IN A LETTER to a friend who had told him of a new love affair, Ernest Hemingway once wrote: "So you're in love again. Well, it's the only thing worth a damn to be. No matter how being in love comes out it's sure worth it all while it's going on." For Hemingway himself the state of "being in love" was almost constant, though he had the unfortunate habit of fixing his romantic attentions on different women at different times. Further, like the famous actress of whom it has been said that she could never sleep with a man without subsequently marrying him, Hemingway wanted to wed every woman with whom he became infatuated.

"As soon as the first stirrings of passion seized him," Bernice Kert writes, "he thought of marriage." The result was a turbulent and fundamentally unhappy domestic life that embraced four marriages and an uncertain number of proposals that were rejected or otherwise fended off. Hemingway's need for adoration and submission was so great that no single woman could fill it; what is genuinely remarkable, considering that he was impossibly demanding and unremittingly self-centered, is that he somehow managed to attract women of considerable intelligence and decency. Of them as a group Kert writes:

". . . the quality most common to the women was resilience. Their composite story seemed to be a study in relinquishment. For no matter what their degree of commitment, Hemingway could never sustain a long-lived, wholly satisfying relationship with any one of them. Married domesticity may have seemed to him the desirable culmination of romantic love, but sooner or later he became bored and restless, critical and bullying. The conflict between his yearning to be looked after and his craving for excitement and freedom was never resolved. Even so, he could not give up one woman until a new one was at hand; over a lifetime of wide-ranging correspondence he managed to communicate with--or about--his wives long after the intimacy had come to an end. And throughout, they displayed a generosity toward each other that was noteworthy."

No, it was more than noteworthy: it was extraordinary. These women seemed to understand that they were all veterans of the same war, and they regarded each other with the empathy that binds all who have been in combat. Falling in love with Ernest Hemingway seems to have been heaven, and being married to him seems to have been hell. Martha Gellhorn, who fell in love with him during the Spanish Civil War and married him in 1940, at first resisted his attentions but soon enough succumbed: "He was always at her side and a tower of strength. He understood war from experience, he spoke easy Spanish, he was her guide and teacher. And he was wonderful, funny company in those days."

But "those days" ended, for Gellhorn as for every other woman, soon after the tying of the knot. The exuberant, playful suitor turned into a petulant, bullying husband. After four years of marriage, Gellhorn learned that her husband had found a new woman: "This was the first time I had heard of Mary Welsh, and I was overjoyed. It meant he had to give me a divorce." And what of Mary Welsh, the last of the four wives? She was the one who stuck it out. When his eye fastened on the lissome and youthful form of Adriana Ivancich, she let the moment pass, determined "not to break up her marriage over Adriana." She put her famous husband ahead of herself: "By refusing to march out when he was so abusive, she lost something upon which there can be no price--her self- respect."

Of the other women in Hemingway's life, unquestionably the most appealing is Hadley Richardson, the first of his wives and the mother of the first of his three sons. She was older than he, shy and uncertain of her social and intellectual gifts, and when he left her for Pauline Pfeiffer she was at first devastated. Yet she soon seems to have recognized, utterly without rancor, that they were an odd match and that, furthermore, Hemingway "had, in the long run, been more of a help to Hadley than a hindrance"; ever thereafter Hemingway turned to "her generous spirit" when he was in need, and she always responded with alacrity.

Bernice Kert feels that Hemingway's extremely ambiguous relationships with women can be traced to his complex feelings about his dynamic, overbearing, rebellious, intellectually frustrated mother, Grace: "Ever since he had been his mother's 'precious boy' and then saw her divide her love among her other children, he wanted the woman in his life to stay in one place where he could always find her, and to put him first, all the time, ahead of anything else." Kert's analysis of the mother-son relationship deserves to be quoted at length:

"Ernest attacked Grace throughout his life for manipulating and dominating his father. But his own dominance of Hadley's life and his instinctive habit of putting his own needs ahead of hers, with Hadley as willing accomplice, were not so different from Grace Hemingway building the (family mansion) as a monument to herself or arranging Florida vacations for the sake of her art. Years earlier she had predicted that Ernest would be more like her than any of her other children. Both were restless and imaginative, with strong competitive instincts and the drive to dominate their environment. Ernest could never acknowledge this. The qualities that he thought admirable in a man--ambition, an independent point of view, defiance of his supremacy--became threatening in a woman. Ernest was interested in women for their sexuality, their companionship, and their tenderness, their capacity to serve his best interests. But he was made uncomfortable, was even angered, when they did not play out the traditional role assigned to them by society. He was convinced that his mother was guilty of such role reversal and was suspicious of any woman who reminded him of her."

In The Hemingway Women, Kert brings Grace Hemingway out of the closet into which her son so coldly and self-servingly shoved her. She is revealed not as the harridan who henpecked her husband and denigrated her son, but as a woman quite considerably ahead of her time whose desire for artistic fulfillment was thwarted by the conventions of middle-class society. Though this is an interpretation that suits today's feminist climate, Kert outlines it so clearly and persuasively that she conveys no impression of imposing today's values on yesterday's history; rather, she leaves little doubt that previous writers about Hemingway, most of them men, have been all too willing to accept without serious judgment his condescending view of the woman who made him what he was.

Otherwise, The Hemingway Women is carefully researched and competently written but considerably longer than necessary. Plot summaries of Hemingway's novels and short stories really are not necessary to a study such as this, nor are recapitulations of biographical details that are already woefully familiar to anyone who knows anything about Hemingway; the book could have been cut by 200 pages and nothing would have been missed. But Kert can be forgiven this excess because she brings to her account a genuinely generous and forgiving spirit: not merely is she sympathetic toward each of these women, but she allows Hemingway his manifold flaws while acknowledging his virtues. Such wise omniscience is as rare these days in biography as it is in everything else, and thus doubly welcome when it appears.