Five years after his death, Valerie became a Hemingway herself when she married the writer’s estranged son Gregory. Now, at last, she tells the story of the incredible years she spent with this extravagantly talented and tragically doomed family.
In prose of brilliant clarity and stinging candor, Valerie evokes the magic and the pathos of Papa Hemingway’s last years. Swept up in the wild revelry that always exploded around Hemingway, Valerie found herself dancing in the streets of Pamplona, cheering bullfighters at Valencia, careening around hairpin turns in Provence, and savoring the panorama of Paris from her attic room in the Ritz. But it was only when Hemingway threatened to commit suicide if she left that she realized how troubled the aging writer was–and how dependent he had become on her.
In Cuba, Valerie spent idyllic days and nights typing the final draft of A Moveable Feast, even as Castro’s revolution closed in. After Hemingway shot himself, Valerie returned to Cuba with his widow, Mary, to sort through thousands of manuscript pages and smuggle out priceless works of art. It was at Ernest’s funeral that Valerie, then a researcher for Newsweek, met Hemingway’s son Gregory–and again a chance encounter drastically altered the course of her life. Their twenty-one-year marriage finally unraveled as Valerie helplessly watched her husband succumb to the demons that had plagued him since childhood.
From lunches with Orson Welles to midnight serenades by mysterious troubadours, from a rooftop encounter with Castro to numbing hospital vigils, Valerie Hemingway played an intimate, indispensable role in the lives of two generations of Hemingways. This memoir, by turns luminous, enthralling, and devastating, is the account of what she enjoyed, and what she endured, during her astonishing years of living as a Hemingway.
From the Hardcover edition.
|Edition description:||Unabridged, 8 cassettes, 12 hours|
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About the Author
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Endings and Beginnings
The deceased requested no speech or prayers are to mark her passing," the severe-looking young man in the black suit with sleeked-back hair declared without fanfare or emotion. It was a bleak November day in 1986, and I was standing on familiar ground, the little cemetery in Sun Valley, Idaho. I watched the poker-faced funeral director place a small pine-colored plastic box on an oblong piece of emerald Astroturf that covered the freshly dug grave. It could have been a cheap toolbox purchased at Kmart. The brief ceremony was over. The two small scatterings of people standing by solemnly started to disperse in opposite directions. An elderly man, tall and graying, tapped my shoulder. "Do you remember me? I'm George Saviers," he said.
I had driven from Montana to Ketchum to attend the funeral for my stepmother-in-law, Mary Hemingway. No one else present had crossed a state line to be at Ernest's last wife's burial. The only family members I could see were Jack "Bumby" Hemingway, his wife, Puck, and their daughter, Muffet, who lived close by. Jack had waved as I approached, and motioned to me to stand with his family. At the other side of the grave I recognized a few longtime friends, all locals, led by Clara Spiegel. Dr. George Saviers was among them. I had not laid eyes on George, Ernest's physician, close friend, and confidant, in almost a quarter of a century. I learned before setting out that Mary's administrator had asked Clara to take care of the funeral arrangements, snubbing Jack, the eldest of the three Hemingway sons and heir apparent. How predictable that another family encounter should be marred by friction and controversy!
I joined Jack, Puck, and Muffet at a local café afterward. The meeting was surprisingly congenial. Absolutely no mention was made of Mary. How odd, I thought. In Ireland, where I come from, a funeral is a time of celebration. The departed guest of honor, present yet not present, is feted with stories, music, toasts-a proper send-off for friend or foe alike. A funeral is a time to remember, to put aside grievances, reevaluate lives and friendships, a catharsis, an awakening. What we had just witnessed, I mused, was a nonevent. No wake, no ceremony, no tears, no celebration afterward. Despite this, I felt immensely liberated. A new chapter in my life could now begin.
History repeats itself, it is said. A previous chapter in my life had ended and another one had begun twenty-four years earlier as I stood in that same graveyard on that very spot witnessing Ernest Hemingway's funeral. George Saviers was present then too. At the end, he had been the Hemingways' closest friend. It was under George's name that Ernest had entered the Mayo Clinic to combat his terrible depression. And Mary was there, in the spotlight: the grieving widow, reeling from shock. She did not have to imagine the gruesome self-inflicted shot that sent her husband into blood-splattered oblivion. She had been a witness, she and George Brown.
