Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, called his fourth a “maggot of history,” and Mary Dearborn, a recent Hemingway biographer, dismissed Mary Welsh Hemingway as a “caretaker wife.” Timothy Christian cites these judgments in the acknowledgments at the end of his engaging biography Hemingway’s Widow—a wise move, since to open with such disparagement would introduce from the beginning a defensive, apologetic tone.

As Mary Hemingway’s first biographer, and as the author of his own first biography, Christian writes unburdened by precedent, bringing to Hemingway’s last marriage “a rare breath of fresh air,” as the late Hemingway scholar H. R. Stoneback puts it in his preface. How does he do it?

More than any other biographer or historian so far, Christian shows what...


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