Great love stories are not uncommon to Italy, northern Italy in particular. Among the earliest and perhaps most celebrated is that of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s enduring tribute to his young, star-crossed lovers from Verona. Not far from where the doomed couple met--and met their ends--sits Venice, a city whose twisty canals and moody weather, magic and mystery, make an ideal setting for love—and literature as well. Next month, Knopf will publish Autumn in Venice: Ernest Hemingway and his Last Muse, Andrea di Robilant’s fifth non-fiction book—a little known love story about the aging writer and the young woman who resuscitated his career in the mid 20th century.
Venice born Di Robilant’s latest work relies primarily on unpublished letters from Hemingway to Adriana Ivancich, who was still a teenager when they met in 1948 at a duck shooting party outside of Venice—as well her correspondence to him. It was a passionate friendship that lasted eight years. Hemingway, nearing 50 at the time, married to his fourth wife, Mary, with a writing career, if not in decline then in remission, says he felt as though “lightening had struck” when he first met Adriana. She was an innocent young woman who had gone to Catholic schools and had limited world experience. But “she was flirty and adventurous,” says di Robilant, adding that “she didn’t know who he was.”
Over the following years, the affair “took over his life,” according to di Robilant. The couple spent time together, not just in Venice, but in Paris, and at Hemingway’s compound in Cuba. She was his muse, prompting Hemmingway to produce some of his best work, including the Pulitzer-prize winning Old Man and The Sea. “Adriana made all this possible” says di Robilant, “No question in my mind, she revived Hemingway’s writing.”
Di Robilant, whose Venetian great uncle was among Hemingway’s circle of bon vivants, can’t answer the question that remains unresolved despite his 300-page book with its ample bibliography. Was theirs a love affair? “I don’t know from the letters if it was a sexual relationship but it was close and intimate. Maybe when they were alone in Paris, they had sex,” he says, adding “they write to each other as lovers.”
Di Robilant is, however, sure of another conclusion regarding their involvement: The relationship and its resulting scandal in Venice —the Italian newspapers implored Hemingway to end it- destroyed Ivancich’s life. In later years, she suffered from depression, was treated with “crude electro-shock treatment” and despite two marriages and two sons, hung herself in l983. (Hemingway committed suicide in 1961).
This book is not di Robilant’s first brush with lovers in Venice nor is it his first work of creative non-fiction based on letters. In 2003, the former journalist wrote A Venetian Affair, the story of another clandestine relationship, this time set in the 18th century. The subject of this true-life romance is di Robilant’s ancestor Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, the illegimate daughter of an English baronet. A Venetian Affair (Knopf, 20013) grew out of letters that di Robilant’s father, Count Alvise di Robilant, found in the attic of the family palazzo. He became obsessed with the letters but then in 1997 was brutally murdered. The elder di Robilant’s death had nothing to do with the letters, but his son felt it was his his duty to take up his father’s mission of piecing together the story of his ancestor. “I didn’t intend to create a book as much as to create a vessel for the wonderful material,” di Robilant says. “The book was more a homage to my father.”
A Venetian Affair, which was a New York Times notable book, established di Robilant as a writer of note on both sides of the Atlantic. The book’s success had much to do with “ the intimate knowledge” a writer gets from reading people’s letters, says di Robilant. “You know them closely, you understand what they know. Perhaps, more importantly”, he continues, “You accept them. You don’t judge them as immoral or obnoxious.” Using letters for his writing, he says, allows him to work in much the same ways as he did as a journalist. “I always situate myself as a researcher. If the letters have this much goddamn good stuff, it would make a good yarn,” he says.
Finding a treasure trove of letters and then securing the rights to use them isn’t all that easy, however. Researching Autumn in Venice, di Robilant discovered that the Hemingway Foundation controls access to most of the late writer’s correspondence and is notoriously reluctant to allow their usage before its own publication in the future. Ivancich’s letters to Hemingway were sold to the JFK Library in Boston, di Robilant learned from her brother who lives in Venice. With the help of his publisher, di Robilant purchased the U.S. publication rights for $4,800, and paid about the same amount for a later Italian edition. “Knopf held my hand throughout the process,” he says. “Without permission, I would never have written the book.”
Di Robilant writes his drafts in English, longhand for the first draft—and then translates the text into Italian. Though Italian is his first language, he was educated in the United States, earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in international politics at New York’s Columbia University. He worked for decades as a journalist for Italian newspapers in America, including a stint as bureau chief of La Stampa in Washington, D.C. Though he has homes in Venice and Rome, he spends most of his time in the latter, in an apartment he shares with his wife near the MAXXI museum. He teaches four classes a week at two American universities in Rome and reserves two days for researching and writing his books.
Over his writing career, he has published three more titles with direct links to his long-reaching Venetian roots: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon is a biography of the author’s ancestor, Lucia Mocenigo and, according to him, a better written book than the more highly-acclaimed Venetian Affair that preceded it; Irresistible North is the tale of the two Venetian navigators and brothers, Nicolo and Antonio Zen, who sailed the North Atlantic at the end of the 14th century; Chasing the Rose documents his own delight-filled romp thru the European countryside and several hundreds of years of history in search of a particular pink rose, a gift to his great-great-great-great grandmother from Josephine Bonaparte, that grows wild on the family’s former country estate.
Di Robilant defiantly says, “I am not a Venetian. I am not a Roman.” He prefers to call himself “a transatlantic creature,” though he adds, “America is no longer the magnet for Europeans that it once was. The experiences of the past two years have tested the soundness of American institutions, proving them vulnerable”. Then again, he notes, the same could be said of Italy. “Europe is on the brink of undoing itself or consolidating itself. It’s been a pretty damn good road thus far. It would be madness to wreck it.” In the meantime --or until Rome burns, di Robilant is banking on the world still loving a love story.
Carrie Tuhy is a writer and journalist in New York City