Hemingway's funeral had been a private affair, admission by invitation only. Most especially no journalists were permitted, though the entire world was eager to learn the details. Every newspaper, radio station, and television station reported the event. After all, one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century had died by his own hand. Mary vehemently denied that suicide was the cause, claiming her husband's death resulted from a gun-cleaning accident. She was not so much trying to hide the facts from the world as from herself. The cruel, unbearable truth would only add to her tragic loss. Mary was in a state of denial.
Endings and beginnings punctuated by funerals. Ernest's funeral ended an intense period of my own life. Just two years before, during Madrid's San Isidro festival of 1959, I had first met the Hemingways. In July 1961, as he was laid to rest, I observed some of the characters who had influenced Ernest's life. Marcelline, the barely older sister who was paired as his twin in their infant years and a constant rival throughout their childhood. Within my hearing he had never spoken of her with affection. Younger brother Leicester-sixteen years junior, nicknamed the Baron-received more scorn than esteem from the writer whom he physically resembled. Leicester had inherited bluster, bumble, and congeniality rather than genius. His antics were a constant source of embarrassment to his exacting, exasperated brother. There was the octogenarian, Charlie Sweeny, a retired colonel, whose association with Hemingway had spanned two wars and many decades; George Brown, who had driven Mary and Ernest back from the Mayo Clinic three days before Ernest's death and who was the only other person present in the Ketchum house when the fatal "accident" occurred. Notably absent was friend and collaborator A. E. "Hotch" Hotchner, soon to be the renowned author of Papa Hemingway. Hotch had been a key player in the final year of Ernest's life and a close confidant of Mary during the months preceding his death. Mary would try unsuccessfully to suppress publication of Hotch's memoir, which she considered an unthinkable breach of friendship.
Measuring up, not measuring up. These people had been put to the test, and many of them had been found wanting. Although I had met only a few before, I knew something about each one-what they had meant to the person whose memory they now honored by their presence.
On that day too I had felt a hand on my shoulder as soon as the priest concluded the prayers for the dead. I turned to see a replica of Hemingway as he would have looked fifteen years before-this was Leicester. He urgently whispered to me, "Your Ladyship" (his standard respectful address for women), "do you know where my manuscript is?" He was referring to the autobiography he had mailed to Ernest at the Finca Vigía in the spring of 1960. The day of its arrival, Ernest took no pains to hide his rage. "If the Baron wants money, why doesn't he ask me for money?" he fumed as he brought the package outside through the library door and deposited it in the burn barrel. He poured on lighter fluid and struck a match. The flames curled upward to the sullen sky. Smoke trailed into the warm air, obscuring the view of Havana and the harbor beyond. It took hours before Ernest's equilibrium was restored. Not then, nor ever, did I reveal to Leicester the fate of his labor.
By the time I arrived in Sun Valley two days before Ernest's funeral, Mary had remembered I was working for Newsweek. She then regretted inviting me. In her grief-filled state, she imagined I would use my invitation to further my career (as she herself most certainly would have done). Indeed, in giving me the time off, Newsweek welcomed the opportunity to secure this scoop, making offers that I declined. For my pains, I now found myself an outsider, ostracized from the family gatherings and outings. I felt chagrined and annoyed that I had bothered to come. However, destiny, as always, played its part. My presence at Ernest's funeral changed the course of my life. Within a month I would give up my magazine job and escort Mary back to Cuba to sort out all of Ernest's belongings. Together, with great ingenuity, we managed to bring back to the United States a million dollars' worth of paintings, priceless manuscripts, letters, and memorabilia from the Finca Vigía at a time when nothing was allowed to leave that country. I spent the next four years reading and sorting every piece of paper, manuscript, and letter pertaining to Hemingway's life in a little office given to me by Charlie Scribner on the tenth floor of his Fifth Avenue building.
There was an even more significant outcome to my attendance at Ernest's funeral. His youngest son, Gregory, had long been estranged from his father. Mention of his name was forbidden in the Hemingway household during my stay there. Since he was not spoken of, I had no idea what had caused this fall from grace. Gigi, as he was called, fit no more easily into this funereal family gathering than I. He too was at loose ends. As outsiders, we found ourselves pairing off as we encountered each other sitting alone in the lounge of the Christiania Lodge or roaming this one-street cowboy town. A bond was formed then that led to marriage sometime later. For nearly twenty years Gregory and I lived a turbulent, wonderful, dreadful, exciting life. At the time of Mary's funeral, this too was coming to an end. We were in the midst of divorce proceedings. Beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings.
Dublin's Fair City: A Family Album
Everything and nothing in my origins hinted at the adventures that lay ahead. My family and childhood were a mass of contradictions and inconsistencies, a paradox from beginning to end.
