Hemingway in Arkansas
After his marriage to journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, Ernest Hemingway became an unlikely
fixture in his second wife's hometown of Piggott, Arkansas. And while toiling on
"A Farewell to Arms" and other projects there, not everyone was impressed.
By Ron Russell
A car stops in front of Bea Janes' house and a man jumps out to take pictures. She glances off the porch of the white, two-story home on Cherry Street and resumes putting sugar in her afternoon tea. "Happens all the time," she says. "They come from all over. Sometimes, if I'm in the mood to talk, I'll ask some of them to come on the porch and have a chair."
That's often how it begins for people chasing the ghost of Ernest Hemingway in Piggott.
Janes, a widow, lives at "the old Pfeiffer place," the home where Hemingway's second wife Pauline, the daughter of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, grew up. In 1928, the author worked on the manuscript of "A Farewell to Arms" in the small barn "studio" in the Pfeiffers' backyard.
Above: Ernest Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer in Paris, on their wedding day, 1927.
Paul and Mary Pfeiffer's home on Cherry Street, with its high-ceilinged living room, where Hemingway and Pauline were frequent guests until the couple's divorce in 1940.
The backyard barn with steps leading to Hemingway's studio, where he wrote portions of "A Farewell to Arms."
Below: Lee Remick, Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal on the set of 1957's "A Face in the Crowd," filmed partly in Piggott, including at the Pfeiffer estate. Director Elia Kazan chose the town at the suggestion of a Hemingway associate.
This article was first published in Mid-South magazine, the Sunday magazine of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, August 27, 1978 with the title, "Chasing Hemingway's Ghost."
The former Pfeiffer estate was acquired from Bea Janes in 1997 by Arkansas State University as a heritage site. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center opened in 1999 in conjunction with the national celebration of Hemingway's 100th birthday.
"To be truthful, I found him to be a conceited ass and told him so. He would thank me for my opinion."
- Karl Pfeiffer
"I remember after he married his third wife (Martha Gellhorn), he called Pauline and ribbed her about not being at his wedding. She laughed it off by saying, "I'll come next time.'
For years, before their marriage ended in divorce in 1940, Hemingway returned to the pleasant northeast Arkansas town on the edge of a narrow band of hills known as Crowley's Ridge at irregular intervals, often for weeks at a time. Oldtimers say he mostly wrote, drank and hunted quail with a select few of the locals.
"Most people knew he was a celebrity when the news got out that he and Pauline were in town to stay awhile the first time," recalls Laud Payne, the former editor of the defunct Piggott Banner. "But no one treated him any differnt than anybody else. At least not to my knowledge. He would have been just another person, except for his personality. Not many people cared for it."
The fact that Piggott didn't take a liking to Hemingway is the worst kept secret in town. Even Karl Pfeiffer, 78, the author's former brother-in-law, acknowledges as much.
"Personally, I got along with Ernest very well," he says. "I have no animosity toward him, and never have. Primarily the emotion I always felt for Ernest was pity. He was a pitful character, really.
"Unless you were the sort of person who could ignore him, he would scare you away. To be truthful, I found him to be a conceited ass and told him so. He would thank me for my opinion."
Unlike Hemingway, the Pfeiffer name is legend in town.
Karl Pfeiffer's father Paul and his uncle Gus had the distinction of being the wealthiest people in town from the time they moved to Piggott from St. Louis in 1913. Paul Pfeiffer bought 60,000 acres of mostly wooded swamp ("by the gallon," the joke went), hired 200 men to clear it, and organized the Piggott Custom Gin Co. and several other businesses. And he built the 12-room house on Cherry Street with the small red barn in back.
His daughter Pauline was a high school senior about to enter the University of Missouri, where she would major in journalism. Later she landed a job with Vogue as a fashion writer in Paris, where she met Hemingway.
Karl Pfeiffer says his father didn't try to convince her not to marry Hemingway, even though at the time he was married to the former Hadley Richardson.
"My father never tried to dictate to any of us what we could or couldn't do. He night express his opinion in no uncertain
terms, but the decision he left to us."
The Hemingway-Pfeiffer love affair was, itself, novel material.
As the story goes, Hadley agreed to a divorce on the condition that Hemingway and Pauline agreed not to see each other for 100 days, hoping that would kill the romance.
