For Whom the Bell Tinkles: the Hemingway Legacy of Death, Dresses, and Madness
We all know how it ended -- the grand finale, the big bang, Ernest Hemingway’s teeth and hair stuck to the walls, his splattered brains dripping from the ceiling onto the floor.
Though his widow made a half-hearted attempt to give us the ol’ gun cleaning accident story, there was no fooling anyone. Indeed, not a soul in the world expected him to go any other way.
Though Ernest Hemingway wrote about ten each of novels, short story collections, and nonfiction, worked as a war journalist, and won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer Prize for his writing, he is even more famous for his volcanic persona. Obsessed with his own masculinity, he was an arrogant bully with thundering moods and few stable relationships. To make sure no one would mistake him for anything less than a mighty god, an Old Testament patriarch, he preferred the world to call him Papa, loved guns and killing even more than testing his virility on woman after woman, and favoured cheery pastimes like bullfighting and war.
Hemingway severed ties with anyone who disagreed with him, including his mother, siblings, and off and on, his children. There is a long string of writers whom he would defame in his books after falling-outs. These included Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He dismissed most of his contemporaries as sloppy frauds: apparently Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis for not being in his league. Like any respectable male writer worth his salt, he was a heavy drinker and a womanizer who consistently traded in his wives once they wore out, and didn’t even try to disguise his dalliances and lusts during his marriages.
I was acquainted early on with Hemingway, when I pulled him out of a hat for the high school famous writer essay. I read The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Sun Also Rises, and skimmed a few others like A Farewell to Arms. There’s no doubt that a teen, even a bright one, is too young to fully grasp the content and context of such work. Nonetheless, ever outspoken, I risked a poor grade to hand in my honest criticism. I said that Papa’s writing was a complete and utter bore, and that the man was a humourless, perverted and bloodthirsty boor with little insight into the human heart. I was not one easily seduced by the machismo -- I could already feel its transparent impotence. I wrote that Hemingway was full of himself, and that he was the only one who fancied his sparse, bare bones style, his world without adverbs, as genius. The only good thing about it, I ventured, was that the books were short and so the pain of boredom was brief.
To my surprise, my teacher gave me an A+, which he said was not just for bravery -- that despite Hemingway’s monumental fame, many of his editors and critics felt exactly as I did. I can’t recall the exact words scrawled in red, but it was something along these lines: Like you, they found him obnoxious, trite, and pitifully obsessed with meaningless markers of masculinity.
Of course, it is Hemingway’s economical style, his spare and vulgar cadence, his crudeness, that reflect the sharp emptiness, the harsh reality of the world, a world where war and savage masculinity reign supreme whether or not Hemingway writes it that way. And so this very style that was reviled by his parents and the critics alike is what made him famous. His works, his life, his guns and his brutality were all part of the Hemingway myth. I doubt that today I would write the same essay as I had all those years ago, though I think some who follow his footsteps -- Cormac McCarthy, for example -- are far superior writers. For Hemingway’s tempestuous rage and blundering bravado were just puzzle pieces in a familial conundrum of considerable expanse. The Hemingway Curse isn’t just alcoholism and suicide -- it’s a complex web of mental illness, shock treatments, childhood traumas, brain damage, physical illness, sexual impotence, and fetishism.
On top of that harrowing handful, I’ll throw some cross-dressing into the mix.
Yes, it’s hard to believe that the great bearded fisherman, the hunter with the big guns, fathered a transsexual offspring. Dr. Gregory Hemingway, though a womanizer like his dad, died in a female jail cell as Gloria Hemingway, after being arrested for wandering around stark naked, carrying a dress.
Ernest’s grandchild through the good doctor suggested in a 2007 memoir, Strange Tribe, that his father’s unusual obsession with cross dressing and later, his sexual reassignment surgery, was inherited from Gramps. Though Ernest disowned his bipolar son Gregory off and on, the deepest rift occurred between them when Gigi, as he was nicknamed at home, was caught red-handed stealing stockings and women’s clothing from Ernie’s wife. Coincidentally, Greg’s mother Pauline died a few days after this unfortunate blowup, and Ernest blamed his son for her death. Of course, Ernest couldn’t tell the world what Gigi had done to allegedly cause the death of his own mother, so he said it was drugs. (It turns out that Pauline was sick anyhow, and her poorly timed death had nothing to do with the missing stockings.)
Grandson John Hemingway writes with fair certainty that Gregory’s drug of choice -- pantyhose -- was a direct inheritance, and that Ernest himself enjoyed a walk on the wild side.