I was born in Dublin in 1940 of Anglo-Irish parents, a Protestant father who grew up in Ireland, a Roman Catholic mother who called London her home. The small provincial town that Dublin was then lingered still in the laced girdle of the Victorian Age. John Huston's film The Dead could easily have taken place in the house of my Dublin relations on any Epiphany or at an Easter meal. Almost fifty years after James Joyce described his native city, the scenes continued to be replicated in the damp and stuffy sitting rooms of middle-class Dublin. The parlor with the upright piano, the aspidistra, the antimacassars on the stuffed chairs, the overt politeness in the conversation with its undercurrent of dissention and prejudice-these were the trappings and essence of my childhood.
In our family, rows were more likely to erupt over religion than politics. Joking, recitation of poetry, discussion of literature, singing, and the enactment of skits my aunt Constance wrote filled the festive evenings. "An old maid," my mother called Constance, my father's younger sister, with disdain. Con was registrar at the Royal Hospital for Incurables in Donnybrook, diminutive with a deep voice ("mannish," my mother said) and a talent for quick-witted dialogue. Sharper than a serpent's tooth, Con's barbs were, while my aunt Eileen, my father's older sister, was sweet and charming. "Wolf in lamb's clothing," warned my mother, who was excluded from these gatherings. Eileen was always in good humor, in contrast to her Scottish husband, gruff Uncle Alec, whose military bearing and sharp tongue made us feel ill at ease in his presence. Punctuality was a pet peeve of his, and his pocket watch, appended to a silver fob, was consulted at every turn to make sure that life was running according to the clock-an instrument that had yet to be invented in Ireland; leastwise, it was never heeded. Due to being gassed in the Great War, Alec wheezed and coughed with ferocity, his rasping sounds disturbing to healthy, young children.
I remember the house where I was born, the terraced garden laced with flowers in front of the detached stone building in Stillorgan with its slate roof and large bay windows. I became aware of the world in that garden, where I played with my older brother, Peter, who was deeply irritated at having to share his parents and possessions with a newcomer.
My parents were an ill-matched couple. Fair-haired, blue-eyed, and of medium height, my father, Tom, was a handsome, articulate, athletic man in his mid-thirties when he married my mother, Millicent, whose jet-black curly hair, hazel eyes, and winning smile belied her fierce pride and unrealistic expectations. She was twenty-nine, haughty, chic, and a talented musician and dancer. She had tarried in finding a suitor because no man had come close to fulfilling her requirements, and now she grew eager to wed before her dreaded thirtieth birthday. That landmark could easily confer spinsterhood-a fate she considered far worse than marrying a less than ideal man.
My mother wore her mother's wedding gown. The wedding photos suggest a handsome, smiling couple with a world of possibilities ahead. After the honeymoon they settled in Dublin in a comfortable, upscale area with the requisite cook and parlor maid, as well as a brand-new double-barreled name, Danby-Smith, suited to their social life of tennis, sailing, parties, and of course prospects. My father had prospects.
The Second World War, which began in 1939, changed the texture of Irish life. Although the island remained politically neutral, it sat too close to England to be unaffected by the trauma. Rationing became the norm. Bombs threatened to damage Dublin, the capital city, which lay only fifty-six sea miles from the Welsh coastline. Gas masks and air-raid shelters are among my earliest memories. Ireland was torn by a conflicted sense of which side to back emotionally. England was the traditional oppressor, yet it was there that the breadwinners of numerous families worked. The English pound sustained many an Irish family when employment could not be found at home.
By 1943, unsuccessful in business, without any regular employment or occupation, with his weakness for drink and fondness for gambling, my father seized upon the opportunity to leave Ireland. Although in his forties, he joined the British army to serve for the remaining war years. He left behind a distraught wife, three children, and massive debts.
When I was two years and three months, my brother Robin was born. Unlike the sunny May Sunday afternoon when I arrived, bringing a renewal of hope and joy to both my parents and sweet promises for the future, Robin's entrance into this world augured disaster. Her marriage failing, disintegration of the family imminent, my mother hit rock bottom physically and emotionally. She was unable to care for another child. Peter and I would not know our brother until our adult years.
Oblivious to the unfolding tragedy, my older brother and I played in the garden of our beautiful home, our needs taken care of by nanny, cook, and housemaid. Our parents might come and go, but the schedule of meals, baths, and bedtime was immutable. If I noticed changes, I do not recall them, until that midwinter day when I was three that brought the ominous presence of my father's sister, Aunt Constance. My father's family never visited us. There was a mutual dislike, even contempt between my mother and my paternal aunts. Without explanation, Peter and I were whisked away by Aunt Constance in a small black car.
