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The Hemingways: An American Tragedy

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

After my book Hemingway: A Biography had been accepted for publication by Harper & Row in 1984, it had to be read by the company lawyer to make sure there were no libelous passages and no infringement of copyright. I was told this would take two weeks, but the agonizing process dragged on for several months. Though I came to hate the lawyer’s broken promises, endless delays, and depressing incompetence, my book could not be published until he approved the final text.

Hemingway’s life and work were closely bound up with one another. His final years and death are deeply moving, not least because he lived out a tragic decline he had foreseen from his earliest youth. Most of his heroes suffer loss, wounds, and death. As early as 1936 in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” he created a powerful self-image and portrayed himself as a stricken, dying hero. Success, wealth, and beauty cannot console him as he is dragged down by the hyenas that attend his fame.

Some of the sensational and revealing material I had discovered concerned people, still living at the time, who were close to Hemingway: his third and fourth wives, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh, his lawyer Alfred Rice and his doctor at the Mayo Clinic, Howard Rome. I struggled to include it because it fitted so well with what I knew of Hemingway and gave a complete picture of his life, but for legal reasons it had to be deleted. I also omitted the real story of Hemingway’s bitter quarrel with his third son, Gregory, who has, since then, told his version of what happened. Now, on the centenary of Hemingway’s birth and for the first time since 1985, I can discuss what he called (using military slang) the “true gen”—the full story that was suppressed in my biography.


Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn (1908—98), outlived him by nearly 40 years. While ostensibly refusing to discuss Hemingway, she constructed a careful, sanitized view of her own behavior, which stressed her independent achievement as a writer and journalist. According to Martha, she was the victim of Hemingway’s malice and gained nothing but pain from her marriage to him. Most of the deleted material concerned their sexual problems, but I also toned down evidence about Martha’s pursuit of Hemingway. In an uncommonly sharp letter to Carlos Baker, Archibald MacLeish, a witness loyal to Hemingway’s second wife, recalled Martha’s predatory behavior: “I watched Miss Gellhorn conduct her amazing and quite shameless attack on their marriage.”

Talking to the film director Joseph Losey, Martha praised Hemingway’s enormous potency and skill as a lover. And Hemingway told his Spanish friend Gustavo Duran that Martha “doesn’t like any woman except her mother. She only likes me because I fuck her every night.” But Duran was suspicious. Repelled by this remark, he thought: “Tell me what you boast about and I’ll tell you what you lack.”

Robert Joyce, an American diplomat stationed in Cuba, thought Martha was attracted to famous writers, like H.G. Wells and Hemingway, and used them to advance her career as a writer. Joyce maintained that she had “no personal interest in sex—only a literary interest.” Joyce’s wife, Jane, bluntly stated that Martha was frigid. Their sexual problems intensified Hemingway’s doubts about whether she had married him for love or for professional advantage. In a thinly disguised account of her relations with Hemingway, “The Fall and Rise of Mrs. Hapgood” (1965), Martha wrote: “After the beginning, which was painful and awkward . . .she could not say she liked or disliked the sexual act. She liked being tender, she liked knowing that this too was part of her usefulness to Luke, she liked (it had to be admitted, it had to be seen at last) feeling noble. . . . She made no effort to conceal passion; the passion, not being in her, did not show.”

The problem was in part anatomical. Hemingway, jokingly suggesting that most upper-class women had sexual difficulties, told Bernard Berenson: “She was not built for bed but few nice people are.” He also told Gregory and Duran that Martha’s narrow vagina made her sexually unresponsive. After she had a vaginoplasty, an operation to widen her parts, their sexual life improved. It was like entering a cathedral, he remarked, “like coming into Penn Station.” After their marriage broke up, with great bitterness on both sides, Hemingway treated a group of war correspondents to a crude but funny pornographic poem, “To Martha Gellhorn’s Vagina,” which he was pleased to compare to the wrinkled neck of an old hot-water bag. In his postwar story, “It Was Very Cold in England,” the Hemingway character has an acerbic exchange with an unnamed woman based on Martha. As they stir up their old rivalry as war correspondents, he hints at her sexual infidelity and, with a sexual pun, compares her to a dud mine that fails to detonate when properly rammed:

“You talk like something the last war had washed up,” I said. “You remind me of the old, badly laid mines.”

