ernest's letter was not included with the others. Maybe it was so special to Jane she kept it separately; maybe it made her so angry she threw it away; maybe it got misplaced in the hospital when she was under sedation or tucked into a book she was reading. Possibly Hemingway never wrote it, but that seems least likely of all. It's tempting to speculate that in such a letter, discussing Cooper and Blixen and Jane's absence, Hemingway might have given some clue of his incipient thoughts on the Macombers and the white hunter.
• • •
On Jane's death in 1981, the house she shared with Gingrich (and in the later years, with her step-son, Michael Gingrich, who lived on the second floor) was willed to the Ridgewood Historical Society, which soon sold it to private owners. In the interim, there was a break-in and the elephant tusk bedposts were poached from Jane's attic—probably close to two hundred pounds of solid ivory, never recovered. Her library of books, including inscribed Hemingway first editions, were willed to Michael, who gave them to Jane and Arnold's home care nurse, who possibly never unpacked the boxes. In the inscriptions there may perhaps lie some clue about Hemingway and Jane's relationship. Or so Papa teases in the portions of To Have and Have Not he was working on in 1936, in which he has two characters speculate on whether "the old slob" (the Hemingway figure) and Mrs. Bradley (Jane) ever slept together. The answer, Mr. Bradley suggests, is in the glass bookcase where Mrs. Bradley kept "all the books of any writer who arrived in Key West," signed by the author, who usually "added something that made the book a worthwhile item."
The clue may have been buried closer at hand, even displayed in the glass bookcases of Christie's auction house. Together with the bundle of manuscripts found in Jane's trunk was a small note from Hemingway torn from a manila folder; it read, "Items for Mrs. Mason and her collection of items." One of the "items," the set of galley proofs for The Green Hills of Africa (1935), was inscribed: "To Jane, from her affectionate pupil with undistorted affection and many happy returns of some other day in another country and the wench is never dead."
In Hemingway's scrawl, "wench" looked like "which" and either one was meaningless to me. But Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel has pointed out that "in another country and the wench is never dead" echoes the Christopher Marlowe epigraph from one of Hemingway's favorite poems, T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady." This epigraph had already inspired the title of Hemingway's story, "In Another Country":
Thou hast committed
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
Was Hemingway teasing Jane about having "committed fornication"? In Havana, with Hemingway, as he seems to want us to believe, if this is indeed the inscription he was joking about in the uncut draft of To Have and To Have Not one year later? Or in another country—amidst the green hills of Africa? Ernest probably knew by the time these proofs were ready that Jane was involved with Cooper—she alluded to it in her letters. In the inscription, as in "Macomber," he may be playing with the idea of being in, or having once been in, Cooper's shoes. In sending her a book he'd written about a place they both loved, he may have been reminding Jane of "another day" of fornication in "another country" that was not Africa, but Cuba, and reassuring her of an affection "undistorted," so far, by time and jealousy.
Intriguingly, included among Jane's Hemingway materials was a stray piece of notepad paper from the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway stayed in Havana, and where he claimed Jane came to visit him. On it there was a list of books in Jane's handwriting, along with her doodles of women's faces. The list includes, in Jane's spelling, "T. S. Elliot. Poetry. The Waste land. Collected Poems" and "Thomas Mann … Budden Brooks"—the latter of which Hemingway "always included when recommending books to young writers," according to Beegel. It doesn't seem farfetched to imagine that on "another day in another country" Jane would have jotted down books that Papa recommended to her in his hotel room—or even that he might have already have been thinking of "Portrait of a Lady" as he recommended Eliot to Jane, who like the Lady of the poem, tended to complain about her superficial life, "composed so much, so much of odds and ends."
And isn't the "wench" who is "never dead" for Hemingway the same as the "bitch" who once "was lovely"—a troubled and troubling woman who, like the sophisticated, glamorous, and worldweary "Lady" of Eliot's poem, evokes such complex, powerful, and obliquely stated feelings in her "affectionate pupil," the poet/writer? Whatever else took place between them, Ernest and Jane were friends, and Eliot's poem speaks repeatedly of "friendship"—a word that tries, and fails, to hold in place an elusive connection in which a sexual affair is implicit but entirely unstated, except for that revealing inscription of the epigraph.
Hemingway finished his draft of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" in April of 1936. Some time that year he gave it to Jane—a story in which he portrays her as an adulterous manipulator and possible murderess, and her husband as a wealthy coward who can't control his wife, a story he would later describe as "all invented, all truer than true." Reynolds believed he sent it as a cruel barb, perhaps a sign of his growing disenchantment with her. Yet Papa's steady contribution of "items" to Jane's collection was from the beginning laced with a strong element of flirtation (in one accompanying note he reminded her that she herself was "very rare"). He had sent her a keepsake in the form of galley proofs of every one of his books published between the time he met her and the beginning of his involvement with Martha Gellhorn, who would become his third wife. And even after the "Macomber" story was first published in Cosmopolitan in September 1936, Jane and Ernest were on good terms: Jane's datebook records that in early December, Ernest spent several days in Havana swimming and dining with her while Grant was away in Venezuela.
Jane and Papa shared a black sense of humor, often marinated in alcohol. That humor is reflected in Hemingway's original title for the story, revealed under ultraviolet light in the erasures at the top of of the discovered draft: "A Comedy with Animals," which sounds very much like Jane's sort of joke. Perhaps he had started to tell the story as a kind of joke between them, and then when the work took on its own life, found the original title too light for the bitter, ambivalent tale he'd written. (But might not the current title, too, be a black joke? An author's attempt to be funny, especially in bad taste, may be one of the things his earnest critics are most likely to miss.) In the end, Ernest's sending Jane the original draft of the story seems an act of peculiar intimacy—affirmation of a deep and slightly twisted "friendship" we might even call love.
Like the letters and telegrams, the galley proofs, and Hemingway's edit of Jane's story, the original draft manuscripts went before the gavel at Christie's new auction block in Rockefeller Center. The room was lined with close to a dozen employees poised to receive bids by telephone. Rare book dealers, private collectors, and spectators sat in folding chairs in the center of the floor. Behind the auctioneer at the podium at the front, the price rolled upwards in multiple currencies on a digital scoreboard. Though an East Coast institution that had done restoration work on the manuscripts was an underbidder, the "Macomber" draft went to an unnamed telephone bidder, to become part of another private collection of "items." For all intents and purposes, the original story has gone into hiding once again. But the greater mysteries are resolved neither by its appearance nor its disappearance: the mystery of Mrs. Macomber's intent in the tragic tale will remain, as will the mystery of Hemingway's relationship with the woman who inspired it. Perhaps both could be characterized (by someone with a dark enough sense of things) as a comedy with animals.
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February 01, 2001
23 Min read time