Pauline boarded the oceanliner Pennland at Boulogne in September, 1926, and sailed for New York. "Uncle Gus" Pfeiffer, who by then was living in New York, bought her train ticket to Piggott.
While they were apart, Hemingway worked at a friend's apartment on the Left Bank, reviewing the proof of "The Sun Also Rises" and writing several short stories. Pauline returned to Paris 107 days after she left. Hemingway was divorced shortly thereafter, and, in the spring, he and Pauline were married in a Paris church.
The couple arrived in Piggott in fall the next year to meet the family. It was during that first visit that Oscar Little, who grew up in Piggott but now lives in Arizona, remembers meeting Hemingway. Little was a senior in high school.
"It was down at Smitty Smith's shoe store on the [town] square. I worked for Smitty part-time and [Hemingway] had come in there a few times when he was walking around downtown. In those days, people used to congregate at the shoe store. At least they did in Piggott. But, anyway, he'd heard that Smitty was a big hunter and, heck, I was too--or thought I was--so he asked us to take him hunting."
Little says he hunted with Hemingway 4 or 5 times during the author's various stints in town. The deal was, Hemingway supplied the sandwiches and buckshot, and Little was the guide.
"I remember one day in the bottoms near Greenway we'd been shooting at quail all morning, and he'd hardly hit a thing. Finally we stopped to eat on a log and he said, 'Oscar, I'm supposed to be a helluva hunter and as soon as I'm finished with this sandwich I'm going to prove it.' As I recall, he did, too."
Other times, Karl Pfeiffer took his brother-in-law hunting with a few friends.
"Ernest was unpredictable," he says. "There were times when he'd be at ease and other times when his pomposity would show. He liked to freeze the quail he hunted and give them as Christmas gifts to his friends back East. So one day--it was near the end of his visit--he remarked about not getting to hunt much this trip, and how he wanted to shoot quail before he left.
"We all went, and the rest of us had a field day, but Ernest wasn't doing so well. When they got ready to leave the next morning I started to get some of the birds I'd shot and give them to him to give away, but he wouldn't have any part of it. He just snorted, 'I'm not going to give away birds that I didn't kill.'"
Karl and his wife, Matilda, live in a large brick home on 10 acres directly behind the house where his father and mother lived. A tree-covered street that more closely resembles a private drive separates the front of their property from the barn. They have willed their estate to the town to use as a park.
The couple had a tennis court in their backyard long before one was built at the city park. When Pfeiffer stopped playing tennis, he had it dismantled and built a huge swimming pool on the site.
In fact, when movie director Elia Kazan in 1956 chose Piggott to film part of "A Face in the Crowd" (the result of a recommendation by Hemingway associate Toby Bruce, who grew up in Piggott) a scene involving Andy Griffith and Lee Remick was filmed at the Pfeiffer pool.
Inside the house, in an expansive library, the Pfeiffers have numerous first edition copies of Hemingway books, personally signed, along with correspondence between the author and family members. But neither of them are dyed-in-the-wool Hemingway fans.
"Don't misunderstand me," says Pfeiffer. "Ernest had a great talent, there's no mistake about that. But I must confess I've never quite been able to understand the phenomena of all the attention he has attracted.
"I guess I won't understand it. To me, Ernest was married to my sister, which made him part of the family. Of course, they were divorced, but I have no bad feelings over that. By the time it happened she was glad to be rid of him as a husband, although they remained on friendly terms.
"I remember after he married his third wife (Martha Gellhorn), he called Pauline and ribbed her about not being at his wedding. She laughed it off by saying, "I'll come next time.' It was that knd of relationship.
"It never was difficult for me to understand his feuds with (F. Scott) Fitzgerald and other authors. Ernest never could stand to be around someone he felt might be his superior. Deep down, I always had the impression that he resented them."
It was that kind of perceived arrogance Piggott residents seem to remember most.
"You know, I've heard people criticize Piggott for not doing anything in recognition of his having spent some time here," says Irene Cox, a lifelong resident and Karl Pfeiffer's personal secretary for 10 years. "But I've never understood that. Ernest Hemingway, as far as I know, never did anything for Piggott."
Hemingway was equally silent, according to Laud Payne, the morning the barn caught fire with his manuscripts inside while Ernest, Pauline and the Pfeiffers were having breakfast in the house.