“Well laid,” she said.

“Well or badly laid mines that wash up years afterwards along the coast after the big fall and winter storms.”

Though Hemingway was mean and sarcastic, Martha took an even crueler revenge. She had an affair with Hemingway’s reporter friend William Walton. Hemingway, who knew about it, wrote Buck Lanham: “Maybe, surely, he’s had a few bangs” with her. And Martha later told an English friend that her loathing of Hemingway was so great that she aborted their child without even telling him she was pregnant. “There’s no need to have a child when you can buy one,” she boasted, referring to the Italian boy she had adopted after the war. “That’s what I did.” Apart from her dislike of Hemingway and her awareness that their marriage was breaking up, Martha may have feared childbirth and certainly wanted to keep her youthful figure and pursue her career without the burden of an infant. It is ironic that both Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, and Pauline, his second, had abortions when Hemingway did not want another child, and that when he wished to have one, Martha had a secret abortion. Hemingway later told a friend that Martha could not have children because she’d had so many abortions before she met him.

Martha’s biographer does not explain why she suddenly left Africa after living there for more than a decade. But, as usual, her heavily autobiographical fiction gives the answer. In her novel The Weather in Africa (1978) she wrote that while driving in Kenya, in her usual way and with her eyes on the road: “From nowhere, up from the ground, suddenly, suddenly, suddenly a child leapt running. Directly in front of me, directly in front across the road, running. A second. One second. I saw his face, his profile, running.” According to Hemingway’s son, Jack, Martha actually did kill a child in a car accident in Kenya. Though it was not her fault, she was forced to leave the country.


The journalist Mary Welsh (1908—86) was not as classy, attractive, or intelligent as Hemingway’s previous wives. But she was the most uninhibited and sexually responsive. “Make You Stop Flying,” a description of Hemingway’s sexual relations with Mary, attempts to recapture the sleeping bag scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Mary, named in the story, breathlessly expresses the rhythm of her orgasm: “Now you come when you like. Oh now I can’t talk. Please my darling. Please dear. Please now. Oh don’t let me talk. No. No. Yes. Oh yes. Oh not please yes please oh please please; yes good oh good.” When Hemingway wrote about sex toward the end of his life, he became awkward and embarrassing.

Though Hemingway loved Mary, he also distrusted her and thought she was mercenary. Jack Hemingway felt that her acquisitiveness and desire for social life made his father’s last years unpleasant. Hemingway retaliated, revealed his indifference to Mary’s feelings, and irreparably hurt their marriage when he invited Adriana Ivancich, an aristocratic young Italian woman with whom he had fallen in love, to stay with them in Cuba.

Mary signed the permission forms for Hemingway’s shock treatments at the Mayo Clinic in 1960. Martha Gellhorn and Patrick Hemingway believed that when Mary could no longer care for him herself she would commit him to a mental institution, and that Hemingway feared this would happen. In effect, when Mary left out the key to the gunroom, she gave him the choice of either killing himself or being certified insane. By blowing his head off inside their house he took revenge and punished Mary for giving him the freedom to make this terrible choice. Unwilling to recognize and accept her passive collaboration in his suicide, Mary announced in public that his death was an accident.

Mary had learned to drink to keep up with Hemingway, but her guilt about his suicide turned her into an alcoholic. Friends reported that toward the end of her life she began to drink, early in the morning, straight from the bottle. Non compos from alcohol and poor health, she would phone acquaintances and ask: “Who am I? Who did I marry?”


