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How St. Louisans Inspired, And Subsidized, Hemingway

The newest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which debuted Monday night on Nine PBS, promises to reveal “the man, the myth, the writer” in the story of its titanic title subject, “Hemingway.”

And that story would be incomplete without the many St. Louisans who inspired and subsidized Ernest Hemingway in his formative years. In fact, a monograph published last year by local historian Andrew J. Theising, “Hemingway’s St. Louis: How St. Louisans Shaped His Life and Legacy,” makes a compelling case that many of Hemingway’s great adventures have roots in this city. That includes not just the three St. Louis women he married, but the St. Louis fortunes that underwrote the adventures they shared.

“He really did find some wealthy families in St. Louis,” Theising said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I was surprised at the trust funds and the many sources of wealth. I don't know that we always appreciate just how much wealth was in this city.”

That includes the trust fund enjoyed by his first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose family fortune derived from the Richardson Drug Co. The funds allowed the couple to live comfortably in Paris. It was there that he met Richardson’s friend from home, Pauline Pfeiffer, who soon broke up their marriage. Pfeiffer’s trust fund had its roots in the Pfeiffer Chemical Co.; her wealthy Uncle Gus separately paid for Hemingway’s home in Key West, a deep sea fishing trip for himself and Hemingway and a high-end African safari.

“It pays to have a rich uncle, doesn’t it?” Theising quipped.

Hemingway later left Pfeiffer for a third St. Louis native, journalist Martha Gellhorn. She too came from a prominent local family (her parents helped found the Ethical Society here, as well as the John Burroughs School). But while Edna Gellhorn and Hemingway got along swimmingly, Edna opposed Hemingway’s marriage to her daughter.

“I loved the way one of the biographers of Martha Gellhorn put it, that Martha’s mother could ‘see the trouble in Ernest’s soul.’ She could see that he had this dark side. She said, ‘I feel sorry for him.’ Martha just erupted when she heard that. ‘Why would you feel sorry for this great man?’ … But here in the end, Edna Gellhorn, she saw Ernest’s truth."

Hemingway would later tell his St. Louis-born biographer A.E. Hotchner: “First three wives from St. Louis. Only good person I know who didn’t leave there was Martha Gellhorn’s ma.”

Theising, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, said that Hemingway didn’t look down on St. Louis, but also didn’t allow himself to acknowledge the roles his ex-wives’ family fortunes (and therefore the city’s fortunes) had played in launching his career.

“I think he had a lot of truths inside of him that he did not want to see, which is what made him so troubled,” Theising said.

Related Event

What: “Hemingway

When: Premiered Monday. Additional viewings and streaming follow.

Where: Nine PBS and pbs.org

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

 Ernest Hemingway and the first of the three St. Louis natives he married, Hadley Richardson, photographed at her family's home on Cates Avenue.
Provided / John F. Kennedy Library /
Ernest Hemingway and the first of the three St. Louis natives he married, Hadley Richardson, photographed at her family's home on Cates Avenue.

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.