"I was a few hundred feet away from the barn back in the woods--at that time [the barn] was on the edge of town--doing some hunting, and saw the smoke," Payne says. "By the time I got there, he was inside throwing papers out the window like wild trying to save them. I got in and started helping him. The fire department came and put it out but they got water all over his papers, and I stayed and helped him get them dry. You know, he never said so much as 'thank you.' I took it as being his nature."
The smoke stains are still evident on the side of the barn. Janes uses the studio to store old pieces of furniture and odds and ends the family has collected over the years.
Although the Hemingways took their meals in the house, they often slept in the small barn apartment so that Hemingway could have more privacy to write.
The wooden headboard and footboard of the couple's three-quarter-size bed is propped against a stack of other dust-laden items in the barn, along with the remaining part of a gun rack the author used.
Those things, and other pieces of furniture (including a grand piano, a music box and several antique pieces) belonged to the elder Pfeiffers and were left when Mary Pfeiffer died and the house was sold in 1950. Paul Pfeiffer died in 1943. In the study were shelves of books, including first editions of Hemingway novels, four of which were acknowledged by the author.
"I've always supposed Karl and Matilda, and [the Pfieffer children] didn't have any need for the things and didn't want them," says Janes. "There was an awful lot of stuff."
Among the first edition books left behind are copies of "Green Hills of Africa," "The Sun Also Rises," and "To Have and Have Not."
"I'm not a Hemingway fan," she says. "I've tried to read his books and I can't finish them: They simply don't interest me."
Her daughter, Rosemary, visiting from North Carolina, was quck to interject.
"It's not that mother is unread. She really means it. There were six of us kids and we've grown up in this house, with the mystique or whatever you want to call it of their being a Hemingway connection here. But it hasn't prejudiced us one way or the other concerning Hemingway's books . . . I think what really turned off a lot of people was the way he acted when he was here and what he said about Piggott."
In letters to friends, Hemingway depicted Piggott residents as "local yoculs" who were both biggoted and mean.
On at least one occcasion while in town, he took up jogging in an effort to lose weight and get in shape for an upcoming hunting trip to Wyoming. "He would run right down the middle of the street," says Payne. "He'd be dressed in baggy pants and a sloppy looking T-shirt, and, with the long beard he had, he looked like a real hippy. Back in the '30s people weren't used to those things. People all over town would see him every day and make fun of him."
One incident left Hemingeway shaken and upset, according to Karl Pfeiffer.
"It was a winter day with snow on the ground," he says. "I don't remember which year it was. But he had injured his leg so that it was in a cast and he had gone for a walk to get a little exercise." He says Hemingway was walking across the schoolyard (then as now, located across the street from the Pfeiffer place) when some children began jeering him.
"They thought he was a bum who'd gotten off the train . . . and yelled and taunted him all the way across the schoolyard until he finally made it to the front porch. I think it upset him pretty badly."
On another occasion, Pfeiffer recalls Hemingway sitting on the porch typing letters to friends--letters that later turned up in biographical material indicating his longing to be in Key West, Michigan, Paris, Spain, almost anywhere, it seems, but Piggott.
But going elsewhere wasn't so simple. The popular wisdom among townspeople is that Hemingway was in Piggott because Pauline's father was supporting them financially.
That may have been partly true, according to Karl Pfeiffer, but it was "Uncle Gus" who provided the funds that made it possible for Ernest and Pauline to maintain themselves in the manner to whcih they were accustomed.
It was Gus who, in the midst of the Depression, supplied the money for their African safari, said to have cost $25,000, and that resulted in 1935's "Green Hills of Africa." Hemingway dedicated "A Farewell to Arms" to Gus.
The Pfeiffers' generous nature apparently wasn't enough to make Hemingway more enamored of the town.
At no time was Hemingway said to have been more upset while in Piggott than upon learning in 1932 that the ending of the movie version of "A Farewell to Arms" did not coincide with the book.
Ralph Stint, a Paramount Studio executive, telegrammed Hemingway that two prints, unexpectedly available, had made possible a premier of the picture at Piggott simultaneous to the film's debut in New York, and added, "Immediate reply appreciated so arrangements can be made."
Hemingway wired back, "Do not send here. If the book and motion picture survive, a really great picture interpretation will be made." Paramount sent the film anyway, but Hemingway went to St. Louis for the weekend.
"That was his nature," says Pfeiffer. "He did the things he wanted to do, and when it came to doing anything else, he wasn't worth a damn."
"We all had the impression," says Irene Cox, "that he was here because he had to be."