the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

On His Birthday: An Ode to Ernest Hemingway’s Arkansas Sanctuary

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Two-lane roads criss-cross the fertile Delta farmland in northeast Arkansas. Small towns and cotton gins pepper the landscape. In a blink, you’d miss Piggott, a town of about 2,000 people.

It’s certainly a long way from Havana, Paris, Madrid or Key West.

Ernest Hemingway probably thought this very thing when he arrived here in 1927 on the arm of his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, whose family lived in the small town. He was 28.

From 1927 until the couple separated in 1936, Hemingway often visited Piggott with his wife and their two children. The Pfeiffer House still stands outside Piggott’s town square, surrounded by large oaks, green grass and the occasional wildflower. Behind the two-story wood framed home, a converted barn turned studio holds secrets from the Hemingway days. It was in this studio that Hemingway wrote part of “A Farewell to Arms” as well as sections of numerous short stories.

After gathering clues and solving mysteries about Hemingway’s time at the house, two women – Dr. Ruth Hawkins and Claudia Shannon – along with Arkansas State University in Jonesboro have transformed the house into the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center.

“We wanted the house to be true to the time when Hemingway lived here,” said Shannon, president of Shannon Design Enterprises in Jonesboro and restoration director for the center. “We wanted people to feel like they stepped back into time.” Hawkins is vice presidentof institutional advancement at Arkansas State and project director for the center.

Piggott, too, appears frozen in time, as if Papa Hemingway just caught a train out of here last week. It retains a certain charm that has been lost in other cities with the advent of Wal-Mart and other chain stores.

Piggott doesn’t have chain stores and doesn’t want any within its city limits.

Seals Pharmacy on the town square still serves ice cream sodas and sundaes on its marble counter top. Antique shops dot the streets. The only thing missing is the 1800s courthouse, torn down in the 1970s for a more modern building.

Andy Griffith made the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd in Piggott, and residents still insist Piggott was the basis for television’s Mayberry. The town is now banking on Papa Hemingway, not Wal-Mart, to revitalize its economy and renovate its town square.

“I can safely say that 70 percent of businesses will benefit from the Hemingway connection due to tourism and the kind of tourism it will generate,” said Rodney Rouse, president of Arkansas Bank and a co-chairman of a group aimed at renovating Piggott.

But for love

The love story of the 1910 Hemingway-Pfeiffer farmhouse and its restoration oozes much of the same romance and happenstance that filled Hemingway’s life with Pauline Pfeiffer.

Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway grew up in St. Louis and moved to Piggott with her family in 1913 when her father, Paul, bought a house in the rural town and left the family pharmaceutical business.

Despising the city, Paul Pfeiffer began acquiring land during the early 1900s in the swampy, timbered-out flatland of northeastern Arkansas and soon accumulated 63,000 acres, which he divided into farms for sharecroppers. He also constructed a cotton gin and created the successful Piggott Land Company in 1929.

When the Depression struck, Piggott families struggled to generate income. Paul Pfeiffer was their savior. He chartered the Piggott State Bank in 1930, becoming its first president and loaning money to whomever needed it. He bought hundreds of quilts from women in the area in order to give them something rather than a handout.

Paul Pfeiffer also hired people to paint the house when another coat of paint wasn’t even needed. During restoration, Shannon said she found 40 layers of paint on the house.

Pauline, the oldest of four children, was a well-educated, devout Catholic. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1918 and traveled to New York, where she wrote for various magazines. Pauline loved fashion and writing and landed a position with Vogue’s Paris office.

In 1925, Pauline, a chic flapper, met Hemingway, a struggling writer, and his wife, Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis woman and the mother of his son Jack. The three became friends, but Hadley was soon pushed out of the picture.

In the fall of 1926, Hemingway and Pauline agreed to Hadley’s request – that the couple spend 100 days apart. If at the end of that time they were still in love, Hadley would sign the papers setting Hemingway free.

The attraction continued. Hemingway and Pauline married in 1927 and lived the Paris literary life with other American expatriate writers.

Hemingway possessed a passion for wealthy women, and Pauline was no exception. She had a glamorous job, a huge trust fund and countless more suitable admirers.

As Hemingway became more successful, the couple took jaunts to Europe, Africa, Havana and Wyoming. In 1931, Pauline’s uncle bought a home for the couple in Key West.

The couple had two sons, Patrick and Gregory. Patrick, 70, now lives in Bozeman, Mont., and Gregory, 67, resides in Miami. Hawkins has invited both, along with Jack Hemingway, to the July 4 dedication ceremony.

