Mary Welsh Hemingway: How It Was
The Years Before Hemingway
I’ve written about Mary Welsh Hemingway quite a bit, but invariably as the fourth wife of Ernest Hemingway, which is inevitable of course, but it’s not the full story, as Mary Welsh was a fine journalist long before she ever set eyes on Hemingway.
Mary was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Ernest Hemingway, no doubt prolonging his life at a time, back in Cuba after the war, when his health was in decline. Without Mary at his side The Old Man and the Sea could not have been completed, or, after his death when she was determined (and not through personal gain) to ensure the publication of Islands in the Stream, and A Moveable Feast, which was hugely generous considering she was quite literally left to clean up the dreadful mess Hemingway left after his suicide.
At the very start of her lovely, and beautifully written, 1976 autobiography, How It Was, Mary returns to her roots in northern Minnesota, and her beloved father:
“ In the 1890s there remained at least 600,000 acres of unsurveyed timberland in northern Minnesota, and my father, not yet turned twenty-one, decided to acquire 160 acres of that virgin forest under what he recalled as the Squatters’ Rights Law. With rough maps to guide him, a man blazed [marked] a tree, paced off 160 rods east, north, west, and south from the tree, posted a notice claiming the land, built a shelter and thus, with few further formalities, became a landholder with title to the tract.”
The piece of land was one-hundred-sixty miles south of the Canadian border, on which, some sixty miles from his nearest neighbour, and spent the summer getting to know the land, and the trees and the birds, and an ever increasing number of folks doing what he was doing. At the end of summer he went home to the village of L ‘Anse, Michigan (close to Lake Superior) where he “ succumbed” to the beauties of one Adeline Beehler. They married at the village church on July 9, 1902.
Mary’s father, Thomas Welsh, then staked claims adjoining his own for Adeline and his sister Katherine. He then built a proper cabin into which the coupled moved before the onset of winter. Thomas then worked at various jobs for a logging “outfit” walking to work each morning on snow shoes. The job whetted Thomas’s appetite to start his own lumber company, and in 1904 the couple moved to a cottage overlooking Leech Lake, in the village of Walker where, with his purchase of a river boat called the Northland, he ferried logs and lumberjacks to logging and lumber distribution sites around the lake. Then “…one Sunday morning in 1908…” Mary Welsh was born in the cottage that overlooked the lake.
As she grew Mary would often accompany her father on the Northland. It was all very Mark Twain. Mary writes:
“ The pilothouse was a bare-floored, Spartan room entirely enclosed from a man’s waist upward by square panes of glass and my father was often alone there steering. When I rapped on the glass-paned door he would call out, ‘Come in, come in, Dearidoo,’ and we might soar together on a flight of song, ‘When you wore a tulip, a bright yellow tulip.’ Or, ‘Just a little bit of heaven dropped from out of the sky one day.’ He might tell me about the great artist Edwin Booth whom he had seen play Hamlet in Chicago. Or about the Pacific Ocean, which he had found cold and gray near San Francisco, but BIG and thus alluring to a landlocked Midwestern man.”
Most of the early pages of How It Was are dedicated to Mary’s father, with very little mention of her mother, in fact as the autobiography moves quickly toward the 1930s, poor Adeline is left very much in the background, and no doubt at home, as Mary and her father travel together on Northland visiting Indian settlements (similarities here to Hemingway’s visits with his doctor father to such settlements), and getting to know loggers and their lives and their dangerous work.
Daughter and father, as they travelled, would talk about the wildlife and her father’s commitment never to hunt and kill wildlife (how different to Hemingway), with Mary describing how hunted deer (given to her mother) tasted like pebbles in her mouth.
Page after page of Mary’s autobiography is about her father’s teachings, and the law of nature and the part men play in it, that the logging of ancient trees was, for her father, something that had to be done in a developing land, but done with forethought and care, and never to extinction. Of course, in those years before the First World War, Thomas was in something of a minority until the idea of the National Parks took hold.
Mary and her father had great adventures together which must have upset Adeline hugely, or perhaps Adeline wanted her daughter to spend time with her adoring father? But if we read further on there is a reference to a spat with her mother when Mary tells her she is giving up Sunday School. Her mother tells her she is ungrateful and cruel and callous and is breaking her heart, repeating it day after day. Mary never went back to Sunday School, or church, which was an important part of Adeline’s life. It was a rift that must have changed their relationship. It suggests that Adeline was the only church going member of the Welsh family. A split family.
