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A British aristocrat inspired Hemingway to write his memorable femme fatale in “The Sun Also Rises”

Magda Origjanska

The Sun Also Rises is probably Ernest Hemingway’s most autobiographical novel. Published in 1926, it captured the turmoil of life after World War I and its disastrous effects on what Gertrude Stein dubbed “the lost generation.” Moreover, it presents elements that defined Hemingway’s life as an American expatriate in Paris during the 1920s. By adding autobiographical features to his novel, Hemingway gave a tangible, realistic dimension to the plot, accurately reflecting society of the time. The novel is largely based on actual events that Hemingway experienced along with his group of friends.

The narrator is Jake Barnes, a character who resembles Hemingway as a cynical writer and World War I veteran. Barnes and his friend Robert Cohn live the Lost Generation lifestyle, drifting from one drunken escapade to another. Through Barnes, Hemingway described, in essence, his own trip to Spain. He begins the novel in Paris, providing biographical information for Mike Campbell, Brett Ashley, and Robert Cohn, all of them based on the histories of his friends Pat Guthrie, Harold Loeb, and one beguiling lady.

Ernest Hemingway’s passport photo, 1923.

Ernest Hemingway’s passport photo, 1923.

The name of the lady was Lady Duff Twysden and she was no less than Hemingway’s real-life inspiration for Lady Brett Ashley, the femme fatale of The Sun Also Rises.

Not much is known about Duff, because contrary to the clique of publicity-seeking expats who had even a slightest Hemingway connection, she left no diaries or memoirs. The little of what is known about this tricky person has been pieced together through the writings of her contemporaries.

Hemingway (left), with Harold Loeb, Duff Twysden (in hat), Hadley Hemingway (his first wife), Donald Ogden Stewart (obscured), and Pat Guthrie (far right) at a café in Pamplona, Spain, July 1925. Twysden, Loeb, and Guthrie inspired the characters Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and Mike Campbell in “The Sun Also Rises.”

Hemingway (left), with Harold Loeb, Duff Twysden (in hat), Hadley Hemingway (his first wife), Donald Ogden Stewart (obscured), and Pat Guthrie (far right) at a café in Pamplona, Spain, July 1925. Twysden, Loeb, and Guthrie inspired the characters Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn, and Mike Campbell in “The Sun Also Rises.”

She was British and her title was acquired through a short-lived marriage. In 1925, while recovering from her bad divorce, she met Hemingway in Paris. She was described as “walking elegance” and “a stylish little creature,” even though she was already notorious for her heavy drinking and gambling. The writer Donald Ogden Stewart recalled: “We were all in love with her. It was hard not to be. She played cards so well.”

Lady Duff swept men off their feet with her alluring looks, wit, and artistic sensitivity. She addressed as “darling” each of her admirers, probably because she found it hard to remember so many names. Several writers considered her a muse for their writing, but Hemingway was the one who “materialized” his infatuation. In The Sun Also Rises, Brett and Barnes are in love with each other but can’t have a romance because an injury during the war rendered him impotent. In the novel, he functions as an arranger of her romances–and is described as functioning as her pimp in one of the story’s many tense scenes–and rescues her after she decides to leave a much-younger bullfighter she has seduced.

Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1922.

Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in 1922.

When Hemingway met Duff, he was married to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, but reportedly he was completely enchanted by her. Simultaneously, Hemingway was desperately trying to find material for his debut novel. So that summer he headed to Pamplona, Spain, seeking inspiration. He was amply rewarded when Lady Duff joined him with not one but two of her lovers. He instantly had the perfect anti-heroine, provoking much bacchanalian jealousy and endless drama.

The story goes that one day, when Duff came to lunch with a black eye and bruises earned in a scrap with her lover Pat Guthrie, Hemingway became so enraged that he got into a fight with her other lover, Harold Loeb. Duff drove mad herself, Hemingway, and everyone else around her. Hemingway saw the basis for his new story. Every bit of insult or unrequited longing became serious material for the novel The Sun Also Rises, which he began once Hemingway left Pamplona and he finished in just six weeks.

Cafe Iruna, Pamplona. Hemingway described it on several occasions in the book. Just like his character Jack Barnes, Hemingway was a regular drinker in the Cafe Iruna during the San Fermin festivities. A swarthy statue of Hemingway now stands near the bar, commemorating his favorite spot in the cafe. Author: Juantiagues. CC By 2.0.

Cafe Iruna, Pamplona. Hemingway described it on several occasions in the book. Just like his character Jack Barnes, Hemingway was a regular drinker in the Cafe Iruna during the San Fermin festivities. A swarthy statue of Hemingway now stands near the bar, commemorating his favorite spot in the cafe. Author: Juantiagues. CC By 2.0.

Soon after the release of the book, Brett Ashley became a lifestyle icon to women who enjoyed living in the fast lane. The expat writer Malcolm Cowley stated that: “Young women of good families took a succession of lovers in the same heartbroken fashion as the heroine.”

Very little about Lady Brett Ashley was fictional, as Hemingway used Lady Duff’s background in detail, from her failed marriage to her heavy drinking to her physicality, particularly her boyish “Eton crop” haircut.

Hemingway named his character Romero after Pedro Romero, shown here in Goya’s etching Pedro Romero Killing the Halted Bull (1816).

Hemingway named his character Romero after Pedro Romero, shown here in Goya’s etching Pedro Romero Killing the Halted Bull (1816).

The lady herself was not flattered. Reportedly, Lady Duff was appalled by the portrait, calling the novel “cruel,” “cheap reporting,” and “a nasty trick” played by Hemingway on her and the others. According to her, she and the other people whose lives were co-opted for the dramatic purposes of the book became estranged for a period before and after the book was published.

The second floor of the restaurant Botin in Madrid, which Hemingway describes in the book as the best restaurant in the world. Botin is presently regarded as the oldest restaurant in the world.

The second floor of the restaurant Botin in Madrid, which Hemingway describes in the book as the best restaurant in the world. Botin is presently regarded as the oldest restaurant in the world.

A little over a decade after the novel was published, Lady Duff Twysden died from tuberculosis, at the age of 46. She died in the arms of her second husband, Clinton King, with whom she was happily married and lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Read another story from us: After Ava Gardner swam naked in Hemingway’s pool, he supposedly ordered that the water never be changed

When Hemingway heard the news of her death, he told his friend A. E. Hotchner: “Brett died in New Mexico. Call her Lady Duff Twysden, if you like, but I can only think of her as Brett.”