When the book was released a year later, Brett Ashley became something of a lifestyle icon to girls who reveled in her dissolute glamour. “Young women of good families took a succession of lovers in the same heartbroken fashion as the heroine,” recalled expat writer Malcolm Cowley.
But Lady Duff was reportedly aghast by the portrait. In the years that followed, she was said to call the novel “cruel” and added that Hemingway had played a nasty trick on her and the others. In her opinion, it was nothing more than an example of “cheap reporting.” For her and the other people whose lives and misfortunes had been co-opted the book, life could now be divided into two categories: “B.S.” (Before Sun.) and “A.S.” (After Sun).
In the years that followed, she was said to call the novel “cruel” and added that Hemingway had played a nasty trick on her.
Readers of The Sun Also Rises likely suspect that the character Lady Brett Ashley was not destined for happiness. After all, as Hemingway wrote in Sun, she and the others belonged to a Lost Generation: without hope, beyond redemption.
Lady Duff Twysden did not fare badly, on the other hand, although she died tragically a little over a decade after Sun was released. After her divorce came through, she married Clinton King, a young Texan artist and heir to a candy fortune. This might have given Duff some security at last, but his family, displeased by their union, cut him off following their wedding. The couple stayed together anyway, and were reportedly happy. They returned to North America for a decade “A.S.”, drifting from New York City to Mexico to Santa Fe.
The Kings elicited mixed reactions there “on account of their drinking and lewdness,” noted Santa Fe-based poet Witter Bynner. (Duff was apparently virtuosic in the art of swearing and had a repertoire of indecent music hall songs.) That said, Bynner conceded that Duff was “witty and hearty on the uptake and a swell yelper over puns,” and added that she had remained “lankly handsome.” It was known in the Santa Fe community that Hemingway had based Lady Brett Ashley on Duff; her neighbors occasionally referred to her as “Brett” or even “the Duff-Brett woman.”
Duff would spend her final days in the city. In 1938, while in Texas, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Kings returned to Santa Fe, where Duff was placed in a sanatorium. “She looks as frail as a dried sea horse but maintains the gallant sparkle,” Bynner reported to a friend. He predicted that the disease would keep her hospitalized for a year and might even kill her.
She died just 22 days after this prediction was made, on June 27, 1938, at the age of 46. While Lady Brett Ashley would forever live on as the model of unconventional glamour, “Mrs. Duff Stirling King” was listed as a “housewife” on her death certificate.
News of her death filtered back to Hemingway, who once again could not resist taking liberties with her life narrative. “Brett died in New Mexico,” he told his friend A. E. Hotchner years later. “Call her Lady Duff Twysden, if you like, but I can only think of her as Brett.”
All of “Brett’s” pallbearers had been her former lovers, he went on; one of these gentlemen slipped while holding the coffin, which then crashed to the ground and cracked open. (In reality, Duff had been cremated, and no funeral was held.) When Hotchner repeated the ghoulish story in his 1966 book Papa Hemingway, it created a minor sensation and added another ignoble chapter to the already notorious fictionalized life story of Lady Duff Twysden.
Clinton King outlived Duff by more than 40 years, and when I was researching Everybody Behaves Badly, I worked hard to track down remnants from his estate. I hoped for photos of Duff, letters, paintings by her (she was a supposedly a passable artist)—anything.
After Duff’s death, King had married again, this time to Chicago meat-packing heiress Narcissa Swift. Swift’s niece told me that she had been jealous of Duff and likely made Clinton dispose of any memorabilia pertaining to his former wife, news that made my heart sink. It seemed I would have little luck in finding any tangible remainders from her life.RELATED STORYParis, Through the Eyes of Hemingway’s Assistant
Then, one afternoon, I received an email from a Santa Fe gentleman who had been charged with handling items from Ms. Swift King’s estate, which contained remnants of Clinton’s papers and effects as well. Most of those materials had been sold or “liquidated” before I had contacted him. However, this fellow still had a few boxes of materials in a basement, and had kindly combed through them for me—and came across an astonishing image.