Desperately sad memoir by Ernest Hemingway’s grandson chronicles a wretched family history of turbulent father-son relationships exacerbated by chronic, hereditary mental illness.
The author’s father, Gregory Hemingway, was Ernest’s son by second wife Pauline. Ignored and abandoned as a boy by his glamorous parents, Greg grew up hating his mother and idealizing his famous father. He was afflicted with the same bipolar disorder that led Papa and grandfather Clarence to commit suicide in late middle age. Moreover, Greg was a transvestite, frequently arrested for cross-dressing; he eventually underwent a sex-change operation. Born in 1960, the author also had to deal with a schizophrenic mother who was often hospitalized, leaving him and his siblings to be shifted among relatives. John writes in a surprisingly evenhanded fashion about these traumatic events, as well as Greg’s mental degeneration as he moved from one wife/caretaker to another, much as Ernest did. The author reproduced family patterns, too: Financially dependent on his father’s handouts, he wheedled to get what he wanted, just as Greg did with Ernest. “I would like to see you straighten up and fly right,” Ernest exhorts his son in one of the explosive letters printed here to trace their fraught bond. Greg was deeply ambivalent about his identity, and John argues that perhaps Ernest was as well. He enlists Papa’s work to back him up, and to cast a more forgiving light on Greg’s troubled behavior. He couldn’t be a writer, he realized, until he made peace with his father. In the book’s moving afterword, the author promises to his own newborn son that “this time it’d be different.”
John’s honesty is bracing as he tries hard for understanding and acceptance, but the Hemingway legacy remains as complicated as ever.