Pet-Names and Pillow-Talk: Ernest Hemingway’s Softer Side
“Here is the expert skier, soldier, here is a naturalist, a navigator, an authority on bullfighting and on boxing. Here is a man who sought the most dangerous conditions the world could offer…” So says the newscaster from this 1950s clip. Hemingway was often portrayed like this by the media: an all round Übermensch who displayed grace under pressure and had a wicked way with his pen to boot.
When we think of Ernest Hemingway we might think of him as all these things – as well as war correspondent, deep-sea fisherman, and of course, as writer – but we tend not to think of him immediately as husband material. A womanizer, yes, but not the type of husband who might call his wife Wicky Poo, Lovebug, Kitty Kat, Small Friend or Picklepot, nor the kind of husband who would permit his own nickname ‘Little Wax Puppy’.
But his letters (which were ‘not for posterity but for the day and the hour’) pulse with an excess of sentiment. Not for Hemingway-the-letter-writer the cool economy of Hemingway-the-novelist. In contrast to his fiction his letters could be ‘as loose, devil-may-care, recklessly copious and repetitive as he chose… he wrote letters to warm up his brain… or to “cool out” after he had laid aside the current story or chapter’ writes Carlos Baker in his introduction to the Selected Letters. Letter-writing was the equivalent to the therapist’s couch, or the pillow wherefrom sweet nothings were whispered in the lover's ear.
The pet-names and pillow-talk begin with his first wife Hadley. In a long list of grousing complaints about his posting to Lausanne in 1922, he concludes that ‘they all talk French and the Russians are miles out of the way and I’m only a little tiny wax puppy. Poor dear little Wicky Poo’, the letter over-runneth, ‘I love you dearest Wicky – you write the very best letters.’ This spillage of emotions continues when he writes to his first mistress (and second wife) Pauline Pfeiifer in 1926: ‘oh Pfife I love you love you love you so, and I’m yours all shot to hell.’ While studiously avoiding cliché and hyperbole in his fiction, in his letters he sinks joyfully into sentiment, like a penned pig released to the mud.
As I looked through the Selected Letters, I expected to see a change of tone or language in the way he treated each of his four wives. Though his letters to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, were not included, her own letters tantalizingly reveal half the conversation. One might infer that the language used was in common currency by them both. ‘I love you Bug,’ writes Martha to Ernest in 1943, ‘Kiss all catsies. Take care of yourself for me. / Mook.’
What is striking is how gloriously constant and yet inventive is his langue d'amour throughout each of his marriages. ‘I am just happy and purring like an old jungle beast because I love you and you love me….’ he writes to his fourth wife, Mary, in 1944. ‘Please love me very much and always and take care of me Small Friend the way Small Friends take care of Big Friends – high in the sky and shining and beautiful.’ Not so far from a syrupy Disney romance, but all the sweeter for it coming from Ernest Hemingway; media Übermensch.
What is extraordinary is how direct the artery is from the heart to the page throughout Hemingway’s four marriages and many affairs. They always give me great delight to know that this Man Of All Things (skier, soldier, naturalist ad infinitum) also indulged in much baby-talk and mush. The letters pulse with love. It almost makes you forgive him for all the mistresses.
Naomi Wood is one of the Eccles Centre Writers in Residence at the British Library. Her second book, Mrs Hemingway, is a historical novel that explores Ernest’s four marriages to Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary. Excerpts from the letters are from The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (ed Caroline Moorehead) and The Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway (ed Carlos Baker).