Gigi -- or Greg, or Valerie, or Gloria, or Vanessa, take your pick -- was manic-depressive and desperately sought through dozens of shock therapy treatments relief from his illness. The only thing that soothed his stress was putting on a nice frock and a pair of pantyhose. Greg blamed both Pauline and Ernest for his struggle with bipolar disorder and his gender confusion, as both parents expressed an aversion to infants and neglected him. Worse, Ernest already had a male trophy and blamed Greg for not being a girl baby. Perhaps as revenge, or perhaps simply at the strange turns of fate, Greg married Ernest’s final girlfriend Valerie after his father’s suicide. They met at Ernest’s funeral.
While I didn’t read transsexualism into the letters John presents us with as proof, Ernie’s masculine obsession may well have shrouded sexual insecurities. I personally don’t believe that every macho man is in the closet, either -- though I give the ten percent brigade their due, we must remember that breeders do occasionally think outside the box. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda thought the duo had a stormy lover’s relationship. Many have speculated that Ernest’s rabid homophobia hid his own secret desires for men. Homosexuality shows up in a number of his stories, and has been read into others that are not so overt.
Whether he was secretly gay, secretly a woman, bisexual, or just confused about identity in general, Ernest’s furious hatred for his mother stems from a bizarre fact. As a child, she dressed Ernest as a little girl, complete with dresses and curls. Is this why he rejected everything feminine, and surrounded himself with the corpses of animals he killed in Africa, smoked and drank heavily in Cuba, and partied with bullfighters in Spain?
Exactly what was going on there in his toddler days is open to speculation, but Grace’s genes are definitely how Ernest became a great writer, for she was skilled in music and of minor fame, and though her income was vastly more than her husband’s, she was restricted by social mores and by her husband from fulfilling her destiny. Perhaps it is this suppression that led her to punish her male child by dressing him like her daughter? We can only speculate. And speculate we do -- when Hemingway’s father Clarence blew his own brains out, some were quick to blame his strange wife, whom Ernest hated for the duration of his life. But this is unlikely, for Clarence in youth rescued his own father from suicide with the exact same gun he later used himself.
If only the gun stopped here. But Ernest was not Clarence’s only child to die by his own hand -- his siblings Ursula and Leicester also committed suicide. The Hemingway’s maid killed herself, too. Later, the Hemingway Curse continued when Ern’s granddaughter, Margaux, purposefully overdosed at age 41. The supermodel died following lifelong struggles with alcohol, epilepsy, bulimia, and dyslexia.
It seems that there was no escaping crippling depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and a whole host of variations in human anguish that plagued the Hemingway family. Most offspring and descendents endured some form of depression or related illness. Patrick was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and Gregory married one, before he married Dad’s girlfriend Val.
And while most writers felt that madness came to Hemingway later in life, a frustration response perhaps to illness, others like Jeffrey Kottler observed that symptoms of emotional disorder were actually lifelong. He mentions in Divine Madness that Hemingway’s obsession with death began early on -- the writer’s first published story, from high school, was about suicide. He also notes that Ernest had crippling depressions and violent temper tantrums from the beginning, insomnia, impotence, and terror that he would lose his creativity. He was abusive to his wives. He was a compulsive list maker and counter, apparently. He was always a heavy drinker, and he became more and more so in middle age. He was thrown off by his father’s suicide, not sure whether Clarence was a coward, or courageous. In his final years, Ernest’s madness was extreme. In addition to bipolar disorder, it is highly likely he had both narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. He was totally paranoid in these later years, certain his rooms and phones were bugged and assassination plots abounded. He was sent to the Mayo Clinic and endured electroconvulsive shock treatments, in vogue in those days, and not a great idea for someone who had sustained numerous head injuries during his life. Perhaps the final straw came when Ernest was told he had a form of diabetes and would be blind and totally dysfunctional sexually within a few years.
Ernest was a stubborn, angry, self-absorbed bull of a man who fancied himself a big hero, but he did have a heroic and generous spirit. He received a medal of valour -- he was wounded in action in 1918, suffering shrapnel in his hip and legs from an artillery shell that exploded nearby. Despite his injury, he rescued several Italian soldiers, carrying them to safety. Later on, he was in a plane crash with his wife Mary and saved the lives of the passengers by forcing the door of the plane open -- battering it with his head until it yielded. His generosity, however, did not extend to his children: when the bell tolled for Ernest, all three of his sons were left nothing of Papa’s estate.
In the end, regardless of how, who, what or why, the enigma of Hemingway is now firmly entrenched in our culture. The legacy of his work is perhaps the reflection of man’s identity crisis in our times, the lewd, crude hopeless hell inside our hearts.
Perhaps the web of madness was absolutely necessary for the making of a cultural icon. As Papa said, “We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously.”
Fascinating Writers is a spin-off of Fascinating People at www.fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com, by writer Lorette C. Luzajic. Lorette also writes The Spice Girl column and other food stories for Gremolata.com, and she is the author of The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos. She has written for dozens of literary journals, online portals, blogs, papers, and magazines. Please visit her at www.thegirlcanwrite.net.