Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and His Last Muse, Andrea di Robilant,
Atlantic Books, 348 pp. £17.99 (hardback).
Andrea di Robilant has done extensive research, but has not found significant new material about Hemingway and his love and inspiration Adriana Ivancich. He is good, however, on the rivalry of the Italian publishers Mondadori and Einaudi. He often mentions his uncle Carlo who was on the scene in Venice, but his relative provides no insights. Di Robilant depends mostly on Mary Hemingway’s superficial and trivial How It Was (“Mary summoned Isabella Angeloni, her manicurist from the previous winter”), and on A. E. Hotchner’s self-aggrandizing and unreliable Papa Hemingway. Instead of offering a new perspective, di Robilant repeats their familiar story and says very little about what readers most want to know–Adriana’s life after Hemingway from 1954 to 1983: her character, interests and tastes, work, marriages and children. He does not describe Hemingway’s emotional impact on her life or explain why she became depressed and killed herself.
The structure and focus of this book are weak. Hemingway doesn’t get to Venice until page 42 and doesn’t meet Adriana until page 63. Di Robilant also portrays Hemingway in Spain, Africa and Idaho, during the last eight years of his life, when Adriana was absent. He often lapses into clichés, sometimes twice in one sentence: “Hemingway had stared death in the face . . . a brash kid from Oak Park,” “sent to the doghouse . . . Hemingway went into overdrive,” and feebly compares Hemingway’s Buick on a ship to a mermaid. This painfully repetitious book even recycles Hemingway’s banalities: Venice was “absolutely god-damned wonderful,” and four pages later, “Italy was so damned wonderful.” The author’s portmanteau list of people Mary recognizes at a party reads like a parody of the guests in The Great Gatsby: “Tassilo and Clara Furstenberg, the Tripcoviches from Trieste, Countess Amelia Reale, and Michael Howard, brother of the Duke of Norfolk.”
Several errors should be corrected in the paperback edition: magna should be mangia (223), “Walsh” should be “Welsh” (342), Chink Dorman-O’Gowan did not inherit a family title, the FBI had spied on Hemingway since the Spanish Civil War (not since the Cuban Revolution). Di Robilant pointlessly repeats Hemingway’s absurd claim that he got into bed with Simone de Beauvoir, but started “to cough and bleed the hell all over her.” He does not explain why Hemingway traveled with forty-six pieces of luggage and how his chauffeur, with two passengers, could possibly get them into or onto their Lancia. Some statements need clarification. Hemingway’s remark, “I wish I had known,” is not enigmatic. If he’d known that Peter Viertel had had a shipboard romance, he would have felt free to sleep with Peter’s wife Jigee. Di Robilant does not realize that Hemingway’s jab at his hated literary rivals, Norman Mailer and Irwin Shaw (once Mary’s lover), as “Brooklyn Tolstoys” was anti-Semitic. Hemingway’s quip about Christmas presents, “Never have so few bought so much,” parodies Churchill’s tribute –“never have so many owed so much to so few”—to the RAF in the Battle of Britain.
The snapshots on matte paper within the text are poor. Mary, with bleached hair curt short, looks mannish. Hemingway, like a seasoned beautician, took a keen interest in cosmetics and recommended Clairol Silver and Roux oil shampoo Tint. Still in his late forties, he looks beefy, sagging and old. Jigee Viertel was repelled by his “protruding stomach, the rash on his face and his sharp body odor.” Di Robilant mentions Hemingway’s heavy drinking hundreds of times, and notes that friends were astonished to find him hard at work early next morning with no sign of a hangover. No fish, bird or beast was ever safe near Hemingway; no open bottle was ever re-corked.
Despite the battering of many illnesses and accidents Hemingway was still capable of crude but amusing wisecracks. Existentialism was “a load of crap,” Faulkner could stick his useless blurb “up his Mississippi ass,” Jonathan Cape’s dust wrapper for The Old Man and the Sea was “ridiculous and nauseating . . . suitable for a Juvenile or for a comic book.” Hemingway’s insides were better, he said, “although I have not looked inside to see.” The African plane crash, he claimed, gave him a three-day erection, though his protracted priapism may not have been entirely pleasurable.
