Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways.
"Forget Ireland and get to know Spain," Ernest Hemingway told Valerie Danby-Smith when they first met in May of 1959 during Madrid's San Isidro festival. "And I did," said Dublin-born, convent-bred Valerie when we met in Boston on 8 November 2004 before her talk at the John F. Kennedy Library on the occasion of her just-published memoir Running with the Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways. "That I was from Ireland--a country he had never visited--interested Ernest" explained Valerie. "And when he offered me $250 a month to be his assistant, I said 'Yes, and quit my job with the Belgian news service that assigned me to interview him at the Hotel Suecia."
That the Hemingways first stole Valerie's heart at nineteen and continue to shape her life at sixty-four is as evident in her remarkable memoir as it was in our conversation and her talk that evening at the JFK Library.
To Ernest, she was first a secretary, then confidant, and later, symbolic daughter. And though "sometimes he fantasized that we would have a life together" (84), there was "great affection and respect" and nothing sexual in their relationship, she told me.
To his fourth wife Mary ("a tough old bird'), she was a companion and helpmate, and later, confidant and caregiver.
And to Greg, Hemingway's youngest son, Valerie would be a third wife and the mother of his three youngest children ("Our children adored him" 240), as well as the woman from whom he stole pantyhose and makeup, even her Irish passport and personal papers. She "rightly intuited that life with Greg would never be dull" (227).
Valerie first met Greg at Ernest's "invitation-only" funeral service in Ketchum. "We both were slight outsiders there," she recalled. All the time she was living and traveling with Ernest and Mary in Spain, France and Cuba, she seldom heard them mention Greg's name. "They called him 'Gigi,' and I remember once Ernest said, 'He was my best son and he went bad.'" As she sensitively explains in her memoir, Hemingway was referring to Greg's tendency to cross-dress as a young adolescent. "Greg told me that his parents had always ignored his problem, pretending it did not exist or would go away. He never received any of the help he so desperately needed, He resented his parents for this" (252).
Five years after their meeting, Valerie and Greg eloped to Mexico. "On our wedding night, without telling me beforehand, he called Mary collect to tell her the news," Valerie said. "Early on in our marriage, I realized Greg had problems. As a boy he adored his father. But as an adult, he always wanted to surpass him, to be better." Although Greg was a physician, he would have liked, explained Valerie, "to have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. In our home we rarely talked about Ernest. I was very conflicted because I had good memories of his [Greg's] father and I did not want them ruined."
To Valerie, "Ernest was a great teacher. He was very quiet and spoke almost in a whisper," she said. "He wasn't a person who bragged. Instead, he wanted to draw people out. 'Write about what you know,' he would tell me. 'Then read the great writers.'" No university could have taught her as much; she knew then and now.
Next to writing (which he considered "sacred") and great writers (her fellow countryman "Jim Joyce" was a favorite), "Ernest loved paintings more than anything, and Van Gogh rated close to the top of his list. Many times I had heard him exclaim how he would like to be able to write as well--or, as he put it, "as good as"--Van Gogh or Cezanne could paint" (72). No wonder then that a friendship between Maine artist Waldo Peirce (another wartime ambulance driver) began in Paris in the 1920s and, as Valerie recalled, never wavered. "I remember well Waldo's paintings in the Cuba house and, of course, the Time magazine cover portrait (1937) of Ernest by Waldo in which Ernest is holding a fishing pole."
That Hemingway "was the most interesting person" she has ever known resounds in her conversation and memoir. And Valerie certainly has known and still knows many interesting people.
First, there's playwright Brendan Behan, whom she met during her "bohemian days in Dublin" when she was sixteen. When she was twenty, Behan asked her "'Why in the name of Jaysus would you want to work for America's greatest writer when you could work for Ireland's instead.... I can easily get you a job with the Hostage company," he said. 'Forget about the ol' man and Cuba and support one of your own'" (91). And she did--"as his dogsbody, his right-hand person for as long as The Hostage played in New York" (150). And as the result of "a night that would change my life forever" (164), she gave birth to her first son Brendan nine months later.
"Look at this picture" Valerie asked me, pointing to the one in her memoir where she is skiing with Mary in Idaho in November of 1961. "I am pregnant with Brendan and Mary never suspected. She kept asking me to stay longer, for we were still sorting through Ernest's papers."
Another one of Valerie's "interesting people" is Cuba's Fidel Castro, who visited Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) before and after Ernest's death. The latter meeting was when she and Mary were packing up as many manuscripts and memorabilia as would fit in four shipping crates. Her memoir's accounts of her Cuban visits are both insightful and informative, descriptive yet disturbing. It was there that Ernest taught her to troll for "the prized black marlin" and to shoot clay pigeons. And it was there that the "dark side" she first saw in Spain months earlier became even darker, and "fear became his daily companion" (132).
Then there are the likes of Orson Welles to whom she sang Danny Boy in Irish ("He was not impressed") at Ernest's request in a Paris cafe. And there's Nobel Peace Laureate John Hume, whom she first met during her ten-year stint with the Guinness Company and with whom she helped "set up the New Ireland campaign" in 1978 (265). And there's Norman Mailer (her friend first, then Behan's and Greg's) who thinks Running with the Bulls is "one of the best books on Hemingway I have read, and it has material to be found nowhere else on Ernest, Mary, and Greg Hemingway" (back jacket cover).
Ironically, Mailer wrote the preface to Greg's Papa: A Personal Memoir (Houghton Mifflin 1976). And what he wrote about that memoir--that "if it is a portrait written in love, it is with all the sweets and sours of love"--can also be said about Valerie's. What she observed about Ernest's last year--that "fear became his daily companion"--is also true of Greg's last years when, after his sex-change surgery, he became "Gloria." Both the tender and turbulent moments and months of their twenty-one year marriage resonate in her bittersweet but never sour prose.
"I was often asked to write of my years with the Hemingways" Valerie said. "At the time, I couldn't be as completely honest as I am now. I started this in '91, and soon put it aside until Greg's death in 2001. There's a very fine line between telling a story and stringing together the sensational parts without supplying all the in-betweens. That would be a tabloid story; that was not what I wanted to do. I wrote it from memory in six months, and then went back to my files and was amazed at how well I remembered."
Though Valerie no longer has the rabbit's foot pendant Ernest gave her in Madrid, her voice--in both prose and person--suggest she's had her share of what could be called "Irish Luck"--more joys than sorrows. Two of her children, Brendan and Vanessa, have blessed her with granddaughters, Susan and Una; her son Sean, holds a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr, has edited Hemingway at War (Scribner's 2003), and is a curator at a major museum in New York City. Her son Edward (he accompanied her to Boston) is an artist and writer.
Still living in Montana where she and Greg moved with their children in 1980 and at whose university she earned, with highest honors, a degree in Modern Languages (she began it during their divorce proceedings), Valerie is kept busy with free-lance assignments that satisfy her globe-trotting gene. A book on Montana--"now a mecca for artists and writers"--is next, and perhaps one on Ireland, "to tie up all those loose ends," she quipped with the same lilt in her voice that endeared her to Ernest Hemingway forty-six years ago this May.
--Maureen Connelly, Harwich Port, Massachusetts
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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