Today is Mary Welsh Hemingway Day in Bemidji; play being written in her honor
BEMIDJI -- "Those skating years were also the years when I celebrated my birthday on April 5 by making the first swim of the season in Lake Bemidji. Usually the winter's ice had retreated only a yard or two from the beach at Diamond Point, but th...
BEMIDJI - “Those skating years were also the years when I celebrated my birthday on April 5 by making the first swim of the season in Lake Bemidji. Usually the winter’s ice had retreated only a yard or two from the beach at Diamond Point, but there was enough open water for swimming fifteen or twenty strokes and whoever accompanied me came out of the water pink and giggling.”
So wrote Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest’s fourth and last wife, in her autobiography, “How It Was,” published in 1976.
Born in Walker, Minn., on April 5, 1908, Mary, the only child of Tom and Adeline Welsh, moved to Bemidji prior to kindergarten, taking up residence in “a big sunny clapboard house” at Bemidji Avenue and 12th Street - a house that still stands today - though later the family sold the home and it became the home for “Mr. Deputy,” the president of the local teachers college.
While her connection to Bemidji has long been known by Bemidji’s older, more established residents, others are finding themselves newly drawn to Mary’s story.
Mary, who graduated from Bemidji High School in 1926, may perhaps always be best known as Ernest’s longest wife, his eventual widow, but there was much more to the woman and her life - and local playwright Catie Belleveau has written a play to tell more of her story.
“She was that solid woman who kept his lists, organized his life and edited his work. She did all those things. She was his faithful companion,” Belleveau said. “Why should Bemidji care? She was an amazing journalist in her own right.”
Mary worked as a correspondent during World War II, writing for the Chicago Daily News, Time and Life magazines and the London Daily Express. She covered the Munich Agreement and the march into Czechoslovakia.
In recognition of Mary’s life and career, today has been declared Mary Welsh Hemingway Day in Bemidji.
“I think it’s important to remember our history,” said Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, adding “a community is really built on its history and the things that went before it. As a young community - we were chartered in 1896 - our history is not long and so it’s something we need to cherish and preserve.”
Mary and J.W. Smith A portrait of the longtime school administrator J.W. Smith hangs in the school that bears his name. The portrait, dedicated in 1964, was commissioned by Mary Welsh, who attended high school while Smith was a principal there.
“They became good friends,” said Vera Weis, a longtime Bemidji resident who contacted Albrecht after the proclamation was approved for Mary Welsh Hemingway Day last month. Weis, a former secretary at Central Elementary, wanted to share the history of the portrait, as the greater community became more aware of Mary’s connection to Bemidji.
Indeed, according to a description of four letters that were auctioned off between Mary and Smith, the two had developed mutual respect:
“On May 2, 1960, Mary writes again, about an idea to memorialize Superintendent J.W. Smith himself, with a portrait to hang in the school, and ‘if you won’t have that, what about $500 worth of books contributed by you to the new library? Not text books or froth, but the many now available which concern themselves with the farther horizons of knowledge - anthropology, ecology - man, politics, philosophy, bugs, plants, stars?... there must be many books a school could use which are not in the public library. I’ve asked Ernest to give a thought to this project, and he may come up with a good idea - he frequently does - and if in this cases he does, I’ll write you at once ...’”
That is a quote from the description of the unsold letters by the auction house.
In the next letter, dated July 5, 1961, Smith sends his condolences to Mary after Ernest’s death: “So often during the past few days my heart has gone out in sympathy to you. It was not my privilege to meet Ernest, and yet I have felt that I know him after the short visits I had with you when you were in Bemidji for our class reunion.”
Mary and her career One summer, while Mary was with her father, they came upon a pasture of sheep, as detailed in her autobiography.
“Remember this, Mary,” he father said. “Never be a sheep. Never follow a leader only because he is ahead of you. Take time to look around and see for yourself if you are in the right direction.”
She was 8 or 9 years old.
She also wrote: “Sometimes I wonder if writers realize the far-reaching influences of their work. With his poem ‘Chicago,’ Carl Sandburg changed the ambiance of my youth. Since my childhood, when the editor of the Bemidji Pioneer Press and his wife came to our house for dinner, I had known that I would like to work on a newspaper.”