As she grew Mary attended the local schools, and did well, but it would be Mary’s relationship with her father that shaped Mary Welsh, as did her love of books, and the poetry of Carl Sandburg. Mary writes:
“ Sometimes I wonder if writers realize the far-reaching influences of their work. With his poem ‘Chicago,’ Carl Sandburg changed the ambience of my youth. Since my childhood, when the editor of the Bemidji Pioneer Press and his wife came to our house for dinner, I had known that I would like to work on a newspaper. While I devoted a year to higher algebra, calculus and history at our local state teachers college…I hunted for reasons which would be satisfactory to my parents for establishing myself in Chicago.
As much as she loved her home, and most especially her father, Mary (thanks to Sandburg’s poetry) had to get to Chicago and somehow become a writer of sorts. In her autobiography, How It Was, she writes:
“ Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Sandburg’s city, included a school of journalism, and I persuaded my parents to send me there, even though its high tuition rates would require me to earn part of expenses.
“ Along with the wonderful elms of the school’s lakeside campus, Professor Melville Herskovits, the anthropologist, captivated me. He was a student of primitive economics and the folkways of Negroes in West Africa and a number of countries of the Americas, and the scholarship he poured out about them was an irresistible force. In his abrupt, uncompromising manner he ordered exercises for our pulpous brains, exhorting application of the eye to the page, urging us to learn us to learn the ways of learning. He made crucial openings in my ignorance of our planet and its life.”
Mary Welsh was lucky to have come under Herskovits’ hugely influential tuition at a time of great racial upheaval in the US. He was probably, along with her father, one of the greatest influences on her intellectual life: shaping her as a journalist of truth and integrity who became a much needed intellectual and social influence on a faltering Ernest Hemingway in the post war years.
Mary earned her keep as a “hostess” at the St. Clair tearoom in Federal Street, where she quickly made friends with the other hostesses (waitresses), who showed her the ropes and how to deal with the stockbrokers who frequented the tearoom, who probably tipped well.
Mary spent the summer of 1928 working at the tearoom, which gave her lunch but, because it closed at six, no evening meal. By walking to work and back to her room in the Italian district she could save money and “… I could buy half a cantaloupe [melon] and a nickel Hershey bar.” Total cost of fifteen cents. Her nights were spent reading, which, in 1928, was Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln, The Prairie Years, a book that taught her to write in a warm, inclusive manner that would hold her in good stead.
After a time she became friends with another waitress at the tearoom who often took her back to her family home for a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.
The generosity of the Italian family who fed her meant Mary could now afford to travel back and forth on the street car where, one evening, hanging onto a strap with one hand and reading a newspaper piece about the anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchist Italian immigrants who were controversially convicted of murdering two men during an armed robbery in 1927, and subsequently executed. The newspaper article denounced the conviction, with Mary agreeing loudly, and as she did so the street car braked suddenly sending Mary against a young tall blond-haired man with blues eyes and a large moustache clinging on to the next strap for dear life. Mary apologised, as did the young man, whose name was Sebastian Littauer, a mathematician who later became Professor Emeritus of the School of Applied Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“ One evening on the streetcar Sebby invited me to the nearby apartment of some of his Russian friends for tea, served in tall glasses, conversation and singing, all of which were new to me and beguiling. The Russian songs reminded me of winds sighing in deep shadowed caves, the tunes somehow sombre, the words mysterious, as, many years later, Basque songs rang in my ears. We saw each other occasionally until I returned to school in Evanston [after the summer break], and eversince then [after Hemingway’s death] a tenuous, gentle communication sometimes reopens — a postcard, a letter, a telephone call and, lately, evenings at the opera — one of a small friendship which provide grace notes to the decades.”
Littauer died in 1983, Mary died in 1986. Perhaps their friendship might have been something else, who knows? But there does come across in Mary’s autobiography, when writing about ‘Sebby’, a feeling of something lost, but then perhaps the maths was just a bit too impenetrable even for her fertile brain. It feels like a love lost to me.
But Mary was now mixing with a stream of highly educated people the sort of people she had never encountered before, and maybe, at heart, she felt more at home with the books of Sandburg than the theories of the ‘Sebbys’ of the world?
