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A tribute to Gregory H. Hemingway.

A loving tribute to and capsule biography of Ernest Hemingway's youngest son, written by his former wife.

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The smallest boy was fair and was built like a pocket battle-ship. He was a Copy of Thomas Hudson, physically, reduced in scale and widened and shortened. His skin freckled when it tanned and he had a humorous face and was born being very old. He was a devil too, and deviled both his older brothers, and he had a dark side to him that nobody except Thomas Hudson could ever understand. Neither of them thought about this except that they recognized it in each other and knew it was bad and the man respected it and understood the boy's having it. They were very close to each other although Thomas Hudson had never been as much with this boy as with the others. This youngest boy, Andrew, was a precocious excellent athlete and he had been marvelous with horses since he had first ridden. The other boys were very proud of him but they did not want any nonsense from him, either. He was a little unbelievable and anyone could well have doubted his feats except that many people had seen him ride and watched him jump and seen his cold, professional modesty. He was a boy born to be quite wicked who was being very good and he carried his wickedness around with him transmuted into a sort of teasing gaiety. But he was a bad boy and the others knew it and he knew it. He was just being good while his badness grew inside him.

--Islands in the Stream--

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GREGORY HANCOCK HEMINGWAY died on 1 October last year, six weeks shy of his seventieth birthday. He accomplished a fair amount during his lifetime. Everything he did, he did with skill and dedication: big game hunting in, Africa; working as a medical doctor in the desolate backwoods of Jordan, Montana; writing a memoir between patients in New York City. He was an avid jogger before it was fashionable; he played tennis like a pro. He had the courage of a lion and reflexes as fast and unfailing as a bolt of lightening which, as long as I knew him, never let him down. He was a deadly shot, and drove a car as if, during every outing, he was competing in the Indy 500. He was known as Gigi or Gig in childhood but he preferred to be called Greg during the twenty-one years I was married to him. Twenty-one years of outrageous adventures, of love and tenderness, of triumph and failure, discontent and finally severe, disabling mental illness.

Ernest used this youngest, and at one time favorite son as the model of Andrew in Islands in the Stream. Greg was very proud of the posthumously published passage, and even used it as a frontispiece for his memoir. He loved to read it over and over, as his compulsive nature prompted him. He always marveled at how much his father truly understood and loved him, and it saddened Greg that that they had not been able to communicate these feelings to each other while they were alive.

In the passage I have quoted Ernest encapsulated the character of his youngest son with an accuracy and insight with which I believe few writers have been able to observe their children. Small details were changed. Ernest switched shooting for horseback riding. Greg was a crack shot but an indifferent horseman. But there is one change I would like to make: the wickedness and badness of the little boy were the seeds of sickness, not evil. All his life Greg fought a losing battle against this crippling illness. He lacked critical early help because his parents were unable or unwilling to accept his condition nor could he come to terms with it himself for a long time, taking up the study of medicine in the hope that he would find a cure, or at least a solace. Failing that, he developed an alternate persona, a character into which he could retreat from the unbearable responsibilities of being, among other things, his father's son, and of never ever measuring up to what was expected of him, or to what he expected of himself.

Memories are such curious things, so selective, and geared to the mood of the moment. On 7 October my children and I met in New York City to pay tribute to their father. That was where they had known him best. We walked along the streets of their childhood, past the apartment, Sherry House, on East 87th Street where we had spent ten years. Edward was an infant when we moved there and it was the first home Vanessa knew. My stepson, John, too, spent several years with us in that apartment. We followed the path past the schools to which Greg had often accompanied them, or from which he had picked them up. We passed Little Egypt, the playground within sight of Cleopatra's Needle, where he took them on Saturday mornings, and we strolled through the baseball fields where he spared no pains in teaching them the finer points of the game. We couldn't omit the zoo, a passion of his when they were preschool age, and where, at one time, the name of every animal, no matter how exotic or obscure, could be recited by each of them. I can remember a three year old Sean in his bearskin coat pointing to the animals and saying "coatimundi," "paca," "coon." That October day we lunched at the Stanhope Hotel, where we had celebrated special occasions or rewarded diligence as the children got older. We concluded with an afternoon's rowing on the lake, the apex of fatherly outings on a sunny weekend during our New York City years. The memories were tender and funny. We laughed a great deal and felt very, very grateful for the many magical moments we had experienced together and which can never be erased.

