With the premiere of the excellent documentary “Hemingway” from filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on the horizon, Arkansans will be excited to learn about Hemingway’s fascinating Arkansas connection. Hemingway spent time visiting the family of his second wife Pauline in Piggott, writing parts of his seminal work “A Farewell to Arms” in the loft of the family barn.
On May 10, 1927, Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer whose family had moved to Piggott in 1913. Her father Paul purchased land in Clay County, eventually owning approximately 63,000 acres. The Pfeiffers are a fascinating family even without their connection to Hemingway. Paul and two of his brothers ran a successful pharmaceutical and cosmetic company in St. Louis, a company that made the family very wealthy. Yet, Paul chose to live in a fairly modest house in Piggott and modeled business practices that were examples of how to support the community instead of exploiting it.
Paul and Mary Pfeiffer and Paul’s sister and brother-in-law Emma and D.C. Merner (from California) in Piggott wheat field, 1914-15, courtesy of Matilda Pfeiffer.
Pauline met Ernest in 1925 in Paris. Pauline was a promising young journalist working for Vogue magazine. Ernest, a journalist himself, was living and writing among the American expatriot community that Gertrude Stein would label the Lost Generation. The two met at the party of a mutual friend. Pauline first became friends with Ernest’s first wife, Hadley, though as the relationship grew she spent more time with Ernest. They eventually began a romantic affair that led to Ernest’s divorce and their marriage.
During the years of their marriage, Ernest would become a frequent guest at the home of Pauline’s parents in Arkansas. Pauline and Ernest connected as writers, and she became one of his best editors – a fact which he admitted even after the marriage deteriorated.
Pauline Pfeiffer during her time at Vogue magazine, courtesy of the Hemingway Pfeiffer Museum.
In 1928, the Hemingways returned to the United States. During this time, the Pfeiffer family served as major financial benefactors for the couple. Gus Pfeiffer, Pauline’s uncle and head of the family’s pharmaceutical company, was especially supportive. He bought the couple a home in Key West and a new car, and he eventually paid for their 1933-34 African safari. This safari became the setting of some of Ernest’s most popular fiction – “Green Hills of Africa,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway on safari, 1933-34, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library.
Uncle Gus’s generosity wasn’t limited to his own family. One example of this is his gift of a house to Helen Keller. Uncle Gus owned 23 homes on the Aspetuck River near Fairfield, Connecticut, which he called the Aspetuck Colony. He gave one of these homes to Helen Keller.
This video shows the Pfeiffer family passing by Keller’s house and greeting her during an Independence Day parade at Aspetuck.
Gus Pfeiffer aboard Ernest Hemingway’s boat Pilar, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library.
What did Hemingway think of Arkansas?
Hemingway spent more time in Arkansas than you may think. From 1928-36, he was a regular visitor – sometimes staying several months at a time. So, what did he think of Arkansas?
His first impression wasn’t very favorable. He visited in the summer during a heat wave. The house was not air-conditioned, and he was miserable. Anyone who has been without air conditioning in Arkansas in the summer will be sympathetic.
Eventually, though, he would list Piggott in the autumn as one of his favorite places in the world. One reason, no doubt, was the hunting. He primarily hunted for quail along Crowley’s Ridge, though on one notable occasion he went duck hunting with his editor Max Perkins in the south Delta (more on that here).
The only known picture of Ernest Hemingway in Arkansas: on the front porch of the Pfeiffer home in Piggott, Arkansas, with Paul and Mary Pfeiffer and Barbara Peck, courtesy of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum.
The Museum Today
There are too many stories of Hemingway in Arkansas to tell in a single blog post, but the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Piggott preserves this history year-round. The museum is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site. Visitors can join for regular guided tours. Guests can also join the many special events that bring these stories to life. It could be a weekend retreat recreating the 1934 world premiere of the film “A Farewell to Arms” (starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hays) – held in Piggott and New York City. Or, it could be a trip sponsored by the Friends of the Pfeiffers to other Hemingway locales, such as Havana or Paris.
There are also many resources to learn more. I suggest the history section of the museum’s website or perhaps Ruth Hawkin’s “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow,” the first biography of Hemingway’s Arkansas connection – proceeds of which benefit the museum.
Whatever way you choose to be involved, we hope to hear from you soon. Enjoy watching “Hemingway” on PBS and, then, come and see us!
Paul and Mary Pfeiffer in front of barn studio in Piggott, courtesy of Matilda Pfeiffer.
Learn more about Hemingway’s time in Arkansas here: https://myarpbs.org/hemingway.