Ernest Hemingway, the great 20th century author, stands among the greatest American writers. Few, if any, American writers have done as much as he did to change the way that English is written, cutting down the long and meandering sentences of previous centuries into his famously terse and direct style. Though the life of this famous man began in Illinois at the tail end of the 19th century and took him to parties in Paris, battlefields in Spain, and safaris in the Horn of Africa, Hemingway’s connection to Arkansas is not insubstantial, nor is his footprint on the state.
Pauline Pfieffer was born in Iowa on July 22, 1895, a day short of four years before her future husband, Ernest Hemingway. Her parents were Paul and Mary Pfieffer, and much of her early life was spent in St. Louis, Mo. Though her father was a wealthy real estate agent, he did not enjoy city life. So in 1913 he and his family moved to Piggott, Ark., where he had acquired 63,000 acres of land. After about two years, Pauline returned to Missouri to attend the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
The Pfieffers quickly became an important part of the Piggott community, promoting and helping to fund numerous improvements to Clay County, such as schools, a hospital and paving roads. When the Bank of Piggott was forced to close because of the Great Depression, Paul Pfieffer immediately re-established it as the Piggott State Bank. He also cleared many of his 63,000 acres of land and made them available as 40 or 80-acre tracts which were sold to farmers. The Pfiffers were devout Catholics, but there was no Catholic parish in the area. So they also had an altar installed and consecrated in one of their downstairs rooms. The altar was eventually desanctified and put into storage before being reinstituted at a new, predominantly Hispanic church.
After earning her degree in journalism, Pauline briefly worked at the Cleveland Press in Ohio before relocatng to New York. There she worked at a few very prestigious publications, including the Daily Telegraph, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Her writing abilities and fashion sense got her sent to Vogue’s Paris bureau during the height of the Lost Generation’s Parisian days. There, she met Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. As a writer and editor herself, she admired Ernest’s skill and discipline in writing and perhaps hoped that she could help him in his career. She spent Christmas in Austria with the Hemingways in 1925. This, perhaps, was where the two fell in love, and their affair began soon after. When the affair eventually came to light in August 1926, Ernest and Hadley split.
However, Hadley put a condition on accepting a divorce: Ernest and Pauline would have to separate for 100 days. If they still cared for each other by the end of that time, Hadley would concede. She hoped that their flame would die out if apart, and she could salvage what remained of her marriage. But when Ernest fell into a depression and expressed thoughts of suicide, she canceled the 100-day term. Hadley and Ernest divorced in January 1927, and Ernest married Pauline in Paris the following May.
Pauline soon became pregnant, and a difficult birth requiring a cesarean section and nearly killing her may have inspired the tragic ending of A Farewell to Arms. As soon as she was strong enough following the birth, the Hemingways came to Piggott to live with the Pfieffers. The Pfieffers converted their barn into a studio where Hemingway could write. During this time in Arkansas, he wrote a significant portion of A Farewell to Arms and several short stories, before heading to Wyoming, where the novel was finished. Though he traveled frequently, he returned to Piggott often.
In 1931, Pauline’s uncle Gus Pfieffer purchased a house for them in Key West, where Hemingway had already been spending winters for some time. Meanwhile, they still visited the rest of Pauline’s family in Arkansas. Though Pauline and Ernest had two children, Patrick and Gregory (later Gloria), their marriage was not much more successful than his prior marriage to Hadley. Relying on Pauline’s rich family chafed his machismo. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Pauline’s strong Catholic beliefs spurred her to support the Nationalist side, while Ernest worked as a war correspondent in Spain for the Republican side. He even produced a film called The Spanish Earth (narrated by none other than Orson Welles) in support of the Republican government, though Pauline had hesitated to let him go to a war-torn nation in the first place.
Early in 1936, in Key West, Hemingway met the woman that was to be his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. Both traveled to Spain at the war’s outbreak to work in the Republic. Far from Pauline and with no shortage of marital troubles, he commenced an affair with Martha. His marriage to Pauline never recovered and they divorced in 1940, less than a month after the publishing of For Whom the Bell Tolls. He married Martha just three weeks later and moved to Cuba. Pauline kept the Key West house, where she would live for the rest of her life. She died in 1951 from a burst adrenal tumor, and Hemingway took his own life in 1961 – thought now to be connected to a diagnosis of hereditary hemochromatosis, which, among other things, is associated with a worsening mental state.
Pauline’s parents had both passed away before her, and in 1950 the Piggott House was purchased by Tom and Beatrice Janes. In 1982, the Janes family successfully advocated to have the Pfieffer family home and their barn-studio added to the National Register of Historic Places. In April 1997, the property was purchased by Arkansas State University, which restored the house and barn-studio to turn the location into a museum. About 75% of the original furniture has been preserved. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center (HPMEC) opened in 1999, and is still managed by ASU presently.
Today, the HPMEC is home to more than just ghosts of Hemingway’s past. Its website features a virtual tour of the museum, and the locale hosts writing and reading retreats and offers a writer-in-residence program with housing and a stipend. In the past, the museum has held student art contests and bird hunts to raise funds, and has orchestrated traveling exhibits to display Pauline’s journalism. For those interested in visiting the museum, tours are provided on Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.