Hemingway’s lawyer Alfred Rice (1908—89) graduated from Fordham Law School, specialized in copyright law, and began representing Hemingway in 1948, when his first lawyer, Maurice Speiser, died of cancer. Rice at first refused to see me, and then grudgingly invited me to his Manhattan law office. Extremely rude and aggressive, he exclaimed, when I asked about Mary’s will: “Do you expect me to disclose the details of my client’s private affairs?” But after venting his anger for about 20 minutes, he finally calmed down and began to talk freely. He would say: “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” then speak about libel, copyright, permissions, and the sons’ trust, and even discuss the lawsuit he and Mary had lost to A.E. Hotchner.

Rice emphasized not only his own charitable work for hospitals but also the fact that he took personal care of Mary, who had just come out of the hospital. Since she could no longer handle her own affairs, Rice managed her money and paid all her bills. He even arranged for her slipcovers to be delivered from Gimbel’s—and had to pay cash in advance. He expressed great admiration for Mary’s kindness and generosity, as well as her prose style, and oddly insisted: “I’m part of her. She’s part of me. We’re really the same person.”

Like Martha, Rice deeply resented having to stand in Hemingway’s reflected glory, though he earned most of his money through Hemingway’s work. He proudly told me that Gallimard (Hemingway’s French publishers) had recently thrown a great party especially for him. George Plimpton said that Hemingway, who made great wisecracks about all his followers and parasites, called Rice “the reserve outfielder on my paraplegic baseball team.”

I strongly felt, without firm evidence, that Rice was dishonest. His arrogant manner, the way he had suddenly taken over Hemingway’s affairs, the fact that Hemingway (one of his few clients) took no interest in business matters and never checked up on Rice, and that Rice, as agent, manager, and lawyer, had control of his finances when he was alive and of his estate after his death, all made me extremely suspicious. When Hemingway’s sons took over the estate after Mary’s death in December 1986, they discovered that Rice had been taking as much as a 30 percent commission (instead of the usual 10 percent) and had several secret bank accounts in Switzerland. The sons sued Rice, who escaped being jailed for fraud and embezzlement by dying in April 1989.


The Mayo Clinic badly botched Hemingway’s treatment when he was admitted for depression and given two disastrous series of electroshock therapy in 1960—61, He had been frightened and depressed when told by a Cuban doctor in the summer of 1960 that he had hemochromatosis, a rare, chronic, and fatal form of diabetes “that makes you go blind and permanently impotent.” The Mayo doctors also suspected that he had this disease, but they did not attempt to relieve his anxiety by doing a biopsy and making a definite diagnosis.

Hemingway’s main physician, Howard Rome (1910—92), was born in Philadelphia, earned his medical degree at Temple University, and began to practice at the Mayo in 1937. While Hemingway was being treated at the Mayo, Rome increased his anxiety by discussing his case with an FBI agent in Minneapolis. He also made several more serious mistakes. He continued the second series of shocks after the first had destroyed Hemingway’s memory and intensified rather than relieved the depression. He did not inform Mary about the exact nature of Hemingway’s treatment. He did not follow the suggestion of Dr. James Cattell, who had also been consulted, to transfer him to the Menninger Clinic or the Institute for Living in Hartford, where he would have received psychiatric as well as shock treatment. Rome ignored the fact that patients often seem better when they have finally decided to commit suicide. He was deceived by Hemingway and released him, against Mary’s wishes, when he was still depressed and suicidal. Justifying his treatment after Hemingway’s death, Rome later told Gregory Hemingway, who was also a doctor, that “Hemingway would have killed himself anyway.” When I questioned Rome he expressed no regrets and said he had given him the proper treatment—though Hemingway committed suicide just after he was released. Alfred Rice said that though Mary was unhappy about the way Hemingway was treated at the Mayo, she did not want to know exactly what happened and would not consider a negligence suit.