What Mary did indulge in were the weekends spent at Cap Cod (quite a drive) with well off university friends, eating lobster for the first time, and drinking martinis, and swimming in the Atlantic, and comparing New England with Minnesota. And then there was the shopping: the handbags and the shoes. And smoking cigarettes. And young men.
The comparison between home and Chicago, Cap Cod and the rest, also made her restless, and in 1930 she gave up university life (and her degree) to become the editor of The American Florist, a trade magazine for Chicago’s floristry retailers. For Mary it was “…a paycheck in a wasteland of unemployment and breadlines.” Needless to say, when Mary asked for a pay rise, and didn’t get one, she left.
Mary quickly managed to get a job with a publisher and printer of five free local newspapers. It paid a little better, but the hours were long, but for the ambitious Mary it was a step closer to working for a real newspaper.
Before leaving university she fell in love with a good looking young man called Lawrence Miller Cook, a drama student from Ohio, who was a gentleman to his finger tips and a good tennis player. What more could a woman want?
They married in 1932 and divorced in 1933.
In Mary’s case she wanted to be a journalist, a real journalist. And it was when the Chicago Daily News was purchased by the fifty-six year old politician and editor, Frank Knox, who then employed Leola Allard, a former reporter for the Hearst organization, as the editor of the women’s pages, that Mary saw her opportunity.
Allard was a well known, street wise and witty writer in the style of Dorothy Parker, and a tough editor. As soon as Mary heard of her appointment she applied for a job — any job — and was taken on as an assistant on the society section. It was Mary Welsh’s big break, although she may not have realised it to start with. She writes:
“ I wanted to be a real reporter, covering City Hall and the courts and politics rather than extolling the charms of women’s hats or tiaras…”
But it was also the paper of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who had, in a bar across the road, knocked out The Front Page, a best seller of 1928 which later became a play and a film. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for the girl from Minnesota.
And Allard was a good editor of the women’s pages, making them (by poaching her old staff from Hearst) the best in the business, setting the female journalists one against another hoping the best would rise to the surface.
And through begging the news room to let her gather information on breaking stories Mary rose, But it would be in the wake of the King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson scandal in London(a story to which she will have added the odd line or two) that Mary rose to the surface.
Then, with the help of Jules Sauerwein, a political writer for Paris-Soir, who was visiting Chicago, Mary, in 1936, managed to wangle a visit to Paris, via London.
It was the start of something very different.
Having managed to wangle a visit to London and Paris, Mary, in the spring of 1936, boarded a Canadian Pacific boat in Montreal bound for Belfast, then, via Dublin, by boat and train to London and then Paris.
Mary writes in How It Was:
“ Puppies let out of a house on a spring morning would frolic with no more delirium than I did exploring London for the first time, floating down Piccadilly, then to Trafalgar Square, up past the Law Courts and ‘Oranges and Lemons, the bells of St. Clemens,’ to Fleet Street, lines from Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson bubbling in my head, Boswell and Andrew Marvell, Pepys and Samuel Butler and Charles Lamb. When I got back to my hotel near Bond Street, drunk on the sights and sounds of London, the desk clerk said, ‘Oh, no, Miss. The dining room has been closed for two hours…I’m afraid there are no cafes in this part of London.’ ”
Mary went to bed with a glass of water.
How things have changed in London, and here in Stratford. Even in the 1950s you were hard pushed to a get a cup of coffee, let alone a good cup of coffee. Today you can’t walk ten feet without falling over an A Board outside a restaurant of bar, with hotels happy to serve food all hours of the day or night.
A couple of days after arriving in London Mary took a ferry to Le Havre and then a fast train to Paris where, after a coffee at one of the many pavement cafes, she called at the office of Paris-Soir only to be told that her invitee of the previous year, Jules Sauerwein, was in Berlin reporting on the antics of Adolf Hitler. After a few minutes Mary was ushered out of the newspaper’s small office as the half dozen staff left for the day.
One door closes and another one opens.
