The Old Man and the Son

Terry McDonell is the author of The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers. He has edited a number of magazines, including Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated, and most recently co-founded Literary Hub. His new memoir, Irma: The Education of a Mother’s Son, will be published in April of next year – AirMail 31 August

“In the photograph, Ernest Hemingway is kicking a can high in the air on a wintery country road. It is a graceful, athletic move, and he is pleased with himself. The photograph was taken for Life magazine by John Bryson, on February 1, 1959, along the Big Wood River near Ernest’s home outside of Ketchum, Idaho. The image looks impetuous and somehow intimate, but it was staged, Bryson’s idea. Ernest was acting but claimed spontaneity and took all credit. That’s the trouble with Ernest. There are too many things you don’t want to know.

At the time, Ernest was between two disastrous rounds of electroshock therapy and two years before his suicide. By then, writing in America as a man meant dealing one way or another with Ernest’s literary manliness, with all its fallibility and sexual ironies. There were generations of us who not only read the work but were made to study it—to take it deeper than the words.

We read The Sun Also Rises and were in love with Lady Brett. Like Jake Barnes we had lost faith in the values that were supposed to give life meaning. We loved the bleak disillusionment. But it was the addictive simplicity of the Nick Adams stories that made us think we might become writers as well. That’s where it started, cultivating a combination of toughness and sensitivity, wanting to write seriously and make art in a manly way—a pose that carried the wreckage of American masculinity like cap guns.

Ernest with his three sons, Patrick, Jack, and Gregory, on the Bimini docks, in the Bahamas, 1935. 

Ernest’s final Nick Adams story, “Fathers and Sons,” is a run of Nick’s memories showing his father to be a weak man who betrayed himself. Nick loved him anyway, and struggles with childhood memories until realizing he might be able to reckon with his father by writing about him. The story echoes continuingly in the new book Dear Papa: The Letters of Patrick and Ernest Hemingway.

Patrick was the second of three sons Ernest had with two wives. Jon Hadley Nicanor, later called Jack, was Hemingway’s first son. His mother was Hadley Richardson. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were his godparents. Patrick Miller Hemingway and his younger brother, Gregory “Gigi” Hancock, were Ernest’s with Pauline Pfeiffer.

That was all I knew of Ernest as a father when I was hired in 1995 to write a mini-series based on A Moveable Feast. Mariel Hemingway, his granddaughter, was to direct and produce. Her father, Jack—“Bumby” or “Mr. Bumby,” as he is referred to 11 times in the memoir—was the only living witness to that time in Ernest’s life.

We met for dinner at the family house in Ketchum, with his first wife, Mariel’s mother, Puck, and Mariel’s oldest sister, Muffet. It was a tense table, with Mariel disapproving of the second bottle of wine that was opened. Muffet was glum, apparently not allowed to drink.

This was not surprising. I had already heard that it was hard on Mariel to be part of such an eccentric family, Muffet taking walks naked in the snow and her uncle Gregory traipsing around eastern Montana as a cross-dressing doctor.

As I got to know Jack, he was friendly and forthcoming—Ernest’s favorite musician (Fats Waller), reading habits (four or five books at a time), and so on. He pointed me to many photographs, and I noted that the privilege downplayed so strenuously by Ernest in his memoir was contradicted by the many people in his circles owning cameras or seemingly always having their pictures taken. Images of three-year-old Jack standing with his handsome young parents in the snow in the Vorarlberg in Austria are in many Hemingway biographies.

I also saw many photographs of the three Hemingway brothers, usually smiling with their father, often with shotguns or fishing rods, catching huge fish, showing off after hunts. There were snapshots of Patrick and Gregory in sailor suits baring their teeth and holding up gaping shark jaws. In images by the war photographer Robert Capa, the younger boys are bird hunting with their father near Sun Valley in 1940, when Ernest was married to Martha Gellhorn, who is in the pictures, too. They are all drinking beer. The boys are 9 and 12.

More revealing was a series taken earlier, on Ernest’s 38-foot Pilar, when Jack was 12. Ernest sleeps in the stern holding a drink and cradling the Thompson submachine gun he used for sharks. Jack leans against his father’s knee. In other frames Jack is firing the tommy gun and downing Ernest’s rum. It is difficult to imagine a father at once so careless and pleasing to a son, a running theme in the letters.

Patrick is “Mouse,” “Mr. Mouse,” “Dearest Mouse,” “Mousie,” “Mouse of Mouses,” “Moose,” “Mr. Moose,” “Mex,” “Old Mex,” “Old Booze Fighter,” and “Schatz.” Ernest is always “Papa,” at first doting and solicitous.

Ernest measures the antler spread on a buck shot by Patrick in Idaho, 1946. 

Early in the book Patrick writes from the Canterbury School in Connecticut, asking his father if he can visit at Thanksgiving. Ernest writes back from his Finca Vigía, in Cuba, that he is busy, and complains about the weather: “Boy it is no day for a frozen Daiquiri more like old Taylor’s hot toddy weather.” It is as if they are the same age.

The letters are chronological through Patrick’s college days (Harvard), and his move to what was then Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), where he lived for 25 years as a farmer and hunting guide. Father and son both write beautifully about landscapes, birds, hunting, and fishing, and are sentimental about missing each other. As years pass, Papa dispenses advice and opinions about sports, education, women, ex-wives, painting, avoiding the draft, money, buying land.

It is difficult to imagine a father at once so careless and pleasing to a son.

In the summer of 1996, I flew to Ketchum with my young sons, planning to celebrate the Fourth of July at the rodeo in Hailey as well as to get some work done on the mini-series. The first morning, we visited Ernest’s grave in the cemetery off Highway 75, just out of town. His gravestone was flat in mowed grass in a stand of four tall pines and littered with empty bottles of cheap wine from a cemetery drinking party.