Although Hemingway and Pauline lived in Key West, the couple often traveled to Piggott to visit Pauline’s family. Hemingway enjoyed the Arkansas countryside and often hunted pheasant. Letters from Hemingway to the Pfeiffers reflect his interest in their rural lifestyle. He also wrote letters to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound from Piggott.

“Pauline was his muse,” said Hawkins, who is working on a book about Pauline and Hemingway. “He wrote eight books and numerous short stories while they were together.”

In 1932, Virginia Pfeiffer, Pauline’s bohemian sister, suggested converting the backyard barn into a studio for Hemingway so he could write in peace. One morning, though, the barn caught fire when Hemingway forgot to damp down the stove. As manuscripts were tossed out, Hemingway fumed. He told off, or as legend has it, probably cursed at, a young servant who lit the fire.

“Paul Pfeiffer forced Hemingway to apologize to the boy,” said Hawkins.

Pauline remained in love with Hemingway all her life and sacrificed herself, her writing and her sons to be with him.

Hemingway often tired of his muses, and in 1936, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn caught his eye. He separated from Pauline and divorced her in 1940.

Pauline stayed in the Key West home and opened a designer fabric, upholstery and gift business known as the Carolina Shop.

On Oct. 21, 1951, a year after her mother’s death and seven years after her father died, Pauline died of a brain hemorrhage while visiting her sister in Hollywood. She is buried in an unmarked grave in the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

The restoration

In 1997, Pauline Hemingway crossed Hawkins’s thoughts while she worked on the designation of Crowley’s Ridge Parkway as a national scenic byway.

“I told a photographer who was shooting along the byway to see what he could find out about the Pfeiffer House. He came back and told me it was for sale,” recalled Hawkins. She drove to Piggott on Thanksgiving 1996 to look at the house, which had been bought in 1950 by Tom and Beatrice Janes and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Its listing on the historic register means it was in good shape when Arkansas State began its Hemingway restoration.

Suddenly a woman with a mission, Hawkins worked furiously to acquire the house. In February 1997, the Arkansas General Assembly appropriated $135,000 to purchase the property. A month later, Sherland and Barbara Hamilton of Rector, who own Crockett Oil Co., offered a $200,000 restoration “challenge grant.”

By April, ASU had acquired the property, and Claudia Shannon began gathering clues about the house.

“When we began the restoration, we had to search out every bit of information because it had been nearly 50 years since a member of the Pfeiffer family lived in the house,” said Shannon. “There were no family photos, and the only remaining Pfeiffer relative we knew of was in her 90s.”

Taking oral histories about the Pfeiffers and their house from former housekeepers, Shannon began piecing together the jigsaw puzzle and reconstructing the furnishings and colors.

It wasn’t until Shannon located Beatrice Janes, now in her 90s and living in North Carolina, that the big pieces fell into place. Last year, Shannon and her husband, Howard, visited Janes, who had a role in “A Face in the Crowd.”

Janes loaned the project some of the Pfeiffers’ furniture and possessions, including a piano Janes’s son owned, that she acquired when she bought the house. Through the years, Piggott residents have collected furnishings from the Pfeiffer house at estate and junk sales. Now the town is giving it all back.

“People have given or sold us all sorts of stuff from all over the country,” said Shannon. “We have a lot of the original furnishings. The only thing lacking is (one of) the quilts that Mr. Pfeiffer bought during the Depression. No one has mentioned one of those to us.”

ASU hopes the historic house will be an educational resource, linking it with other Hemingway conferences and lectures, much the way the University of Mississippi links to its Faulkner connection. While Hawkins and Shannon realize Hemingway didn’t spend his entire life in Piggott, they hope Hemingway hounds will want to see where Hemingway and one of his muses spent time.

“This is an era in time that hasn’t been explored as history because it is so recent,” said Shannon. “But the 1930s was a fascinating period, and Hemingway was a fascinating man. Those two combined in a town that is rich in lore to create a rich asset for this area.”

[This story was originally published on May 23, 1999 in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Gregory Hemingway died in 2001 at age 69.]


Written by suziparker1313

July 21, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Posted in Arkansas, The South

One Response

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  1. Thanks for sharing this story Suzi. I am familiar with the Hemingway-Piggot connection but the story pulled together many lose threads. It is a lovely piece. Hopefully someday I will be able to visit Piggot and see the restoration.

    Thank you again,



    July 22, 2011 at 1:16 am

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