Adriana Ivancich recalled, in the most intriguing and absorbing way, Hemingway’s fetishistic fascination with hair, his heroic youth and wound, his attachment to the Veneto and to the sensual pleasures of postwar Venice. Adriana’s family originally came from Slavic Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. Their villa had been bombed in the war and her father had been murdered by criminals in 1945. He first met her in December 1948, when she was eighteen, in Latisana, northeast of the floating city and very close to where he had been wounded in the war. Waiting for Hemingway’s Italian hosts to pick her up, Adriana said she had been standing alone in the rain, without shelter and soaked through. Rain always foreshadows disaster in his fiction, as when Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms prophesies, “I see myself dead” in the rain.
When they met Adriana had just completed her education in a Catholic girls’ school. She refused a warm-up drink, spoke poor English to match Hemingway’s surprisingly poor Italian, and had never heard of him or of any of his books. Di Robilant rapturously writes, “She had jet black hair, beautiful dark eyes, slender legs, and a svelte, youthful silhouette.” He also maintains that she was mischievous, with a keen mind and rapier wit, and had intellectual affinities with Hemingway. But he offers no evidence for any of these qualities.
As if struck by lightning, “Hemingway loved everything about Adriana: her slender waist, her long nose, her thin lips, her nicely shaped breasts.” She was both vulnerable victim and innocent virgin, a cosa sagrada whom he placed on a high altar and sublimated into a perfect muse. Her massive irascible friend, at once paternal and seductive, replaced her lost father and she became the daughter he always wanted but never had. His son Gregory, a year younger than Adriana and casting a cold eye, said she had a hooked nose and was dull. Her scheming mother, hoping to acquire fame and wealth by exploiting Adriana, the last jewel in the family’s fading fortune, accepted Hemingway’s invitation to visit Cuba. She was complicit in Adriana’s perilous relationship, but later complained bitterly about the malicious gossip it provoked.
Di Robilant quotes Hemingway’s love letters to Adriana, which were as gushing and soppy as Cantwell’s pillow talk with Countess Renata, reborn for him in Across the River and into the Trees (1950): “And how are you now and did you sleep well? With me now it is just like all the hours I would wait in Venice until I could see you.” He paradoxically exclaimed, “I would ask you to marry me if I didn’t know you would say no.” In contrast, his Cuban friend Mario Menocal (not quoted in this book) observed that Hemingway’s love for Adriana “made him look such a fool! . . . She accepted his hospitality, kindness, generosity towards herself and her family—and gave nothing in return.” She enjoyed his doglike devotion, gradually became more opinionated and critical, manipulated Hemingway and asserted her power over him. Hemingway was well aware of her wiles and submitted to them. As Cantwell says of Renata, “She’d out-maneuver you the best day you were ever born.” At the same time, while visiting the Finca Vigía in 1950, she was ardently courted by the well born Juan Veranes, who later jilted her and humiliated her family, and married an heiress to the Osborne sherry fortune. Hemingway’s trusty butler René Villareal (not in the index) unconvincingly suggested that he himself swam naked with Adriana and slept with her.
Mary, who in 1948 had been married to Hemingway for only three years, was slavishly devoted, willing to take harsh punishment and fighting for survival. Adriana, twenty-two years younger than Mary, was much more exotic and attractive. Aristocratic, tragic and sexy, she seemed an appropriate reward for the personal sacrifice Hemingway had made for Italy. He loved having two women in love with him at the same time, as with Hadley and Pauline, Pauline and Martha, Martha and Jane Mason. But Hadley was conventional and prudish; Pauline refused to use condoms, insisted on coitus interruptus and loved women as well as men; Martha had a narrow vagina and disliked sex. Mary, the most experienced and adventurous wife, was the best in bed and exaggerated their sexual exploits: “we made love at least every morning, noon and night (sic) and had the loveliest time Papa ever knew of.” Yet he had already left three wives and talked to Adriana about leaving Mary to marry her. Mary’s loud snoring on safari attracted elephants but, writes Di Robilant, her diary suggests that she fired up the erotic hothouse at the Finca by having retaliatory sex with Gianfranco Ivancich. It’s doubtful, however, that Gianfranco, while pursuing the young beauties of Havana, would risk his profitable friendship by cuckolding Papa and sleeping with Mama.
