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10 Tempestuous Writerly Romances

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Hemingway believed “the best writing [happens] when you are in love,” which might explain his serial marriages, while others found that romantic tumult spurred their creativity. Norman Mailer’s editor even claimed he needed violence to work up the courage to write. For them and eight other writers featured below, turbulent real-life relationships rivaled the dramas that played out on the page.

1. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe

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The playwright’s rose-tinted glasses came off just two weeks after marrying the blonde bombshell when he witnessed her Jekyll & Hyde transformation on a movie set. Marilyn’s demanding behavior and explosive temper, fueled by booze and pills, thrust him into the reluctant roles of caretaker, psychiatrist, parent, and apologist. Miller didn’t produce a single work during their five-year marriage, instead becoming “the most talented slave in the world,” according to Norman Mailer. After Marilyn’s death, he wrote two thinly veiled plays about their turbulent relationship.

2. Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn

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Before tying the knot with journalist Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway made her sign a mock contract promising she wouldn’t leave him to go on assignment since he couldn’t stand being alone. Turns out, it was no joke. When his willful wife continued to report on the events of World War II rather than play happy homemaker with him, Hemingway saw red. “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” he petulantly cabled to Martha during one of her stints in the field. Despite his efforts to sabotage her career by literally stealing her job, Martha persevered with her career and ditched her demanding husband.

3. Tennessee Williams and Pancho Rodriguez

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Tennessee Williams’ affair with Pancho Rodriguez, an attractive, macho hotel clerk, was doomed almost from the start. Ironically, 25-year-old Pancho, a decade younger than the writer, wanted a stable, committed partnership, while Williams refused to give up sex with other men. He also couldn’t tolerate his boyfriend’s insecurities, which often led to stormy rows. Pancho once tried to run Williams down with a car when he (rightly) suspected the playwright was returning from an assignation, but what finally made Williams give him the boot was when he tossed his typewriter out a hotel room window. Writing A Streetcar Named Desire at the time, the playwright transferred some of his boyfriend’s volatile tendencies into the brutish, short-tempered Stanley Kowalski.

4. Leo and Sophia Tolstoy

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When Leo Tolstoy penned the first line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he had no idea his own 50-year marriage would be immortalized as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Soon after finishing the novel, the mercurial writer experienced the mother of all midlife crises—but rather than resort to womanizing or flashy spending, he took a vow of poverty and chastity. Tolstoy’s radical transformation and devotion to his disciples led to fierce arguments with his long-suffering wife, Sophia. Ultimately, her spying and theatrics drove the writer away shortly before his death at a remote railway station.

5. Norman Mailer and Adele Morales

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Norman Mailer bedded Latina beauty Adele Morales within hours of meeting her, winning her over by quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. Adele should have run for cover, but instead she became wife number two and set in motion a life of spiraling tragedy. Years of domestic violence, alcoholism, and drugs culminated in a shocking act: Mailer stabbed Adele in the back, literally, during a drunken rage at a party. Despite spending a month in the hospital recovering, she refused to press charges (admitting later that she was too scared), and Mailer got off with just five years’ probation.

6. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

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By the time the Jazz Age pair staked a stretch of sand on the French Riviera, their marriage was already on shaky ground. Zelda rocked the boat further by nearly running off with a French aviator, who Scott threatened to challenge to a duel. The golden couple’s mutually destructive chemistry spurred them to dangerous heights, as they dared each other to cliff dive and undertake other reckless acts. After they returned stateside, Scott took up with teenage actress Lois Moran and flaunted the relationship in Zelda’s face. If this sounds like the plot of a novel, well, the drama offered plenty of fodder for Scott’s Tender is the Night.

7. T.S. Eliot and Vivienne Eliot

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After spending a miserable night in a deck chair during his honeymoon, married life only got worse for T.S. Eliot. He finally called it quits after 18 years, cowardly ending the relationship in a letter from his lawyer. Heartbroken, his unstable wife Vivienne resorted to stalking him and even attempted to place an ad in the Times personals imploring him to return home. Her desperate measures failed to win him back, and she was eventually committed to an asylum. Eliot later admitted, “To her the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” The bleak confessional poem was largely composed while he was being treated for his own breakdown in a Swiss sanitarium.

8. D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley

When D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley weren’t hitting each other, hurling dishes, or sparring in public, the pair had a hot and heavy sex life. Throughout their 15-year marriage, Frieda also indulged her libido elsewhere with her husband’s blessing, once seducing a Sicilian mule driver by stripping off her clothes and running naked through a vineyard. As the inspiration for Lady Chatterley and other characters, fiery Frieda believed she was equally deserving of the credit for her husband’s stories for having unleashed his passionate side.

9. Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara

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“Ours was a drink story, not a love story,” Caitlin Macnamara said of her marriage to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The pair met in a pub, where Thomas announced they would wed the moment he saw her. Their alcoholism and his rampant infidelities fueled Caitlin’s epic rages, sometimes leading her to bang her husband’s head against the floor so hard that he would pass out. When Thomas died at 39, after consuming a reported 18 whiskies, Caitlin lashed out at hospital nurses and pulled a four-foot crucifix from the wall before being hustled off in a straitjacket.

10. George Sand and Alfred de Musset

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Novelist George Sand courted controversy in 19th century France by writing racy novels, smoking cigars, cross-dressing, and dating younger men. Her on-again, off-again relationship with philandering poet Alfred de Musset took a dramatic turn during a trip to Italy when she dumped him for the physician who treated him for a mysterious ailment, likely an STD. When she returned to Paris, she reconciled briefly with the poet before breaking it off for good. As a parting gesture, she cut off her long, dark hair and sent it to him in a skull.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

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This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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