Our destination was Dublin's north side, grim and gray, already showing signs of shabbiness. Ignoring the rows of county council houses, the car pulled up before the imposing entrance to a large estate protected by a high stone wall, stretching on either side as far as the eye could see. An odd-looking figure with black headdress and white robes emerged from the gate lodge with a large iron key to open the lock and wave us through. The gates were shut firmly behind us. We drove up an avenue lined with beech trees, cutting through a sculpted lawn adorned with flower beds, crunching to a stop on the graveled circle leading to the wide front portico. Without a hint of warning, Peter and I were handed over to the nun in charge, and the little black car disappeared in a cloud of dust. We were at St. Mary's Dominican Convent, Cabra, a boarding school and the motherhouse of the Dominican Order in Ireland. This was to be my main home for the next fourteen years. I had the distinction of being the youngest pupil ever to enter the boarding school as well as the student who spent the longest time there.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Would you separate Valerie’s life into two distinct periods–before Hemingway and after Hemingway? Why or why not? What would be the dominant characteristics of each of these eras?
2. What about Valerie’s personality enabled her easy assimilation into Hemingway’s madcap life? How does she view being with him as an adventure? In what way does she yearn for freedom?
3. Do you feel that Ernest was a Henry Higgins to Valerie’s Eliza Doo-little–that is, did he attempt to shape and mold her? What does she seek to learn from her mentor?
4. Have you had a mentor relationship? How was your relationship similar to or different from Valerie’s relationship with Ernest?
5. Did you know much about Ernest Hemingway before reading this book? Have you read other biographies of Hemingway? Is the picture of him that emerges from Running with the Bulls similar to or different from your preconceptions of Ernest Hemingway?
6. How are Valerie and Ernest both scholars of writers and good writing? How does Hemingway’s advice to Valerie about writing shape her career path? Based on this memoir, what similarities and differences in writing style might Valerie share with Ernest?
7. Why do you think that Hemingway adopted ﬁrst a paternal and then a more romantic interest in his young secretary? Why does he ultimately view her as “indispensable” to his life and work?
8. What do you think Ernest Hemingway’s inner circle might say about Valerie Hemingway and her inﬂuence on his life?
9. “Only with his absence could I appreciate the intensity of his presence,” Valerie writes on page 88. What about Ernest Hemingway is larger than life? How does he become more frail, fragile, and human in the course of this memoir? Ultimately, why do you think he takes his own life?
10. Cuba is a strong presence in this book. How does the prerevolutionary island compare with the place that Mary returns to after Ernest’s death? In your opinion, why did it seem like such a magical place to the Hemingways? Why do you think Cubans still revere Ernest Hemingway, both his books and his memory?
11. Both Ernest Hemingway and his son Gregory grapple with their own internal demons. How does each man struggle in different ways? How do they present their problems to those around them? How would each have beneﬁted from the psychological advances present today?
12. How does Valerie’s interlude with Brendan Behan change her life? What is her attitude about their night together?
13. How does Mary seek to be a maternal ﬁgure? In what ways is she non-maternal? Does her mind-set about motherhood echo Valerie’s attitudes in any way?
14. The importance of leaving a legacy is a theme that courses throughout the book. In your opinion, what is Ernest Hemingway’s most enduring legacy? How does Mary ultimately control her husband’s legacy? What do you hope that the legacy of your own life might be, and who would you most want to shape it?
15. “I came to know a great deal about Ernest, more than I have ever gleaned about another human being,” writes Valerie on page 210. How does this understanding of Ernest Hemingway shine through in this book? How do you think it might have contributed–for better or for worse–to her marriage with Greg? Is there a person who you think might know you better than anyone else in the world?
16. How does loyalty and money ﬁgure into the Hemingways’ inner circle? How does Mary see Greg as a traitor, and vice versa?
17. What about Valerie is so fascinating to the men in her life, from Ernest to Brendan to Greg? How does each seek to guide her? In turn, what attracts her to each of them?
18. What are the clues that Valerie gives early in the book about what was wrong with her marriage? Were you surprised to learn that Greg was bipolar and a transvestite? How do Valerie and Greg’s family help him until the end of his life?
19. Why do you think that Valerie Hemingway chose this moment to write her memoir? How is her viewpoint into Ernest Hemingway’s life a unique one? What questions would you like to ask the author about her life?