Papa’s late-life amanuensis, who after his death married his troubled youngest son, looks back more than 40 years to record frankly and without axes to grind the antics of a larger-than-life and truly bizarre clan.
Born Valerie Danby-Smith in 1940 in Dublin, the author interviewed Ernest Hemingway for the Irish Times in mid-1959 and was swiftly incorporated into the cuadrilla of hangers-on keeping him company that summer in Madrid. Valerie, fresh out of an Irish convent school, was eager to become a journalist; she was also cheerful, liked bullfights, and could drink heartily. Hemingway seems to have regarded her as the daughter he always hoped to have, not to mention a much-needed foil against his bossy fourth wife, Mary. Aged 60 and beginning to falter in health, Ernest relied increasingly on Valerie, hired her as his secretary, and lured her to his Cuban estate, Finca Vigía, where he was attempting to finish the manuscripts that became The Dangerous Summer and A Moveable Feast. The Cuban revolution eventually forced the Hemingways back to the US, despite Mary's calculated invitation of Castro to the finca (one of the author’s best descriptive passages), and Valerie saw them only intermittently after that. But those crucial months provided her with a glorious literary education and encounters many famous folks who later opened doors for her in New York, where she helped Mary sift through papers and manuscripts after Ernest committed suicide in 1961. The memoir grows almost surreal with Valerie’s marriage to Gregory. Vilified by Ernest for such early displays of unmanliness as stealing his mother’s hosiery, Greg finally confessed to his wife that he was a cross-dresser and later underwent a disastrous sex-change operation. (She calls their sex life “perfectly normal” and says he was a devoted father to their three children.) The author maintains throughout a remarkable, cold-eyed candor, though her portrait of filial friendship with Ernest is touching and humorous.
One of the weirder eyewitness accounts, but an invaluable record for literary scholars.