Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways

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9780345467331: Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways
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A chance encounter in Spain in 1959 brought young Irish reporter Valerie Danby-Smith face to face with Ernest Hemingway. The interview was awkward and brief, but before it ended something had clicked into place. For the next two years, Valerie devoted her life to Hemingway and his wife, Mary, traveling with them through beloved old haunts in Spain and France and living with them during the tumultuous final months in Cuba. In name a personal secretary, but in reality a confidante and sharer of the great man’s secrets and sorrows, Valerie literally came of age in the company of one of the greatest literary lions of the twentieth century.

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.

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About the Author:

Valerie Hemingway is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
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.

chapter two

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 ("...

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