If not any thing else, Ernest Hemingway had meticulously programmed his death to be executed at precisely 7:00 am on Sunday 2 July, 1961. On that fateful morning Hemingway awoke in his house in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, rose from his bed, taking care not to wake his wife Mary, unlocked the door of the storage room where he kept his firearms, and selected a double-barrelled shotgun with which he liked to shoot pigeons. He took it to the front of the house and, in the foyer, put the twin barrels against his forehead, reached down, pushed his thumb against the trigger and blew his brains out.
Hemingway’s neighbours said that he had chosen from his wardrobe a favourite dressing gown that he called his “emperor’s robe”. They might have been reminded of the words of Cleopatra, just before she applied the asp to her flesh: “Give me my robe. Put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me”.
Hemingway, as the world knew him, had a thirst for adventure, he was a swashbuckling, hard-drinking pugilist who loved being in the thick of the action, whether in the front line of battle or within charging distance of a water buffalo. He also happened to be the finest writer around, disdaining the grandiose wordiness of Victorian prose for a clean, stripped-back simplicity, conveying emotion by what was not said as much as by what was. Wounded on the Italian front in the First World War, he was a handsome convalescent who fell in love with a pretty nurse and wrote ‘A Farewell to Arms’ as a result. In the 1920s, he was at the forefront of writers and artists like F Scott Fitzgerald who hung out in Paris, “being geniuses together”.
In the 1930s, he went to Spain to fight for the republic against Franco and wrote ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ In the Second World War, he was at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris. After the war he retired with his fourth wife to Cuba, where he fished for marlins and wrote ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, won the Nobel Prize, was lionised wherever he went.
In the years after his death, however, the jigsaw pieces of a counter-life gradually began to emerge. His war record, for instance. Hemingway was only 18 when he signed up for the First World War – but it was as a non-combatant. He had a defective left eye, inherited from his mother, which kept him out of battle. He went to Italy to man the Red Cross canteens and evacuate the wounded. Helping a wounded man to safety one evening, he was shot in the leg and hospitalised in Milan, with three other patients and 18 nurses. Though his dalliance with Sister Agnew von Kurovsky was unconsummated, he fell in love with European culture and manners, swanned about in an Italian cloak and drank wine in immeasurable quantities.
It’s easy to be spiteful about Hemingway. All his posturing, his editing of the truth, his cocky pretensions can obscure his undoubted bravery. He loved being in the thick of the war dodging bullets, watching men being shot to hell all around him. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that what he was doing wasn’t bravery, but psychotic self-dramatisation. And when you inspect the image of Hemingway-as-hero, you uncover an extraordinary sub-stratum of self-harming. You discover that, for just over half of his life, Hemingway seemed hell-bent on destroying himself.
It was about the time he was finishing ‘A Farewell to Arms’, in 1928, when he learnt his father Clarence had shot himself in the head with a Civil War revolver, that Hemingway’s life first began to crack apart. The most obvious external evidence was a succession of bizarre physical accidents, many of which were bashes on the head. One, in Paris, left him with a split head needing nine stitches, after he yanked the chain in the bathroom, thinking it was the lavatory flush, and pulled the skylight down on top of him. He became weirdly accident-prone. His car accident that occasioned his row with Martha saw him hurled through the windscreen, lacerating his scalp and requiring 57 stitches. Three months later, he came flying off a motorbike evading German fire in Normandy. He suffered headaches, tinnitus, diplopia, showed speech and memory problems for months. Back in Cuba after the war, he tore open his forehead on the rear-view mirror when his car skidded. Five years later, while drinking, he slipped on the deck of the Pilar, and concussed himself. Why, you’d almost think he was trying to emulate his late father, and his self-imposed head wound.
What was bugging Hemingway? Why all the drinking, the macho excess, the manic displays of swaggering? Why was he so drawn to war, shooting, boxing and conflict? Why did he want to kill so many creatures? Was he trying to prove something? Or blot something out of his life?
In an article published in the American Psychiatry magazine, titled “Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide”, clinical psychiatrist Christopher D Martin diagnosed the author with “bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probably borderline and narcissistic personality traits”. He noted that many in the Hemingway family – his father and mother, their siblings, his own son and his grand-daughter Margaux – were prone to manic-depression (Margaux’s was the fifth, or possibly sixth, suicide in four generations) and even went to the extent of suggesting that it was Hemingway’s manic episodes that drove him to his astonishing feats of creativity. But he ties the writer’s trauma to two childhood experiences.