It had also been arranged for us to visit Ernest’s house. I did not tell my sons it was the anniversary of his suicide. The house rose on a steep hill above the Big Wood River, a three-story block, made of concrete molded to look like wood. The dark-green balcony and green trim on its big windows made it seem vaguely modernist. The favored entrance was through the small vestibule with worn tile, where Ernest put the double barrels in his mouth and died in his bathrobe.

Upstairs, mounted above a gray stone fireplace, were the trophy heads of impala and kudu from a safari in the early 1950s. Next to the fireplace was a black-and-white RCA television, and there were magazines from 1961 on the coffee table and wine labels taped to the refrigerator door in the open kitchen. There was a corny bullfight poster on the wall in the stairwell leading to a master bedroom dominated by a large gazelle head. Ernest worked in a walnut-paneled back bedroom at a small desk facing out the window toward the Sawtooth Mountains.

The house wasn’t the same as Ernest had left it, but the Nature Conservancy had not yet dressed it like a set with a Royal typewriter on the desk. It looked like a good place to work if you could avoid thinking about how loud the shotgun must have been in the vestibule.

Later that afternoon we learned that Mariel’s middle sister, Ernest’s granddaughter Margaux, had been found dead in a studio apartment in Santa Monica. My sons and I were part of the family entourage four days later when her ashes were buried near Ernest, marked by another granite rectangle flush with the ground in the stand of pines.

We met both Patrick and Gregory at the reception. Patrick, an obviously thoughtful man, had come over from Montana, where he had retired and was now editing the rough pages of True at First Light, which Ernest had put aside. Greg, as he introduced himself, was small and spoke softly. He thanked us for coming, leaning down to my sons and repeating their names and shaking their hands, welcoming but humble, carrying the sadness of yet another suicide in the family, the fifth in four generations.

There is no mention of suicide in Dear Papa except in Patrick’s note in the epilogue and his description of Ernest’s closed-casket funeral: “What lay in the coffin could hardly be called the grace of a happy death.”

Family members gather for Ernest’s burial, in Ketchum, Idaho, July 5, 1961. 

In all his letters Patrick is a dutiful middle son prone to smoothing problems between his brothers and father. Ernest is always encouraging but increasingly demanding and judgmental, bragging about sending them money then complaining about it, criticizing their girlfriends and wives.

In 1954, Ernest wrote to Patrick from London: “You were the only brother I had among my sons; Mr. Bumby admirable but not really intelligent and Mr. Gigi wonderful but always strange and then gone like a burned-out firecracker. Maybe he will come back. I hope so always. But I wish never to see him.”

When Gregory died, in 2000, he was going by the name of Gloria, a self-described transvestite, recovering alcoholic, and manic-depressive in a cell in the women’s section of a prison in Miami, after being arrested five days earlier on Key Biscayne Boulevard, apparently intoxicated, with no clothes on, carrying a pink summer dress and high heels in his hands. He had not seen or spoken with his father since 1952, but he was at the Ketchum Cemetery in 1961.

Ernest is always encouraging but increasingly demanding and judgmental, bragging about sending them money then complaining about it, criticizing their girlfriends and wives.

He told The Washington Post, “I felt profound relief when they lowered my father’s body into the ground and I realized that he was really dead, that I couldn’t disappoint him, couldn’t hurt him anymore.” As if the sadness of that wasn’t soul-killing enough, Gregory added that his brother Patrick “was absolutely destroyed by my father to do anything in the outside world.”

Gregory’s 1976 Papa: A Personal Memoir was an elegant, painful attempt to explain his relationship with his father. In his preface, he quoted at length from Ernest’s Islands in the Stream:

Neither of them thought about this except that they recognized it in each other and knew it was bad and the man respected it and understood the boy’s having it…. He was a boy born to be quite wicked who was being very good and he carried his wickedness around with him transmuted into a sort of teasing gaiety. But he was a bad boy and the others knew it and he knew it. He was just being good while his badness grew inside him.

There is no mention of suicide in Dear Papa except in Patrick’s note in the epilogue and his description of Ernest’s closed-casket funeral: “What lay in the coffin could hardly be called the grace of a happy death.”

Gregory was 10 when Ernest walked in on him trying on his stepmother Martha Gellhorn’s silk stockings. Ernest wrote Pauline that their youngest “has the biggest dark side in the family except me and you.” He later told him, “Gigi, we come from a strange tribe, you and I.”

It is not in Patrick’s letters, but the strangeness of that tribe came out in Ernest’s posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, where the classic and increasingly tiresome Hemingway hero was contradicted by a new hero thrilled by androgyny and moving far beyond traditional love-making. This was years before identity politics, and in that context the best Hemingway biographies (Ernest Hemingway, by Mary Dearborn, and Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson) agree that Ernest is made heroic by his confrontation of what likely both haunted and embarrassed him, perhaps a straight-up queerness he saw in himself.

The mini-series stalled, no doubt in part because of the eccentricities of my script. Another writer took a crack at it. Except for the money, I did not care. When I was hired, I did not know that Ernest started all three of his sons drinking before they were teenagers and took Jack to a whorehouse when he was 13, and that Ernest and Pauline left Patrick and Gregory alone for many months and told them separately they had wanted a girl. I did not know many things.

Ernest’s mania overcame him, and he raged on pounding his chest until his churlish behavior reflected all the virulence of the manhood he had created not just for himself but for his sons. Patrick loved him anyway and writes in the epilogue that Ernest tried very hard to be a good father. Papa’s letters become increasingly bitter. Patrick’s letters are very different, wanting to be as good a son as he can be, a better man than Ernest on the best day he ever had.”

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