Papa: A Personal Memoir by Gregory H. Hemingway

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.

9 Responses

  1. The things that aren’t said.

    Funny, I had a similar feeling after reading ‘The Paris Wife’ which isn’t a memoir, but I was interested enough in Hadley Richardson to want to know what happened to her afterwards and was disappointed that in this case the author was only interested in the period of her life that coincided with her marriage to Ernest Hemingway.

  2. Yes, “the Hemingway women” are definitely mostly seen as just that. I did love The Paris Wife, and I appreciated its focus on Hadley rather than Hem, but it didn’t cover her whole life, did it. There’s Bernice Kert’s book The Hemingway Women but I haven’t read it (plan to!) so can’t vouch. There are several of bios of Hadley out there, too, but again I haven’t read and can’t make you any promises.

  3. [...] two Hemingway: one by Papa himself (On Paris) and one by his son (Papa: A Personal Memoir); [...]

  4. [...] consistent favorite guy, Ernest Hemingway. In this case, the standout book is by his son Gregory. Papa: A Personal Memoir, is heartrending and sensitive, and a uniquely loving portrait of [...]

  5. I stumbled across your blog this morning after googling “Reading lists for Hemingway fans”. Since then I’ve been selectively reading your reviews (I don’t have a stomach for the mystery/suspense genre, so I’ve stuck to your classics and Hem-related reviews). As a fervent fan and collector of Hemingway’s work and biographies (check out Micheal Reynold’s 5 book series, they’re great), I am bewildered when people mention Hemingway being cross-dressed (did I make that word up?) as some sort of traumatic or formulative part of his life. “Breeching” was a very common western practice up until the early 20th century and most boys were dressed in gowns until 3 or 4 or in earlier times even age 8, when they were put into pants or shorts. This was a rite of passage, a celebration, often a time when their picture would be taken with their father as they took a step towards manhood. Also confusing, I’ve read people who have said Hemingway’s mother dressed him as a girl because she had wanted a daughter. ?? Her first child was Marcelline, a girl, so that motive lacks logic. I really don’t see ANY evidence that Hemingway dwelt on this. When he does address cross dressing in The Garden of Eden, it would be, in my opinion, reaching to try and attach it to something as non-controversial as breeching. It seems more likely that Hemingway was simply a worldly man who had witnessed and experimented in different sexual role plays and scenarios.
    Now that I’ve finished this tirade, I will continue reading the rest of the review. ;)

    • Hi Sarah. Welcome!

      There’s certainly room for different understandings of Hemingway! I hope we can agree that he was a complex man, if nothing else, and therefore I think there will be varying interpretations. I’ve read a handful of biographies of him myself – Baker’s early one, Meyers’ later, and then there’s the Kenneth Lynn, which definitely leans toward an interpretation of Hemingway’s mother as kooky and as an influence toward his mental illness. I also think it’s not a stretch to say that he had some sexual or gender-related issues, given all the hyper-masculine… some might say posturing, that his life included. I think I remember reading of some sensitivity he expressed later in life about (for example) pictures of him dressed like a girl as a little kid; but I can’t point to my source on that, so there you are. Your reference to breeching does shed some light; but his mother used to refer to her “twins” (Ernest and Marcelline, who were actually a year apart in age) as two girls and, occasionally, as two boys – on which occasions she dressed Marcelline as a boy. I think these were less typical behaviors for the era. Again, I can’t cite my source; this is from memory and from reading several biographies. I think Lynn is a good candidate for stressing these points, though.

      I’m not 100% committed to the youngster cross-dressing as a major influence in his life, but I think it bears consideration, and I’ve found the arguments I’ve read fairly convincing. Your characterization of Hemingway as “a worldly man who had witnessed and experimented in different sexual role plays and scenarios” is certainly spot-on; but I think it would be a mistake to call him well-balanced…

      • I agree and usually refrain from calling people who commit suicide “well-balanced”. Even without that particular ending, Hem was hardly a good candidate for the phrase. The Reynolds series puts more of an emphasis on his father’s similar mood-swings, paranoia and erraticism as the genetic cause of his several childrens’ unsuccessful battle with depression and manic tendencies. I’ll have to read Lynn’s treatment of it, and also Gregory’s memoirs as well. I had read the Wikipedia bios on Hemingway’s children just to see how their lives turned out and was saddened when I read Greg’s.
        It’s a pleasure to chat with another Hemingway aficionado, I can count on one hand the number of people I know who read as a past time and unfortunately none of them are game for a good read like Hem.

    • Oh and thanks for the mention of the Reynolds series – I’m aware but haven’t gotten there yet…

  6. Sarah, I wholeheartedly agree: it’s lovely to find someone else excited about Papa!! I’m so glad you came by.

    Yes, there’s lots of sadness, mental illness, and for that matter lots of suicide in the extended Hemingway family – talking of his father’s mood swings etc., let’s not forget the influence that that suicide must have had on Ernest. The struggles of Robert Jordan (of For Whom the Bell Tolls) with his father’s suicide have always resounded for me. It’s generally accepted that that a lot of Hemingway’s fiction is autobiographical (plenty of room for argument there: which bits of fiction, to what extent, etc.), and I just can’t read about this young man dealing with his father’s suicide without seeing the author behind him.

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