January 16, 2018

The Hemingways and Suicide

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."

Memoirs written by those close to Hemingway convey different impressions of his suicide. Mary Hemingway does not refuse the idea that it was a noble, destroyed-but-not-defeated act, but she stresses the sure fact that her husband was mentally ill, and getting worse. Brother Leicester chooses the heroic interpretation: "Like a samurai who felt dishonored by the word or deed of another, Ernest felt his own body had betrayed him." 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, the son's memoir, Papa, provides interesting snapshots of the life. Greg was a child of Hemingway's second marriage, and his quality time with Dad came early. When Hemingway died, he hadn't seen him for a decade, since the age of nineteen. This last visit was just after the death of Greg's mother, Pauline, an event that had occurred suddenly, and about the time that Greg had gotten into trouble for taking drugs. The visit to his father's home in Cuba seemed to go well, or well enough for Greg to confide his plans for medical school, and to bring up his drug incident. "It wasn't so bad, really, Papa," he said. "No? Well, it killed Mother," said Papa.

The memoir also describes moments of gentler love and honesty, and 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 prided himself on knowing. But there are many other moments that cast a shadow, one long enough for Greg to write that he was glad that his father was dead so "I couldn't disappoint him any more." The writing of Papa must have brought Hemingway's son some therapy or confessional relief not found elsewhere -- "I shot eighteen elephants one month, God save my soul" -- though clearly not enough, given his last years.

In 1998, Gregory's daughter, Lorian Hemingway, published her own memoir, Walk on Water. This too is a dark and troubled tale of underparenting, overdrinking and the family wrestle with suicide, in this case with a happy ending. Lorian's inheritance also included the outdoor life, her trial-by-sport moment coming not by bullfight or hunting rifle but by fishing rod. In Chapter Ten of her memoir she describes catching her first and last marlin, and gaining the understanding that "strength and courage and a whopping death wish were the banners of the true sportsman." Chapter Eleven begins:
    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.

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