Adriana’s handsome look-alike older brother had had a “good war,” first fighting for the Fascists in North Africa, then for the Partisans in the Veneto. The charming failure and permanent sponger in the Finca was the physical and emotional substitute for his sister. After losing his short-lived job with a Havana shipping company and failing as a banana farmer, he married a Cuban socialite, Cristina Sandoval, who later left him after they’d moved to Italy.
Hemingway deceived himself about both Adriana and Across the River. Though often out of control he claimed, “I am disciplined now in everything I do.” His strict regime during these years included breaking a Venetian-glass ashtray and throwing wine in Mary’s face, shooting a small-game mouse with a rifle and getting clawed in a lion’s cage, dressing as a red-dyed Masai, hunting with a spear and courting a bewildered African girl. He did not intend to harm Adriana and was sorry for the damage he had caused. But propelled by powerful emotions, he failed to see that their volatile friendship could lead only to sexual rumors, an adulterous liaison or a tragic marriage. He constantly repeated that the endlessly revised Across the River was “his best and most carefully thought out book,” and neither wife, friends nor editors dared tell him it was a disaster. Though his relations with Adriana were platonic, the novel confirmed rumors that she had slept with him. Like his portrayal of the equally chaste Agnes von Kurowsky as Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, the sexual fantasies in these novels tried to compensate for the frustrating reality but did not release him from his emotional bondage.
Across the River, not published in Italy until 1964, gave no hint of Hemingway’s tragic suicide—or Adriana’s. When he pressed her to read the novel, the virgin was not aroused by the sex scenes and frankly told him that “the Colonel and the girl spent too much time in Harry’s Bar and the Gritti Hotel. Besides, a girl like Renata did not exist. Not in Venice at least. She’s supposed to be attractive, well-mannered and well born but she drinks like a fish and is continuously climbing into beds in hotels. . . . How can the colonel love such a boring girl?” Hemingway took it on the chin and moved on.
Adriana inspired Across the River as well as the embarrassingly sentimental and all-too-obviously symbolic The Old Man and the Sea. She also provided inept dust- wrapper drawings to go with them, which Hemingway loyally insisted on using for his novels. The advertising director at Scribner’s (not quoted in this book), was forced to agree and recalled: “The jacket drawings for both of these books as executed by ‘A’ were so bad that we had to have them skillfully re-drawn. So what was on the jacket was not actually her original art, which was pretty abominable.” Hemingway also persuaded Mondadori to publish Adriana’s mediocre greeting-card poetry. She last saw Hemingway on the Italian Riviera in March 1954, and sent her last letter to him in February 1956 when her jealous fiancé insisted she sever relations with him.
Hemingway always hoped Adriana would find a worthy husband, but partly due to his profound influence she was doomed. Di Robilant, who once met her socially in the 1970s, has nothing more to say than “I remember an attractive woman in her late forties, subdued, vaguely distant.” He does not explain why she had two failed marriages, and she remains a hazy figure during the last three decades of her life. Her first marriage, to Dimitri Monas, an older, previously married Greek who owned plantations in Tanganyika, lasted for only three years. He was intensely jealous and kept her locked up in a convent while waiting for his annulment. In 1964 she married her second husband, the stiff Bavarian aristocrat Count Rudolf von Rex, had two sons and lived on a farm on the coast northwest of Rome. In 1983 her close friend Afdera Franchetti told me that her second marriage was also a disaster. She was saddened by the failure of her autobiography La Torre Bianca (1980), fantasized about the past and became obsessed with Hemingway, wondering if she would have had a better and less bitter life with him. She drank heavily, suffered from nervous ailments, became hostile to her husband and alienated from her sons. Like Hemingway, she had a series of disastrous electro-shock treatments, twice tried to kill herself and finally succeeded. In March 1983, attempting to punish her family, she hanged herself from a tree on her farm, was cut down while still alive and died in the hospital.
Adriana and Hemingway were a tragic modern version of Dido and Aeneas. In Anna Akhmatova’s poem “In a Shattered Mirror” (1956), Dido speaks of the gift Aeneas brought her from afar:
And it became a slow poison
In my mysterious fate.
And it was the precursor of all my woes—
We shall not recall it!
Words by Jeffrey Meyers.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.