The achievement that Greg was proudest of was his medical career. His grandfather, Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, was a doctor. Greg knew how much the young Ernest had admired his father's skills, and it was his hope in turn to earn Ernest's respect with his own medical prowess. As in almost every area of their relationship, it started badly, for when he wrote to tell his father of his decision to apply to medical school, the curt response was that someone who couldn't spell medicine was unlikely to succeed in that field (a mean-spirited response from a writer who himself often lacked spelling ability). Distressed but more determined than ever, Greg applied, was accepted and graduated from the University of Miami Medical School in 1964, three years after his father's death. This achievement in spite of the fact that at the outset he was recovering from a severe bout of mental illness; during which time he had been institutionalized and received, he once told me, more than fifty electric shock treatments.

Greg had an intuitive gift for medicine and was an excellent diagnostician, always able instinctively to pinpoint an ailment. Once Vanessa received a dire report from the family doctor in Bozeman--she had severe kidney problems and needed immediate treatment, I was told one Friday. When Greg came home the three hundred miles from Jordan for the weekend that evening I gave him the news. "Nonsense," he said. "Just looking at her healthy complexion any doctor could tell that there is nothing wrong with her kidneys." On Monday morning the nurse called to say, "Sorry." They had mixed up Vanessa's test with that of another patient. Greg had fumed that a doctor should be able to tell a great deal by common sense and medical knowledge and the tests should confirm the diagnosis, not make it.

From the outset he had intended to use his medical skills to help the poor. Specifically, he hoped to go to Africa. While in medical school he had visited Albert Schweitzer's hospital in Haiti and was impressed and inspired by what he saw. It was his ambition to put his own talents to good use and in the service of the needy. When we married I fully expected that we would spend our time doing exactly that in some remote spot. I did not imagine that spot would be Montana. Once he had finished his residency we planned to set sail for Africa. Unfortunately, he could never quite finish the residency, as he would switch from specialty to specialty. Then an opportunity came up to work with CARE in Nicaragua. We went down for the preliminary interview, which he passed with flying colors. I was a little dismayed at just how primitive it was, a constellation of five villages in the rain forest with no road in or out, no electricity, and no running water. Over a two week period, the five of us survived on two chickens, a pound of rice, and a drink made from lemons and sugar cane. The chewed chicken bones tasted pretty good against the bland white rice on the tenth day and were but a memory by the time we boarded the plane for Managua. I felt I could endure anything for two years so we signed up and were scheduled to return with the family as soon as school broke up for the summer. We would be dropped off by an Air Force plane and picked up two years later: no mail, no news, very little food. Then a miracle happened, or you might call it a disaster depending on your point of view. There was a massive earthquake in Managua and all funding was diverted to aid the victims and rebuild the city. CARE'S medical project in the interior was scratched.

Greg turned his attention back to Africa, but his brother Patrick who was living there wrote to us: "I'm getting out of Africa. This is not the place to be right now." "But," he added, "come out and visit me before it's too late." And we did, in 1973. Two Years later Pat moved to Bozeman with his daughter, Mina. He immediately set about enticing us to come to Montana too. He cited the hunting and fishing opportunities and what a great place it was to bring up children, but more importantly he told Greg, "Montana needs doctors every bit as much as Africa." And he was right about that. Greg had no trouble finding a job, first in Fort Benton, the old fur trading town at the headwaters of the Missouri River, and later, in Jordan, where for three years he was the medical officer for Garfield County, population 1,500 people, unchanged since the turn of the last, century. He was dearly loved there. "Doc," they called him affectionately and he knew every man, woman and child in the county. On a slow day he put up a sign "Gone fishing" on his dispensary, and they always knew where to find him. In a pinch, they took their dogs and an occasional farm animal to him. He was the saint of Garfield County. I have an enormous file of letters of appreciation he received each Christmas from his patients which illustrate that he served beyond the call of duty. He heeded his Hippocratic oath meticulously and added those small touches of thoughtfulness that have long been lost in the medical profession of our fast and frenzied society. He was doing what he always wanted to do, and what he did best.

