Pauline Pfeiffer’s Folly

by Anne Whitehouse

“It lights up at night …so the pool must be visible to Mars.” -Elizabeth Bishop


Some said Pauline did it to spite Hem,

others said she did it to lure him back

by making him an oasis,

a beautiful deep swimming pool

on a barrier island next to the sea,

its cool, silken waters

a refuge from heat behind a house

that had withstood 150 years of tropical storms.

In 1938 it cost a fortune to build

and fill—over eight feet deep

at one end and four feet at the other—

with 80,00 gallons of sea water.

The digging had to be done by hand

with picks and sledgehammers,

excavating through limestone

and remnants of ancient coral reefs

studded with shells.

Hemingway was off at war in Spain,

chasing the next journalist

who would become his third wife.

He opted for danger and discomfort,

picked fights, smashed up in accidents.

He fell in love with Pauline

when he was married to Hadley,

and he never forgave her

for that first divorce.

He complained her breasts

were too small, her hips too narrow.

He wanted daughters, but he got sons.

In her difficult childbirths, he abandoned her.

He fled the home she made for him.

Their children he grudgingly loved.

She was stylish and witty,

smart and charming,

she knew what he needed

to produce his best writing,

and she was rich—

a powerful aphrodisiac

he pretended didn’t attract him,

because he couldn’t admit

how much it mattered.

Anything he couldn’t resist,

he disparaged.

When he came back to Key West

and saw the pool, all he could think of

was its cost. He reportedly threw

a penny at her in accusation,

“You spent my last red cent.”

But it was her money.

It was always her money.

He put a urinal from Sloppy Joe’s

next to her pool to offend her.

She converted it into a fountain,

topped by an earthenware jug

faced with ceramic tile,

and planted with flowers.

In their war, there were no winners,

only losers.

Maybe she really loved him

against all reason,

but he couldn't accept it,

because he didn’t love her.

A miserable husband

and a worse father,

he spoke of himself as a prize,

but brought her only grief.

For her devotion to him,

she earned her sons’ enmity,

an early death, and an unmarked grave.

Maybe she built the pool

only a little to win him back

and only a little to spite him.

Maybe she did it for herself,

to create something extravagant,

unnecessary, and sublime

for her own pleasure.

At night, when the sea breezes

stirred the heavy leaves of the tropical trees,

and the scent of jasmine wafted in the warm air,

she would turn on the lights in the pool,

so bright they outshone the lighthouse next door,

and swim with her friends

in green luminescence under the stars.


Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections: most recently Meteor Shower (Dos Madres Press).