Last week, I attended a writer’s conference in Piggott, Arkansas.
You can’t imagine my surprise when I learned that author Ernest Hemingway once lived in the rural Arkansas town, and that the conference would be hosted by the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center.
Yes, that Ernest Hemingway—author of Farewell to Arms, The Sun also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . the list goes on. In fact, the list is so long Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
So what’s the connection? What possible ties could the world-renowned author have to a cotton-growing town in Northeast Arkansas? Hemingway is known for his exotic trips to Paris, Madrid, Havana, and Key West, but Piggott?
Yep. Seems a wealthy family from St Louis moved to Arkansas in the early twentieth century. Originally from Iowa, the Pfeiffers were pharmaceutical entrepreneurs who moved to Piggott in 1913. Their daughter, Pauline, became a journalist and foreign correspondent for Vogue magazine.
Yes, Vogue magazine. Who sent her to glamorous Paris where she met Hemingway. They became friends, married in 1927, and spent time visiting her parents in Piggott.
The Center includes the Pfeiffer’s Colonial Revival home and a barn-studio in which Hemingway wrote portions of Farewell to Arms.
It’s jaw-dropping. As I entered Hemingway’s studio, light filtered through the upstairs window of the cozy barn loft onto the smooth-planked floor. A table and chairs sat in one corner, an antique dining hutch leaned against the wall, and a zebra rug covered the floor. Straight ahead sat the desk: golden wood with one middle drawer, a black manual typewriter, a desk lamp, leather portfolio, and pipe holder.
The strangest display I’ve ever seen loomed behind the desk. It’s wasn’t the Nobel, but a collection of safari trophies, representative of Ernest and Pauline’s travels to Africa. A black water buffalo, an ivory elephant tusk, a young female lion, and gazelle-like impalas encircled the walls. The display reflected the brash Hemingway everyone knows, the legend that inspired casual men’s clothing and Caribbean-styled furniture.
Hemingway lived large. His writings, travels, four wives, drinking problem, and sad death attest to that.
But the Pfeiffer’s story is what really stayed with me. Although their beautiful home and obvious wealth must have turned heads in the humble town, they are remembered by the locals with respect and gratitude.
During the height of the depression, while Hemingway and Pauline trekked through Africa, his in-laws quietly helped the needy in Clay County.
There is a room in the home that once held hundreds of quilts. During the depression, word spread that Paul Pfeiffer would buy any quilt brought to him by local women. Paul purchased and stored the quilts, then turned around and donated them to needy families.
When historians at Arkansas State began restoring the home in 1997, they discovered over forty coats of depression-era paint. The reason? Desperate fathers, too proud to ask for money, would ask Paul Pfeiffer if he had any work. Not believing in hand-outs, Mr. Pfeiffer often gave them a job—painting his house.
The Pfeiffers and Hemingway are now gone. Like all of us, the choices they made and their deeds reflect the lives they lived.
Hemingway’s works are preserved in novels, short stories, and other literary writings.
The Pfeiffers’ works live on through the families that received help during desperate times. They are the survivors who endured hardship and lived long enough to pass on the American dream to generations yet to come.