But, as had befallen him at every critical period of his life, his mental illness, his fantasy life, caught up with him and interfered with his normal functioning. All that knowledge and superb reasoning, all that good will and those good intentions were not sufficient to save him. When I saw it coming as I had so many times before, I tried to make him slow down, to take a leave of absence, to get the help he desperately needed. Being a doctor shielded him, being so clever protected him, not from sickness but from getting well. It set him up for a permanent fall. I cannot but think of the sad tale of Humpty Dumpty: not all the king's horses nor all the king's men.... We parted, but he was never far from our thoughts and prayers. Exactly a week before he died he left a message on my telephone machine. I did something I had never done before, I taped it. He thanked me for the good years we had together and he said, "You did a wonderful job with our children."

Finally, I would like to say a few words about his book, Papa: A Personal Memoir. In his manic phases, Greg always imagined that he could win a Nobel-Prize, not for literature but for medicine. He used to say, that to win in the medical category was far more significant than in literature. He had no serious aspirations as a creative writer; he saw writing as a possible way to make money and a definite way to settle old scores. He turned down offer after Offer to write about his father until he watched his stepmother, Mary, year after year penning her interminable memoir, which at one point was thought would go into multiple volumes. Her life was consumed by the effort. Never a fan of Mary, Greg decided one day that he would write his own memoir. He Would publish it before Mary. He would get a front page review in The New York Times Book Review (this would effectively block Mary's book receiving the coveted spot). He achieved all three objectives.

Setting about his task seriously, Greg was erratic at the very least. Because he had had so many electric shock treatments by that time, his memory of his childhood was faulty. He studied carefully what had been written about his father as well as a number of other son/father memoirs, notably that of Michael Arlen. He recruited Uncle Leicester, Ernest's younger brother, to visit us for an extended period and ghost some early chapters, which were later thrown out. Les had lived with the Hemingways in Key West when Greg was a boy. He was able to fill in many of the gaps. George Brown spent a good deal of time at our apartment too. Ernest's old friend who was the only person with Mary at the Ketchum house when Ernest shot himself in 1961, George was the first person I met when I came to New York in 1960 and he stood as godfather for our son, Edward. Denis Brian of the National Enquirer and author of The True Gen was another literary midwife, as was William Weatherby, an editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Greg found that the only way to stimulate his imagination or whatever faculty he needed to produce the memoir was to smoke marijuana, and he was kept in good supply by Buzz Farbar, who died in prison some years later while on drug charges. I can't remember exactly how long it took to complete the book but it was no more than six months. By the time it was finished Greg, whose math was as faulty as his spelling, had promised ten percent of the royalties to each of eleven people. Only one person sued him to collect and that was Leicester. They settled for five percent and, in true Hemingway fashion, the two never spoke to each other again.

The book was a critical success but by the time it reached the stores Greg's high had worn off and he was suffering a massive depression. It was the beginning of a cycle of highs and lows that became as predictable as night following day. He received many tributes. Clearly the book struck a chord for Ernest's old pals--Herbert Matthews, Slim Keith, and Rocky Cooper, for instance, all made a point of writing to tell Greg how affected they were by his account. It was another example of how in his quirky erratic way, Greg could achieve almost any objective, except the one he desired most, to win his father's affection and approval, and once more become Andrew, the little boy who was so close to his father before the wickedness, that is, the sickness, took over.

VALERIE HEMINGWAY

Bozeman, Montana
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Title Annotation:Biography
Author:Hemingway, Valerie
Publication:The Hemingway Review
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Words:2730
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