The hero in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, is thrilled to go back in time to the 1920s, where he meets his literary idols Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and members of their circle. Today, many visitors to Paris fantasize about time-travelling to that golden age of jazz and gin and flappers and meeting these larger-than-life characters. But what were they really like? Are Woody Allen and Ernest Hemingway reliable guides to the so-called “lost generation”?
Commemorations of the First World War remind us that French, British, and Commonwealth soldiers who survived the war were often scarred by the experience, even if they were not maimed or blinded. Men who had fought in the trenches, if they came back at all, came back with horrific memories and possibly survivor guilt. And when they returned, many civilians resented them: why did you survive and not my son / brother / lover / friend / husband?
Meanwhile, young (often working-class) women who had taken on full-time employment during the war were being told that men needed their jobs and they should return to domestic life. But what was there left for them? Marriage was no longer a certainty; according to some estimates, they had about a one-in-ten chance of finding a husband, because of the death toll of young men in the war.1
The hectic pace of life in the 1920s, the jazz, the gin, and the flappers, reflected unease as much as release. And although the Americans had participated only in the last 18 months of the war and had not suffered the same catastrophic loss of life, they too felt the anxiety underneath the gaiety.
Ostensibly, this is why Gertrude Stein called those who were still young in the 1920s the “Lost Generation.” But were they really? It’s an odd epithet. In fact, Stein did not invent the expression. According to one account:
During one of their regular talks, Stein told Hemingway of having taken her Model T Ford to a garage to have the ignition repaired. The young mechanic who did the work bungled it in some way, and his patron scolded him for his incompetence. The young man had served in the war and the patron said to him in exasperation, “You are all a génération perdue.”
“That’s what you are,” Gertrude Stein assured Hemingway. “That’s what you all are. All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
Ernest began to object. “Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,” Stein said. “It does no good at all. You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”2
I’m not surprised Hemingway objected. He had come to Paris to find his voice as a writer – and he succeeded. So did many other writers and artists. Stein may have liked the sound of the expression, but it didn’t fit Hemingway, nor did it fit others he knew. Still, he used it as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Perhaps it was to please Stein. It was his first novel, after all, and he needed the goodwill of his influential friend.
I admit I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s work. Reading The Sun Also Rises, based on real events in 1925 in Paris and Spain, I cannot help thinking that with friends like Hemingway, nobody needed enemies. He depicts his contemporaries in a generally unfavourable light, while making the first-person narrator seem the only decent chap in the bunch.
But were they “lost”? The group that went to Pamplona, Spain, in 1925 is captured in a contemporary photograph. Who were these people? I went looking for them.
First on the left is Hemingway himself, looking smug and far from lost.
Next, in the background, with glasses and bow tie, sits an unsmiling Harold Loeb. He later wrote his own account of that trip to Spain. He seems to have risen above Hemingway’s unkind depiction of him in the character of Robert Cohn, who falls for the femme fatale, but is later ejected from the group. Loeb eventually became a successful writer and his only loss was that of the woman he had fallen for. But in the end, he was probably better off without her.
The femme fatale in question sits beside Hemingway. Lady Duff Twysden looks like a cat who has just polished off a tasty canary. She appears in the book as Lady Brett Ashley, sleek as a Bugatti, breaking hearts wherever she went, accustomed to having men pick up the tab for her. When she left Pamplona in 1925, her friends paid her hotel bill. As usual. Duff was not her real name. She was born Mary Smurthwaite. Early on she realized it wouldn’t do for a femme fatale, so she changed it.
In 1925, she was in the process of divorcing her second husband, Sir Roger Twysden. They had a seven-year-old son back in England, but she doesn’t seem to have considered him in her plans. Supposedly she was engaged to the man on the far right. But a few years after the photograph was taken, she met an American artist and moved to the United States with him instead.
