Ernest Hemingway thought that spring was the worst season to have one’s novel published. F. Scott Fitzgerald preferred it. Paula McLain and Sally Koslow, with new novels about Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the late 1930s and early 1940s, have followed Fitzgerald’s lead.
McLain's 2011 bestseller “The Paris Wife” made the marriage of Hemingway and first wife Hadley Richardson into a novel; now, McLain has written “Love and Ruin” (Ballantine, 388 pp., $28), her imagined version of Hemingway's time with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn.
Gellhorn is better known today for her novels, essays and work as a World War II correspondent. She met Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in Key West at Christmastime, 1936. Just 28, she was already a published and prominent writer, a well-traveled woman with a bohemian Paris past behind her. Gellhorn was a woman of wit and fire, but you wouldn't know this from McLain’s fictional version. Here, Gellhorn is depicted either as a panting girl, blushing and desperate, or a discouraged lover, upset at being a mistress and terrified of losing a man she doesn’t really possess. It’s hard to see what Gellhorn finds attractive about Hemingway — radiantly described one moment as a High Modernist alpha-male and undercut as an aging, frustrated, insecure writer and lousy husband the next. Gellhorn seems relieved to pass him on to fourth wife Mary Welsh in the end.
Gellhorn’s own writing is barely a blip in “Love and Ruin.” McLain's scenes of Marty and Hem at war, and in the second home Gellhorn makes for him in Cuba, are often richly and well written. But for Martha Gellhorn to be made immature, dispassionate and even tiresome is fiction indeed. The glimmer of her admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, based upon the friendship that Gellhorn had with the Roosevelts, and the brief scenes between Martha and Eleanor make one yearn to read about that part of her life instead.
In October 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote from France to his editor at Scribner's, Max Perkins, about “a young man named Ernest Hemmingway, who…has a brilliant future.” In October 1940, during his last days in Hollywood, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins once more of Hemingway, on the eve of the wedding to Gellhorn: “It will be odd to think of Ernest married to a really attractive woman. I think the pattern will be somewhat different than with his Pygmalion-like creations.” Fitz was right.
Those Hollywood days of Fitzgerald’s, and the woman with whom he spent part of his time there, are Sally Koslow’s focus in “Another Side of Paradise” (Harper, 352 pp., $26.99). Having clearly immersed herself in Fitzgerald's letters, biographies and the many books by his lover, Sheilah Graham, Koslow spins a sparkling story about the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In the summer of 1937, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered Fitzgerald a lucrative contract to work on movie screenplays, and Fitzgerald, in debt, jumped at the chance. At a party just weeks after he arrived, Fitzgerald met the English-born movie gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. They quickly fell in love.
Stewart O’Nan’s 2015 novel “West of Sunset” re-creates these brief years stylishly and sympathetically from Fitzgerald’s point of view. Graham’s own angle, as imagined by Koslow, is very different. Excellent in real life at reinventing who she was — she was born Lily Shiel to a Jewish family in London’s East End, orphaned and married young — Graham recognized herself, in her own words, as “a female Jay Gatsby come to life.”
For Koslow, Graham is a passionate and intelligent woman who at first uses Fitzgerald as an excuse not to return to England but then surprises herself by falling madly in love with him. The Fitzgerald of “Another Side of Paradise” is charming and considerate when sober. When drunk, he ranges from careless to horrible, although his ensuing contrition is real. Koslow shows the couple settled into a pattern of work and quiet contentment when a heart attack kills Fitzgerald three months after he turns 44. “Another Side of Paradise” explores both a man and a movie world Graham could never quit.
Hemingway's and Fitzgerald’s life stories have been rewritten by every generation since their deaths; both Koslow and McLain create fictitious plot twists to add surprise to the worn paths of factual accounts. But the truth, even if oft-told, is far more interesting than what anyone — even a skilled novelist, as both Koslow and McLain surely are — could make up. From here to eternity, Fitz and Hem and the women in their lives will remain the stuff of other people’s dreams.