Martha Gellhorn expressed the feelings of family and friends about the Clinic when she said: “The Mayo made a terrible mistake with Hemingway. It is best for a sick person to stay away from that place.” In a letter to Morley Callaghan of May 2, 1963, Edmund Wilson agreed with Martha’s judgment: “An analyst I was just talking to tells me that the psychiatric department of the Mayo Clinic is about the worst in the country, and if they had been giving Hemingway shock treatments, there was hardly any other explanation needed as to why he went to pieces.”


Gregory (born in 1931) is the demonic, Dostoyevskian figure of the family—handsome and strangely brilliant, but reckless, self-destructive, manic, and at times insane. In the summer of 1946— when Mary had just moved into the Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house in Cuba, and the 14-year-old Gregory was there for the holidays— her expensive French underwear suddenly disappeared. Mary accused her new Cuban maid, who swore she was innocent, and fired her for stealing. After Gregory had gone back to boarding school (where he would not have been able to hide it), Mary found her lingerie under the mattress of his bunk bed. So she always disliked Gregory; and Hemingway, as early as 1946, knew of his son’s strange tastes. In Key West the following spring Gregory, under age and driving illegally, crashed and wrecked a car. His older brother Patrick, who was a passenger, banged his head and became delirious. He had a complete mental breakdown and was given a series of electro-shock treatments. Though Patrick recovered, Hemingway blamed Gregory for his brother’s illness.

In 1985 I wrote that “In September 1951 Gregory got into serious trouble, which shocked and outraged Hemingway, and was arrested in Los Angeles.” What really shocked and outraged Hemingway was Gregory’s first public appearance in ladies’ clothing. He had gone into the women’s restroom of a movie theater in drag and had been caught—for the first time—and arrested. His mother, Pauline, flew down from San Francisco, but was more concerned with the immediate problem of keeping Hemingway’s name out of the newspapers than with helping Gregory. Pauline called Hemingway to tell him what had happened and they quarreled bitterly. He blamed her for Gregory’s behavior and exclaimed: “See how you’ve brought him up.” That night she suffered severe abdominal pain and internal bleeding, and died on the operating table the next day of an undiagnosed disease.

Hemingway, following his usual pattern, blamed Gregory for his mother’s death. When they next met in February 1952, he told him that he had killed Pauline—and father and son never saw each other again. Hemingway knew Gregory was emotionally disturbed, but ignored his illness, refused to share the responsibility for it, and treated him with callous indifference. In a recently published story, “I Guess Everything Reminds You of Something,” Hemingway tried to distance himself from Gregory’s illness and wrote: “the boy had done everything hateful and stupid that he could, his father thought. But it was because he was sick his father had told himself. His vileness came on from a sickness,”

In a fascinating, agonizing interview with The Washington Post on July 29, 1987, Gregory attempted to exorcise the demons by telling his story in public. He described himself as a transvestite, a recovering alcoholic, and a manic-depressive. He had prescribed and taken every pill there was, suffered seven nervous breakdowns and had had 98 electro-shock treatments—enough, Patrick remarked, “to light up a whole house.” Despite his cross-dressing, Gregory was not attracted to men. He had three ex-wives and eight children (one of them adopted), and divorced his fourth wife in the 1990’s.

The Washington Post reported that he “has spent most of his adult life struggling. . .against his compulsion to dress up in hosiery, brassieres, wigs, makeup, spiked heels, evening gowns, long white gloves, and then go out, with his squat, bulky body and deep-chested voice into public places.” Gregory added that “My brother, Pat, who was a brilliant kid, who really could have been something, was absolutely destroyed by my father to do anything in the outside world.” Still confused about his relations with his overwhelming father, he asked: “What is it about a loving, dominating, basically well-intentioned father that ends up making you go nuts?”

