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One of the Best, If Not THE Best,
This review is from: Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways (Paperback)
Surely, this must rank as one of the finest books in the Hemingway-bio ouvre. I ignored it for years as the contribution of a minor player. When I finally got to it recently, I was astonished on nearly every page.
Valerie Danby-Smith was Hemingway's personal secretary in his last years, and also the cataloguer of his letters and notebooks, now at the Kennedy Library at Harvard. That by itself would make Valerie something of an authority on the great man.
But there was more! Oh! So much more! Incredibly, astoundingly, Valerie then became the wife of Hemingway's mad and driven son, Gregory Hemingway, MD, and what a horrible, crazy life they had.
Valerie had already had one child, from a drunken knock-up with Brendan Behan in San Francisco. With Greg she bore three more children, and endured a grueling life that in highs and lows far exceeded any fictional imagining by Ernest Hemingway or anyone else. Gregory was the sort of manic-depressive charmer who could talk his way into any job, any lay, and then never show up. The sort of fellow who would tell people that the book he was writing would be featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review the following year--and then do exactly that, and have a real bestseller--but thereafter lose interest in writing. When top editor Michael Korda insulted him and dropped him as an author, Greg took revenge by chasing Korda and his horse around the Central Park bridle path early each morning (Greg was a serious distance runner in those days). A very scary guy, and Valerie was married to him for 20 years.
Valerie Hemingway answers many questions that always puzzled me. Here's one. Why did Mary Hemingway have such animosity toward Ed Hotchner, and try to prevent the publication of Hotchner's "Papa Hemingway," that explosive bestseller of the mid-60s? The answer is that Mary knew that Hotchner was nothing more than what he seemed to be: a macher whose only interest lay in exploiting Hemingway for his own personal gain.
Now, Mary was one of Valerie's closest friends and confidants. She knew that Hotchner was calling on young Valerie when she was sorting out the Hemingway archives for Scribner's in 1962-63, and suspected that Hotchner was stealing bits of correspondence for his own forthcoming blockbuster book.
Alas, Mary did not alert Valerie to her suspicions in time. By the time "Papa Hemingway" was published, the Hemingway archives were safely stashed away at Harvard and there was no way to prove that Hotchner had stolen material. Hotchner gave no credit to Valerie in "Papa Hemingway"; as with so many of the characters in that book, she appears as a wispy, semi-fictional extra. She is "Honora," from Glasgow. She is in one of the photographs but not identified.
Hemingway himself had recognized Hotch for what he was at the very start, when they met in a bar in Havana in the late 40s. But he had taken pity on him--for his sheer pitiableness and ineptitude. Maybe you know the story. Hotchner had flown down on assignment from Collier's, with a hopeless task. He was suppose to dog Hemingway and get him to write an essay on the Future of American Fiction. Gentleman that he was, Hemingway laughed and got the poor guy drunk. And for the next twelve years he allowed Hotchner to hang around as a tossing-dwarf and useful fool in the Hemingway entourage. Why useful? Hemingway sensed Hotchner might be a useful go-between with publishers and producers. It is true that Hotchner's efforts seldom panned out; he mainly was interested in getting Hemingway to appear, Alfred Hitchcock-style, as the host of a television series; but Hotch stayed with Hem as a loyal footman. Hemingway of course had his own little sadistic pranks to play on the fool. Most notably Hotcher was sent out into the Spanish corrida as "El Pecas," the freckled Jewish matador from St. Louis, Missouri, America. Hotchner never took the prank seriously till he was out in the ring and a real bull was charging down at him.
Another question: whatever happened to poor old Mary Welsh Hemingway in her last days? She hung around for decades on the East Side of Manhattan, after Ernest died. Mostly she drank Tanqueray Gin, according to Valerie. Valerie tried to take to her a Broadway play opening for her playwright friend Brian Friel, but Mary was in no shape for an experimental play with a long opening monologue (delivered by the star, James Mason). Mary screamed and cursed and was thrown out of the theater, pausing on the way to insult the playwright.
Biggest question of all: what was the 'true gen' about Hemingway's third son, the only one who managed to get through college, let alone medical school? Well, Greg Hemingway, Valerie's husband, was quite simply, quite arguably, the most brilliant of the clan. No one could charm or impress like Greg, at least for the short-con. Alas, his thoughts were too big and his human skull was too small. Also, his ears stuck out. Perhaps only someone like Valerie Danby-Smith, daughter of an Anglo-Irish manic-depressive drunk and a mad English mother, could possibly have lived with this unpredictable and irredeemably charming character.
Greg was the kind of husband who would take your passport, dress up in your clothes, and travel all over the place under your name. Then when you looked around for your passport, he would say (having burned your passport in the meantime), "Gosh, I don't know, I haven't seen it." Greg was a kind of "secondary transsexual," a type all too familiar today: an obsessive transvestite who thinks he can become a woman while still somehow remaining a man. This, more or less, is what Greg eventually did. He talked about it for 20 years, then had a sex-change operation at the Stanley Biber mill in Trinidad, Colorado. Greg posed for at least one Polaroid soon afterwards with his son Edward (1995; reproduced in the book--big wig, clearly drunk). But Gregory never really changed his sex. After all this surgery he went back to being Greg, although now and then he did put on a dress. He had long since divorced Valerie, and married and divorced a gold-digger named Ida Mae. But Ida Mae didn't have much money, while Greg got fat quarterly installments from the Hemingway trust. So they remarried, in the eyes of the law, and remained married when Greg died in a women's lockup in Florida in October 2001.
Around the time Greg died, someone proposed to Valerie that she might write a book about her years with the Hemingways. So Valerie, the long-ago journalist, attempted the project, very tentatively. She pushed it aside. It was all too unbearable to describe. Later on she took it up again. We are so lucky she finished this tale of excruciating frenzy and torment.
The most astonishing thing of all: the action of this book mostly takes place between the 1950s and the 1980s. And it's still shocking.