An introduction to Jane Mason's Safari. (Safari Special Section).
TWO YEARS AGO, at the beginning of the Hemingway Centennial, I began opening several steamer trunks belonging to my adoptive grandmother, Jane Kendall Mason, who had been close to Hemingway in the 1930s. The letters, telegrams, inscribed galley proofs, and handwritten drafts of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Light of the World" I found there became the substance of articles about the Mason-Hemingway relationship published in Vanity Fair (July 1999) and The Boston Review (February/March 2001).
Also piled in Jane's trunks and suitcases, in great disarray, were her own unpublished manuscripts, including Safari, her play about Africa here published for the first time. None of these manuscripts is likely to inspire one to a heroic championing of an unfairly neglected great American writer. Jane was an intelligent and complicated woman, frightfully self-mocking, with the wicked eye of a social satirist. She could turn a poignant or a lyrical line. But her work to me lacks the concentrated artistic focus--in Safari she calls it "discipline"--she lamented not having in life.
Yet Safari is fascinating both as a failed or unfulfilled (in art as in life) dream of a Society woman's escape from society, and, in contrast to Macomber, for the very different use it makes of the same materials with which Hemingway began one of his most challenging and critically debated stories.
It has long been accepted that Jane Kendall Mason was the model for Margot Macomber--what is maddening is how little that tells us either about Mrs. Macomber as a fictional character or about Jane and Hemingway's ambiguous relationship. Safari is more easily decoded by biography. In the fall of 1932--the year after Jane had begun a strong friendship and a serious flirtation, if not a full-fledged affair, with Ernest Hemingway in Havana--she became intensely infatuated with Richard Cooper, a British Army major who owned a coffee plantation in Tanganyika, in British East Africa, and had hunted all over the continent. They met on the S.S. Europa from New York to London. In London, though she was caught up in a society whirl, Jane's attentions were quickly drawn back to Cooper, whom she met again at a party. Jane's formidable mother, Betty Lawson Johnson, was on the alert-and intervened promptly to avert rumors, calling the romantic Major Cooper to instruct him never to see Jane again. Still, Jane drove Cooper to the airport for his return to Tanganyika, and was knocked breathless when he kissed her on the cheek and told her she was the only woman he would ever love in the world. "Wham just like that and he was gone" she wrote in a journal of very few entries (1932).
Cooper refused to recede entirely out of the picture, however--he sent Jane seven leopard skins for Christmas, volunteering more if she needed them for a coat. A few months later, he wrote that he had arranged with a friend to "shoot, cure, and send to you in Havana, six lyrewy stallion [zebra] skins. So you must be a terribly patient girl" (Undated letter).
Cooper, and by extension the wilds of Africa, had captured Jane's imagination. Already a capable hunter and sportswoman--the terra firma of her relation with Ernest--Jane began to talk about going on safari with the Hemingways. But she landed herself in the hospital first (apparently in a failed suicide attempt), so they went on ahead of her. Jane had helpfully introduced Ernest to Cooper, and Cooper communicated through Jane his advice about which guns Ernest should bring. He also contacted his friend Baron. Bror von Blixen and Blixen's partner Philip Percival at Tanganyika Guides. "Those fine guys Dick Cooper so damned kindly cabled to (Tanganyika Guides) wanted more than I could pay," Ernest wrote to Jane. "But Dick Cooper was damned nice to wire them and I want to pay him for the wire. It is fine for him to do you a favor but not to have to take on all your gory friends" (16 October 1933). Yet Jane and Cooper, concerned that the Hemingways avoid "those `no-good white hunters' which abound in Africa," as Jane wrote (1 November 1933), must either have pulled strings to get Tanganyika Guides to lower their rates or paid the difference, since "Blix" and "Pop" Percival not only became Hemingway's guides on safari but also his friends, and later, Jane's as well. Pauline wrote to Jane on hotel stationary from Arusha, forty miles west of Kilimanjaro, "Your friend Mr. Cooper is extremely well spoken of in these parts. Haven't been able to find out anything lousy about him at all." (1933)(In Safari, Percival is represented as "George Clarkson" Baron von Blixen as "Baron Von Ruppmall" and Karen Blixen [Isak Dinesen], cruelly, as "Tanya.")
