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Best-selling author will talk about Hemingway's 'Paris Wife' at Carnegie Music Hall

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Stephen Cutri
Paula McLain, author of 'The Paris Wife'
'The Paris Wife' book cover

Paula McLain realizes she's fortunate. Two years after the publication of “The Paris Wife,” her novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, she's still touring and talking about the book. Much to her amazement.

“I look at (paperback) best-sellers lists, and it's soft-core pornography, soft-core pornography, soft-core pornography, 'Life of Pi,' and then, there's my book,” McLain says, laughing. “How does that happen, to float above James Patterson or Nora Roberts? And it's not ego. Oh my God, there are no vampires in my book, no computer-generated tigers. People must care about writers and marriages.”

McLain appears at 7:30 p.m. March 18 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

McLain's previous works — two collections of poetry, the memoir “Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses” and the novel “Ticket to Ride” — were not blockbusters. She was teaching English at a school near Cleveland when the idea for “The Paris Wife” came to her after reading Hemingway's biography, “A Moveable Feast.” His wife's contribution to Hemingway's career so piqued McLain that she quit her teaching job in order to write the novel. Like Hemingway in Paris, she daily frequented a cafe — OK, in her case, it was a Starbucks — to write.

And, like Hemingway, McLain had the support of her family. But McLain had established herself as a writer. Hemingway, McLain suggests, “couldn't have done it if he hadn't had that early support,” noting that Richardson paid for the couple's trip to Paris after they were urged to go there by Sherwood Anderson.

But who was Hadley Richardson? Until she met Hemingway at a party in Chicago, Richardson's life in St. Louis was unremarkable. At 28, she was considered to be a spinster who lived with her sister's family in an attic apartment.

What did Hemingway see in her?

“He was looking for a better mother than what he had,” McLean says, referencing Hemingway's often-contentious relationship with his parents. “More tolerant and accepting, warmer and kinder and more generous of spirit. That was kind of a warm bath that he could float in while he pursued these other things.”

If Richardson was the idealization of what Hemingway wanted in a mother, she also mirrored another facet of the writer's consciousness.

Hemingway favored “everything simple,” McLain says. “Good, straightforward food, rustic and almost chewy wine, peasant people with uncomplicated values and language.”

Richardson, who favored uncomplicated clothes that “required the simplest of maintenance,” was the epitome of her husband's outlook and style, at least before Paris.

“Hadley's simplicity is so American,” McLain says. “She's a simple Midwestern girl who doesn't care for things like clothes.”

As Hemingway achieved success, he became interested in some of the more-sophisticated elements of Paris. Pauline Pfeiffer, the woman he left Richardson for, was her opposite, “a striver, a clothes horse who cares about Chanel.”

Richardson, McLain says, became “the rocket booster that has to be ejected. I find it so tragic. And, of course, I bought into all of it.”

Hemingway came to regret his decision to leave Richardson. In a letter to her from 1940, he wrote, “The more I see of all the members of your sex, the more I admire you.”

When she started “A Paris Wife,” McLain admits she fell in love with Hemingway as a result of inhabiting Richardson's character. So, did she similarly fall out of love when Hemingway started behaving poorly?

“I think I sort of tracked Hadley's trajectory the whole time,” McLain says. “I don't believe she ever fell out of love with him, so in a way, I didn't either. ... Because she never stopped seeing the underpinnings of ego, which are self-doubt and self-loathing, she knew that he was always at war with himself. Because I knew that, too, I could continue to have sympathy for him even when he was being a son of a bitch.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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