Hemingway depicts her as a beautiful but aimless airhead, dependent on the narrator’s strong-shouldered support, but there was much more to her in real life. She had her flaws, but she wasn’t an airhead, and I wouldn’t call her lost.
Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s (then) wife, beams in the middle of the photograph. The book was dedicated to her, but she was written out of the narrative – that way, the narrator could openly express his attraction for Duff Twsden / Brett Ashley and still appear to be a swell guy. Hadley was certainly lost to literature in this book. She eventually parted from Ernest (in hindsight, a wise move) and married a well-respected journalist. She may have felt lost at the time, watching her husband dancing attendance on Duff, but she found herself in the end.
Only just visible beside Hadley is Donald Ogden Stewart, who went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter, and is probably best remembered for The Philadelphia Story. He appears in the book as the narrator’s buddy Bill, an affable fellow with no heartaches and no apparent inner life. He wasn’t lost.
And finally, on the far right is Patrick Stirling Guthrie, the one and only utterly lost person in the group. Hemingway immortalized him as “Mike Campbell” in The Sun Also Rises, and depicts some of Patrick’s real-life characteristics. (1) Mike is an undischarged bankrupt. So was Pat. (2) Mike receives an allowance from his family. Pat was indeed a remittance man. His bankruptcy papers list him as having “No occupation.” (3) Mike drinks heavily. That squares with the record. (4) Hemingway calls him “Scotch.” Well, his family was Scottish, although he was born in London and seems to have spent most of his life in England. (5) He was engaged to marry Duff. Hm, unclear. Others believe he was gay3 and he may just have been a convenient escort. He was a distant relative (fourth cousin) of Duff’s and it seems that they were emotionally close, but the real nature of their relationship is lost to history.
In 1927, two years after the trip to Spain and a year after the publication of his first novel, Hemingway noted in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald that Duff and Pat had parted company. Pat was rescued to some extent by an older American freelance journalist, Lorna Lindsley, who seems to have paid his debts and kept him out of trouble, at least for a while. But he died in 1932, aged 37, either by suicide or from a drug overdose; nobody is sure. And nobody seems to have cared, except his mother, who came to Paris to settle his affairs and pay off his debts.4
All the other characters have made some kind of mark on literary history, and been written up in various ways, from academic treatises to Wikipedia. Not Pat. He disappeared into oblivion, other than a short memoir about him by a barman who served him at the famous Dingo Bar on the rue Delambre.5 And most of that document is about Duff.
I found a few traces of Patrick in official records. His father was a merchant banker and MP who died in 1911 and his mother was the daughter of an Irish baronet; they were part of high-society London and owned an enormous house in London and a castle on the Isle of Mull. Pat was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Sandhurst, served in the First World War in the First Life Guards, a cavalry regiment, and became a lieutenant in 1915, when he was 20. The regiment served at Mons, Ypres, and Passchendaele and presumably Pat was there, too. If so, he must have had some appalling experiences. But in those days one didn’t talk about such things. He just drank a lot.
In a generation of hardy survivors, good-time girls, and emerging writers, most of whom found themselves in Paris, Pat was truly lost, poor fellow.
As for that hapless garage attendant, I hope he got his act together, bought out the patron, married, had a family, and lived a long and prosperous life. If only to prove Gertrude Stein wrong.
Text by Philippa Campsie; cinema still from http://theweek.com/article/index/251479/the-9-best-ways-to-time-travel-ranked; 1920s photograph from Wikipedia.
- Judith Mackrell, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 73.
- Lyle Larsen, Stein and Hemingway: The Story of a Turbulent Friendship, McFarland and Company, p. 52.
- Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 301.
- Apparently his mother was something of a character. When Patrick’s father died in 1911, she remarried, but later divorced, and ended her days living in Torosay Castle in Scotland with a Pekinese and a foul-mouthed parrot.
- James Charters, “Pat and Duff: Some Memories,” in Hemingway and the Sun Set, NCR/Microcard Editions, 1972, pp. 241–246.