Just about anyone even a little familiar with the life and work of Ernest Hemingway would find the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning writer’s attraction to Wyoming not at all surprising. The largely untamed landscape, the manly men, the generous trout streams, the unforgiving wilds and the awareness that the potential for physical harm or even death was close at hand — the American West seemed tailored just for a man like Hemingway, who earned his international fame living through and writing about war, bullfighting, African safaris and the unpitying ocean.
Less known, at least to those of us with a more casual relationship with “Papa,” is that he spent lengthy stretches of time over six summer visits to Wyoming, from 1928 to 1939, when Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, lured him farther west to the recently developed Sun Valley resort in Idaho. First at the Folly Ranch, in the Big Horn Mountains west of Sheridan, and then about every other year at the L Bar T south of Cooke City, just spitting distance from the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Hemingway fished, hunted and worked — writing, editing, reviewing galleys — and with his new, pretty wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.
In the new book “Cockeyed Happy: Ernest Hemingway’s Wyoming Summers with Pauline,” Sheridan-born writer Darla Worden reconstructs this period in Hemingway’s life, with a particularly keen focus on his and Pauline’s relationship, which started when he, his first wife Hadley Richardson and their infant son Jack (aka Bumby) were living in Paris, where Hemingway worked as a correspondent for the Toronto Star, wrote short stories and his first novel, “The Sun Also Rises.”
In the winter of 1926, Richardson learned that Hemingway and Pfeiffer, who came from a prominent Catholic Arkansas family and was in Paris working for Vogue, were having an affair. The following January they divorced, and that May Hemingway and Pfeiffer got married.
Pfeiffer’s status as the “other woman” has tended to relegate her to the background in the Hemingway story, Worden said.
“Hadley was the hero,” she said, while “Mother Mary,” wife number four Mary Welsh, is remembered for having taken care of the writer in his final days. “But Pauline, people didn’t talk about her because of the affair. She’s dismissed … but she gave herself to him completely.”
Which, as Worden described in short impressionistic chapters, did not end well for her.
Worden was introduced to Hemingway while attending high school in Sheridan. She tells of seeing a photo of him hanging in the Last Chance Saloon in Big Horn and becoming fascinated by him. She liked his writing style and his exciting, globe-traveling life — his life in Paris and his travels to Spain.
“I wanted to go where he went and see the things he described,” she said. “Hemingway was a tapeworm that lived in my brain.”
His “A Moveable Feast,” about his early years in Paris, in particular affected her, and she went to the City of Light to follow in his footsteps and eventually started the Left Bank Writers Retreat, in small groups of Hemingway devotees and writers tour sites and streets, both cultural and culinary, that the master haunted.
“I ask that people don’t work on a project,” she said, “we don’t do critiques. It’s just to refresh our writing, give a new perspective.”
While acknowledging he was flawed — she calls him “a cad” and “an adulterer,” though added that he never forced himself on women, but rather, women tended to force themselves on him — Worden said he was the writer of “some of the most beautiful sentences. … I love his descriptions of place. I don’t love it all … some of his writing I find hokey. His love scenes? Oh, give me a break. But some has such incredible simplicity and beauty. I think he also was a fascinating character to me, and that’s why I could write this book.”
“Cockeyed Happy” often reads like a novel, and Worden, writing in present tense, puts herself in the minds of her subjects.
“Pauline’s stomach was flat again,” she starts one early chapter. “She had worked hard to lose the weight because she’d seen what had happened when Hadley didn’t lose her pregnancy weight after Bumby. She was getting her strength back, too, by climbing the stairs. There was nothing she could do about the gigantic scar across her abdomen from the caesarean, but Ernest thought she was brave. She had earned her war wound after eighteen hours of labor.”
“I made up nothing,” she said. “If I said, ‘He thought blah blah blah,’ that came from a letter. What I did was, when writing about him, I’d have all his letters” — Cambridge University Press has published a scholarly five-volume, and counting, collection of Hemingway’s correspondence — “So if he wrote to friend and said ‘Wyoming is cockeyed wonderful,’ he thought that, he felt that. … Anything emotional — he thought, he loved — all that is from letters.”
A product of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Cockeyed Happy” is carefully researched and sourced, something that only a global health crisis could create sufficient time to pull off. That included a great deal of back and forth with the Hemingway estate, too, which charged Worden for every quote she wanted to use.
“This book probably was twice as large as it is,” but she couldn’t afford to use all the quotes she wanted. “So I had to paraphrase a lot or pull from other sources. I tried to not use secondary sources, but I did use Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s biographer, and Ruth Hawkins,” whose “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” details the Hemingway-Pfeiffer marriage. “But I tried to not interject any of my own thoughts.”
She also worked hard to avoid being judgmental, she said.
“I write it like a duet,” she said, switching between the couple’s two points of view. “It’s Pauline’s story and it’s his story.”
While a towering figure like Hemingway would be easy to depict with the broad strokes we are most familiar with, Worden offers many tender details that penetrate the veneer of the myth — his affection for his children (even though he also often left them for months at a time), his deep feelings for his friends and family and for Pauline, at least for a while. She does not ignore his less endearing traits, either. He’s more often than not absorbed in his own world and his own ways; he sets the agenda, the schedule, the rhythm of their lives, and then disrupts it whenever he wants to.
Pauline endures this with a brave face and her own strong will. Rather than getting jealous of a fun, young Jane Mason, whom he befriended in Havana, she held the wishful position that it was just an infatuation that would pass, which it was. Worden considers her mostly faultless for the way the marriage ends. Devoutly Catholic, Pfeiffer didn’t believe in birth control, which cramped Hemingway’s lusty love life, and after two difficult births (and one miscarriage), additional pregnancies would have been very dangerous for her. Near the end of “Cockeyed Happy,” Hemingway grouses over things Pfeiffer should have done differently if she hadn’t wanted to drive into the bed of another woman (this time Martha Gellhorn, a foreign correspondent he met while covering the Spanish Civil War). Worden details Pfeiffer’s misgivings about the relationship and the extremes to which she goes to keep her hubby happy, but in the final chapters Pauline’s biggest regret is having given up her own career, her own friends and family.
“She’d been his typist, editor, and critic, as well as his patron, providing financial support from her family,” Worden writes in one of the chapters, titled “Causalities.”
While working on “Cockeyed Happy,” Worden learned that Christopher Miles Warren, from Cooke City, had published a book about Hemingway’s Wyoming visits a couple years ago.
“We both thought we were the only people in the world writing about this,” she said. But while Warren’s book focuses mostly on Hemingway’s time and adventures in Cooke City, “I think mine is the only one that talks about Hemingway’s time with Pauline in Wyoming. … I think people like learning about Pauline. That was my goal. No one knew a lot about her, and that isn’t right, she was such a part of him.” ￼