Mary would attend the Bemidji teachers college for a year before moving to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University for journalism. She later left school to be editor of a floral magazine in the Chicago area, moved on to a newspaper group in Chicago’s North Side, and then to the Chicago Daily News, the London Daily Express and Time and Life magazines. She was a correspondent with the Royal Air Force and Allied Expeditionary Forces and covered the London Blitz during World War II.
It was during this time that she met Ernest, who was then married to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Mary was also married, at the time to her second husband, Noel Monks.
Both divorced their spouses and Ernest and Mary married in March 1946.
“Mary was charming, witty, exciting, a good wife, excellent fisherman, a fair wingshot, strong swimmer, good cook, good judge of wine, an excellent gardener and amateur astronomer, a student of art, and spoke Swahili, French and Italian,” wrote Nita Frank-Eagle, in 2009, printed in a January 2010 newsletter from the Cass County Historical Society and Museum in Walker. “She quit writing and devoted the rest of her life to typing Ernest’s manuscripts.”
After Ernest’s suicide in 1961, Mary became his literary executor and was key in publishing several of his works after his death, including “The Garden of Eden” and “Islands in the Stream.”
“She’s a huge part of literary history,” said Marsh Muirhead of Bemidji, who was able to follow Ernest’s and Mary’s trails in Cuba in 2006, when he visited the country as part of the Key West Literary Seminar.
Both Muirhead and Belleveau imagine that Ernest and Mary bonded over their mutual love of nature and adventure. Mary was a bit of a tomboy, having grown up fishing, hunting and exploring, and many of the photos of the two of them together were taken while on African safaris.
“I bet there had to be some interesting conversations about their love of the woods and their love of wild places,” Belleveau said.
Mary and Ernest Belleveau has spent the past couple of years working on her play and has recently reached the point where she is ready to hold staged readings and begin the process of polishing her work.
Her play will feature not only Mary but several of the women in Ernest’s life.
“It’s more compelling if I end up having not only (Mary’s) voice but all of the women who were in his life. It wasn’t easy,” Belleveau said. “He’s one of those classic geniuses, lots of mental health problems, active alcoholic, never treated. He treated his mental health
problems with alcohol. He self-medicated, and he could be extremely cruel.”
In fact, Belleveau struggled with that as she crafted her play.
“At first when I was getting into it, I was like, ‘Oh he is such an arse,’ and then I started ... (developing) an empathy because he had all those mental health issues at a time when there wasn’t a lot of recourse,” she said.
At a California drama workshop, Belleveau studied physical theater and the use of masks. For this piece, she came up with the idea of using a mask to represent Ernest.
“For the theater production, I thought of a theatrical device to get across a man of that era who is in actuality a very sensitive artist but had to put on a mask of over-braggadocio, over-machoism. ... He purposely got hurt and he purposely welcomed danger because he got such an adrenaline rush from facing wolves and marlins and swordfish and the wars. It was his way of, I don’t know, dealing with his manic depression.”
Her play is titled “Mary 4 Martha 3 - no footnotes,” a reference, she said, to Martha’s worry that in the wake of her death she would only be a footnote as Ernest’s wife.
“Martha was told by him, ‘When you’re rotting in the grave Martha, and the worms are eating you, no one will remember a single word you wrote,’” Belleveau said.
Mary was overshadowed because she did pursue her other interests, but Belleveau said she was a strong woman who fought to help Ernest as she was able. She talked him down from his first suicide attempt, standing up to him while he had a shotgun in the foyer.
“With the play, I’m trying to create the tension that (Martha) keeps saying, ‘Why did you stay Mary?’ and she asks that several times,” Belliveau said. “There are sections where Mary describes the hardships and horrors and Martha asks, ‘Why did you stay?’”
While Ernest refused to go to a mental health rehab center due to his famous name, Mary did get him into the Mayo Clinic where he underwent electroshock therapy, even though it ended up adversely affecting his memory.
“I had to get past my dislike of him as a person and come full circle,” Belleveau said of writing the play. “... You cannot be so simplistic in your portrayal because I realized it would be really easy to do that. I just don’t think that’s true of any human beings. There’s layers.”
At least 70 percent of the play is taken directly from the wives’ own writings.
“I used a lot of their own words because I think that is the most powerful,” Belleveau said.