It seems that it was his mother Grace’s habit to dress him, as a child, in long white frocks and fashion his hair like a little girl’s. It was a 19th-century custom to dress infants alike, but she took it to extremes. She referred to him, in his cute lacy dress, as “Dutch dolly”. She said she was his Sweetie, or, as he pronounced it, “Fweetee”. Once, when Hemingway was two, Grace called him a doll once too often. He replied, “I not a Dutch dolly… Bang, I shoot Fweetee”. But she also praised him for being good at hunting in the woods and fishing in the stream in boys’ clothes. It was too confusing for a sensitive kid. He always hated her, and her controlling ways. He always referred to her as “that bitch”. He’d spend the rest of his life in a galloping parody of masculinity. Dutch dolly indeed. He’d show the bitch there was no confusion in his head. “I shoot Fweetee.” The trouble was, he also wanted to shoot his father.
Clarence Hemingway was a barrel-chested, six-foot bully, a disciplinarian who beat his son with a razor strop. Young Hemingway didn’t retaliate directly. He bottled it up and subsumed it into a ritual, in which he’d hide in a shed in the family backyard with a loaded shotgun and take aim at his father’s head. Martin speculates that, when Clarence shot himself, Hemingway, aged 29, felt terrible guilt that he’d fantasised about killing him. Unable to handle this, he took to blaming his mother for his father’s death. “I hate her guts and she hates mine,” he wrote in 1949. “She forced my father to suicide.”
After Clarence’s death, Hemingway told a friend, “My life was more or less shot out from under me, and I was drinking much too much entirely through my own fault”. He suffered a chronic identity crisis. As a consequence, he could be warm and generous or ruthless and overbearing. His friendships were often unstable (he could turn vicious or cruel, even with supposedly close pals) and his relations with women were full of conflict. He sulked like a child when, on his first safari, his wife Pauline shot a lion before he did. And he was pursued, for the rest of his life, by a colossal death wish – either to join his late father, or to expatiate his guilt at his father’s death by mirroring it.
Death took up residence at the heart of Hemingway’s life, a constant spur to his creative imagination, a constant companion, a dark, secret lover. Themes of violence and suicide informed his stories from the start. His letters are full of references to his future suicide. And when not contemplating his own death, he was putting himself into danger and combat as though to hasten it. Wars, rebellion, bull-running in Pamplona, big-game hunting in Africa, fishing in Havana – they were all his way of throwing himself before the Grim Reaper. “I spend a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish,” he told Ava Gardner, “so I won’t kill myself.”
And of course writing was his way of evading the need to die. He could polish his real-life experiences at war, in Italy, Spain, the Ardennes, and burnish his life in hindsight. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954 must have been a triumphant affirmation of his genius, but he worried that, after receiving the prize, most laureates never wrote anything worthwhile again. Luckily, after finding two trunks of notes from the 1920s in a Paris hotel, he was able to manage one more book: ‘A Moveable Feast’, his touching memoir of being young, poor and happy in the French capital, with his first wife and baby, before everything started going to hell.
After 1960, however, he found he could no longer write. The words wouldn’t come. Depression came instead, and with it paranoid delusions. He thought his friends were trying to kill him. When his car slightly grazed another vehicle, he fretted that he’d be thrown in jail. It was a sorry thing, to see the epitome of “grace under pressure” succumbing to dementia.
He was given medication and, horribly, a course of electroconvulsive shock treatments. In the spring of 1961, he was asked to contribute a single sentence to a presentation volume for John F Kennedy’s inauguration. Hemingway couldn’t oblige. “It just won’t come any more,” he said to his biographer A E Hotchner (Papa Hemingway), and wept. In April, his wife Mary found him sitting with a shotgun and two shells. He was sent to hospital in Ketchum, Idaho, his birthplace, but he tried twice more to end his life, once by walking into the path of a plane taxiing on the runway. There was a two-month period of hospitalisation and comparative peace and quiet, when he appeared sane to his doctor and deranged to his wife. He seemed to be acting, right to the end.
“The accumulating factors contributing to his burden of illness at the end of his life are staggering,” writes Martin, listing Hemingway’s bipolar mood disorder, depression, chronic alcoholism, repetitive traumatic brain injuries, the onset of psychosis. But it seems clear that the defining problem of his life was his experience of childhood. His confusion over gender, his Oedipal desire to kill his father for beating him, together led to what Martin calls “a retreat into a defensive façade of hyper-masculinity and self-sufficiency”.
Building and sustaining the myth of Hemingway the Man’s Man took courage and determination, but it was something he needed to do – and when it dwindled, along with the all-important capacity to write, he had no answer except to go the same way as his father. The image of his father, a moody, bullying, depressive man, but a role model nonetheless, haunted his life. He wanted to restore him, in order to release himself from the responsibility for his death. He wanted to be the big, strong, heroic man that the world could call “Papa”.
1) James R. Mellow’s ‘Hemingway’
2) Michael Reynolds’s ‘Hemingway: The Final Years’
3) A E Hotchner’s ‘Papa Hemingway, A Personal Memoir’
4) Christopher D Martin’s ‘Ernest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide’ (article)