Gregory Hemingway, known as Mr. Gig or Gigi to his family, was Ernest Hemingway’s youngest of three sons; his mother was Pauline, Papa’s second wife. This is his memoir of his father, and it begins and ends with Papa’s suicide, and the ways in which that trauma shaped Gigi’s life. It is a short but monumentally touching and surprisingly well-written book; I think it is the most moving biography of Papa (who, presumably, you know I adore) that I have read. While Gigi does relate several of his father’s uglier moments, including crimes against his son, he emphasizes Papa’s humanity and good qualities. The story told here seems to be of a fundamentally good man who got sicker and sicker at the end – though I think he always struggled with mental illness, from being cross-dressed as a toddler through pursuit of success, fame, and the fading of his talent – and fell apart. There are other perspectives out there; many biographers and commentators see Hemingway as a monster, and I accept that that is one perspective, and has evidence to back it up. But I’m always drawn to the outlook that he deserves our pity for the illness he struggled with that finally killed him; and that is more what we get here.
Gigi tells heartwarming stories, and some bad ones (like Papa blaming Gigi for Pauline’s death). He shows what good advice Papa gave; he was a good teacher. He addresses some of the myths surrounding his larger-than-life father, even though he is often unable to refute or confirm them because he was so small (or living with his mother). And it’s all so beautifully done! Who knew Gigi was a bit of a writer, himself? (Make note of the tale of his plagiarized short story, back when he still hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps.)
To me, one of the most poignant things about this slim memoir is our present knowledge of where Gigi went from here. At the time the book was written, he was a practicing physician and still married to Valerie (whose own memoir of Papa I have on my shelf waiting for me). He would later divorce Valerie (after some 20 years of marriage) and go on to two more marriages; become a cross-dresser and take steps toward a sex change; lose his medical license; battle alcoholism; and finally die in a women’s jail in Miami. In his book, there is a general tone of “look at me, I’ve come this far” – not bragging so much as in relief to have resisted the darkness for this long. He seems to have a positive attitude. But there is also quiet acknowledgement, here and there, of the sinister element within himself that he has worked to resist. This same subtle awareness of the darkness inside is present in Papa’s work beginning at a young age, and the youngest son Andrew in Islands in the Stream, clearly modeled on Gregory, has a “badness” in him as well. The descriptive passage about Andrew, in fact, is quoted at the beginning of this book, before Norman Mailer’s (excellent) introduction, implying that Andrew’s darkness as well as Papa’s and Gigi’s is acknowledged by all the parties.
This book was like a gift to me from yet another tragic Hemingway man. It gave me lovely, appealing moments with Papa, as well as those ugly moments in which he could be so vicious. It was beautifully written. I loved getting to know Gigi better; he struck me as a very likeable, sympathetic man. But it was also sad, as reading about the Hemingways always is.