After a lifetime of psychiatric treatment and his own medical practice, Gregory tried to explain his bizarre behavior in terms of his father’s sexual doubts (revealed in his problems with Martha and, later on, with Mary) and of his own attempts to win his mother’s love:

First, you’ve got this father who’s supermasculine, but who’s somehow protesting it all the time, he’s worried to death about it, never mind that he actually is very masculine, more masculine than anybody else around, in fact. But worried about it all the same— and therefore very worried about his sons and their masculinity.

Secondly, you start playing around with your mother’s stockings one day when you’re about four years old. Maybe it all starts with something as seemingly innocent as this. And why do you do this? Who knows? But it must have something to do with the fact that your mother doesn’t seem to love you enough. Or that’s your perception of it. Her maternal instincts just aren’t very strong . . . . You think she loves your older brother Patrick more. So maybe you’re putting on her clothes in the first place because you somehow think you’ll be able to win her that way, get close to her. But then, you see, it starts to feel sexy for its own sake, just to have those things on. It’s erotic, it arouses you.

Gregory concluded that “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.” But he did strike back at Hemingway in his memoir, Papa (1976), which expressed his sense of tragic betrayal and made a cruel judgment of the god that failed.

I first interviewed Gregory in Bozeman, Montana, in May 1983. He had lost his medical practice in Jordan, in the eastern part of the state, and invited me to stay at his house. I first saw him, as I drove there, jogging down the road with his underwear (like Superman’s) hanging down below his shorts. He had just come out of several bad manic episodes and was taking heavy, self-prescribed doses of lithium. He looked a wreck: matted hair, stained teeth, scraggly beard, dirty protruding ears and food-stained clothes. But he was also quite lucid and charming, and within minutes we were talking about a subject of great interest to both of us—Martha’s vagina—on which he was something of an expert.

Gregory had married his father’s former secretary, whom he had met at Hemingway’s funeral. But the marriage was clearly breaking up, and both husband and wife felt a compulsive need to confide in someone. Since I was on the scene and knew all the dark family secrets, we talked and talked, for 14 hours a day. Late in the evening Gregory would say goodnight, then pace around the house like a caged panther and return to the room where, he rightly guessed, his wife Valeric and I were still talking about him. His attitude toward me took violent turns, suddenly and quite dramatically changing from warm admiration to intense hostility and back again.

When we drove to a picnic at a nearby river, Valeric insisted, more from self-preservation than politeness, that I sit in the front seat of the car. Giving in to his full manic urge, Gregory drove at top speed, once through a flashing railroad crossing, then off the road and down a very steep slope to the river, and finally, on our return, flat out on his long driveway—slamming on the brakes and stopping only inches short of a concrete wall. Valerie’s pleas for him to slow down merely incited him. “Scared, aren’t you?” he asked, with a satanic grin. I wondered if I’d be killed in the line of duty before I could write a single word of my biography.

Despite all his psychiatric treatment and shock therapy, Gregory remained an obsessive transvestite. He lost his medical job after being arrested, while dressed as a woman, in Jordan and in Big Sky. In Sun Valley he tried on dresses while wearing body makeup and was forced to buy a $1,000 worth of ruined merchandise. On April 9, 1986 the Missoulian in Montana reported that Gregory, who “has a history of mental problems,” was in the County Jail for the second time in nine months. In July 1985 and again in April 1986 he had been taking prescription drugs and drinking heavily. Both times, after being refused service in a restaurant because he was dressed as a woman, he broke a window and resisted arrest.

He pleaded guilty the first time, but lamely explained that “he had dressed as a woman because he was writing a novel from a female point of view.” Sentenced to six months in jail, he was let out on condition that he get mental counseling. He was placed under observation at a psychiatric hospital, but refused treatment. He then spent some time in a penal rehabilitation hospital for doctors, but managed to retain his Montana medical license. He was arrested for the second time after making sexual advances to two restaurant employees while dressed as a woman. The rough cowboys of Montana did not take kindly to such behavior, and satisfied Gregory’s need for punishment by beating him up.