It was not until 1935 that Jane finally made her own trip to Africa, leaving her husband behind. There she spent time on Cooper's farm, described by Hemingway biographer Michael Re)molds as "near Babiti within view of Lake Manyara's miles of pink and rose flamingoes" (165) and by Jane as "one of this world's lovely places" (Letter to the Hemingways, ca. 17 May 1935). She went out on safari accompanied--according to a letter from Archibald MacLeish to Hemingway--by fourteen men, including von Blixen and Pop Percival. On her return, the society columns reported that "besides bringing down several lions and tigers" Jane had "shot one of the few white zebras in existence" She wrote the Hemingways to say, "It was fine and I did love the whole trip. Though I was a little sorry that it was a bit on the luxie side," and to bring greetings from their friends in Africa: "`My Mr. Cooper' sent salutations and such, but I imagine Blix has given you all the tiresome details so I shant go into that. Pop sent his love and all but wept with rage and disappointment that due to a depleted exchequer he can't come over this year" (ca. 17 May 1935). Later, after a visit from Blix with his new wife Eva, she continued her letter in a melancholy mood--"I'm very sorry they're going for they seem the last link connecting me with the finest days I've ever had. You see' I really loved Africa" (ca. 17 May 1935)--and ended with "superlative" kudos for Green Hills of Africa, of which Ernest had sent her an inscribed set of galley proofs.
She also wrote to her "most honored darling,' almost certainly Cooper, a strikingly confessional, unguarded (and ultimately unsent) letter--perhaps one of her best and most honest pieces of prose writing. In it she described fearing she was "succumbing to the local brand of poison, an insidious, dreary poison--a lymphatic nasty poison--turning me slowly into a cow" and delineated her feeling for him as "perhaps not love exactly--something a little below it, and a little above it, but whatever it is something pretty damned strong" (19:35). And she wrote her psychiatrist, Lawrence Kubie, that Cooper was proposing marriage--contingent on his striking oil, for otherwise, how could he support such an expensive wife? Meanwhile Cooper sent her a shotgun "so beautifull that I'm like an infant about it. And have to break nails, and sit crooning over it every few minutes," she wrote to the Hemingways (29 June 1935). Yet within a couple of months she wrote them that "My Mr. C has come to some pretty odd conclusions which he wrote me and so I don't know where I'm atta" and went on, bravely, to a Safari-like chatter of gossip about their friends and acquaintances: Blikie, and Eva (who "had rubbed everyone the wrong way") and a "Margert E" who "behaved the way all the rich bastards always do" and George who "hasn't done anything about settling the farm debt and it looks as though D [Cooper] were hooked for upwards of 15 hundred pounds" (July 1935).
In Safari, with April Randolph as her alter ego, and Captain Philip ("Mitch") Mitchell as Major Richard Cooper, Jane experimented with the idea of leaving her husband and her superficial society life for Cooper and a more genuine life in Africa. Yet April is not exactly a proto-feminist heroine. Her role model is not the Isak Dinesen character--as one might expect, given that Jane was trying to be a writer, and that Tanya, not unlike Jane, is "addicted to physically dangerous adventures." Entirely self-sufficient, Tanya flies (and blithely crashes) her own plane and chooses her own lovers, but is portrayed as cynical and unfeeling, having despite her "extremely feminine appearance" a "rather masculine point of view." Instead, April's spiritual conversion comes about through the rather domestic Ann Jameson, who sews, works in the garden, knows how to cook, paints badly, and claims "the feeling of being helpfully important in one man's life" to be "so much more tangibly satisfactory than the eternal pursuit of happiness."
