|Posted: 05 March 2006 at 6:55pm | IP Logged
I agree with Papa Cosa – Ernest knew exactly what he was doing . . . and why. It’s the “why?” part that attracts all of the speculation and spawns numerous theories based on incomplete and/or inaccurate information.
So what was Mary’s take on things? She was certainly the one who tainted the initial media reports by labeling the act “an accident” but her motives for doing so remained unclear during the years following Ernest’s death. As a result, a whole new crop of stories emerged to be embellished and debated as time passed. Although no one who knew and understood Ernest would ever believe that he could accidentally shoot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun, that story would not die once Mary had given it life. Certainly Mary herself never believed it.
On the morning of July 3rd, writer Aaron Hotchner, who had been Ernest’s close friend for many years, was in Madrid preparing to leave for Rome when he got the news. In his book Papa Hemingway, published in 1966 over Mary’s strong objections, he says:
“As I was leaving the hotel elevator to go to the airport the morning of the third, Bill Davis hurriedly entered the lobby. He had driven all through the night, virtually the length of Spain, to tell me that Ernest had shot himself . . .
“On the flight to Rome I read the details of what had happened. . . The Associated Press dispatch said that Ernest had been cheerful during the three-day drive through the northern states and appeared to enjoy himself. That on his first night home he had had a pleasant dinner and had even joined Mary’s singing one their favorite songs, ‘Tutti Mi Chiamano Bionda.’ Then, according to Mary, early the following morning a shotgun exploded in the house. Mary ran downstairs. Ernest had been cleaning one of the guns, she said, and it had accidentally discharged, killing him.
“I could not fault Mary for covering up. She was not prepared to accept what had happened and that’s what came out when she had to explain. What difference does truth make about a thing like that? Does truth bring back anything? Or assuage the torment?” (p. 303)
Jack Hemingway, Ernest and Hadley’s son, was enjoying a morning of fly fishing on the North Umpqua River in Oregon when he got the news by phone. In his book, Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman, published in 1986, the same year that Mary died, he talks about her understanding of what had happened. In the book, he says that when he returned to his hotel after a morning on the water, he was given a phone message to call Idaho right away. He recognized the number as being Ernest’s house . . .
“. . . a house which had never really become home because he hadn’t yet been there for all the seasons of a year; the house where he had shot himself early that morning, as Mary told me when she answered the insistent ringing.” (p. 296)
He goes on to describe his return to Ketchum and the events of the next few days, including a private conversation he had with Mary one evening just before the funeral:
“Mary was starting to regain her form but continued to be adamant in her insistence to the press that Papa had shot himself accidentally. I suppose the possibility that someone might conclude that Papa had willingly left a life in which she played so large a part was anathema to her.” (p. 297)
In her own book How It Was, published in 1976, Mary had glossed over the whole incident by devoting less than a single page to everything that had happened from the time of their dinner on the evening of July 1st with George Brown (an old friend who had driven Ernest and Mary home from the Mayo Clinic) up until Ernest’s funeral a few days later. The most telling paragraphs are these:
“The next morning the sounds of a couple of drawers banging shut awakened me and, dazed, I went downstairs, saw a crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh, in the front vestibule of the sitting room.
“I ran for George. While he called the doctors, I went upstairs, called our friends the Atkinsons to ask if I might stay with them for the day. They came to collect me and at their flat above the grocery store, gave me a tranquilizing pill and put me to bed again. For an hour I shook, unable to control my muscles. Then in a flash of sanity I wondered why I should be so destroyed by the sudden violence I had long but too vaguely anticipated. It might be partially shock at Ernest’s deception, I thought, and dismissed the notion. He knew he could not confide in me.” (p. 579)
It seems clear (to me) that she knew immediately what Ernest had done – “violence I had long but too vaguely anticipated” – and that she knew it was no accident.
Even though Mary declined to include more details, or explain herself adequately, in her own book, she had, in fact, addressed the question a decade before, during an interview with Oriana Fallaci that ran in Look magazine. The issue was September 6, 1966. I have a copy in my collection. This is what she said:
Mary: “My real home is the one in Cuba, though it doesn’t belong to me any more. Such a lovely house. . . Sometimes I dream of going back, then I wake up and say no. You know, I would go into the living room and see his armchair and see his desk and sit before it and wait for him to come in . . . I couldn’t stand it, you know? I don’t feel the same way for the house in Ketchum, Idaho. Not because he died there. The fact that he killed himself there doesn’t make me dislike it. I do like it. I feel such a loyalty for the house in Ketchum. I don’t know how to explain it any other way: Loyalty is the right word. So I can go back to Ketchum. I often go back; we had happy days there, too, you know.”
Oriana: “You’ve just said something: ‘that he killed himself there.’ To my knowledge, it is the first time you’ve admitted Hemingway’s suicide. Until now, and against all evidence, you’ve always maintained his death was accidental.”
Mary: “No, he shot himself. Shot himself. Just that. And nothing else. For a long time, I refused to admit it even to myself, it’s true. I’ve never discussed it with a psychiatrist, but I suppose it had something to do with self-defense. Exactly as when someone hits you, and you instinctively tighten your muscles to lessen the pain, you cover your face or you hold your arms around your body. I defended myself like that, by pretending it had been an accident. Admitting the truth would’ve snapped my nerves, split open my brain. But I soon realized it was stupid to go on pretending and believing it an accident. Absolutely stupid. Lots of people, like you, say that his death was coherent, that he wasn’t a man to succumb to disease, to die in his bed. I don’t know how to answer that.
“Losing him has cast me in such a darkness, an endless tunnel, and only now, I am attempting to escape from it. But Ernest’s sister once said: ‘If Ernest thought that was the best thing to do, then he was right to do it.’ Well, for me, it’s too difficult to say such a thing – I miss him so desperately. Yet I agree, because I wouldn’t like to see him alive, but sick and insecure and unhappy. What for? Only to have him with me? How selfish it would be.
“Yes, if Ernest thought that was the right thing to do, I must accept it. Without thinking of how lonely he left me, without crying with the regret that I wasn’t able to stop him. He was sick, and desperate, and we cannot judge the behavior of a sick and desperate man. In his condition, probably, I, too, would’ve ignored the sorrow that I was about to inflict. I, too, would’ve ignored the idea of leaving him alone. You know, there is a kind of loneliness much worse than my present one: his. And writers are lonely persons, even when they love and are loved.”