In 1988 Gregory had a partial sex-change operation and seemed, to one close friend, neither man nor woman. The following year he had his breast implant taken out. In December 1994, two years after his fourth marriage and a month before his fourth divorce, Gregory had a complete sex-change operation in Trinidad, Colorado, and was castrated. In the San Francisco Chronicle of July 1, 1996 the columnist Herb Caen belatedly reported this event, alluding to Gregory as “the youngest son of one of the most macho American writers.”

In July 1994, a few months before his final operation, Gregory, swinging in and out of his mania, gave a surprisingly coherent speech at a Hemingway conference in Paris. Then, once again dressed in women’s clothes, he suddenly went berserk. He wrecked his three-star hotel room, abandoned his belongings, and left without paying his enormous bill. The hotel, aware that he was Hemingway’s son, called the American Embassy instead of the French police. The consul managed to find Gregory and soothe the hotel staff, cover up the scandal, and prevent his arrest.

The following month Gregory’s son and I tracked him down in Ennis, Montana, about 60 miles southwest of Bozeman, where he had recently bought a new house. The whole experience was surrealistic. When I drove up he was standing in the driveway. I reminded him that we’d met in 1983. By way of greeting he asked: “Are you still fucking my wife?” (I never had) and tried to punch me in the stomach. After this show of belligerence he became relatively friendly. Compact, muscular, and apparently indestructible, he was now dressed as a man. But I could clearly see one breast beneath his shirt and had heard he’d been trying to borrow a few thousand dollars to buy another one.

We strolled across his property to a huge airplane hangar, where a man was repairing a small plane. A friend had crashed it in Alaska while shooting wolves from the air. Gregory had trashed his new house before he had properly moved in. Furniture was broken, cushions punctured, carpets stained, garbage piled up. Fixtures hung out of the wall, and makeup spilled out of several suitcases and onto the floor. He ecstatically described the lacy lingerie which he said the previous owner had left behind. He showed me an array of different bottles of colored liqueurs—Grappa, Crème de Menthe, Benedictine, Cointreau, Kirsch—and took a generous swig from each of them. He opened a cold beer for me, and I kept a table between us as he feinted and thrust the sharp can opener in my direction.

After buying his son an expensive new watch, Gregory had misplaced it. He searched all over the house and finally found it in the glove compartment of his car. The now ruined gift looked like a warped Dali timepiece. He had tested it in the bathtub to see if it was waterproof and found to his surprise that it was not. Throughout the visit Gregory fantasized about making high-powered business deals with European pharmaceutical firms, doing scientific research at the National Institute of Health, and inventing a miracle drug that would prevent aging and extend human life. Transposing his own fantasies onto his father, he claimed that Hemingway couldn’t sleep at night because he dreamed he was a woman. Estranged from his current wife, Gregory diagnosed her as a toxic alcoholic and predicted she would die after a few more disastrous episodes.(She’s still alive, and they have remarried.)

He persistently invited us out to dinner in town, but the restaurants we had questioned while searching for him were wary of his custom. As we made our excuses, remembering all that broken glass, and got into the car, he cryptically remarked: “As Papa used to say, ‘you look like two nuns in a convent.’” I tried to look suitably pious as we drove off, but our calm was soon shattered as Gregory, reckless as ever, chased us in his car, forced us off the narrow dirt road and passed us in a cloud of dust at high speed.

Gregory, so obviously out of control, certainly made me uneasy. But his loneliness and misery, his flashes of wit and insight, also aroused my sympathy. Like so many Hemingway family and friends—who drank too much and risked danger—Gregory was a casualty who seemed fated to have an unhappy life or suffer a tragic death. Still, he’s survived all his disasters and transformations, and now wanders between Montana and Florida. The family has had four generations of mental illness. Hemingway’s granddaughter, Margaux, who committed suicide in July 1996, was the latest casualty. Like the Kennedys, the Hemingways have paid a terrible price for their great gifts.


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