Great men are great. But what about their wives, and their mistresses? And all the little women along the way?
The greatest act of scholarship in the great field of great greats and affiliated women is Charles F. Horne’s great work, Great Men and Famous Women, a nineteenth-century compendium of the most prominent personages in the history of Man. But recent years have also seen great contributions to the great category of greatness in great men, in the context of the lucky ladies who were fortunate enough to chance into the subordinate roles of minor but noteworthy contributors to greatness.
To greet the greats at the gates of greatness, let us be grateful for recent publications like Gioia Diliberto’s Hemingway’s First Wife (2011, titled in full, Paris Without End, the True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife).
Prior to his marriage to Hadley Richardson, who was Hemingway’s first wife, Hemingway encouraged the red-cheeked girl to read Sinclair Lewis’s new bestseller, Main Street. As Diliberto writes:
“She told Ernest that she identified with the heroine, Carol Kennicott, who lived in a dull, unsophisticated town ‘and needed so much … someone to tell what she tho’t to.’ She also identified with Carol’s yearning for adventure. ‘I want everything in the world!’ says Carol. ‘Maybe I can’t sing or write, but I know I can be an influence. … Just suppose I encouraged some boy and he became a great artist! I will! I will do it!'”
Though Diliberto’s book makes a contribution to the great field of studies on the greatest of greats, Ernest Hemingway, we must concede that Hemingway’s First Wife is not great, due to a limited perspective. A similar lack of scope plagues Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a 2011 novelization of the helpmeet role of Hemingway’s first wife (that is, Hadley Richardson, lest she remain unnamed), and Bernice Kert’s The Hemingway Women, a 1998 collection of biographical sketches which dabbles in the great subject of Hemingway and women, and the brushes with greatness afforded those women who happened to have been in proximity to Great Hemingway—that is to say, those bachelorettes who grabbed the bouquet, who, smiled upon by fortune, looked up with saucer eyes to discover they were in the right place at the right time. A worthy subject, no doubt, and one suspects that someday a proper fellow will come along and get it right.
Topping the list of recent great works about great men, their great lives and their wives, is 2011’s The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe by Jeffrey Meyer. Meyer illuminates the cruel fate of greatness, examining Marilyn’s sex appeal in the context of the greatness tragedy. Woe to Adam, and the Great! Miller himself was well-aware of the woes of men, and in particular, the woes of great men, as Meyers writes: “Actors and singers who achieve great fame remain friendless, lonely, compelled to seek oblivion in drugs and early death. Those whom the pop-culture gods love, die young.” Though Miller, here, makes no mention of the actress chanteuse, obviously, as was the case with Marilyn, female performers can also have their difficulties.
If not all books about the wives of the great can be great, they can nonetheless offer marginalia of insight. Norris Church Mailer, in her memoir A Ticket to the Circus (2010) observes of her late great husband, Norman Mailer, “While he wasn’t a great eater, he was a great sleeper.” Dyan Cannon, in Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant (2011), noted that the great movie star was “great” with children. Grant, she said, even made great monkey faces and took great pratfalls. Jenniemae & James: A Memoir in Black & White, by Brooke Newman, presents the unusual counterpoint of James Newman, a great mathematician, and his maid, who did not play a part in his greatness.
In Must You Go: My Life with Harold Pinter (2010), Antonia Fraser writes of her glorious years standing beside Harold Pinter as he collected great honors. Random House, a great publisher, released the memoir as, “A moving testament to modern literature’s most celebrated marriage: that of the greatest playwright of our age, Harold Pinter, and the beautiful and famous prize-winning biographer Antonia Fraser.” Must You Go may not be great, but it is sympathetic.
In Sophia Tolstoy, the author, Alexander Popoff, makes a difficult to fathom argument about Sophia Tolstoy, Tolstoy’s wife and the bane of his existence. “Clearly,” writes Popoff, “Sophia’s contribution was great.” Perhaps, but only in the sense that Sophia’s petty, malignant assault upon the great author was the straw that tipped the scales, making the great writer a saint and martyr, and of the very greatest proportions. Indeed, the scourge of Sophia recalls the cankerous lunatic Zelda, as documented by Nancy Milford in Zelda: a Biography (1970). “Dear,” wrote the great man’s wife and human albatross, “I am not trying to make myself into a great artist or a great anything.”
The greatness of great men demands a great task, better left to the great than to the ingrates. Nevertheless, the less-great have done their share in greatening the greatest, and while I cannot grant them great respect, I do extend them great thanks for their great dedication to the great. And as for the greatest in the great category of great greats, given the greatness of the field, it is inevitable that there are great works I’ve overlooked, and in so saying, I offer my apologies to those great authors, gentlemen all.