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.
Valerie Hemingway was a 19-year-old Dubliner named Valerie Danby-Smith when she first encountered Ernest Hemingway in Spain in 1959. Having attempted to interview the literary giant for the Irish Times, she found herself sucked into his entourage. Thus began her long association with the doomed Hemingway family (which she joined officially when she married Hemingway's estranged son Gregory years after Hemingway's death). Ernest Hemingway, openly infatuated with the young Valerie, soon persuaded her to become his personal secretary and took her on a nostalgic driving tour of his old haunts in Provence and Paris. His fourth wife, Mary Welsh, a shrewd former newswoman, tolerated this arrangement--by all accounts a platonic one--and she and Valerie even became firm friends. But as Hemingway's health failed, the depressed writer began to confide in Valerie his desire to kill himself. When he succeeded, in 1961, Valerie, employed by Newsweek, flew to Mary's side and helped her pack up the house in Cuba. Valerie spent the following four years sorting through Hemingway's papers at Mary's behest. An account of her stressful marriage to the manic-depressive cross-dressing physician Gregory Hemingway concludes a memoir that is vividly written and rich in atmosphere and anecdote, although it lacks a memorable or compelling portrait of Ernest Hemingway himself.
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November 07, 2005
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Excerpt from Running with the Bulls by Valerie Hemingway
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 caf� 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.