The door that opened revealed the 32 year old, Australian born, Denis Sefton Delmer (usually known as Tom), the Paris bureau chief of the London Daily Express who was on his way out with a couple of colleagues to dinner. He spotted Mary and asked her to join them. Mary accepted and had a splendid evening dining and talking about the goings-on in Berlin, as Mary describes:
“ It was a long, leisurely dinner with much wine, and after it we stopped in at one or two caves on the Left Bank and danced in the stale smoke to jiggy French versions of passé American jazz. To finish the evening they took me to Les Halles [back then a fresh food market] for onion soup , and when I lamented my imminent return to Chicago, the young man of the Daily Express said, ‘ If you’re so keen about the news in Europe, why don’t you quit that paper in Chicago and stay on here?’ ”
Mary countered that by saying her French wasn’t good enough only to be told by Delmer that she could work from London and that her French could only improve, and why didn’t she give ‘Beaver’, Lord Beaverbrook, a call in the morning. Delmer gave Mary the ‘Beaver’s’ number and she did telephone the newspaper tycoon to be told he didn’t have time for job hunters. Mary argued that as a journalist working on the Chicago Daily News, one of the best newspapers in America, she would just love to meet him before she returned home, in fact, even though she was still in Paris, she could make it in time for tea that very day. Beaverbrook was obviously impressed and agreed.
“ I’ll give you tea, and fifteen minutes, don’t be late.”
A couple of hours later Mary caught a twin-engined plane from Le Havre (which left her broke)and was knocking on the front door of Beaverbrook’s London town house, Stornoway, five minutes after four o’clock. She was let in by the butler and shown into the drawing room where a sumptuous tea was laid out. She was starving but resisted the food.
Lord Beaverbrook then came down his marble staircase looking at his watch but didn’t mention Mary’s tardiness. Tea was poured and Mary got stuck into the sandwiches and cakes, at the same time telling Beaverbrook about meeting Delmer, and the fine evening they’ d had. And when Beaverbrook asked her why she wanted to work for him she said she wanted to be on hand to report on the war. Beaverbrook said there wasn’t going to be a war. Mary disagreed, at which point Beaverbrook phoned Arthur Christiansen, the editor of the Daily Express telling that he was sending a young American girl round to see him for a job interview. Beaverbrook then had his butler bundle Mary into a taxi.
According to Mary, the famous editor of the Express seemed rather confused when she turned up telling Mary he already had a woman reporter, Claire Hollingworth, and an American reporter as well and couldn’t possibly use Mary. Sorry. Mary told him not to be sorry and left. On her return sea journey to New York Mary wrote letters of thanks to Beaverbrook and Christiansen. A good move.
On reaching Chicago Mary found herself, without any explanation, promoted by Allard to the “…top of our small department.” It wasn’t going to be enough for Mary. She had her eyes set on Paris and London, and knew there was going to be a war. She wanted to report it.
“ Confidentially, and not for Miss Allard’s information, I had a couple of chats with Hal O’Flaherty, our managing editor. ‘Let me work in the Paris office, let me work in the London bureau,’ I begged. You can cut my salary. There’s going to be a war and I must be there. I should be there now, learning background.”
O’ Flaherty was somewhat dismissive saying their man in Paris didn’t need any help.
It was then, in February or March, that Lord Beaverbrook’s secretary telephoned Mary asking if she would like to join Lord Beaverbrook for dinner in his suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. Mary then had lunch and dinner with Beaverbrook the following day, ending up in Mary’s small apartment where they talked about his acquisition of the Daily Express and that it was now the only newspaper that told the British people the truth. He described the newspaper, his newspaper, as his race horse. Mary ended the evening by effectively asking for a job.
Beaverbrook called Mary a week later and invited her to meet him at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York for the weekend. She eventually agreed.
The weekend was not, for Mary, very successful, as Beaverbrook wanted Mary to accompany him on a trip up the Nile as a reader. Mary reminded him that she was a writer and not a reader. Beaverbrook reminded Mary that he had no use for another reporter, but if she came to London he would do his best to find her a job. Mary agreed.
After frantic telephone calls to her parents, who were a bit shocked to say the least asking: and what if his lordship doesn’t find you a job, and so on, Mary gave notice, with Miss Allard, the women’s editor, not showing much interest one way or another, Mary left Chicago and headed to London on another Canadian boat, with a letter in her handbag from Roy Howard (Chairman of Scripps-Howard Newspapers), who had met Mary at the Kentucky Derby that year where she had told him about her meetings with Beaverbrook. Howard thought her very brave to be heading for London and wrote that he thought Mary Welsh was one of the “…best girl reporters in the U.S.A.”