If Hemingway's "Macomber" is something of an existential take on courage, weakness, and the naked individual, Jane's is more an archetypally Romantic view on similar themes, a fantasy of finding the courage to leave behind the familiar and artificial in order to discover the authentic, "natural" life. Her play is relentlessly crowded with society; in Hemingway's work, there's a sense of expanses of space surrounding the words, even in dialogue--of Man alone in Nature. Yet one wonders which is the more realistic portrait of what a safari was like in those days, Jane's or Hemingway's. Jane's Safari has not only a pained social awareness but also an emergent social conscience: the death of the African "boy" through the stupidity and arrogance of the American movie star and his society moll stands like a stark black and white documentary photograph amidst the waving peacock feathers of the rest of the play. The callousness of the tourists' response was not unfamiliar to Jane--no doubt she'd seen it both in Africa and at home in Cuba. She herself could be soft-hearted and extravagantly generous, and would bail out people she knew down on their luck. Yet she could also be callous, or could play at it as convincingly as any other woman of her class, joking with the Hemingways about "getting a liberal education on the matter of how the other half lives, personally I'd rather hot have to know.... as for the [Cuban] rebels being shot in the back when running that can't be helped either. It's a pity, sometimes, and then again sometimes its the making of 'em" (1 November 1933).
The dilemma of where she belonged as a woman in a treacherous and ineluctable network of social relationships is the central dilemma of Safari. "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" tells, of course, a very different story. Margot Macomber is both sexually powerful and utterly dependent: on her beauty, on her husband's money. She is, to the narrator, attractively both weak and strong. This erotic power play, set against the "eat or be eaten" forces of nature, of aggression and dominance, becomes the raw theme of the story. If, like Jane or like April, Mrs. Macomber is actually in the grips of a profound identity crisis, involving the battle between immoral society and the morality of authentic individuality, that's of no interest to Hemingway's narrator.
It's not clear whether Jane ever showed Ernest the play as she did with at least one of her short stories, but it seems unlikely she would have written it quickly enough to have shown it to Hemingway before he began "Macomber." They did correspond about her writing. In 1934, Jane took a correspondence course in short story writing from Columbia University in New York and wrote the Hemingways, "As for the writing I have one piece which may or may not, turn into something which could double for a portion of tepid hash with an underdone egg. It's all about that little prince of photogaphy, our Cecil [Beaton, who had photographed Jane for Vogue]" (30 September 1934). Hemingway took the trouble to edit one of Jane's short stories, which she submitted to The New Yorker under his suggested title: "A High Wind-less Night in Jamaica." The New Yorker turned it down, Jane wrote to Ernest, "saying that I seemed to have been reading a great deal of Maugham and Hemingway.... I suppose I shall have to wait until I am (if ever) better known and then get it published. No insult to you intended" (ca. 17 May 1935). Mixing solicitousness with warning, Hemingway continued to ask after Jane's work: "How are you going? I mean writing? It is a tough racket, daughter. Gingrich wrote a book and the publishers turned it down. He had written me how good it was and how fine he felt.... It was terrible" (24 August 1935). Perhaps the rejection of her short stories, combined with the success of her good friend Clare Booth Luce's 1936 play, "The Women," encouraged Jane to try her hand at playwriting.
Yet Jane and Ernest talked about Africa, and almost certainly about such principles of sportsmanship as not shooting from cars, and about Jane's marital dilemma. Hemingway began "Macomber" not after his own safari in Africa in 1934, but within a year of Jane's return from hers, completing the story in April 1936 (Smith 328). His information about her marriage and her love affair with Cooper and his image of her on safari undoubtedly fed into his creation of "Macomber." Maybe he thought he was writing Jane's own wish--getting her out of her marriage, and characterizing Cooper as an unfeeling cad for good measure. He sent her a complete handwritten draft, in what mood we don't know--teasing, sympathetic, jealous of her involvement with Cooper, all of the above?--but she apparently took it in good humor.
Safari carries no date, though a clip of a newspaper society column tucked in the back of the bound manuscript has an ad with the year 1938. (In the context of Safari, the jaunty mention of Jane's appearance at a Washington, D.C. event in the society column is poignant: "Mrs. Grant Mason's evening slippers did not match ON PURPOSE. One was red and the other was green.")
Safari may well have been Jane's attempt to reclaim her own story after "Macomber." If so, it was an ambivalent reclamation--Jane erased her own name on the cover and title page of at least one copy of the play so intently that the paper is gouged and almost torn. In a 1939 diary she wrote, filled with self-loathing: "I get sick inside at the very thought of the play--which I should be working on now this very second--yes and dreary at the thought of all the people who have crowded my precious days on earth, with their needs, their thoughts, and their love. It's depressing and makes me feel a monstrous sort of creature how little difference they really make to me--any of them. Maybe Emily Dickenson [sic] and the few like her, are right to remove themselves from the world. Thoughts certainly come only in solitude. The rest is only their pale reflection. Sometimes I cant, for the life of me, help being distrait knowing that what I'm saying is dull and stupid beyond words that were I the other person I should think, `Lord what a vapid fool this woman is.'"
