July 2, 1961: On this day in 1961 Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at the age of sixty-one. There have been five suicides in the Hemingway family over four generations — Hemingway’s father, Clarence; siblings Ursula, Leicester and Ernest; granddaughter Margaux. The generation skipped was just barely: Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria, of causes that put a lot of strain on the term “natural.”
Leicester’s 1961 memoir, My Brother, Ernest Hemingway, takes the destroyed-but-not-defeated view of Hemingway’s suicide. Having hunted with his big brother, and heard him talk about giving animals “the gift of death,” Leicester believes that Hemingway chose to give it to himself. Greg categorizes his father’s death as “semi-voluntary,” an act born of lifelong defiance and momentary delusion.
Whatever the truth of the death, Greg’s Papa: A Personal Memoir recalls interesting snapshots of the life. Some of these reflect gentle love, and sometimes humor: Greg recalls the time Hemingway, in one of his arm-around-shoulder moods, congratulated him for his fine attempt at a short story, which Greg had cribbed word for word from Turgenev — one of the masters his father liked to think he knew, and “beat.” But many other moments cast a shadow, one long enough for Greg to be glad that his father was dead so “I couldn’t disappoint him any more.” Whether out of relief or despair, “I shot eighteen elephants one month, God save my soul.”
In 1998, Gregory’s daughter, Lorian Hemingway, published her own memoir, Walk on Water; in 2005, her step-brother published his memoir, Strange Tribe. Lorian’s troubled tale is another attempt to address the family, or genetic, baggage:
I had visited my grandfather’s grave in Ketchum the summer I had caught the marlin, arriving at the small hillside cemetery on a scalding July day, a half-finished fifth of vodka in one hand, a filter-tip cigar in the other. I’d made my way to the simple marble slab marked by a white cross, and stood swaying over the marker for a long time, expecting epiphany, resolution, a crashing, blinding flash of insight…. I wanted to say something of value to the old man, perhaps that I had met a dare he had set forth by example, but nothing came. The neck of the bottle grew hot in my hand. I tipped it to my mouth, taking a long swig, then poured the rest, a stream of booze, clear as Caribbean waters, at the head of the marker. “Here,” I said, “have this,” and walked away.