One of “…the best girl reporters in the U.S.A…” arrived back in London in late June 1937, reporting for work in the editorial office of the Daily Express on the 2nd July. Lord Beaverbrook had more than kept his word.
Her first assignment was to write, within the hour, a one-thousand word piece about the disappearance of the flyer Amelia Earhart over the South Pacific. Mary found some cuttings about Earhart in the Express ‘morgue’ and, using recollections of her cousin having sat next to the famous flyer at a luncheon in Chicago the article was finished in no time, forming a central part of a one page editorial. Before long Mary had a by-line, and as Bernice Kert writes in her 1983 book, The Hemingway Women, Mary’s life, and love life, began in earnest:
“ Her basement apartment was in Chelsea, and her men friends were her co-workers. Noel Monks, a red-cheeked Australian who had been a champion swimmer and now worked for the Daily Mail, began to take her out. In her autobiography, How It Was, Mary describes him as ‘abstemious’ and ‘conservative,’ qualities not noticeable in Mary herself, who drank freely and was liberal in politics as well as uninhibited in her personal life.”
Mary and Noel married in 1938.
In that same year the president of France, and his wife, made a state visit to Britain, during which, at a dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City of london, gave a gift of money for the poor of the City of London, and as Mary writes:
“…nobody thought any poor could be found, since the City was the financial district behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, the habitat of the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange, the elegant Guildhall of the Corporation of the City of London and the rich treasure-trove halls of the City’s many Companies. I was assigned to hunt down some poor.”
It didn’t take long:
“ I found so many of them living in rat-infested, overcrowded, malodorous misery on nothing but the dole [a minimal social security of the time], within a hundred yards of the coffers of the Bank of England, that we published a series of stories on this inconsistency, and I made friends who for years afterward helped me sample London opinion.”
In the years to come Mary, like John Steinbeck, would always look for the stories of the ordinary men and women in extraordinary situations.
But for the time being Mary (even though her important string of stories about the poor had brought her name to the fore) had to put up with being assigned, for instance, to cover the birth of a royal baby in the Netherlands. Mary wrote little on that occasion (apart from a couple of ‘fantasy’ baby stories which caused a bit of a stir) and drank rather too much with her male colleagues; but then, as soon as Princess Beatrix was born, Mary filed her five-hundred word story over the wires and caught the next plane back to the UK.
Then, in September of 1938, her luck changed when the editor of the Express, Arthur Christiansen (the man who’d turned down Mary’s job application in 1936), packed her off to Munich to report on the meeting between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. It was a big break.
Mary writes in How It Was:
“ I got on the telephone in search of private planes [no embedded correspondents back then] that could fly the distance, found one that would not need to refuel before Frankfurt, engaged it to leave Heston Airport sometime after midnight.”
Before long Mary’s plane was crammed with other reporters cadging a lift, including C.V.R. Thompson, the Express’s New York correspondent who was on holiday in London.
Mary even left London without a visa but managed to blag her way through German customs.
Once at her hotel Mary asked an English speaking bell boy if he had a friend who could speak good English (the bell boy didn’t have the time) who might be interested in reading English over the telephone to London?”
“ Yes, my brother.”
The idea was — to keep a telephone line to London open — for the boy to read stories from English magazines to the Express’s news desk back in Fleet Street until a conference story came in, at which point Mary would rush back to the hotel and drop the story in between pieces about home decorating and breeding pigs. Although it cost a small fortune it worked well, and the bell boy’s brother was handsomely paid.
That was Mary Welsh Monks in her element: dashing from one meeting to another, then sidling up to a British diplomat asking for a snippet of news, snippets that she built into a story to be read over the telephone by a twelve-year old German boy.
There was even time for Mary and a couple of other reporters to explore the countryside. She writes:
“ Without delay we set off in a comfortable car with chauffer to drive in fog and rain over twisty mountain roads to Salzburg where, on a restaurant door, we saw the first sign — JEWS NOT SERVED HERE — dined on Wiener schnitzel with paprika and noted that the locals listened with no show of interest or emotion to a roaring, lying broadcast concerning the jubilation in Sudetenland over the outcome of the Munich conference.”
Suddenly, seeing that sign, Mary realised again, as she had in 1936, that a European war was an inevitability, and not far off.
On September 3rd 1939, not long after Mary and Noel had returned from their summer holiday, Britain declared war on Germany, and within hours Mary was sent to Paris, and Noel to north-eastern France.