The son also surprises – Memoir recounts troubled bond between Ernest and Gregory Hemingway
Sunday, February 15, 2009 7:30 AM
By Bill Eichenberger
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Throughout his life and in the nearly half century since he shot himself in the head with a shotgun in 1961, Ernest Hemingway has symbolized machismo for many Americans.
His grandson, John Hemingway, son of Gregory Hemingway, sees things differently.
“You think Nobel Prize winner. You think hunting. You think fishing. You think Cuba. You think drinking. You think women. You think four wives,” he said recently by phone. (The author of the memoir Strange Tribe will appear Tuesday at the Wexner Center for the Arts.)
“But there was another side to him, a feminine side, what Ernest called ‘the other half of the sky,’ that is equally important.”
Like his famous father, Gregory Hemingway (1931-2001) was bipolar and suffered from depression.
Ernest was fascinated by human sexuality and, especially, by androgyny. Gregory was a cross-dresser who, at 64, had a sex-change operation.
Grandson John — who was born a year before Ernest died — takes his memoir’s title from an encounter recalled by his father. Walking in on his son as Gregory was putting on his mother’s nylons, Ernest empathized, “We are from a strange tribe, you and I.”
In Strange Tribe, John argues that far from being polar opposites, and despite frequently having violent disagreements, Gregory and Ernest were more alike than not and were in touch with each other all their lives.
John Hemingway spoke further with The Dispatch.
Q: Your father was a troubled man. Your mother, Alice, was troubled as well, wasn’t she?
A: Yes, she suffered from schizophrenia. That was one of the hardest parts about writing Strange Tribe — being forced to remember the voices she heard inside her head. Her wanting to give us up to the Catholic Church so she could become a nun. Reliving that was all very painful.
Q: Is yours a book of blame?
A: No. I think Ernest and Greg were both flawed fathers. But name a father who isn’t flawed. The book is about understanding their flaws and knowing that they did the best they could for their sons given the limitations imposed on them by the difficulties they had with their mental health.
At the end of writing the memoir, it was as if I were looking at one of those old black-and-white photos, and I wanted so much to go back in time and to help them. But, of course, . . . you can’t.
Q: More than a half dozen Hemingways have written memoirs about Papa. Was it daunting to follow them?
A: Not really, because I was trying to do something none of them had done before. I was at the annual Hemingway conference in 2006, and the scholars on one panel were talking about my father, who had always contended that he and Ernest had a falling-out and that the two hadn’t
spoken at all during the last 10 years of Ernest’s life.
I was the last to speak, and I said — and it was sort of a funny moment — “Well, I have all these letters from my father to Ernest, and so it is very clear that, yes, indeed, they did maintain a
relationship until near the very end.”
Q: But that relationship was fraught with anger, wasn’t it? In one letter, Gregory says he’d like to smash Ernest’s head on the pavement until he was dead.
A: Yes, that’s true. Those letters just come right at you. But there’s another side: when my father was in hospital in Miami (from one of his bouts with mental illness) in ’57 and Ernest came up from Cuba to get him out to see if he was OK and to take him to the house in Key West. What more could a father do?
For as long as he could and to the best of his abilities, he was there for his son.
Q: You’ve said that you couldn’t have written your memoir until after your first child, Michael, was born. Why?
A: Psychologically, you are still a son until you become a father. I think women are more prepared for this than are men. Your child is born and it’s “My God, what’s this?”
It’s a strong psychological thing. At that point, something changes, and if you’re smart enough or lucky enough, the experience allows you to look beyond your navel and finally to free yourself from that father-son relationship that, for me, began back in the 1960s.
After my son, and then my daughter, Jackie, were born, it gave me a better sense of what my dad went through and what Ernest went through before him.
Q: What’s the most poignant thing about that experience?
A: The feeling that Ernest had of understanding his son, Gregory, but not being able to do anything to help him. It must have been a feeling of utter helplessness.
• John Hemingway will discuss his memoir and “all things Ernest” at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the film/video theater of the Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High St. The free event will be followed by a book-signing. Call 614-292-0330 or visit.
(c)2009, The Columbus Dispatch