Jane probably intended to rework this draft of the play and never got around to it. Yet Safari does allow "Margot Macomber" to have her own say about the lure of the passions as opposed to wealth, society, and a passionless marriage. And how often does a literary character, especially a woman created by a man, get to have her own reply--not through the imagination or reconstruction of later scholars, but in her own words?
In Safari, Jane satirizes the idle rich as mercilessly as Ernest does, but if anything, it sometimes seems Hemingway is more forgiving about the gendered prison in which Mrs. Macomber herself is trapped--while Jane gives her alter-ego more choice and more responsibility in the matter. The bravery her protagonist, April, is after is not an existential or "manly" courage but a moral one; the weakness she despises in herself is not the weakness of being dominated or afraid, but the weakness of needing others to tell her who she is and what she's worth. Even in fantasy, April can only imagine being valuable in terms of her "helpfulness" to another, a man. (The desire to be useful being a moral urge, one might argue, especially tricky for women to negotiate, bound as it is by social expectation and convention and limited here, too, by romantic fantasy and therefore stillborn.) April is defined as the opposite of Tanya, who is simply untroubled by the existence of other people, thus amoral--by lane's definition, "unfeminine."
Even if she didn't embody them in characters as convincing as Hemingway's, even if she didn't find satisfactory answers, Jane seems to have been asking serious questions about one's responsibility to oneself and to other people (although interestingly, April's decision is uncomplicated by factors comparable to the realities of Jane's own life: the two adopted boys Jane had at home, or the positive feelings Jane seems to have had for her still young and active husband).
In "Macomber" meanwhile, the essential question of Margot's character is either grossly simplified or skillfully elided, embodied not in thought but in action--we never know whether Margot Macomber has shot to save her husband, or to save herself, and we suspect she doesn't know either.
It's not clear whether Jane couldn't take the step toward "authenticity" she imagined in Safari--or whether, in writing Safari, she did decide to take it, only to find that Cooper had changed his mind. Cooper kept photos of Jane until his death (he drowned in Africa); his granddaughter had one of them on her bedroom wall without knowing Jane's name until she saw the article in Vanity Fair. She believes that her grandfather wanted to marry Jane, but he wanted children and understood that she couldn't have any. Jane would later blame her life's unhappiness, her failure to find fulfillment, not on lack of "discipline" or moral choice or on social pressure, but on unforgiving nature: her infertility.
Jane did leave her husband--for the chairman of the Republican Party, John Hamilton, with whom she tried to live her ideal of the pastoral life on a farm in Pennsylvania that she bought with her divorce settlement money. But instead of feeling "helpfully important" she drank herself into stupors in which she would pass out at dinner, and began a new affair in New York. Another two husbands later, at the end of her life, she still, or again, had a photo of Cooper by her bedside. Her time in Africa did seem to be the time when she had felt most herself. But unlike April, she did not find the end of her "safari" her long spiritual journey there, or, it would seem, anywhere on this earth.
Cooper, Richard. Letter to Jane Mason. Date Unknown. Private Collection.
Hemingway, Ernest. Letters to Jane Mason. 16 October t933 and 24 August 1935, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.
Mason, Mane Salierno. "A Comedy with Animals: Ernest Hemingway, Jane Kendall Mason, and `The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.'" The Boston Review (February-March 2001):23-26.
--. "To Love and Love Not" Vanity Fair (July 1999):108-118+.
Mason, Jane Kendall. Diary. 1939. John F. Kennedy Library. Boston, MA.
--. Letter to Richard Cooper. "2 a.m. Thursday 16th." . John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA.
--. Letters to Ernest and Pauline Hemingway. 1 November 1933, 30 September 1934, ca. 17
May 1935, 29 June 1935, and July 1935. John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA. Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930s. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Smith, Paul. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989.
ALANE SALIERNO MASON Brooklyn New York