Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Valerie Hemingway's run with the bulls

"Running With the Bulls" by Valerie Hemingway. Ballantine Books. $24.95. 313 pp.

For the Express

In 1959, a young Irish journalist by the name of Valerie Danby-Smith was sent to interview Ernest Hemingway in Madrid and became swept up in his glamorous entourage as it crossed southern Europe at the height of the writer's fame. It would prove to be one of the last seasons of Hemingway's life, and the beginning of Valerie's remarkable 40-year relationship with the Hemingway family.

Five years after Hemingway's death in 1961, she married the writer's estranged youngest son, Dr. Gregory H. Hemingway, beginning an adventurous and devastating marriage that would end in divorce and Gregory's transformation into "Gloria Hemingway" following a sex-change operation in 1995.

Valerie's intriguing and splendidly written book "Running with the Bulls, My Years with the Hemingways," published in October 2004, is part biography and part memoir, and will be of interest to literary biographers and armchair psychiatrists for some time to come as it finds a place within the vast literary legacy of Ernest Hemingway.

Valerie will present the keynote address "Missing Papa: With Mary Hemingway in 1961" at the opening reception for the Hemingway Festival on Thursday, Sept. 22 at Carol's Dollar Mountain Lodge from 7 to 9 p.m.

According to the author, "It would have been a story told from a different angle, were my ex-husband still alive. And it would have been a difficult story to tell while my children were younger and less sure of themselves, of their careers and lives."

During the summer of 1959, Valerie spent many days and nights of revelry with the bullfighters of Spain and visiting old haunts in France with Ernest and Mary Hemingway, rubbing shoulders with Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams and some of the people Papa described in his books, including the matador Antonio Ordenez from "Death in the Afternoon" and General Buck Lanham from "A Farewell to Arms."

Yet insomnia and depression were taking their toll on Hemingway as his vision began to fail, and revolution threatened his sanctuary of Finca Vigia in Cuba. While faced with a looming deadline for a Life magazine article about the bullfighters of Spain, the writer took Valerie into strict confidence as he made plans to end his own life.

She was 20 years old at the time, and would carry the burden of this secret for many years.

"What was strange, in retrospect, was that none of us recognized his condition to be caused by mental illness," she writes. "And so we did not seek outside help."

In a recent interview with the Express she elaborated: "In my day the issue of mental illness came down to 'sane or insane'. The insane were simply locked away."

Valerie traveled with the writer and his wife to Key West, New York and Cuba where she worked as Papa's personal secretary, transcribing his "Paris Sketches" of that summer into what would become "A Moveable Feast." The unwieldy Life magazine article with which Ernest struggled through increasing paranoia and despair was eventually published as "The Dangerous Summer."

According to Valerie, these two posthumously published works were intended by the author for publication, whereas "'Islands in the Stream,' 'The Garden of Eden' and 'True at First Light' were "not even close to meeting Ernest's exacting publishing standards."

After the author's suicide in Ketchum, Valerie was contacted by Mary to help her evacuate the estate in Cuba, smuggling out valuable art and striking deals with the young revolutionary leader Fidel Castro along the way. Valerie was then hired to read and sort through the trove of letters and unpublished Hemingway writings at the offices of "Charlie" Scribner in New York City. The job took nearly four years and required her to "decipher 50 years of correspondence, spanning three generations of Hemingways, and penned by some of the most interesting figures of the 20th century," including Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder and many unknown writers.

Her involvement with the Hemingway legacy might have ended when the letters were finally deposited at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, if not for her attendance at Hemingway's funeral in Ketchum in 1961.

It was there she met the author's son Gregory, the man she would later marry, unaware that he was a practicing transvestite, emotionally unstable, and would eventually become a threat to her and her family.

Gregory was a trained physician and according to his wife, "a magical father," whose struggles with manic-depression kept the couple wandering in search of a place to live and work. A close friend of Norman Mailer and his family, Gregory lived off royalties from the sales of his father's books, while Valerie worked reading fiction for Publisher's Weekly. Valerie followed Gregory to Florida, toured a C.A.R.E outpost in Nicaragua, and visited East Africa in search of lasting employment and a sense of his own personal identity. Gregory also undertook an expedition to the jungles of South America in search of a legendary tribe of immortals, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs along the way.

Eventually the couple settled in Montana with their four children, where Gregory would practice medicine when he was well enough. At times he would become dangerous to his family, be picked up in drag by police, and seek electric-shock treatments, as his father had, for his own debilitating depressions.

After Valerie divorced Gregory, he underwent a sex-change operation and lived another six years before dying in a women's prison in New York. As a post-script to her novel, she relates the passage in "Islands in the Stream" in which Hemingway immortalizes his young son Gregory:

"His skin was freckled when it tanned and he had a humorous face and he was born very old ... he was a devil, too ..."

She also relates the discovery in 1998 of a letter meant for her penned by Ernest Hemingway in October 1960, four weeks before his first suicide attempt. The letter had been stolen and sold by a messenger.

"It is a great sorrow to me to know that he had reached out and been unaware that his letter was not delivered," she stated.

"Running with the Bulls" is at times unwieldy, balancing exquisite reportage of life with Papa—his travels, friends and habits—with her deeper knowledge of him through the study of his letters. Her familiarity with those writings, which are "rather jealously guarded," according to the author, are the stuff of scholarly pursuit. "Running with the Bulls" is this and more--a story of a father and son whose ambivalent separation from one another would not be overcome, although they shared both the torments of mental illness and the high price of fame. It is also the story of a plucky writer whose own survival is bound within its telling.

Turn to page C6 of the Wednesday, September 21, 2005 print edition of the Idaho Mountain Express for full details on the Hemingway Festival taking place in Ketchum and Sun Valley this weekend.

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